Officially, Bolivia is called the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Put this country on your backpacking bucket list because it is extremely interesting and extremely cheap to travel.
Since Bolivia gained independence in 1825, they have had some screwy political leaders. One president, Mariano Melgarejo (1864–71) traded a large land piece called Acre for what “a magnificent white horse” with Brazil. What a ridiculous trade! They’ve lost so much land, including their coast in the War of the Pacific, so now they are a land locked country. They have had a fast presidential turnover with a total of eighty presidents since it was liberated. The free walking tour (Red Caps) in La Paz gives a great insight on Bolivias struggle with crazy stories of their government.
Witch Doctors and Pachamama
You can visit the famous Witches’ Market in La Paz to see a witch doctor known as yatiri or buy things to offer to Pachamama, the Andean version of Mother Nature. Popular gifts sold in the stalls for Pachamama are small bottles of wine and candies decorated with signs of wealth, fertility, wisdom, safety, health, love and homes. Pacha mama loves to be drunk and eat her sweets. These offerings are buried in the ground or hollow rocks when they want to ask her for help. They also sell items for rituals like armadillos, frogs legs, and llama fetuses. When building a new home or building, they bury a llama fetus under the site for Pachamama to basically bless it. Long ago, they would actually bury alive humans as their offering. To do this, a witch doctor would dress as poor civilian and go to the street filled with drunk homeless men. He would pretend to have found money and buy drinks for everyone, get everyone drunk and open up about how worthless their lives are. He would pick the one who seems like he nothing to offer the world and get him passed out drunk. Then he would be buried alive under the construction site. Potions are sold for many needs, but the most popular ones with the tourists are love potions. You can buy “follow me, follow me” dust to sprinkle on their back to get your crush interested in you, then once you’re close enough, sprinkle “panty-breaker” dust down their pants to get them in bed!
There are vast altitudes in Bolivia that allow for many biodiversities making the country very interesting geographically. Bolivia has some of the highest altitude records in the world. The capital city, La Paz sits at 11,913 feet above sea level. The highest navigable lake is Lake Titicaca at 12,555 feet, is also the largest lake by volume in South America. The largest salt flats in the world is called Salar de Uyuni and sits at 11,995 feet above sea level. Some people get altitude sickness when visiting these places, so pack some anti-altitude sickness pills. In the north, you can access the Amazon rainforest and in the south you can visit the famous salt flats. There are also dry valleys, tropical savanna, and of course the Andes Mountains. Near La Paz, here is a mountain road that drops through a valley into the rainforest called Death Road. You can mountain bike downhill for four hours, starting out cold in the crisp mountain tops then end sweaty in humid jungle air. It gets its name because it is a narrow road with steep drop offs leading to deaths each year.
Cocaine, Prison, and Corruption
Coca leaves are widely used for healing purposes like curing altitude sickness and also used by witch doctors to heal or read your future. Obviously, it is also used to make cocaine, a popular drug in Bolivia. It is the third largest cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru. There are many prisons in Bolivia, but the most notorious one is San Pedro Prison in La Paz. It is like a city within a city. Prisoners pay rent for their jail cell, ranging from high end apartments where the corrupt politicians typically are, to poor nothing cells. Inmates can furnish their apartments with TV, house their families, and have visitors sleep over(if you pay the guards). They run businesses like restaurants and employ other inmates. They can even leave the prison for a day with a guard and go out to drink and socialize. This is not your typical prison. Most have very cruel and corrupt guards, but if you pay them enough, you can get away with things. There is a great book about life in San Pedro Prison called Marching Powder by Rusty Young. It has been banned in Bolivia because reveals how corrupt the government and prisons are, but it also gives you insight on Bolivian culture.