Bolivia, South America

First Impressions in Bolivia

I arrived in Bolivia a short 5 days ago following a mildly hectic border crossing experience from Perú.  In that time, I’ve seen the quaint little town of Copacabana situated on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca, the major tourist attraction of Copacabana, Isla del Sol, a bit of countryside and the administrative capital, La Paz (the Supreme Court still convenes in the city of Sucre, making it the official judicial capital).

Lately I’ve been taking it easy in terms of tourism, instead just enjoying getting to know the country by cruising around on foot, chatting with locals and observing my surroundings.  Here are a few things I’ve noticed so far…

1) Bolivia bears several striking similarities to Southeast Asia

  • a) It’s cheap – Accomodation can run you as little as 25 Bolivianos per night (as was the case in Copacabana- that’s the equivalent of $3.62 USD) for something really bare bones, or for a typical hostel setup including Wifi, a bar, free breakfast etc, you might pay something more like 59 Bolivianos, which is still only about $8.50 USD.  Food is more affordable than any other South American country I’ve visited so far as well.  Street food especially (3 Bolivianos for an empanada or salteña, maybe 10 for a steak sandwich with loads of toppings) but in restaurants as well…while wandering near the city center the other day, we paid 12 Bolivianos ($1.74) for a set lunch including bread, soup, a main course and a dessert.  Not exactly as cheap as my favorite 30 baht ($1) pad thai in Chiang Mai, but damn good value anyway.
  • b) Waste management is not a priority – This was most obvious in Cambodia, which makes sense given the country’s tumultuous recent history.  Trash sometimes completely filled roadside ditches and locals could often be seen ditching things carelessly as they strolled down the street.  The same has proven true so far here in Bolivia; I was quite saddened to see the shores of Lake Titicaca treated as a dumping ground, but waste receptacles are indeed hard to come by.
  • c) Poor electrical wiring has been taken to terrifying new levels – This time it’s not just the seemingly tactless wiring throughout the city (see photo below)- electrically heated showers (an electrical wire is wrapped around the pipe leading to the shower head and water is heated on the spot just before it hits you) have been known to host exposed wires and even sometimes deliver an electric shock mid-shower…this hasn’t been the case for me yet, but I’m frightened nonetheless- there are few things I hate more than a cold shower, except maybe being electrocuted by a hot one.

2) It’s hard to breathe in this country – At an average altitude of 3,800 meters, La Paz is the highest city I’ve visited yet, and it doesn’t help that the city center is San Francisco-style hilly.  I don’t mind hoofing it around in a new place, but it’s putting my lungs to the test.  The landscape has so far proven breathtaking as well…the 3 peaks of Illimani mountain that overlook the city are spectacular.

3) The people are lovely – I made the mistake of reading my Lonely Planet a little too carefully on my way into La Paz.  The chapter on Bolivia is peppered with accounts of all kinds of scams the locals have been known to run on unsuspecting travelers, and while I think it’s good to be aware such things exist, it made me a bit paranoid on my first night in the big city.  I clutched my bag closely and left all my valuables in the hostel, and even though I ventured out in a group, my guard was up more than it has been in quite some time.  So far I’ve only been pleasantly surprised–the cab drivers are chatty, strangers on the street are helpful, I haven’t even been hit on by creepy old men during my wandering!  Winning all around.

Hiking up to the town's viewpoint in Copacabana, Bolivia

A free activity in Copacabana, hiking up to the town’s viewpoint

La Paz, Bolivia

The view that took my breath away, first view of La Paz from the bus

Microbus in La Paz, Bolivia

Affordable transportation in La Paz- these colorful microbuses run routes all over the city

La Paz, Bolivia

This makes Asia look GOOD

Bolivia made a decent first impression on me.  What do you notice first when you arrive in a new country?

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