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2013 and earlier

Bolivia: a beginner's guide

Bolivia’s history is about silver and sea views.

The sometime southern half of the Inca heartland was renamed Alto Perú – Upper Peru – by the Spaniards in 1538. Home to the Cerro Rico mine at Potosí, it was one of the main sources of silver, which was mined to help the Spanish crown pay off its debts. On July 16 1809, Pedro Domingo Murillo led a revolt by Creoles and mestizos (those of mixed ancestry) in La Paz and proclaimed an independent state, but royalist forces were only finally overcome in 1824, at the Battle of Ayacucho. Following later wars with Paraguay and Chile, Bolivia lost part of its eastern lowlands and, more problematically, access to the sea, which has hindered it ever since. Bolivia is still one of Latin America's poorest nations.

Top five attractions 

  • Colonial Potosí and its silver mine in the Cerro Rico – and the local mint is one of South America’s best museums.
  • The Star Wars landscapes of the Uyuni salt flats, best explored by 4WD.
  • The islands of Lake Titicaca.
  • Las Yungas, a transitional zone between the high plain and Amazonia, where there are pockets of Afro-Bolivian culture.
  • The Unesco-listed archaeological site at Tiwanaku, home to an important precursor of the Inca civilisation.
Best city 
It’s not pretty, but the capital, La Paz, is bustling, vibrant and breathtaking (in all senses) with the colossal Illimani mountain as its backdrop.

Souvenir to buy 
A garishly coloured pinhead-shaped wool hat with earflaps and a repetitive llama pattern.

Quirky Bolivia 
It is customary for tourists to give miners in the Cerro Rico gifts of cigarettes (including a lighted cigarette for the devil-spirit of the mines) and dynamite.

Read 

‘Marching Powder' by Rusty Young – the story of Thomas McFadden, a small-time British drug smuggler arrested in Bolivia and thrown into San Pedro prison.

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