Geography and Landscape


Bolivia (officially: República de Bolivia) is a presidential republic in South America. The country is completely surrounded by other countries. Bolivia is bordered to the north and east by Brazil (3400 km), Paraguay (750 km) to the southeast, Argentina (832 km) to the south and Chile (861 km) and Peru (900 km) to the west.

Cordillera Real Bolivia Cordillera Real BoliviaPhoto: Dick Culbert CC 2.0 Generic no changes made

Bolivia used to be twice as big and it even bordered the Pacific Ocean. Over time, the country has lost a lot of territory to neighboring countries. Bolivia is the fifth largest country in South America in terms of area and measures 1,098,581 km2. It is therefore about the same size as Spain and France combined.

Bolivia Satellite photoBolivia Satellite photoPhoto: Public domain


Bolivia is located in the center of the Andes Mountains that run from north to south across the South American continent. The Bolivian Andes Mountains consist of two parallel mountain ranges. In between is a plateau (Altiplano) at an altitude of about 4000 meters. The eastern mountain range is called the Cordillera Oriental and there are peaks up to 6,500 meters. The western mountain range is called Cordillera Occidental and is characterized by a lot of volcanic activity and dry desert areas. Along the border with Chile are rows of volcanoes with the highest mountain / volcano in Bolivia, the Sajama (6700 meters). The lowest point in Bolivia is at the Rio Paraguay (90 meters above sea level).

Lake Titicaca Bolivia Lake Titicaca BoliviaPhoto: Alex Promois CC 2.0 Generic no changes made

The plateau (Altiplano) is bordered in the north by Lake Titicaca and in the southwest by an area of deserts and salt lakes. Lake Titicaca is 3810 meters above sea level, has an area of 8800 km2, is up to 400 meters deep and is the highest navigable lake in the world. The border with Peru runs straight through the lake. The Altiplano has been located below sea level in a very distant past. Evidence of this is the many fossil shells, corals and sea creatures that have been found. In the east are medium-high mountain ranges with deep valleys carved by rivers (yungas).

To the south of this, that area changes into a valley area (valles) that is still at an altitude of 2000 to 3000 meters. The northern part of the lowland is part of the Amazon basin. Here we find rainforest (Oriente) that changes to the south into a savannah-like landscape with grassy plains (pampas). In the southwest there are extensive saltpetre deserts and salt marshes.

Climate and Weather

The Andean massifs divide Bolivia into climatic zones and are the determining factor for the climate. In the northern Amazon region, the climate is tropical and humid, in the southeast it is dry and hot, in the valleys it is quite cool and in the highlands it is cold. The rainy season falls in the summer, from December to April. The winter that lasts from May to August is the dry season.

Another way to roughly classify the climate is the altitude at which villages and cities are located. Above 4000 meters it is usually cold (tierra fría), at night even down to –20 °C. Between 2000 and 4000 meters it is moderately warm to cold. Between 1500 and 2500 meters it is often pleasant subtropical weather (tierra templada). Below 1000 meters it is generally tropical warm (tierra caliente).

Cordillera Oriental BoliviaCordillera Oriental BoliviaPhoto: Fotord CC 4.0 International no changes made

Most snow falls on the eastern mountain range, the Cordillera Oriental, and a lot of rain on the lower parts. The western mountain range, the Cordillera Occidental, has very little rainfall. Due to the constant temperature (9 °C) of Lake Titicaca, there is a mild climate around this lake. In the south and southwest corner of the country it is getting colder and cold in winter. In the high Andes mountains, the winter, which lasts from May to September, is sunny and dry. At 4000 meters altitude it is 10-15 °C, but it feels warmer due to the bright sun. At night, the temperature drops below freezing. The average summer temperature is often only a few degrees higher than in winter because it often rains and is cloudy in the summer. La Paz, for example, is located at an altitude of 3658 meters; in January the average is 10 °C and in July 7 °C; there is an average of 572 mm of rainfall per year.

Bolivia Climatic ZonesBolivia Climate ZonesPhoto: Ali Zifan CC 4.0 International no changes made

In the valleys between the middle-high mountain area in the east, it is very rainy and subtropical warm. This area turns into valleys (valles) with less rain, and then only in the rainy season from December to April. In the lowest valleys of the Andes it is tropically warm. The lowlands have a tropical, humid climate. It never freezes here, but it can suddenly cool sharply when the Surazo blows, a cool south wind. Here, too, most rain falls in the summer and this can even lead to major flooding because the rivers cannot process the large amounts of water. Concepción is located at an altitude of 490 meters; in January the average is 24 °C and in July 20 °C; there is an average of 1141 mm of rainfall per year. Because Bolivia is located in the southern hemisphere, it is summer when it is winter here and vice versa.

Plants and Animals


Bolivia Yareta Bolivia YaretaPhoto: Pedro Szekely CC 2.0 Generic no changes made

The Amazon Plain in the northwest consists of tropical rainforest, as does the swampy area in the southeast. In the south, between the puna-páramo vegetation and the llano area, there is a region with Sierra vegetation, ie thorn bushes and cacti, and in higher parts evergreen forest. The Andean region has puna vegetation. The Ilano area has savanna vegetation, the plateau has partly páramo vegetation and partly puna vegetation.

The increasingly rare mahogany trees are still growing in the jungle. Furthermore cocoa and rubber trees, the bibosí and many palm species. The beautiful Victoria Regia is found in shallow lakes. Due to the cold and low rainfall, the Altiplano does not grow much: low shrubs, cacti, succulents, mosses and yellow grass pollen. A striking feature is the yareta, which grows above 4000 meters and can be hundreds of years old. The keñua is a tree species that can even survive up to 5200 meters.

Puya Raimondi Bolivia Puya Raimondi BoliviaPhoto: Vane 59 CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

The Yungas (eastern mountain slopes) are largely covered with cloud forests and further ferns, mountain bamboo and eventually subtropical forest with orchids, bromeliads and palms. Many small trees and lianas grow under the gigantic trees of the tropical rainforest and on the bottom ferns, begonias and paradise flowers or heliconias.

The most special plant in Bolivia is the Puya Raimundi, the largest succulent plant in the world with a flower stem up to 12 meters in length. A hundred years pass before this plant flowers. The potato is the best known of the cultivated plants. More than 200 species occur in the Andes. Another plant that is important for food supply is yuca, which is grown in the lowlands. Maize and quinoa are also grown for food.


Guanaco BoliviaGuanaco BoliviaPhoto: Bernard Gagnon CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

The most famous group of animals of the Andes mountains are the camelids: the guanaco, the vicuña, the alpaca and the llama. The guanaco and the vicuña live in the wild, the llama and the alpaca have been made pets. They are used as pack animals and for meat and wool. The vicuña is a protected animal and there are about 2000 specimens in Bolivia. Other unusual animals in the Andes Mountains include the fish cacha, a large chinchilla species with a remarkably long tail, the rare spectacled bear or Andean bear and the condor, a bird of prey with a wingspan of three meters that plays a major role in Bolivian mythology. Also the rhea, a rhea species (ostrich species), and the very rare James flamingo. Common waterfowl are Andean geese, ibises, avocets, grebes and coots. Hummingbirds and parrots can even be found above 4000 meters and mountain toucans also live at high altitudes.

Mammals in the Andes include the mountain ocelot and puma, the wild marmot and the armadillo. The tropical lowlands are home to many animals, including well-known animals such as the panther, the jaguar, the tapir, the javelí or umbilical pig and the anaconda, a huge strangling snake. Common monkey species are howler monkeys, spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys. Smaller mammals are coati, agoutis (rodent), anteaters, otters and sloths. In the pampa areas live in the rivers, among other things, water turtles, pink freshwater dolphins and alligators.

Capibara Bolivia Capibara BoliviaPhoto: Fidel León Darder CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

The capybara is the largest rodent in the world. The large jabira is a stork-like and its colors make it a striking appearance. Furthermore, hoatzins, terns, cormorants, snake-necked birds and various types of kingfishers can be found in tropical Bolivia. Of the butterfly species, the large blue morpho is the most striking, next to beautiful passion flower and page butterflies. Salmon, trout and kingfish or pejerrey are found in Lake Titicaca. The avifauna is among the richest in the world. There are about 1200 species of birds; a curious short-winged grebe is only found near the mountain lakes Titicaca and Poopó.

Due to the tropical heartwood industry and the logging and burning for agriculture, many thousands of hectares of forest disappear every year. Only a small percentage has been reforested so far. The erosion and eventual desertification is a major threat to the plant and animal world. In recent years, the government has paid more attention to this. The national parks are difficult to reach, but could become a source of income because of tourism.


Pre-Columbian Period

The Gateway of the Sun from the Tiwanaku civilization in BoliviaThe Gateway of the Sun from the Tiwanaku civilization in BoliviaPhoto: Public domain

It is believed that the indigenous people of the Americas, the Indians, crossed over from Asia to America tens of thousands of years ago. Thousands of years later, the entire American continent was inhabited. It is also believed that other nations also came to America. Striking in this respect are the similarities between the Andean languages Aymará and Quechua and the Polynesian. There are also clear similarities in appearance. Human habitation in the Andes dates back to at least 13,000 BC, including the Vizcachani culture. These nomadic tribes switched to agriculture and animal husbandry from 6000 BC. Little is known about the way of life of these ancient cultures. This entire period until about 3000 BC. is also called the pre-ceramic period.

The ceramic period lasted from 3000 BC. until about 1500 AD. Much more has become known of this period for pots and vases painted with symbols and decorations, but also beautiful weaving art tells a lot about the history of the different cultures. The most important culture in Bolivia from that time has been the Tiwanaku culture. This culture was characterized by highly specialized agricultural methods that produced abundant food for that time. This is probably also one of the reasons that this powerful culture has remained at the forefront of this region for so long. The sudden disappearance of this culture in the early 12th century is a mystery to this day, but it was probably related to climatic conditions. There were some other, smaller cultures in what was then Bolivia, including the Beni in the tropical lowlands, the Kolla culture around Lake Titicaca, the Wankarani and Chiripa. The Wankarani have left square towers and the Kolla gigantic round towers.

The Inca Empire

From the capital Cusco in Peru, Bolivia came under the rule of the Incas (1200-1500 AD). The language of the Incas, Quechua, had to be spoken by every subject and is still one of the official languages of Bolivia today. The Inca Empire was divided into four areas of which Collasuyo included a large part of Peru, all of Chile, some northern Argentina and present-day Bolivia. The Incas built roads and aqueducts, terraces, fortresses and temples. Large cities also sprang up in the plains. Ultimately, 43 different nations had become Inca subjects. The Inca occupation of Bolivia would eventually only last 70 to 80 years. Around 1520, the Inca Empire slowly crumbled due to internal conflicts, among other things.

Atahualpa Bolivia Atahualpa BoliviaPhoto: Public domain

Spanish conquerors (conquistadors)

Pizarro BoliviaPizarro BoliviaPhoto: Urituguasi CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

In 1532 an expedition led by the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro (murdered in 1538) came ashore on the north coast of Peru. The last Inca prince Atahualpa was killed and relatively quickly large parts of the South American continent were conquered. Bolivia was then still called Alto-Perú (Upper Peru) and was added to the viceroyalty of Peru. Cities were founded on and around the plateau and later the tropical lowlands were also colonized. After the discovery of silver deposits, the city of Potosí was founded in 1545, which quickly grew into the largest and richest city in the New World (North and South America) with 200,000 inhabitants. It was called by the Spaniards “La ville imperia”, the imperial city.

The encomienda system was used by the Spaniards. This meant that the conquistadors were allowed to exploit as much of the land that was conquered as they could. Proceeds were shared between the conquistadors and the Spanish Crown. Another condition was that the Native American population had to be converted to Christianity. The Indians were, among other things, employed in the mines and had to do their work under terrible conditions. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Native American population was already in a dramatic decline; millions of Indians were killed by forced labor. Due to the working conditions in the mines, but also due to the outbreak of contagious diseases brought by the Europeans, the Indian population had almost halved to half a million people by 1650.

Due to the shortage of labor, slaves were quickly imported from Africa on a large scale. Monks of the Jesuit Order, and later the Franciscans, spent the first 200 years converting the Native Americans to Christianity. Over the centuries, the Roman Catholic faith mixed with the traditional rituals and customs. La Paz was founded in 1548 and some later cities such as Cochabamba and Oruro. After hostile actions by Indians in the East and Northeast, some form of self-government was first allowed by the Spaniards around 1560.

The 18th century was marked by growing resistance from the Native Americans to Spanish rule. In 1780, for example, Tupac Amaru led a revolt of the Quechua and Amayá against the colonial government. However, they were defeated and their leaders murdered. Tupac Katani even later besieged La Paz twice, but he was eventually killed too. Yet it would not be long before Bolivia became independent.

Bolivia independent

Simon Bolivar Bolivia Simon Bolivar BoliviaPhoto: Public domain

The power of the Spaniards in Europe and therefore also in South America crumbled because Napoleon invaded Spain. Under the criollo's, the white South Americans, various groups of people quickly emerged who spoke out for independence, among other things because the Spaniards always put the interests of the motherland first. The most important was Símon Bolívar (1783-1830) who, together with his marshals José de Sucre and José San Martín, liberated almost all Spanish colonies from 1810 with his military army. In April 1825 Sucre defeated the Spaniards in Upper Peru at the Battle of Tumusla and on August 6, 1825 the independence of the “República de Bolívar” was proclaimed, the name of course in tribute to the freedom fighter Bolívar. Later the name Bolívar would change to Bolivia.

Bolívar and Sucre were Bolivia's first two presidents. Many presidents and governments would succeed them in this politically troubled country. Between 1825 and 1994 there were 194 changes of government; more than half of them were military governments (dictatorships), while the Roman Catholic Church also played a major role in domestic political affairs. Bolivia has also had 16 different constitutions since 1825. The mines and communal farms came into the hands of the whites, so that the Indian farmers and miners were treated like slaves.

Bolivia is losing a lot of territory to neighboring countries

Bolivia Map with area distance to neighboring countriesBolivia Map with area distance to neighboring countriesPhoto: Public domain

Remarkable in Bolivia's history is the loss of much territory to neighboring countries. Since its independence in 1825, Bolivia's surface has been roughly halved. For example, Bolivia, together with Peru, had a large piece of territory in the north of today's Chile until 1884. Important for Bolivia that the piece of land bordered on the Pacific Ocean. Both countries went to war with Chile from 1879 to 1884 and eventually lost the area to the Chileans. This war is called the “Nitric War” because it also fought for the rights to extract salt and copper in the coastal area. From that time on, Bolivia no longer has an open connection with the ocean. Bolivia was still allowed to build a railway that ran from La Paz to the port of Arica, which Bolivia could use for a fee.

Brazil annexed the rubber regions of Acre in northern Bolivia at the turn of the century. Here, too, Bolivia was given the right to build a railway from Riberalta in Bolivia to Rio Madeira as a satisfaction. Under the rule of the Presidents Pando (1899-1904), Montes (1904-1909 and 1913-1917) and Villazon (1909-1913), the country experienced an economic boom, as the raw materials rubber and tin entered the world markets during the First World War. high prices. In 1917 Bolivia severed relations with Germany, but it did not take an active part in the war.

Between 1928 and 1935, the Chaco Wars raged between Bolivia and Paraguay. Oil was suspected in northern Paraguay (Gran Chaco). The oil companies Standard Oil Company (Bolivia) and Shell (Paraguay) played a major role in this war for concessions. Tens of thousands of Bolivians were killed, and the distressing thing was that no petroleum was ever found in the Gran Chaco. Poverty among the population increased after this failure and new political parties and trade unions were formed. The petroleum industry at that time was almost entirely in the hands of the Standard Oil Company and the tin mines in the hands of three families (Hochschild, Patiño and Aramays). However, this did not lead to major economic development or social progress. In the late 1920s, more than half of the national income had to be spent annually on repaying debts. This led to a revolution in 1936.

Civil wars, conflicts, strikes, uprisings

Carlos Ibañéz and Victor Paz Estenssoro Bolivia Carlos Ibañéz and Victor Paz Estenssoro BoliviaPhoto: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile CC 2.0 Chile no changes made

President Toro tried to introduce state socialism, but he met resistance from the foreign companies present in Bolivia. One of his successors, General Peñaranda, was overthrown by nationalist groups in 1943. During an uprising in July 1946, Peñaranda's successor, Villaroel, was murdered by an angry mob. In January 1947, the right-wing socialist Hertzog was elected president. His party did not have a majority in parliament and the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement was constantly trying to take power. These disputes degenerated into civil war in 1949, but thanks to the support of the army, Hertzog managed to survive. The revolt was suppressed, but the fierce criticism of his policies forced Hertzog to resign.

During the 1952 Revolution, the National Guard, along with the miners, defeated the army. Power fell into the hands of Victor Paz Estenssoro. However, the army took power before he could take up his position. In April 1952, after a popular uprising lasting several days, the popular militias led by Hernán Siles Zuazo defeated the army. Estenssoro was installed as president and carried out major socio-political reforms and ended the power of some powerful families by nationalizing large tin mines. In 1952 universal suffrage was also introduced and the feudal system of large land tenure was abolished. All farmers were given some land, but this fragmentation led to even greater poverty among farmers and greater migration to the cities.

In the 1956 elections, the MNR won an overwhelming majority of votes; Siles Suazo became president. Uprisings and strikes were the order of the day during his reign and the country was almost constantly in a state of emergency. The 1960 elections brought Paz Estenssoro back to power. In 1963, President Estenssoro came into conflict with the vice president, Lechín, who was also the leader of the miners' union. This brought on the displeasure of the miners. Despite much criticism of his policies, Paz Estenssoro was re-elected president in May 1964, but after an army uprising, power was taken over by Vice President, General R. Barrientos Ortuño. During his reign, noted freedom fighter Ernesto Che Guevarra was captured and murdered because he was believed to be planning a peasant uprising. Barrientos died in 1969 and was succeeded by the commander in chief of the armed forces, Ovando.

Bolivia under the yoke of dictators

In 1971 another coup followed, after which General Hugo Banzer remained in power until 1978. During his regime, universities were closed, trade unions and political parties were banned and tens of thousands of people were arrested without trial. The clergy protested against the frequent violations of human rights in Bolivia. Political opposition to Banzer came from both the left and the right.

In June 1974 left-wing officers revolted, after which Banzer, among other things, promised parliamentary elections, which he even had laid down by law. In the meantime it had become clear that Banzer had become completely dependent on the right-wing officers: under their pressure, he also postponed plans for elections for five years. Banzer was followed by a whole series of dictators (caudillos), the low point of which was General García Meza, whose reign was marked by torture, murders, connections with the drug trade and ultimately a practically bankruptcy in Bolivia.

Democracy returns

Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada Bolivia Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada BoliviaPhoto: Antônio Cruz/ABr CC 3.0 Brazil no changes made

In 1982, power was turned over by the military to a civilian government led by Hernán Siles Zuazo. Bolivia was completely bankrupt at that time and the Zuazo period was therefore characterized by enormous monetary devaluation, much social unrest, strikes, high unemployment and an ever-increasing foreign debt. In 1984 inflation averaged 3% per hour !! Bolivia was already a major cocaine producer at the time, but in these difficult times the lucrative trade (in hard dollars) became increasingly important to the country's economy. From 1982 the Americans tried to control the cocaine trade in Bolivia in exchange for economic aid. Estenssoro won the election again in 1985 and took a number of rigorous measures to rebuild the economy. For example, government spending was decentralized and heavily loss-making state-owned enterprises were closed or privatized. The result was that many mines were closed and tens of thousands of miners were left without work. The unexpected collapse of the world tin market in 1985 also cost many employees their jobs. At that time 90% of the population was living below the poverty line.

In 1989 Vice President Jaime Paz Zamora was elected president. He co-ruled in a coalition with ex-dictator Hugo Banzer, who was strangely responsible for an attack on left-wing politicians during his previous rule, in which Zamora narrowly escaped death. In July 1993 Bolivia was granted narrow access to the Pacific Ocean from Peru until 2091 by way of a concession. In 1993, the popular Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozado came to power and formed a coalition with Hugo Cardenas, an Aymará Indian from the Indian party MRTKL, through which part of the Indian population was directly represented in parliament. They carried out an economic reform program, including a very ambitious privatization program, with associated many social measures (Plan de Todos), decentralization, educational reforms and constitutional changes. A program was also set up to improve the position of the Indian population, for example by allowing bilingual education. However, he was unable to get a second term to the government.

On August 6, 1997, ex-dictator Hugo Banzer was sworn in as president. He especially attracted many voters who hoped that the economic growth of the 1970s would return with him. Opponents of Banzer were human rights activists who felt he should pay for his past. They also feared that militarism would return. One of his first acts seemed to confirm this: the destruction of coca fields with the help of the military. One of his promises in the election campaign was that all illegal coca fields would be destroyed in five years. In 1998 more than 11,000 ha was destroyed. Furthermore, he mainly benefited from the reform program of his predecessor Sánchez de Lozado.

In April 2000, there were violent protests against the proposed privatization of the drinking water supply, which increased the price of water by 35%. The situation got so out of hand that the government declared a state of emergency. On July 27, 2001, President Banzer resigned due to health problems. He was succeeded by Vice President Quiroga. After weeks of social unrest that would have claimed the lives of 60-80 people, President Sánchez de Lozada resigned in October 2003. Vice President Carlos Mesa was appointed as the new president. Sánchez de Lozada fled to the United States, which had always strongly supported him.

In early June 2005, President Mesa announced elections to a constitutional council to revise the constitution. There would also be a referendum on more autonomy for the oil-rich provinces in the east and south of the country.

Mesa hoped to end the violent protests, roadblocks and a 48-hour strike that paralyzed transport across the country. The protesters demanded nationalization of oil and gas extraction. Especially the poor western provinces, where many poor Indians live, wanted a larger share of the proceeds.

Eva Morales Bolivia Eva Morales BoliviaPhoto: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR CC 2.0 Genérica no changes made

The December 2005 presidential election was won by left-wing indígena (native Indian) Evo Morales Ayma. He won with more than 51% of the vote and became Bolivia's first Indian president. The old political order was wiped out by the voters in these elections. A period of nationalization of, among others, the gas industry follows. In May 2008, Morales agreed to a referendum on his leadership in August, if he loses the referendum, new elections will follow. In August 2008, Morales won the referendum with 67% of the vote. In January 2009, a new constitution gives more rights to the indigenous peoples. President Morales wins the election in December 2009 with more than 60% of the vote. In May 2010, he met with the Pope and nationalized four electricity companies. In May 2013, a law is passed allowing Eva Morales to serve a third term as president. He will indeed be re-elected in October 2014. In February 2016, the population will vote in a referendum against the possibility of a fourth term. In March 2017, Morales signed a controversial law that doubles the area of legal Coca cultivation. In November 2019, Morales will retire due to a constitutional crisis following controversial elections. Since then, Senator Jeanine Áñez of the opposition has been interim president until new elections are held. The elections were originally scheduled for May 2000, but due to the COVID crisis they have been moved to November 2020. Luis Acre won the October 2020 presidential election, returning the Mas socialist party to power after a 12-month interregnum.


Bolivia PopulationBolivia PopulationPhoto: Pedrosz CC 2.0 Generic no changes

Bolivia had 11,138,234 inhabitants in 2017. On average there are approximately 10 inhabitants per km2. Almost 70% of the population lives in the cities and in the valleys of the Andes Mountains. Approx. 20% of the population consists of Indians, approx. 68% of Mestizos of Indian / White descent, approx. 5% of (mostly Spanish) white descent and approx. 4% are black and Asian descent. The largest cities are La Paz (approx. 1.8 million inhabitants), Santa Cruz (approx. 2.1 million inhabitants) and the capital Sucre (approx. 372,000 inhabitants). A suburb of La Paz, El Alto is Bolivia's fastest growing city. The composition of the population differs from place to place: in La Paz half of the population is Indian and the population of Santa Cruz consists of three quarters of mestizos and Europeans.

The average life expectancy in Bolivia is approximately 69.5 years (2017). 31.9% of the population is under 15 years old; only 5.3% are 65 or older. Population growth was 1.5% in 2017.

Aymara Bolivia Aymara BoliviaPhoto: Kilobug CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

The Quechua and Aymará Indians are the greatest in number. There are about 2.5 million Quechua and about 2 million Aymará in Bolivia. The Aymará live around Lake Titicaca and around La Paz. The Quechua mainly live in the other parts of the Andes mountains. Many smaller Indian tribes such as the Baures and Moxo Indians live in the lowlands. A well-known tribe are the Guaraní who live in the south of Bolivia. Only about 30,000 Indians live the way they have always lived, the rest are already influenced by Western ways of life. Nomadic groups are threatened by logging, disease and colonization of their habitat. In total there are 32 Indian peoples living in Bolivia.

Until the revolution in 1952, there was strict racial segregation in Bolivia in certain public places and districts. Poverty is greatest among Native Americans in both rural and urban areas, although the growing population of urban Native Americans (cholos) fares significantly better than rural Native Americans. Mestizos often form the middle class and the higher functions are often occupied by the whites. The blacks in Bolivia are descended directly from the slaves brought from Africa centuries ago. Descendants of Japanese immigrants who fled after World War II mainly live in the Santa Cruz department.


Language map SpanishLanguage map SpanishPhoto: Ichwan Palongengi CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

The official language is Spanish, but the South American Spanish spoken in Bolivia is different in sentence construction and pronunciation from Spanish in Spain. The frequent use of diminutives is typical of Bolivian. There are also dialectical differences per region. 45% of the population speaks only Spanish.

Nearly half of the population speaks one of the two major Indian languages in addition to Spanish: Quechua or Aymará. In rural areas in particular, one of these two languages is spoken by the older Bolivians. This is also the result of inadequate education. Quechua was the language of the earlier Inca rulers and is still spoken in all Andean countries, especially Bolivia and Peru. However, different dialects have developed in all countries. The influence of Spanish is great, because many Quechua words are pronounced in Spanish.

Aymará is mainly spoken around La Paz and Lake Titicaca by about 2 million Indians. The Aymará Indians are descendants of the Tiwanaku culture who, unlike the Quechua, managed to preserve their identity during Inca rule. There are also many Native American languages, including Guarani, which is still widely spoken. English is not yet very well known and is spoken in very few places.

Bolivia Libros en espagnol Bolivia Libros en espagnolPhoto: Public domain

The Spanish and the Indian languages Aymará and Quechua are of course very different. But there are also major differences between these two Indian languages.

Below are some examples consecutively in English, Spanish, Aymará and Quechua:

one uno maya u’luc
two dos paya iscai
three tres quimsa quinsa
fivecinco pe(i)sa phisca
ten diez tunca chunca

tomorrow mañana arumanti tutamanta
son hijo yoka churi
black negro chiara yana
nose nariz nasa senca

English : how old are you?
Spanish : cuantos años tienes?
Aymará : caucca maranitasa?
Quechua : Masca huatayoctaccanqui?


La Virgen del Cerro Bolivia La Virgen del Cerro BoliviaPhoto: Public domain

Religious freedom has existed since the early twentieth century, but it was not until 1961 that the church was officially separated from the state. About 95% of the population is Roman Catholic and about 1% is Protestant. The Indians mixed their own traditional pre-Columbian rituals with the Roman Catholic faith. The religious influence of Catholicism on daily life is still great, but its former important role in political life has largely disappeared.

Besides Catholicism and Protestantism, there are dozens of other faith movements and sects in Bolivia. In 1994 there were 64 different movements and sects active. The Bahai is the largest group, including Mormons, Baptists and Jehovahs. In addition to the Christian faith and sects, the traditional faith still exists, although the two are often intertwined. Animistic traits also still occur and mysterious powers are attributed to natural phenomena. Thus Mary is identified with Pachamama, the goddess Mother Earth.

The curandero or yatiri is a medicine man who still plays a big role in the life of the Bolivian. With the help of herbs, minerals and magic he can, among other things, heal the sick and make predictions.


State structure

Palacio de Congresos Bolivia Palacio de Congresos BoliviaPhoto: Marc Davis CC 2.0 Generic no changes made

The first Bolivian constitution dates back to 1826, after the country had gained independence from Spain a year earlier. Although Sucre is the official capital of Bolivia, La Paz is the administrative capital and the government resides here.

Executive power in Bolivia's political system rests with the president, who, along with the vice president, is elected every five years by the people. He is not immediately eligible for re-election at the end of his term of office. The president appoints the council of ministers. The legislative branch (Congreso Nacional) is divided into two chambers: the Senate (Senado) and the Chamber of Deputies (Cámara de Deputados). The upper house or Senate consists of 27 senators, three from each department, who are each elected for five years. The lower house or the Chamber of Deputies consists of 130 members who are also elected for five years.

Bolivia DepartmentsBolivia DepartmentsPhoto: Public domains

There is universal suffrage for men and women from the age of 18. Under the revised 1995 constitution, 50% of the members are elected from party lists while the other half represent a particular district. Bolivia is divided into the nine administrative departments of La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, Tarija, Oruro, Beni and Pando. Each department is subdivided into approx. 112 provinces whose administration controls the income and expenditure. The provinces are divided into about 1384 cantons and are governed by a prefect, a sub-prefect and a so-called “corregidor”. In the capitals of the departments and provinces, elected councils form the local government. In some areas, the Indian population is still organized in the traditional way in ayllu's (communities). Indians have only recently been represented in the national parliament. For the current political situation, see the history chapter.


Tomas Frías University BoliviaTomas Frías University BoliviaPhoto: Periódico El Potosí CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

Primary education is free and compulsory for all children between six and fourteen years old. Recent census shows that there are about 2,300 kindergartens and about 13,000 primary schools. Almost 1.3 million children went to primary school and almost 220,000 to secondary education. Higher education was attended by approximately 140,000 students. There are universities in La Paz, Sucre, Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí, Santa Cruz and Tarija. The oldest university in South America is the San Francisco Xavier in Sucre, founded in 1624. The University of San Andrés in La Paz is the largest in the country with more than 35,000 students.

Many highly educated people leave Bolivia after obtaining their diploma and go to work in Argentina or Chile, where much more is paid. English is taught in secondary schools as part of the curriculum. Fortunately, education is regarded by the government as essential to Bolivia's social and economic development. In the late 1980s, a third of the population over the age of 15 could not read or write. Ten years later, that percentage had dropped to 20%. In the early 1950s, only about 15% of the children went to school. Now about 90% of children go to primary school, but many still drop out along the way. In some villages, even some form of education is still lacking, and in rural areas in particular, children have to help out in agriculture at an early age and then leave school.



Bolivian MoneyBolivian MoneyPhoto: Desherinka CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

Bolivia has a poor infrastructure, no exit to the sea, an unbalanced social structure, poorly trained personnel and little investment in the country, both domestically and from abroad, all of which are, of course, obstacles to economic development. Measured by its very low gross national product (GDP) per capita ($ 7500 in 2017), Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. External debt was $ 9.5 billion in 2017. 39% (2017) of the population lives below the poverty line.

Due to the loss of many jobs in the various economic sectors, employment in the informal sector has increased enormously. A growing part of the population earns money from street trading, cleaning shoes, selling lottery tickets, exchanging money and driving a taxi with their own car

The main sectors are the trade, transport and services sector. Agriculture is lagging far behind. Officially 4% of the labor force is unemployed, but in fact this figure will be much higher due to hidden unemployment, especially in rural areas. It is hoped that economic growth will pick up through, among other things, a new pipeline for the export of gas to Brazil. Furthermore, new natural gas fields are still being discovered. Bolivia is heavily dependent on development aid.

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

Cocaleaf BoliviaCocaleaf BoliviaPhoto: Marcello Casal Jr./ABr CC 3.0 Brazil no changes made

About 20% of the land area is in principle suitable for arable farming, but only 3% of this is in use. In the eastern plains, especially around Santa Cruz, we find large-scale, industrial agricultural projects designed to promote exports. There, half a million hectares of soybeans, wheat, barley, corn, sunflowers, rice, sugar cane and cotton are grown. The climatic conditions are so good there thatyou could harvest twice. However, it is not yet possible to get this off the ground.

Much is produced for own use in the mountain areas and on the plateau. Whatever remains is traded or bartered. Important agricultural areas are: the Altiplano, (potatoes, quinoa, barley and beans), the Yungas, the northeastern slope of the Cordilleras (wheat, corn, bananas, vegetables, citrus, coffee, cocoa and coca), the eastern Llanos (sugar cane , cotton and rice) and the tropical rainforest (woods, rubber and cinchona bark).

From the 1970s onwards, the coca traditionally grown by Indians has become the main agricultural crop. To meet the traditional need, the cultivation of coca is permitted by the government. However, coca production exceeds domestic demand many times over. The surplus is used to make cocaine. Approx. 300,000 people make a living by growing coca. Illegal trade accounts for about half of total exports. Still, people are looking at other ways to grow the coca, e.g. as a medicinal product. Attempts are also being made to replace coca plantations with lucrative fruit plantations. Bolivia is receiving support from the United States to reduce the area of coca. Farmers who participate in this are financially compensated.

De landbouw staat over het algemeen technologisch op een laag peil en de sterke versnippering van het grondbezit, vooral op de Altiplano en in de dalen, vormt nog steeds een groot probleem. Bovendien staan de veelal gebrekkige transportmogelijkheden, de bodemerosie en de extreme weersomstandigheden een verdere ontwikkeling van de landbouw in de weg. Toch werkt in de landbouw ca. 30% van de beroepsbevolking.

Livestock farming is becoming increasingly important, especially dairy production in the Cochabamba area; furthermore, sheep, vicuñas and other camelids are kept on the Altiplano as pack animals and for wool. Cattle and pigs are mainly kept in the Llanos. The department of Beni takes the cake with some 1.3 million head of cattle. Most of the meat production is destined for the domestic market, especially for the big citiesn.

Forestry supplies hardwood, rubber and cinchona. Forests cover approximately 45% of the total land area. Fishing on Lake Titicaca and some other lakes and rivers makes a small contribution to the food supply. Sea fish is imported from Peru and Chile.


Cocaleaf BoliviaCocaleaf BoliviaPhoto: Martin St-Amant CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

Traditionally, mining was the basis of the Bolivian economy. Until 1979, Bolivia was the second largest tin producer in the world after Malaysia. From 1985 the world market price fell rapidly and tin production fell to a third. The obsolete Bolivian mines are no longer profitable due to their low productivity and the low tin content of the ore. The isolated location, the lack of a private harbor and the complicated extraction of minerals and minerals also meant that the extraction of silver and tin no longer paid off. Since 1985 many tin mines have been closed or privatized. In this case, privatization meant that a number of miners started working on their own account and thus thousands of small entrepreneurs emerged who started to extract tin, silver and gold. More than half of tin production comes from the mines south of Oruro; the Catavi mine near Llallagua is still the largest tin mine in the world.

Other important mineral resources are lead, zinc, copper, antimony, gold, silver, tungsten and bismuth. The state company COMIBOL, founded in 1952, exploited most of the deposits of other mineral ores in addition to the largest tin mines until the mid-1980s. Solid mineral exports are still the main source of foreign exchange. While mining is still the backbone of the Bolivian economy, only 5% of the workforce is mining.

There is also extraction of petroleum and natural gas. The main oil fields are in the area of Camiri and south of it to the border with Argentina. The state oil company YPFB has all oil extraction under its control. The main extraction site for natural gas is located at Yacuiba in southern Bolivia. Petroleum extraction has been greatly reduced in recent years due to depletion of reserves. The production is therefore hardly sufficient to meet domestic consumption. Natural gas extraction is more successful. Half of the annual production of is exported via pipelines to Argentina and Brazil. New large gas fields are still being discovered that will allow Bolivia to supply gas to Brazil for at least another 20 years.


The industry is still little developed, it is even the least developed in South America; most consumer durables must be imported. Through a coordinated industrial policy under the Andean Pact and through closer cooperation with Brazil, Bolivia is trying to offset the disadvantage of a small and poorly purchasing domestic market.

The main industrial activities are the food and beverage industry, smelters, metal industry and petroleum refineries. The main industrial centers are La Paz, Oruro, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. The rather large energy reserves in the form of hydropower are still underused. Two thirds of the energy is provided by hydroelectric power plants. Large parts of the country still have no connection to the mains.


Export BoliviaExport BoliviaPhoto: R Haussmann, Cesar Hidalgo, et. al. CC 3.0no changes made

The export consists mainly of raw materials and some agricultural products. The main products are natural gas (37% of the total export value), minerals (48%), wood (3.4%) and coffee (2.1%). The (illegal) export of coca is about the same as the total legal export. The main buyers are the United States (mainly tin and other metals), Argentina (mainly natural gas), Great Britain, Peru and Colombia, mainly from machinery and other capital goods, consumer durables, raw materials and semi-finished products. In 2017, $ 9.3 billion worth of goods were imported. The main import partners are the United States, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. The import and export of goods is largely done through the ports of Arica and Antofagasta in Chile, Mollendo-Matarani in Peru and La Quiaca on the Bolivian-Argentinian border.


Export BoliviaExport BoliviaPhoto: Public domain

Inadequate transport options are a major problem in Bolivia's development; in many parts of the country, traditional transport by mule or llama is often the only option. The rail network - operated by the state since 1964 - consists of two separate networks, almost 3800 km long, connecting to ports in Chile, Peru, Argentina and Brazil. The “highland system” is especially important for the transportation of ores to the Pacific coast; the “lowland system” is very important for the opening up of the Oriente, the tropical areas. To connect these two networks, 480 km of new railways would have to be built. Due to the outdated railway network, delays of more than 24 hours are no exception.

Only a quarter of the more than 41,000 km long road network can be used in all weather conditions. The main road links are the road from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz and the partially paved section of the Panamerican Highway, which runs to the border with Argentina. In the 1970s, many access roads were built in connection with the opening up of the tropical regions. There is also a very extensive network of bus services.

Bolivia was one of the first countries in Latin America where the plane became an important means of transport. The national airline Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB) provides more than 40% of the domestic flights. The remainder of the market is served by a series of small airlines. La Paz International Airport (El Alto) is the highest civilian airport in the world (4085 m). Santa Cruz also has an international airport.

Inland navigation on Lake Titicaca is important for the connection with Peru. About 14,000 km of navigable rivers connect the north and east of Bolivia with the Amazon. The main rivers are Madre de Dios, Beni, Mamoré, Guaporé, Pilcomayo and Desaguadero. Seaports are allowed to use Bolivia in Argentina and Peru. Pipelines are of great importance for the transportation of oil and natural gas.

Holidays and Sightseeing

Bolivia Pristine LandscapeBolivia Pristine LandscapePhoto: Guttorm Flatabø CC 2.0 Generic no changes made

Bolivia has not yet been discovered as a holiday destination by mass tourism, despite its beautiful nature with snowy mountains, rugged landscapes, vast savannah areas, swamps, volcanoes, geysers and tropical rainforests. Bolivia also has a largely authentic Indian population (especially of the Aymara and Quecha tribe) and beautiful historic cities. The costumes of the Bolivians are world famous, each province and even each valley has its own models and colors.

La Paz Bolivia La Paz BoliviaPhoto: Russland345 CC 4.0 International no changes made

The city of La Paz, located at an altitude of nearly 4000 meters, where the government resides, has many museums, churches (including the Nuestra Señora de la Paz cathedral built in 1835), the witch market (Mercado de Hechicería) with very special herbs, medicine men and ingredients to influence good and bad spirits, the flower market, the Maeca Negro, the highest ski lift and the highest ski resort in the world, Chacaltaya, and the remains of Tiwanaku (formerly Tiahuanaco). Tiwanaku was the capital of a powerful pre-Hispanic empire that peaked in 500-900. The Museo Nacional de Arquelogía shows the history of Bolivia on the basis of, among other things, a mummy collection and relics from the Tiwanaku culture. The Museo de la Coca is special, where the role of coca leaves in Bolivian culture is brought to the fore. Museo Nacional de Arte provides an overview of Bolivian art history.

Adventurous tourists can push their limits as they brave the descent of the northern Yungasweg (Most dangerous road in the world, El Camino de la Muerte, Death Road), which starts at an altitude of 4,700 meters and ends after five hours and 64 kilometers at an altitude of 1100 meters, and along dangerously deep precipices but also breathtaking views. For mountaineers, the three-day trek to the top of Huayna Potosí is a challenge. On the border of Bolivia and Peru is South America's second largest lake, Lake Titicaca. Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world (12,000 km2).

Potosi Bolivia Potosi BoliviaPhoto: Gerd Breitenbach CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

In the city of Potosí, said to be the highest city in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its history and well-preserved colonial architecture, one can descend into a silver mine.

Nature lovers can visit the Noel Kempff Merchado National Parks, located in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, Amboró and Madidi.

The legal capital of Bolivia, Sucre has an Old Town that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the best preserved Spanish colonial city in South America. The city has many white buildings that explain the nickname 'La Ciudad Blanca'. Worth to visit are the Santo Domingo Church, San Francisco Church, San Lázaro Church, La Recoleta Franciscan Monastery and Bolivar Park. Interesting museums in the capital include the Museum of Modern Art, the anthropological museum Museo Antropológico, which contains hundreds of pieces and artifacts from the period 1200 BC. until the 15th century, and Museo Textil Etnográfico ASUR, with many traditional Bolivian clothing.

Every Sunday, the city of Tarabuco hosts one of the most colorful markets in all of South America.

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Bijl, Y. van der / Reishandboek Bolivia

Lindert, P. van / Bolivia : mensen, politiek, economie, cultuur

Schimmel, K. / Bolivia
Chelsea House Publishers

Sprey, J. / Bolivia

Te gast in Bolivia
Informatie Verre Reizen

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated December 2021
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