The World Economic Forum says Bolivia is the world's unfriendliest country. Melanie Stern shares her five reasons why the intrepid should ignore and get there pronto
The World Economic Forum's 2013 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report put Bolivia first in a list of ten countries it deemed the least friendly for visitors. In the category “attitude of population towards visitors” Bolivia ranked top of the least friendliest nations after Venezuela, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, among others.
I'm sure intrepid travellers thought two things in response: that sounds odd, and why don't I see for myself? Bolivian people are definitely friendly – they are curious about visitors, eager to help you get the best out of their country and they want you to leave happy.
Bolivia is emerging strongly from a long history of post-colonialism and neo-liberal economics, and its infrastructure is adequate for the needs of keen travellers. Part of the fun of experiencing a nation in Bolivia's phase of development is negotiating a new culture and can be readily navigated by anyone with common sense.
Most people who spend time in Bolivia don't forget it in a hurry, and they come away with new friends and an enriched view of the world. Follow the bumpy roads, the frigid plains, eat where the locals eat, and you'll be duly rewarded.
Here are five reasons why you should get to Bolivia now.
Any UK resident who commutes to work by train can forget the gnawing rage of exorbitant prices for late, cancelled, dirty and overcrowded trains. Bolivia's train network is tiny – most of the network has fallen into disuse because the bus network is so vast and convenient – dirt cheap, squeaky clean and takes you through two completely different, dramatic landscapes. The seats are well padded, recline a little, the toilet is clean and stocked with paper (more than can often be said for the UK's local trains).
One trip visitors should enjoy: going north from Tupiza (the stopping off point to horse-ride in the lonely, ferrous quebrada where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are said to have made their last stand), take the train to Uyuni, the town where tours across the famous salt plains begin. The train leaves around 6.30pm arriving in Uyuni around midnight. The benefit of an evening train in is that, amid the endless lunar-like, uninhabited landscape, the unimpeachable darkness draws your eyes upward. You're rewarded with an incredible soot-and-diamonds skyscape.
Bring a blanket for the ride (buy a good fleece in the market at Tupiza, and treat yourself to a polar jacket while you're at it; they're dirt cheap and very useful in high-altitude Bolivia). Then cosy up and keep taking in the big chunk of star-gazing that this train trip affords you.
If you've heard anything about Bolivia, you've heard that it's poor. You equate poor with lack of food, or decent food. But that's not true in Bolivia where market food stalls are an unmissable part of a visitor's experience. Take the salteña, Bolivia's answer to the pasty (and incomparably tastier). It's a palm-sized, American football-shaped baked pastry shell consisting of boiled egg, perhaps some chicken or beef, chillies, maybe an olive or two, garlic, onion, sugar and spices,and parsley. Grab a handful of serviettes with your purchase; part of the experience is that the juice inside the shell runs down your hand as you munch. After a few goes, you'll master it.
La Cancha market in Cochabamba, a city that marches on its stomach, is good for a tasting trip. Try silpancho, meat schnitzel with rice, fried plantain, onion and beet salad and a lively picante sauce. Wander through the vegetable market taking in all the colours and varieties of the freshest produce that you just don't find in even the biggest supermarkets.
If you're up for a beer made from corn fermented by human chewing, get your hands on some chicha – it's a traditional beer but has an acquired taste!
Travelling to a poor country, you might be inclined to get your good on. There are many volunteering and gap-year companies operating in Bolivia, as well as lots of NGOs. These are a good way into volunteering in Bolivia: and you’ll come away with new skills and a wealth of experiences.
Want to build an eco-farm for local Chapare residents as an alternative to the cocaine trade? Want to see inside Bolivia’s health system and lend your expertise? Want to work with animals that only exist in this part of the world? Bolivia does it.
While you’re volunteering, you’ll work with local people, and regardless of your level of Spanish, you’ll be taken under-wing. You’ll eat together, party together, hear about real life there for better or worse, learn how to swear in perhaps several indigenous languages, and get golden tips on travelling onwards to places the usual tourists will miss.
Bolivians are well aware that their world and your world are very different; ask them the questions about Bolivian life and politics, and get under the skin of society. If you choose to live with a local family (which many volunteering companies organise), double all of that and throw in a lifelong friendship. Bolivian families are protective. If you’re young and female, do all the things you want to do, but phone your host and let them know you’re going to be out late. Even if you’re in your 30s. They’ll sit home worrying otherwise, because while you’re with them, you’re part of the family. You’re no hostel guest – they want to spend time with you.
So many tourists only pass through Bolivia for a couple of days, on their way to Peru or elsewhere. The intrepid should extend their stay and jump on a bus to see a bit more. Most Bolivians use the bus network to travel the country and the wider Latin American region. With such incredible biodiversity, and such diverse ways of living (houses on sticks in the rainforest, self-built apartments on the city limits, crumbling colonial outposts in the ancient cities and in the Eastern missions area, gated and guarded villa-style mansions for the few wealthy), bussing it doubles up the travel-learning experience.
Each city has a big bus terminal with all the bus companies selling tickets from little offices next to one another: visit a few to ask how much they charge (ida is one way, ida y vuelta is a return), and ask to see the bus if you want to know what you’re getting into.
Trips may be several hours or they may be overnight, or all day. On smaller routes going through villages and isolated areas, you can expect to travel alongside campesina (indigenous) women in pollera and pigails, transporting anything from chickens to potatoes or clothes for sale in the markets, other foreigners, and locals of all persuasions. The ladies selling snacks will be there if your bus is an overnight one.
Enjoy the scenery, the hairpin bends and the craggy mountain passes, or the steamy cloud forest climbs, as well as long tracts of Inca road or Spanish colonial pebble dash that make the bus rumble. Take your polar coat, a big bottle of water, some biscuits, your iPod, a little torch and some toilet roll (toilet stops on the way won’t stock it).
Any bus traveller coming into La Paz at first light will be open-mouthed at the sight, as the bus begins to descend from the mountains into the valley of El Alto, the sheer scale and steepness hits you in the face, millions of tiny houses battling gravity to cling to the mountainside, and a million lights blinking with promise.
More locally, Bolivian city transport relies on colectivos (shared taxis) and micros (minibuses) – always have a few Bolivianos in change handy to pay, and have your camera ready to take snaps of the carnival-styled micros that look more like they're ready to cart diablada dancers. The designated stops micros have are known to locals but not marked on the road; to ask a driver to stop you need to holler 'en la esquina, por favor!' (the corner, please!) to them in enough time for them to stop. It's not always a corner they're stopping at, but that's a catch-all term for a stop. Be loud or be unheard.
The city of Potosi in Bolivia’s south (the world's highest city at 4,000 metres above sea level) might at first seem quite depressing, but it's a must-do if you want to understand more about Bolivia's people and history. A roughshod, down-at-heel little town at first sight, Potosi was the centre of the Spanish empire for 500 years because a little mountain there, cerro rico, continuously produced enough silver to bankroll the expansion of Spanish power across the continent and to Asia.
Today, old churches are the lone representatives of the grandiosity and wealth that characterised the colonial city. You can enter the mines in cerro rico (still in operation) with a guide who is a former miner and a local, who can bring to life the story of the mine and the ruinous legacy for the Bolivian and indigenous people making up the mining community – as well as for the Bolivian national personality. In the centre of town is the Casa de La Moneda, the site of the old colonial mint, now a museum for the mint's original technologies and for an incredible collection of colonial religious art which, interpreted by a guide, complements your understanding of how silver and Catholicism refashioned Bolivian society.
The main market in Potosi might freak you out: butcher women hang man-sized slabs of meat over flaking, high beams of wood, no sanitation equipment to be seen. But don't miss a chance to have lunch in the market – try the broth, a sort of minestrone with jumbo-sized pasta or loaded up with quinoa. Bolivians may lack the finer things, but they know how to use spices and flavour to perk up any food, and they're always pleased to see visitors are willing to judge them not by home standards, but by their own unique riches.Melanie Stern is a business journalist and is currently completing a Master's degree in Latin American studies at University College London, focused on Bolivia. You can read more of her reporting on Bolivia at her blog, melstern.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @melvstern.