Bolivia is a country caught between two worlds, the up and coming Latin America we see on Instagram and the age-old traditions which refuse to die. Understanding Bolivia’s rich and dynamic history allows visitors to put their travel experiences into a deeper context. These facts about Bolivia will not only fascinate you but help you get under the skin of this incredible country and its culture.
So gear yourself up, tales of crooked prisons, exotic wildlife and indigenous wrestling lie ahead!
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21 Fascinating Facts About Bolivia
1. Bolivia is home to over 30 official languages.
Although Bolivia is one of South America’s Spanish speaking countries, this is not the only language that is widely spoken in the country. The 2009 constitution lists 37 languages in total, some of which are now extinct.
All indigenous languages are officially recognised, with Quechua being the most widely spoken. As well as Quechua which is predominantly spoken in the Andes, Chiquitano is mainly spoken in the Santa Cruz department, Guaraní on the border with Paraguay and Aymara in the Altiplano.
2. Many people think that La Paz is the capital of Bolivia but that isn’t strictly true.
When you’re reading about Bolivia, you may read that La Paz is the capital of the country. However, this isn’t strictly true. La Paz is the administrative capital, meaning that this is where the official government seat is. If we’re talking administrative capitals, it is actually the highest capital in the world.
Sucre is located in the southern highlands of Bolivia and is the constitutional (or judicial) capital. This is because it is where the Supreme Court of Justice is located. Although La Paz is technically still a capital, Sucre is the true capital as christened in the Constitution of Bolivia.
3. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia’s famous salt flats, is home to the largest salt deposit in the world.
Spanning a massive 10,582 square kilometres, Salar de Uyuni is actually as large as Hawai’i Island! Bolivia’s famous salt flats make frequent appearances on bucket lists and visitors often plan their trip to coincide with the wet season. This is because for a few short weeks every year, the surface water turns the salt flats into the world’s largest mirror!
Salar de Uyuni sits where the prehistoric lake, Lago Minchin, would have been 40,000 years ago. A change in climate from wet to dry, combined with a large rise in temperatures meant that the lake dried up, causing a thick salt crust to form. Nowadays, the rate of evaporation is around 10 times more than the rainfall which means there will always be salt on the ground’s surface.
Tours to Salar de Uyuni are easy to arrange from La Paz although some prefer to rent a car and have their own DIY adventure. If you’re feeling brave, you can eat the salt at Salar, however, to avoid any debris from people’s boots, it is probably just better to buy a bag from one of the tourist shops!
4. Bolivia is named after Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar.
You may have heard of the prominent political figure Simón Bolívar for his role in leading the Wars of Independence across South America. He liberated five countries from Spanish rule, his home country of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
Venezuela’s then-leader Antonio José de Sucre was given the ultimate choice on Bolivia’s future. Bolívar gave him the option of uniting Charcas (modern-day Bolivia) with either the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata or the newly formed Peru Republic. There was also a third option offered: to declare independence from Spain and go it alone.
Sucre chose independence and in 1825, Charcas officially broke away from the Spanish. The newly formed country was named in honour of its liberator, Simón Bolívar.
5. Bolivia is one of two landlocked countries in South America.
If you’ve already visited Bolivia, you will have heard that the country no longer has access to the ocean. If you are yet to visit, I promise you that at some point during your trip you will have angry Bolivians regaling you with the story of their ‘stolen sea’.
To cut a long story short, when Bolivia became an independent state in 1825, it controlled the Atacama Desert, meaning it had access to the Pacific Ocean. However, as disputes over control of natural resources blew up, Chile decided to move armed forces into Antofagasta, a Bolivian port city, resulting in a declaration of war.
This is where things got really messy. According to the Bolivians, the Chilean forces invaded during carnival, meaning that everybody in Bolivia was drinking. As a result of this merriment, the Chileans were able to take Antofagasta and eventually gain territory from Bolivia, including its access to the ocean.
Although the War of the Pacific was a complex operation on both sides, the Bolivians have never forgiven the Chileans for invading during carnival, a covert mission that they see as breaking all the boundaries of common decency. After all, how could Bolivia defend itself when everyone was trollied?!
Today, Bolivia is still fighting to regain its coastline but a recent ruling by the UN ruled in favour of Chile. The Bolivians haven’t let this deter them though, they still celebrate ‘Sea Day’ annually and have their own navy. In fact, the motto of the Bolivian navy is: “El mar nos pertenece por derecho, recuperarlo es un deber.” This translates to, “ The sea belongs to us by right, recovering it is our duty.”
6. La Paz is the highest city in the world with a population of more than one million.
As one of the most high-altitude countries in the world, it is no surprise that Bolivia is home to some seriously high cities. As well as La Paz, Santa Barbara, Colquechaca, Potosí, El Alto, Huanuni and Uyuni are a few of the others which sit above 3,500 metres. (If you visit, be aware of altitude sickness which can strike at any time!)
7. Bolivia is the only place you can watch cholita wrestling.
Ever wondered what it would be like to see indigenous ladies wrestle? Wonder no more! In the mid-2000s, women began to get involved in the Bolivian wrestling scene. It is believed that the sport offered a way for victims of domestic violence to find community and relieve stress. It is said that cholita wrestling has become an on-stage representation of the domestic violence problem in the country.
A wrestling match will usually begin with a male attacking a female, however, the cholita always triumphs in the end, usually body-slamming her attacker. During the fight, the cholitas wear their hair in braids along with their characteristic puffy multi-layered skirts. Watching the cholitas wrestle has become a sort of right of passage for travellers and many argue that a trip to the country wouldn’t be complete without it.
8. Bolivia’s flag is symbolic of its history.
The Bolivian flag is a horizontal triband, with red at the top, yellow in the middle and green at the bottom. The Bolivian coat of arms sits in the centre and features flags and canons with the national bird on top. (In case you were wondering, it is the famous Andean condor, one of South America’s coolest animals!)
The red of the flag is said to represent the blood spilt by brave soldiers during the fight for independence from the Spanish. The yellow stands for the country’s mineral deposits and the green symbolises agriculture and fertility.
9. San Pedro prison in La Paz was once dubbed in the Lonely Planet as ‘the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction’.
Yes, you read that right. San Pedro prison was once a tourist attraction for backpackers. If you’ve read the epic travel book ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young, you’ll already be familiar with the illegal tours which used to take place around San Pedro. And if you haven’t, you really need to.
In 1996, British inmate Thomas McFadden was caught smuggling drugs and was sentenced to serve his time in San Pedro. Unlike other prisons, San Pedro is known for being its own society where inmates rule the roost.
There are no guards inside — they monitor the walls and the entrances but rarely enter the actual prison. Prisoners have to buy or rent their cells and many even take their families in with them. An entire economy of shops and restaurants exist within the walls of San Pedro and there’s even reported to be a huge cocaine operation running out of there! It is claimed that this is the purest coke in the whole of South America.
When McFadden became imprisoned in San Pedro, he discovered a rather lucrative way to make money and began offering tours of the prison to backpackers. Sometimes these would last for a few hours but many spent days (and nights) in the prison, taking cocaine with the inmates.
After a female backpacker was raped inside the prison, the tours stopped, at least officially. There are still rumours today that with the right bribe, you can get in. However, it has also been said that you can be blackmailed or reported to the police once you are inside.
Luckily, you no longer have to enter San Pedro to learn more about it. Free walking tours run daily in the area and they nearly all make a stop in the plaza outside the prison. Oh, and if you happen to stumble upon a packet of white powder on the street, we recommend leaving it where it is.
10. You can cycle down the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ in Bolivia.
The North Yungas Road which links La Paz to Coroico has earned the sinister nickname, Death Road. This is because, at one point, an estimated 300 people were killed on the road every single year. Treacherous mountain conditions, poor visibility, lack of guardrails and bad infrastructure meant that a journey on this road was a gamble with your life.
Realising that the road was claiming too many lives, a newer route was constructed to join La Paz with Coroico. Once the new road was operational, the original North Yungas Road closed to the majority of traffic and has instead become an unlikely tourist attraction.
Nowadays, travellers and fear seekers flood from all over to La Paz, desperate to earn their very own ‘I survived Death Road’ t-shirt. Intrepid adventurers can now cycle down the hell-raising track on mountain bikes, taking in the incredible views and literal bumps in the road at the same time.
Trust us when we say, this is not an adventure for the faint of heart! When choosing your tour provider, make sure you pick wisely as some agencies cut corners. We’re a big fan of local outfit Bolivian Bike Junkies who guarantee an action-packed day while still keeping riders safe.
12. Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia is Lake Titicaca, the highest and largest navigable lake in the world.
This freshwater lake sits at 3,812 metres above sea level and by surface area and volume of water, is the largest lake in South America.
The lake is a hugely spiritual place and is sacred to Bolivians. This is because the Incas believed it was the birthplace of the Sun. There are a number of fascinating ruins and archaeological sites to see in the area around Copacabana, the Bolivian border town which sits on the lake.
This town has become a popular spot with backpackers, with many stopping for a few days to take in the chilled vibe. Keep an eye out for bars selling some of South America’s best drinks, including the mouthwatering Bolivian Chuflay cocktail.
12. There is a real salt hotel called Palacio de Sal (Palace of Salt) in Bolivia.
Although there are smaller salt hotels in Bolivia, the Palace of Salt sits on the shores of Salar de Uyuni. It offers luxury accommodation, blending salt into every element of the hotel. The ceilings, walls and furniture are all made from salt and there are also salt sculptures created by local artists in the public areas.
As well as housing 42 rooms, there is a snooker table, a shop selling Bolivian handicrafts, a spa and a fitness centre. The hotel is a great place from which to watch the stars as there is very little light pollution around the area.
Sadly for budget travellers, a stay at Palacio de Sal is unlikely to be on the cards. Double rooms are upwards of $190USD per night!
13. You can find a real-life witch market in La Paz!
Bolivia is a country where indigenous rituals are well and truly alive. To see this in action, just head to the witch market in La Paz. Known locally as El Mercado de las Brujas, these markets sell a whole manner of weird and wonderful things.
Dried frogs, stone carvings and llama foetuses are just a few of the items on offer, promising to protect the purchaser. The llama foetuses are traditionally used as an offering to Pachamama and are buried in the foundations of new buildings. This practice is believed to keep the construction workers safe.
Hallucinogenic cactus San Pedro and the famous ayahuasca drink are also available to buy here. Although both of these substances are popular with backpackers, travellers should be very wary of taking any kind of drug in South America.
14. Three of the world’s six flamingo species can be found in Bolivia.
As flamingos are tropical birds, it may surprise you to learn that three different species of them can be found in the Bolivian Andes. The Chilean, Andean and James’ Flamingo all inhabit this punishing environment.
The latter two species mentioned are very rare. In fact, the James’ Flamingo was presumed extinct until a small colony of them were rediscovered in 1956 in the Andes.
If you are hoping to spot some of Bolivia’s flamingos, you are recommended to head to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, close to the salt flats. There are a number of lakes here where the flamingos come to feed, including the famous Laguna Colorada.
15. The city of Potosí is a UNESCO World Heritage centre.
The high altitude city of Potosí is best known for its long silver mining history but did you know that it has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status too?
Back in the 16th century, Potosí and the surrounding area was considered to be the world’s largest industrial complex. The discovery and extraction of silver from Cerro Rico (which still happens today) relied on several hydraulic mills and made the city incredibly wealthy.
Sadly today, this is a UNESCO World Heritage centre under threat. Unregulated mining of Cerro Rico and poor mining practices mean that many of the mines could collapse, putting both lives and the site itself at risk.
It’s also possible to visit Potosi’s mines on an organised tour. These tours are often considered one of Bolivia’s most controversial experiences but they deliver a glimpse of the hard work and sacrifice that people go through every day.
16. Bolivia has two different voting ages.
Interestingly, there is not just one legal voting age in Bolivia. The age at which you can vote depends on your marital status. Yep, you read that right. If you are married, you can vote at the age of 18. However, if you’re single, you’ll need to wait until you reach 21. It is worth noting that voting isn’t a choice in Bolivia either, it is a mandatory requirement.
17. Pink dolphins are swimming in Bolivia’s Amazon.
The Bolivian river dolphin lives in the waterways of the Amazon basin in Bolivia. They were first discovered by the west in 1832 and in 2012, President Evo Morales introduced a law to protect them, deeming them ‘national treasures’.
These dolphins are best known for their pink colour and they can even ‘flush’, becoming more pink when excited!
Sadly, these dolphins are under threat and are classified as endangered. Deforestation, overfishing and an influx of hydroelectric construction all threaten their survival.
18. The clock on the congress building in La Paz goes backwards.
In 2014, the clock on La Paz’s congress building was reversed so that the numbers go from one to twelve in an anti-clockwise direction. David Choquehuanca, the Bolivian Foreign Minister, has dubbed it the ‘Clock of the South’ and said that it will remind Bolivians to think creatively and question established norms.
19. Madidi National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the world.
Located in the upper Amazon basin, Madidi National Park spans a huge 18,958 square kilometres and is one of the biggest protected areas on the planet. The park is known for its diverse flora and fauna and there are 272 known species of mammal living there.
It is important to note that many animals living in this park are probably still waiting to be discovered. The titi monkey is one such animal that is endemic to the area and was only discovered in 2004.
Madidi National Park is home to a whopping 1,254 bird species which equates to around 14% of the world’s species! Even though this area is technically protected, Madidi is sadly plagued by illegal loggers who are destroying the environment there.
20. Bolivia is the location of the only Bolivianite (ametrine) mine in the world.
Ametrine, also called Bolivianite, is a type of quartz. It is a purple-yellow coloured precious gem that occurs naturally but only in very specific and extreme conditions.
As a result, ametrine is only extracted in Bolivia. The Anahí mine, located in the province of Santa Cruz, is currently the only known ametrine mine in the whole world.
Princess Michiko of Japan, Queen Sofia of Spain and Salma Hayek have all been seen sporting jewellery that features ametrine.
21. Bolivia is commonly said to be the cheapest country to visit in South America!
This is a fact that I’m sure you’ll all want to know… Bolivia is often touted as the cheapest country in South America. Whilst Venezuela and Suriname are technically cheaper, this is the result of a wildly unstable economy and civil unrest.
When we asked our Facebook community, it seems that although many countries across the continent are famously cheap for shoestring backpackers, for many, Bolivia tops out as the best budget-friendly destination in South America.
Grab a dorm bed in a good hostel for under $10USD and pick up a delicious snack on the street for under $1USD! If that isn’t reason enough to visit Bolivia, we don’t know what is!