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Local woman at Lake Titicaca

History and Culture of Bolivia

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Religion in Bolivia

The predominant religion is Roman Catholic with a scattering of other protestant groups. Indigenous Bolivians have blended Catholicism and their traditional religious beliefs. An example is the unification of the form of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) and the Virgin Mary as depicted in traditional religious artwork dating from the times of the conquest until today.


Spanish is the official language throughout Bolivia, although only 60-70% of the population speaks it, and then often as a second language. The indigenous languages of Quechua and Aymara are the preferred languages when bargaining in rural markets, and a Quechua word or two will not only endear you to the vendors but usually get you an extra orange or more juice! Several other small indigenous groups speak their own languages. English is understood in the best hotels and in airline offices and travel agencies, but it's of little use elsewhere.

Bolivian Food

Bolivian food consists mainly of meat, potatoes, corn pancakes, rice, eggs, and vegetables. Local specialties include pique a lo macho, grilled beef, and sausage; lechón, suckling pig; and cuy, whole roasted guinea pig-however, some delicacies may only be for the most adventurous stomachs.

Witches' Market of La Paz
Witches' Market of La Paz


The first inhabitants of Bolivia were nomadic hunter-gatherers who came across the Bering Strait. It is commonly believed that these first Asian colonizers reached the South American continent by 12,000 BC. This initial settlement period lasted until about 1400 BC when a more highly advanced culture of the Chavin began spreading their influence from coastal Peru throughout the Andes. Around 300 BC, the Chavín inexplicably disappeared, and in their place the Tiahuanco culture of the Bolivian Altiplano rose to dominance. During the next 1000 years, the Tiahuanaco culture prospered and advanced in art, agriculture and architecture until it equaled that of ancient Egypt. Eventually, the Tiahuanaco civilization began to fade too, giving way to the Incas of Peru. Theories abound about what happened to Tiahuanaco, including one that the says the Inca royalty were the descendants of the crumbling Tiahuanco culture. The Incas quickly grew to dominate an immense region stretching from Columbia to Argentina, and including all of the Bolivian highlands.

The Spanish arrived in 1531, and Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro made their way inward looking for wealth and land. They returned to Spain to look for reinforcements in order to return to the New World. Return he did, marching into Cajamarca, in northern Peru, before capturing, ransoming and executing the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, in 1533.

Modern day Bolivia was referred to as Alto Peru by the new Spanish governors. Bolivia was so far away from the new capital of Lima on the coast that most indigenous Bolivians were initially unaffected by the conquest. This all changed, however, with the discovery of silver in Potosi. The mines of Cerro Rico, or the Rich Hill, would make the Spanish crown richer than even a king could dream. Thousands of fortune hunters from Europe poured into Bolivia, and Potosi became the largest city in the Americas overnight. In the following centuries, millions of conscripted Indians would die in the atrocious mines of Potosi. The Spanish soldier, administrators, adventurers, and settlers became a strong landed aristocracy, and the indigenous people of Bolivia were reduced to tenant farmers and slaves.

With such wealth and poverty living side by side, Bolivia, it was only a matter of time before rebellion ignited in Bolivia. It was in Sucre that the first call for independence in Spanish America sprang. After independence in 1824, Alto Peru became the Republic of Bolivia. With much territory, Bolivia was a precious target for invaders looking for land. This became obvious when Chile attacked in 1879, igniting the War of the Pacific. Chile in the end triumphed and took the only coastline Bolivia ever had. In the following years, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay each carved away at Bolivia.

Bolivia has undergone 191 governments since independence. It has been ruled by corrupt officials and hard-line military juntas. Finally, in 1982 a leftist civilian movement called the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionario won the election against the military. This government began the difficult job of reforming the government into a true democracy.
Isla del Pescado at Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia
Isla del Pescado at Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia

Bolivian Geography & Culture

Nicknamed the Tibet of the Americas, landlocked Bolivia is the highest and most isolated country in the Americas. With elevations ranging from sea level to over 21,000 feet, the Bolivia landscape offers a mind-blowing array of complex ecosystems and stunning scenery. Bolivia is also home to the largest indigenous population in the Americas. With over 50% of its population maintaining traditional lifestyles and beliefs, Bolivia is a cultural treasure that is only now being appreciated, discovered and studied.

Approximately the size of France and Spain combined, Bolivia can be broken into five geographic regions - the stark Altiplano, the lush Yungas, the fertile highland valleys, the scrubland of the Chaco, and the impenetrable Amazon Basin. Most of the population lives on the Altiplano and highland valleys. It's on these windswept plans and high valleys where the birth of Andean culture can be found. In archeological sites like Tiahuanaco near La Paz and Quechua villages like those near Hacienda Candelaria, visitors can feel the ancient spirits of the Andes and begin to understand the rich cultural heritage that is Bolivia.The wild places of the Yungas, Chaco and Amazon have their own draw. These places offer some of the best opportunity to see South American wildlife. It's still possible to see vicuña, spectacled bear, condor, jaguar, capybara, and others in these wild places.

Bolivia's Colonial heritage is among the longest in the Americas. Ornate buildings line the cobblestone streets of crumbling Potosi, and the White City, Sucre, still lives up to its name with whitewashed buildings and red clay rooftops stretching out in all directions. Bolivia's cultural heritage and stunning natural beauty lie waiting to be discovered!

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Sunset over Salar de Uyuni



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