Bolivia, officially known as the PlurinationalState of Bolivia, is landlocked by its bordering South American countries Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Paraguay. The republic is home to more than 10,500,000 in habitants with an estimated 53% of its population living in poverty. Bolivia has the highest proportion of native people of any country in South America, with around half of its population self identifying as indigenous.
Bolivia has been the site of many ancient civilizations; most notably the Tiwanaku and Inca empires. The Tiwanaku civilization began as early as 1200 BC flourishing until at least 800 AD. The capital city of Tiwanaku is a UNESCO World Heritage site with numerous ruins that bear witness to the empire that played a leading role in the development of the Andean civilization. Following the collapse of Tiwanaku, between 1438 and 1527, the Incan empire grew to prominence throughout Western Bolivia. While the political and administrative center of the empire was located in Cusco, many historians believe the spiritual center was Lake Titicaca. According to Incan belief, the Creator emerged from Lake Titicaca before creating the celestial heavens and human beings.
In 1527, Bolivia was invaded by Spanish conquistadores, led by explorer Francisco Pizarro. Today’s Bolivia was under Spanish colonial rule for nearly three centuries. The city Potosi was a major center for Spanish conquistadors and Bolivia was considered its most attractive territory due to its abundance of silver and tin (check out the museum of Simon Patiño in Cochabamba – once the wealthiest man in the world due to Bolivian silver mining)
Bolivia celebrates its independence from Spanish Rule on August 6th and considers 1809 its official year of Independence. Actually August 6th 1809, marks first day of an 18-year struggle led by Simon Bolivar (Bolivia’s namesake!) to establish the republic.
A notable time in Bolivia’s establishment as a country was the War of the Pacific (1879-83), where Bolivia lost its seacoast to Peru and Chile (in addition to nitrate-rich fields). Although Bolivia is very resource-rich (silver, tin, agriculture, lithium, and more!), the absence of a coastline is often cited as a reason for increased poverty and a source of contention for Bolivians even today (interesting read here).
The 20th century was a very politically unstable time for Bolivia, with a long list of presidents with truncated terms. In 2005, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) candidate Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia by the widest margin of any leader since 1982 (when civilian rule was restored). In the process he became the first Native Bolivian president in history. In 2014, he won his third consecutive election, making him Bolivia’s longest-serving president. Since Evo Morales assumed power, Bolivia has witnessed an annual average growth rate of over 5%. Public expenditure has risen from 8 billion Bolivianos in 2005 to 21 billion in 2013, with much of it spent on social programs and bonuses. While and estimated 75% of Bolivians approve of Morales management, his rule has not been without some contention surrounding his use of natural resources and “abuse of power”.
Bolivia’s 2013 GNI per capita is $2,550. This places it well under the average for Latin American countries; however, the country has experienced major economic and GDP growth since the early 2000’s. Even so, Bolivia continues to report around half of its population as living below the poverty line. The majority of Bolivia’s industry revolves around exportation of raw materials. Natural gas and minerals are the two largest contributors to Bolivian export revenues. Additional products are coca, soybeans, and quinoa. Bolivia’s primary export partners are Brazil (40%), USA (18%), Argentina (7%), and Peru (5%).
In 2013, Bolivia census data reported that approximately 41% of its population are of indigenous origin. As of 2009, Bolivia’s official country title was constitutionally changed to the “PlurinationalState of Bolivia” to acknowledge the 36 recognized indigenous groups living within the country borders. Bolivia has the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America, with the Quechua and Aymara groups being the two largest cultures. There are about 2.5 million Quechua, who are native to Chuquisaca, Cochabamba, Potosí, Oruro and La Paz. The Aymara are the second largest Bolivian indigenous people (2 million) and are native to La Paz, Oruro and Potosi.
Bolivia’s cultural diversity is expressed in many ways; most specifically through its regional food, clothing, and dances. Traditional Bolivian music almost always has a dance accompaniment.
Bolivian music styles, like Bolivian clothing, vary greatly from one region to another and are invariably connected to typical Bolivian dances. In Bolivia music is usually not created just for playing, and almost all traditional Bolivian music can be danced to. The biggest celebration where you can see the great variety of dances is Carnaval. Carnaval is celebrated throughout the country, with the biggest festivities happening in Oruro. The Carnaval de Oruro is a unique display of folklore declared the “Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2001. Here, you can witness the most skilled, colorful, and emotional dances and dancers of Bolivia perform. Some of Bolivia’s most popular traditional dances are the Morenada, Diablada, Tinku, and the Cueca.
Geography & Biodiversity
In 1987 Bolivia made the world’s first debt-for-nature swap with an international conservation organization for the 135,000-hectare Beni Biosphere Reserve—a portion of Bolivia’s foreign debt was purchased to support the reserve. Bolivia continues to conserve its environment with the 1995 creation of the 1,895,750-hectare MadidiNational Park. In December 2010, Bolivia passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth which acknowledges Mother Earth as an individual with the same rights as humans. Although Bolivia is landlocked, it shares Lake Titicaca (where its navy is based!) – the highest navigable lake at an elevation of 3,805 meters – with neighbor Peru. Other impressive geographic sites include the Amazon river (with pink dolphins!), the Andes mountain range (yielding more than 4,000 varieties of potatoes!), and the Salar de Uyuni. Bolivia boasts a position as one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and is home to more than 1,400 species of birds (including the Andean condor, which it displays on its national flag).
Potosí, the city with the highest altitude in Bolivia, used to be the richest city in Latin America due to its abundance of tin, silver, and copper. Currently the mines are still in operation, but with much less shared wealth due to the plummet in prices in tin and general resource depletion. Sucre is a UNESCO Heritage Site, in addition to being the constitutional capital of Bolivia, whereas La Paz is the governmental capital (and the highest capital in the world – in terms of altitude). Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s largest city, with a population of approximately 1.5 million. El Alto, a former satellite city of La Paz, is now ranked as the second-largest city of Bolivia, with an exponentially growing population that claims its own style.
The word Cochabamba comes from the Quechua ‘qhucha‘ and ‘pampa‘, meaning swampy plain; the city of Cochabamba is known as “the City of Enternal Spring” for its year-round spring-like temperatures and abundant harvests of wheat, grains and fruits. In addition to being acknowledged as the Bolivian city with the best weather and agricultural products, Cochabamba is also the unofficial culinary capital of Bolivia.
With close to 2 million inhabitants, Cochabamba is the fourth largest city in Bolivia, and continues to grow exponentially! Cochabamba’s reputation for fertile soil and temperate climates attracts migrants from other areas of Bolivia – specifically Potosí and Oruro – which attributes to its continual growth and expansion. Cochabamba entertains extremes of wealth and poverty; Downtown Cochabamba is quite modern, with restaurants, bars, shops, and internet cafes lining the streets. However, travelers’ first glimpse of Cochabamba is often one of poverty – neighborhoods surrounding the airport display unpaved roads, adobe homes, and often require weekly water deliveries; plumbing and running water are luxuries that are isolated to only the wealthiest areas of the city, and a source of historical conflict for Cochabamba. To learn more about the Cochabamba Water Wars, check out “The Corporation” – a documentary – or “También La Lluvia” – a movie starring Gael García Bernal.
Cochabamba is not home to many tourist attractions; however, it is a hub for higher education, attracting young faces from within Bolivia as well as Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. It is home to sites such as “La Cancha,” reputedly the largest open-air market in South America, and a 112.2 foot statue of the Cristo de la Concordia (the world’s largest statue of Christ overlooking the city). Additionally, Cochabamba’s central location makes it an ideal starting point to explore Bolivia. A two hour bus ride in one direction delivers you to the base of Pico Tunari, a 17,000 foot mountain, while a three hour bus ride in the opposite direction places you in the vast tropical jungles of the Chapare; traveling four hours south will take you to Toro Toro, a national park within a small town that boasts dinosaur footprints, fossils, and beautiful hikes through caves and canyons.
To help our new volunteers maximize their experience in Cochabamba, we have made a custom Google map highlighting places around town.
Have fun getting to know your city!