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The Bolivian high country is another world all together. The rarified air makes everything crystal clear. Volcanoes,rock formations ,flamingoes and salt flats made it an amazing experience. You feel the 4900m but it is worthwhile. The personal escorted tour was the way to go - Geoff
Once upon a time, just a few years ago, San Pedro de Atacama was a mere springboard for Chilean desert and Bolivian Salt Flat adventures. Today, it’s become one of the country’s top travel destinations. Guide to San Pedro de Atacama – Chile’s (Worst Kept) Hidden Secret shows you why crossing arid lands and endless white horizons to reach a …READ MORE
With its never-ending sparkling horizon, the mesmerising Uyuni Salt Flats are one of South America’s most astonishing sites. Remote, breathtaking and unique, Salar Uyuni – as Bolivia’s salt plains are known – are the world’s most extensive salt flats and by far one of the most revered Latin American destinations of all. Many say the Uyuni Salt Flats are a …READ MORE
Ancient Lake Titicaca reed boats set to make history…again American explorer set to cross the Pacific aboard Lake Titicaca reed boats It may seem crazy to think that in the age of space travel anyone would want to attempt an ocean crossing by reed boat. But that’s precisely what Phil Buck, a 51-year old American adventurer, is planning. In February …READ MORE
A crossing of the world’s largest salt flat, from La Paz in Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, rates as one of most impressive adventures you can possibly have in South America. In one of the most remote regions of the continent, you’ll discover astonishing landscapes of seemingly endless salt plains, sporadically interrupted by otherworldly islands. If you’re …READ MORE
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Human settlements are believed to have lived in what is now Bolivia as long as 10,000 years ago. In about 100 A.D. a major civilisation developed in the Tiahuanaco region, near Lake Titicaca. The Tiwanako Indians developed advanced architectural and agricultural techniques before disappearing sometime in the 13th Century. The Moxos in the eastern lowlands and the Mollos in the north also developed advanced societies around this same time. By the late 14th Century, the Aymara (a warlike tribe), controlled much of Bolivia.
In the mid 15th Century the Incas entered the Bolivian highlands and added Bolivia to their empire. The Incas controlled the area until the Spanish arrived in the early 16th Century and defeated the Incas. During most of the colonial period, Bolivia was called "Upper Peru" or "Charcas" and was under the authority of the Viceroy of Lima. This was to become one of the wealthiest corners of the Spanish empire. In 1545, vast silver deposits were discovered at Potosi. As a result, Potosi became the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. In 1548, the town of La Paz was established on the trade route between the silver mines and Lima. Bolivia’s predominantly indigenous population was forced into slavery, forced to work under terrible conditions in the mines.
In 1776, the Spanish Empire east of the Andes (which included Bolivia) was removed from the control of Lima. This control was transferred to Buenos Aires; capital of the new viceroyalty of La Plata. As with other neighbouring countries, Spanish authority weakened quickly during the Napoleonic wars and sentiment against colonial rule grew. Bolivian independence was first proclaimed in 1809, but was not fully achieved until 16 years later. The Republic of Bolivia (named for the famous liberator; Simon Bolivar), was finally established on August 6, 1825. Bolivar himself drafted the first constitution.
Independence did not, however, bring stability. For nearly 60 years, coups and short-lived constitutions dominated Bolivian politics. Between the time of independence and the year 1952 there were 179 uprisings against the government. An increase in the world price of silver brought Bolivia some degree of prosperity and stability in the late 1800s, but Bolivia lost an enormous amount of national territory:
During the early part of the 20th century, tin replaced silver as the country's most important source of wealth. A succession of governments controlled by the economic and social elites followed laissez-faire capitalist policies through the first third of the century. Meanwhile, Bolivia’s indigenous people continued being forced to work under primitive conditions in the mines and on large estates. They were denied access to education, economic opportunity and political participation. Soon after the Chaco War, the first political party to have indigenous interests on its agenda was founded. In 1941 Victor Paz Estenssoro formed the left-wing ‘’Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario’’ (MNR). Unrest continued and Estenssoro was forced into exile in 1949, but returned to power in 1952, introducing sweeping reforms. Agricultural estates were distributed among peasants and indigenous people were finally given the rights to vote. The signing of the 1953 agrarian reform law (2 August), is today proudly known as the Day of the Indian (Dia del Indio).
The MNR stayed in power for 12 year. In 1964, however, the military took the reins. An oppressive military leadership was introduced and the living conditions of Bolivia’s peasants worsened. In 1965, a guerrilla movement led by Ernesto (Che) Guevara, mounted from Cuba, began a revolutionary war in Bolivia. At this time the Bolivian army was heavily supported by the United States. With the help of U.S. military advisers, the Bolivian army crushed the guerrilla movement, capturing and killing Guevara in 1967. Several military coups followed before civilian rule returned in 1982.
Completely landlocked, Bolivia is bordered by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru. Bolivia has four main geographic regions: the Andean Highlands, the Yungas, the Valles and the Oriente.
The Andean Highlands cover most of western Bolivia. The cold and barren ‘’Altiplano’’ (high plateau) lies between two mountain ranges; Cordillera Oriental and Cordillera Occidental; at an average altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level. More than half of Bolivia's population lives here, many of them in La Paz and El Alto. In the north of this plateau (on the Bolivia / Peru border) sits the world's highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca, at an altitude of 3,800 metres. Lake Titicaca is drained to the south by the Desaguadero River, which empties into the shallow, salty Lake Poopo. Further south are arid salt flats (the remnants of ancient lakes).
The Cordillera Occidental is a chain of dormant volcanoes and volcanic vents emitting sulfurous gases. Bolivia's highest peak, the snowcapped Nevado Sajama (6,542 m), is located here. Bolivia’s most majestic mountains are in the northern part of the Cordillera Oriental; an impressive snow-capped series of granite mountains. Illimani and Illampu, both more than 6,400 m, with glaciers on their upper slopes, overlook the city of La Paz. La Paz is protected from cold winds by its position in a gorge formed by the headwaters of the La Paz River.
The Yungas make up a small region northeast of the Highlands with steep hills, narrow gorges and subtropical hillside forests. This region offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Bolivia. Rainfall is heavy. Lush vegetation clings to the sides of river valleys. This land is among the most fertile in Bolivia, but poor transport has hindered its agricultural development. Very few people live here.
The Valles lie in south-central Bolivia with gently sloping hills, wide valleys, open grasslands and several farms. Rivers draining to the east have cut long valleys; these valleys and the basins between the ranges are favourable areas for crops and settlement. The valley floors range from 1,800 to 3,000 metres above sea level. This lower elevation means milder temperatures than those of the Altiplano. The three important valleys of this region are: Cochabamba, Sucre and Tarija.
The Oriente is a vast, lowland plain spreading across northern and eastern Bolivia, constituting approximately two-thirds of Bolivia’s land-mass. It is sparsely populated, made up of swamp (part of the Pantanal is located in Bolivia), grasslands, plains, tropical and sub-tropical forest. Santa Cruz, the largest city in the lowlands, is located here, as are most of Bolivia's petroleum and natural gas reserves. Wide, slow moving rivers flow through this region; many of which form part of the Amazon River system. The southeastern part of the lowlands is part of the Gran Chaco. Virtually rainless for 9 months of the year, this area floods in the other 3 months. This extreme variation in rainfall supports only thorny, scrub vegetation.
Because of the wide range in altitude, Bolivia has plants representative of every climatic zone, from arctic growth high in the sierra to tropical forests in the Amazon basin. In the Altiplano grows a coarse grass called ‘’ichu’’, used for pasture, thatching, and weaving. A reed called ‘’totora’’, which grows around Lake Titicaca, is used for making small boats (balsas). The low, bush-like ‘’tola’’ and the moss-like ‘’yareta’’ are used for fuel.
In the tropical forest grows the quinine-producing quina tree, along with the Para rubber tree. There are more than 2,000 species of hardwoods. Aromatic shrubs are common, as are vanilla, sarsaparilla and saffron plants. Native plants include palms, sweet potatoes, manioc, peanuts and a huge variety of fruits. Tannin-producing quebracho trees can be found in the Chaco.
Some of the native fauna in Bolivia includes:
- llamas, alpacas, guanacos and several varieties of guinea pigs in the Highlands,
- puma, coati, tapir, armadillo, sloth, peccary and several kinds of monkeys in the Amazon.
Birdlife is rich and varied throughout the country, as are reptiles and insects (particularly in the lowlands).
Bolivia’s natural resources include: tin, natural gas, petroleum, zinc, tungsten, antimony, silver, iron, lead, gold and timber.
Bolivia's ethnic distribution is estimated to be 55% indigenous, 15% European and 30% mixed or mestizo (self-identified). The largest of the approximately three-dozen indigenous groups are the Quechua, Aymara, Chiquitano and Guarani. There are also small German, former Yugoslav, Asian, Middle Eastern and other minorities, many descending from families that have lived in Bolivia for several generations.
Bolivia has several sub-cultures within its borders, but by far the most prevalent of all its sub-cultures is the indigenous highland culture. Highland areas of Bolivia include La Paz, Lake Titicaca, Oruro, Uyuni and Potosi. This culture corresponds to traditions that existed before the Spanish conquest.
Providing a stark contrast to the indigenous highland culture is the ‘’Europeanised’’ culture of Santa Cruz Province (the commercial and industrial hub of Bolivia’s east). This culture has been more influenced by the cultural heritage of the conquering Spaniards. Due to its booming oil industry, Santa Cruz Province enjoys a higher standard of living than the rest of Bolivia. Historically ‘’Cruzenos’’ have always considered them-selves as different and separate to the rest of Bolivia and their attempts to gain greater autonomy have been an on-going issue for the nation.
Unequal access to political, economic and socio-cultural resources is a direct outcome of the Spanish conquest and there is a pronounced hierarchal system in Bolivia. Class, culture and race (physical characteristics) solidify the social hierarchy. At the bottom of the hierarchy are peasants, unskilled workers and those in the informal economic sector. Most are referred to as "indio" and have little or no Spanish, little education and a low income. The second class are labeled mestizos, cholos or non-indigenous. They are physically similar-looking to indios, but more assimilated to Hispanic cultural norms, better dressed and more likely to have a command (though perhaps not fluent) of Spanish and a more formal education. At the height of the social hierarchy is a small, affluent elite class referred to as "decent people" (gente decente) by indios. Members of this elite class are more likely to be fair or white-skinned, be fluent and monolingual Spanish-speaking, adopt "Western" clothing, live in major cities, occupy high positions in government, finance or business and not identify with the Andean heritage so much.
Clothing is an important marker of cultural distinctiveness and class position. A woman who braids her hair and wears long pleated skirts is classed as indio or chola and is presumed not to be at the top of the social hierarchy, just as is a man who wears rubber sandals and a knitted wool hat.
There have been events in Bolivia’s history which have helped to forge national pride and identity. The first involves memories associated with disastrous wars and the loss of significant amounts of national territory. Schoolchildren are taught about the War of the Pacific in which Chile overwhelmed Bolivia and Peru and seized Bolivia's coastal territories. Nationalism is therefore intertwined with ongoing efforts to reclaim access to the Pacific. The War of the Chaco, in which Bolivia lost vast territories and oil deposits to Paraguay, was also critical for national consciousness-raising and the 1952 populist revolution. Other historical commemorations, such as Independence Day and the widely celebrated date of the signing of the agrarian reform law, also serve as catalysts for collective memories.
The majority of Bolivians are extremely proud of their indigenous roots. National folkloric music festivals serve to unify Bolivians. These festivals are generally attended by all classes of society. They are multilayered, symbolic events accentuating all things Bolivian.
The great majority of Bolivians are Roman Catholic, although Protestant denominations are expanding rapidly. Many indigenous communities interweave pre-Hispanic Andean and Christian symbols in their religious practices. Complementary deities and supernatural beings coexist. A distinguishing feature of Andean popular religion is the importance of rituals through ties with supernatural deities. Such rituals sometimes entail the sacrifice of llamas, heavy drinking and ritualised coca-chewing. Social life is punctuated by many rituals that coincide with major agricultural seasons and are linked to the celebration of Christian deities, especially the Virgin Mary. The Carnival of Oruro is a crucial ritual event that blends cultural and religious elements in its folk music and ‘’devil dances’’ and the celebration of the Virgin of Copacabana, whose image was sculpted in 1583, is another particularly important ritual event. Many communities have their own ritual celebrations and holy places, almost all associated with the appearance of a Christian saint or the Virgin Mary or the presence of mountain deities. Traditional medical practices also often revolve around rituals and ritual practitioners (curers and herbalists). Divination, rituals and ritual sacrifices are important in treating illness, as is the use of coca leaves, alcoholic beverages, and guinea pigs.
The cultural development of what is present-day Bolivia has been heavily influenced by its indigenous and Spanish roots. Bolivia is known for its world-class textile production (with ancient techniques and designs), particularly in the regions of La Paz and Sucre. The Spanish brought their own tradition of religious art which, in the hands of local indigenous and mestizo builders and artisans, developed into a rich and distinctive style of architecture, painting and sculpture known as "Mestizo Baroque." Bolivia also has a distinguished tradition in literature, especially known for its short stories – many of which have been passed down orally.
Bolivia is a resource-rich country with strong growth, attributed to captive markets for natural gas exports. However Bolivia remains one of the least developed countries in Latin America. Almost two-thirds of its people, many of whom are subsistence farmers, live in poverty. Many argue that this shouldn’t be the case. Bolivia is self-sufficient in almost all food staples. The Altiplano farmers grow potatoes, wheat and quinoa. The Yungas and the Valles regions produce bananas, beans, cacao, coca, coffee and corn. In the Oriente, farmers raise cattle and grow rice and sugar cane.
Bolivia is also self-sufficient in oil and natural gas, exporting significant quantities of both - mostly to Chile, Argentina and Brazil. However with the exception of cocaine, mining is still the biggest generator of foreign exchange. First it was silver, then tin, zinc and other minerals. Other exports include textiles, wood products, soybeans & soy products, coffee and other raw agricultural products.
A major blow to the Bolivian economy came with a drastic fall in the price of tin during the early 1980s. As a result, the government implemented a far-reaching program of macroeconomic stabilization and structural reform. Private investment was encouraged during this time. This stimulated growth into the 1990s.
The first part of the 21st Century was known for its violent protests against plans - subsequently abandoned - to export Bolivia's newly discovered natural gas reserves. In 2005, the government passed a controversial hydrocarbons law that imposed significantly higher royalties and required foreign firms then operating under risk-sharing contracts to surrender all production to the state energy company in exchange for a predetermined service fee.
The global recession slowed growth, but Bolivia recorded the highest growth rate in South America during 2009. High commodity prices since 2010 sustained rapid growth and trade surpluses. However, a lack of foreign investment in the key sectors of mining and hydrocarbons, along with conflict among social groups, posed continual challenges for the economy.
The good news is that economic growth has remained above 5% in recent years and moderate poverty has fallen significantly. Gross domestic product has tripled to some $28bn since Evo Morales first took office in 2006. Poor Bolivians have benefitted most from this economic growth, through an increase in household income. All this is due to the government’s prudent but also redistributive economic policies, and in part to the high commodity prices of recent years (of natural gas and minerals). Even so, compared to the rest of South America, poverty and income inequality is high and Bolivia’s economic growth is vulnerable to changes in international commodity prices. Also, private-sector investment has remained low, reflecting the government’s strategy to deploy public-sector investment.
Bolivia is a constitutional republic (note - the new constitution defines Bolivia as a "Social Unitarian State"), with an elected president and national congress. Democratic civilian rule was established in 1982.
The president and vice president are elected on the same ticket by popular vote for a 5-year term and are eligible for re-election once. Formal political power is fragmented among numerous political parties spanning the ideological spectrum. The president has always had the power to appoint the governors of the departments, but recent (mid-1990s) laws were intended to decentralise state administration. Bolivia's 9 departments received greater autonomy under these laws, although several departments - especially Santa Cruz and Tarija - are seeking increased autonomy.
The 1967 constitution, which has been amended many times, provides for balanced executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The executive and legislative branches of government are located in La Paz: the de facto administrative capital and seat of government. The national judiciary is centred in Sucre: the legal capital. Voting is universal and compulsory at the age of 18 years.
Bolivia’s leaders have for many years been confronted with the issues of poverty, social unrest and illegal drug production (with huge pressure from the United States to stop this illegal drug production).
General Hugo Banzer, an ex-dictator turned democrat, became Bolivia’s president for the second time in 1997. Banzer succeeded in wiping out large amounts of illicit coca production and drug trafficking, which pleased the United States. However, this eradication of coca plunged many Bolivian farmers into further poverty.
In 2002, President Sanchez de Lozada pledged to continue economic reforms and to create jobs. In 2003, he resigned, after months of rioting and strikes over a gas-exporting project that the majority of Bolivians believed would benefit foreign companies more than Bolivians. His vice president, Carlos Mesa, replaced him. Despite continued unrest, Mesa managed to satisfy the strong anti-privatisation sentiment among Bolivians without shutting the door on some limited form of privatisation in the future. But rising fuel prices in 2005 led to massive protests by impoverished farmers and miners, and Mesa ended up resigning the same year.
In December 2005, Bolivians elected Evo Morales (from the Movement Toward Socialism party) as president. During his campaign, Morales, a coca union leader of indigenous descent, vowed to nationalize hydrocarbons and alleviate poverty and discrimination toward indigenous people. Morales has always been highly critical of the "neo-liberal" economic policies that were implemented in Bolivia in past years. His reforms included a major modification of the Constitution, the strengthening of the role of the state in the economy and the application of a variety of social programs.
Strong citizen support for President Morales (particularly from the indigenous, who make up the greater part of Bolivia’s population) led to his re-election in 2009. Morales continues to promote greater state control of natural resource industries, particularly hydrocarbons and mining. These policies have pleased supporters, but have complicated Bolivia's relations with some of its neighboring countries, foreign investors and members of the international community. Morales continues to enjoy broad-based support for the October 2014 elections.