Ask a roomful of people what comes to mind when they hear "Bolivia" and you're bound to have a lot of blank faces staring back at you. This South American country isn't famous for much! In a continent that boasts some of the most exciting travel destinations in the world such as Brazil, Argentina and Peru, this modest, land locked country is often overlooked.
Here are five things that might surprise you about Bolivia:
1. It is Naturally Beautiful
Stunning national parks, vast lakes and sprawling urban landscapes are just some of what you can experience.
Perhaps the most famous attraction is the salt flats of Uyuni. They're the largest of their kind in the world and visiting them makes you feel as though you've landed on a different planet. A mass of pure white salt, they stretch as far as the eye can see. During the wet season with a thin layer of water on top, they act as a mirror, the effect being that the heavens merge with the ground that you're standing on.
Titicaca, high up in the Andes, is the largest lake in South America and resides partly in Bolivia, stretching across the border it shares with Peru. Most visitors on the Bolivian side stay in Copacabana to witness its shimmering beauty and to visit one of the 42 islands found within it. La Paz is the world's highest capital city at over 3500M above sea level, and yet its center is deep within a basin-like valley. Climb a vantage point such as KillKilla or ride the newly built cable car to witness its amazing panoramic views.
2. You Get Real Value for Money
Accommodation is some of the best value in South America, with budget hostels available for less than $10 per night with breakfast included, even a more luxurious hotel will only cost around $100 per night.
Stock up on cheap clothing both traditional and branded at one of the many markets - just don't ask about their authenticity. You'll also find a confusing array of random things on offer from used nuts and bolts to old-fashioned radios.
Traveling around within Bolivia is also great value, but be aware that the main form of transport here is bus. Many tend to be cheap services for locals so don't expect any luxuries, although if you're willing to pay a bit more you'll find your comfort levels increase accordingly.
3. Traditional Life Still Continues
Bolivia has the highest volume of indigenous South Americans of any country on the continent, many of whom (in particular the ladies nicknamed "Cholitas") still don the traditional outfit of large skirt, blouse and cardigan and small bowler hat perched on their head.
Don't miss the popular pastime of female wrestling performed by Cholitas in traditional dress. These bouts used to be viciously contested, apparently sometimes to the death, but are now largely staged along the lines of a WWE bout for the entertainment of tourists and hordes of locals alike.
A form of witchcraft based around offerings made to Pachamama (Mother Earth) is still widely practiced in many areas, evidenced in the famous witches’ market in La Paz, El Mercado de las Brujas. Here you will find dried baby llama fetuses strung up for sale along with traditional mixtures of flowers and herbs for use in spells and offerings.
4. There’s Good Food Available
Bolivia has a terrible culinary reputation, and whilst its neighbors can lay claim to many world-famous, must-try dishes and specialties such as Argentine steak, Peruvian Ceviche and Brazilian BBQ, Bolivia's biggest food export is the protein-rich (yet bland) super grain, quinoa.
However, there's plenty of good food on offer if you know where to look.
You can eat a freshly cooked two course meal for under $2 if you visit the food markets, a first course will be a hearty soup packed with herbs, vegetables, meat and quinoa and the main course will be meat with rice and salad or corn. Simple but very tasty and they'll even throw in a drink for free.
There's plenty of street food on offer if you want to delve into the unusual. You can pick up brightly colored exotic delicacies such as Tuna, the fruit of the cactus, not to be confused with the fish.
5. It’s Safer Than You May Think
Bolivia boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the whole of South America and violent crime and theft rates are far below those of many of its more popular continental neighbors. Even though it’s extremely poor and this often equates to high rates of crime, Bolivia is actually relatively very safe.
La Paz was at one point infamous as being one of the most violent cities on the continent and while there are still a few areas you’re best advised to steer clear of, if you follow general travel safety rules you’re unlikely to run into any problems.
Bolivia is often completely overlooked by people traveling to South America but there is much more on offer here than you might think. It’s a very affordable destination and one that is slowly gaining the recognition it deserves for its rich culture and exquisite scenery.