13 Surefire Ways To Tell Whether Or Not You’re In Bolivia…

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Backpacking around the world can be disorientating at the best of times. With so much excitement going on, it’s easy to lose track of the time, date or even country that you’re in.

Cholita wrestling

If you ever wake up in the middle of the night wondering where the hell you are, use this handy guide to find out whether or not you’re in Bolivia…

1. In Bolivia, there are signs like this to welcome tourists…

Crime against tourists is no higher in Bolivia than anywhere else in South America, but it’s nice to know they care about your welfare. Welcome to Bolivia

2. In Bolivia, coca is king…

As well as being the key ingredient in cocaine, coca leaves are also used in tea, sweets, ice creams, cakes and chewed raw throughout Bolivia. Wherever you go in the country there are locals with hamster-like pouches of coca leaves stuffed between their cheeks. Coca leaves

Coca leaves are legal to cultivate and sell in Chile, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia but only in Bolivia is coca truly engrained in the national fabric.

Coca sweets Bolivia’s current President Evo Morales rose to power as a cocalero activist and union leader. As Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, one of his first acts in office was to suggest expanding the amount of land available to indigenous coca farmers in specially designated agricultural zones of the Yungas and Chapare regions.

Evo loves coca

In 2009 a referendum was successfully held to amend the Bolivian constitution to oblige the state to “protect native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony, a renewable natural resource of Bolivia’s biodiversity, and as a factor of social cohesion.”

Cocaine, the highly processed product derived from coca, of course remains illegal in Bolivia. Rampant corruption is widespread amongst public officials here – bars selling cocaine can be found dotted all over La Paz.

Cocaine bars are most frequented by backpackers, so I am told. Coca tea

The practise of trying to eradicate coca production outside Bolivia’s specially designated agricultural zones has been ongoing since the early 1980s. It was perhaps a surprise to all concerned that Evo Morales’s government set a national annual record of clearing 11,000 hectares of coca crops in 2011.

Still, efforts to stamp out or regulate coca production in Bolivia are likely to remain fruitless for the foreseeable future. The world’s former top coca producer Columbia has been in steady decline since the beginning of the millennium due to a heavy government crackdown and a surprise downturn in consumption from its main customer, the USA. Since then Bolivia and Peru have overtaken Columbia due to an increase in consumption from their main customers, Europe.Quechuan dude

The many uses of coca leaves also includes altitude sickness remedy. When my girlfriend and I were retching at 3,600 metres above sea level on a tour of Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flats, we had the perfect excuse to get high. Our tour guide introduced us to coca tea. The taste was like a less pungent green tea, quite refreshing, with an after buzz like a strong cup of coffee.

Coca tea

When all the hot water for the tea was gone, my girlfriend and I still had coca leaves left over. I shoved them in to my hamster pouch and chewed. It was a bit like munching on a house plant – earthy, soily and dry. I could not tell whether the altitude sickness relieving properties of coca leaves were meant to be in its chemical makeup or in the distracting nature of its foul and bitter taste and texture.

3. In Bolivia, there is typhoid, cholera, dysentery, salmonella, anthrax, tuberculosis…

In Bolivia, roadside snacks often look like this…

Flies on toffee apples

Flies are seemingly no deterrent to the average Bolivian snack buyer. With the array of sugary sweets, fruit salads and milkshakes on offer at almost every street corner, it is perhaps no surprise that flies thrive here.

With flies comes diseases, hence why my girlfriend and I were not the first backpackers ever to have been struck down by gastroenteritis whilst travelling through Bolivia.

4. In Bolivia, there are no straight roads…

The sheer and unforgiving landscape of Bolivia makes for a treacherous land to travel through.

Windy roads

When riding on long distance buses between cities in Bolivia, hairpin turns are encountered roughly once every 50 metres. Tarmac and crash barriers should be regarded as rarities for which you are grateful. If you are a backpacker, expect this to considerably exacerbate your gastroenteritis.

5. In Bolivia, pubs and bars do not smell of body odour or urine…

Despite being the poorest country in South America, Bolivia is a world leader in bar-room etiquette. For tourists, the sweet smell of tobacco wafting through pubs provides a gentle reminder of better times in their country of origin.

Alongside Guyana, Bolivia is the only country in South America to still allow smoking in public places.

Indoor smoking

Asking someone not to smoke in Bolivia is considered rude and imposing. If you light up a cigarette, it is considered discourteous to not offer cigarettes to those around you. Cigarettes are stocked on shelves in supermarkets, as you line up for the till, between the chewing gum and sweeties.

6. In Bolivia, there is very little recycling…

Effective waste disposal is not high on most people’s lists of priorities in Bolivia. Instead the answer is usually to chuck it in the nearest field, leaving a mile wide solid ring of rubbish surrounding most towns and cities.

Bolivian rubbish

7. In Bolivia, there are needlessly hot chicks on billboards…

Sex sells. This is true in Bolivia too. We’re all used to seeing hot chicks being used to advertise beer and car and sports brands back home – in Bolivia it’s not unusual to see scantily clad women on billboards for just about any kind of product. Here’s a billboard advertising a ceramics company based in the city of Potosi…

Hot chick advertising ceramics

This billboard is advertising tools in Sucre…

Hot chicks advertising tools

This cardboard cutout of a lady is trying to sell you paint in La Paz…

Bolivia blog-69

This last photo is a flyer for Ricoh printers spotted in a newsagents. Unfortunately, my camera didn’t focus properly when I was taking the shot, but trust me, it was pretty darned saucy…

Hot chick advertising Ricoh printers

As well as hot chicks, there are also many billboards in Bolivia featuring President Evo Morales. This billboard reminds us that Evo nationalised Bolivia’s natural gas resources…

Evo nationalised the gas

The hard hat and flower garland look is a recurring theme in billboards featuring Evo…

Evo in a hard hat and flower garland

Evo is everywhere in Bolivia…

Another Evo Morales billboard

8. In Bolivia, there are bad ass chicks in bowler hats…

The word ‘cholita’ has historical roots as the derisory term for the indigenous Quechua and Aymara women of Bolivia and Peru. However, when used in a complimentary context (such as “Hey, check out that fine ass cholita!” or “Woah! That cholita kicks more ass than Chuck Norris!”) then ‘cholita’ can also be used as a term of affection.


The ubiquitous cholita get up consists of a high-waisted petticoat designed to emphasise the size of the wearer’s posterior, a flowery/stripy shawl draped over the shoulders, big earrings and long pigtails – an adaptation from the uniform enforced by Spanish colonists to suppress the native population’s ‘subversive’ tendencies.

Cholita dolls

Bowler hats were added to the cholita outfit in the 1920s when a shipment of headwear was ordered for the British workers on the Bolivian railways. Noting that bowler hats were useless for the purpose of building a railroad, the Brits instead distributed said headwear amongst the locals.

Cholitas are as commonplace in Peru as they are in Bolivia, but only in Bolivia can they be seen wrestling…

Cholita wrestling

My girlfriend and I bought tickets to see cholita wrestling whilst in El Alto, La Paz. The format was not entirely dissimilar to the kind of wrestling most commonly associated with Hulk Hogan et al, only it takes place in a dusty warehouse and on a thousandth of the budget.

Cholita wrestling

They body slammed and suplexed their way through the evening whilst we sat eating popcorn and drinking beer on the sidelines.

On one side of the room were the Bolivian fans sitting on concrete steps. Somewhat animated, they screamed and threw food at the contestants whenever events took a turn for the unsavoury. On the other side of the room was us tourists, sat on body moulded plastic seats, taking as many pictures as possible with our big posh cameras. And the crowd goes wild!

Bolivia has not been kind to its cholitas in the past. Until recent years they were banned from La Paz’s central square, many restaurants and even public buses. Domestic violence is high and the bulk of women make their living by working in soul destroying manual jobs or by selling tat on street corners.

Working cholitas

But today, conditions are on the up for the cholita. El Presidente Evo Morales has filled half of his political cabinet with women – cholita university students, lawyers, bankers and TV presenters are more commonplace – cholita chic has even become trendy on the domestic fashion scene.

Cholita wrestling is (in theory) one manifestation of the improving situation. In the four bouts we saw, one ended when male wrestlers dived in to the ring to save the hapless heroine…

Male wrestler rescues cholita wrestler

In another, male wrestlers dived in to the ring to beat up all the women…

Male wrestlers vs cholita wrestlers

Next, a haggard old witch with a limp triumphed over a mysterious masked battleaxe…

Cholita wrestling

In the last round, the fat wrestler named Chancho (meaning ‘Pig Meat’ – her signature move involved squealing like a pig) was deprived of certain victory over her cholita-next-door-esque opponent after a used nappy was thrown in her face…

Cholita wrestlers hit the floor

9. In Bolivia, there are dried llama foetuses…

Bolivian construction workers are a superstitious bunch. When new houses are built, sacred offerings are made to the goddess Pachamama, Pachamama’s favourite thing in the whole world is dried llama foetuses…

Dried llama foetuses

Dried llama foetuses are available on sale in witches markets throughout Bolivia. One foetus will be underneath the foundations of each corner of a new home. The bigger the home, the bigger the foetus required. These foetuses would probably be adequate for a semi-detached with adjoining garage in Croydon…

Dried llamas

10. In Bolivia, quinoa is not just the preserve of rich Waitrose shoppers…

Quinoa is everywhere in Bolivia. It is a traditional crop of the poor, usually eaten like couscous. It can also be used in soups, salads, cakes, ice creams, chocolates or fermented in to beer.

Quinoa beer

People here buy it by the sackload…


Ironically, demand for quinoa in the western world as a ‘super food’ has pushed up the price, making it unaffordable for the lowest income Bolivians.

Fields on quinoa

Just like the quinoa on sale in Waitrose in the UK, quinoa in Bolivia also tastes of poverty and misery.

11. In Bolivia, Ferraris look like this…

Bolivian Ferrari

Car customisation is big business in Bolivia. Throughout our two and a half week journey through Bolivia we saw only a handful of factory spec vehicles on the roads. But rather than tinker with the engine or add a big spoiler, cosmetic modifications are the limit for most Bolivian car owners.

Taxi drivers are the main offenders. The brighter and more garish your car, the more likely you are to pick up passengers, so the theory goes.

Inside a Bolivian taxi

Services offered by the taxi such as ‘Comfort’ or ‘Style’ or ‘Airport Pickup’ can be found written on the doors and above the windscreen in up to five separate fonts. Boy racer neon lights sit under the chassis and wheel arches reassuringly. Inside, wire frame seats are popular. Seat belts are a western luxury almost never encountered.

Local buses too are subjected to makeovers. As each bus is owned by the driver, it is up to him (and it is almost always a ‘him’) to decide how best to deck it out. This candystripe look was especially in vogue in Cochabamba…

Bolivian bus

In Sucre, the roads were utterly congested with used Japanese school buses…

Japanese bus in Bolivia

The most extreme vehicle makeovers we witnessed on our travels through Bolivia was outside the Basillica of Our Lady of Copacabana in Lake Titicaca. Here, Bolivians queued for hours to have their car blessed by monks in a ceremony called ‘Cha’lla’.


This curious mixture of Catholic and prehispanic tradition usually only happens around festival season. The cars are adorned with flowers, streamers and (in some cases) hats. Monks throw petals and holy water all over.

A car is blessed

A quick prayer for good mileage and smooth gear changes is said and then the car is sprayed with coca-cola, beer or fake champagne (budget dependent). Finally, a family photo is taken and the monks move on to the next car.

Blessing the drivers

It was a bizarre ritual to behold, and probably less effective than an annual service and MOT. For the rest of the day we saw sticky cars covered in wilting petals parading around town.

12. In Bolivia, anything can be sold on a bus…

It’s impossible to board a bus in Bolivia without someone trying to sell you something. Every time a bus stops, half a dozen vendors board, usually offering chicken or ice cream or crisps or jelly or drinks or boiled corn…

Bus vendors

Our favourite vendors were the snake oil salesmen. Usually they would board between small towns, ranting and raving about their potion’s magical properties like an evangelical preacher. Snake oil sales pitches often lasted over an hour…

Snake oil salesman

This powder (to be consumed three times a day) relieves the menopause, fights cancer, helps rheumatism and restores sexual potency…

Snake oil

This liquid (to be drank twice a day) also relieves the menopause, cures osteoporosis, reduces stomach acid and aids erectile dysfunction…

Snake oil


13. In Bolivia, there is no coastline…

This is what Bolivia’s navy looks like…

Bolivia's navy

As one of only two South American landlocked countries, you’d be forgiven for wondering why Bolivia ever bothered putting men with guns in boats in the first place. What’s the use in spending on sea defence if you have no sea around you?

It wasn’t always like this. When Bolivia declared independence from the colonial Spanish in 1825, it had three options – become part of Peru, become part of Argentina or become a separate nation . Since then it has lost over half of its original territory.

First to go was the rubber plant rich territory of Acre in Bolivia’s north. It was traded in 1867 by tinpot dictator President Mariano Melgajero in exchange for the visiting Brazilian ambassador’s ‘magnificent white horse.’

The province of Litoral (modern day Antofagasta), was lost to Chile in the Guano War of 1879 to 1884, and with it, Bolivia’s access to the coast.

Punting on Lake Titicaca

A further chunk of its southern border was lost to Argentina in 1889 in exchange for the Argentines renouncing their claims on the province of Tarija.

Finally, 50,000 square kilometres of the Gran Chaco desert was ceded in a 1932 to 1935 war with Paraguay. Bolivia

189 years on, it makes you wonder whether Bolivia’s founding fathers made the right choice to go it alone. The result is crippling export taxes for this resource rich nation, hence why desperate poverty is so widespread.

To this date, Bolivia still has no diplomatic relations with Chile. It is antagonism towards the Chileans that sparked the Bolivian Gas Crisis of 2002 to 2005 – that led to the ousting of four presidents in three years and the eventual election of Evo Morales.

El Presidente Evo Morales

Bolivia’s landlocked status is a sore point on home soil. Every year on 23rd March Bolivians celebrate the Day Of The Sea, where the navy in full regalia march through La Paz, accompanied by members of the public in model boats.

Sunset over Lake Titicaca

The rest of the time, Bolivia’s teenage-looking navy is based at Lake Titicaca – a stretch of water shared with Peru, a country that Bolivia has only ever been at war with once, as an ally against Chile.