Republic of Bolivia


Bolivia has three official languages: Spanish, spoken by 60 per cent of the population, Quechua, the Incas' language, and Aymar, a pre-Inca language.


7.5 million.


425,000 square miles. Belgium would fit into it 36 times.


Estimated to have been constructed around 700AD, the Tiahuanaco ceremonial centre on Lake Titicaca was once home to up to 20,000 citizens, and represents the greatest architectural achievement of pre-Inca South America.


Meat dominates. Starting with soup the meal is usually accompanied by rice and potatoes. Meat-filled pies (humitas), meat turnovers (saltenas) and freeze-dried potatoes used in soups or porridge (chuno) are all common dishes. Llama meat is one for the curious, while pork is a local delicacy - a favourite being lechon al homo (young roast pig served with sweet potato and fried plantains).


Despite its sub-tropical location, varying altitudes make for variable climates, ranging from humidity to freezing winds. Overall the climate is temperate and even in the humid forests of the north the temperature can fall below zero.


Having had a little too much to drink, Bolivia's eccentric and cruel leader General Mariano Melgarejo, ruler between 1865 and 1871, set off on an overland march to aid France during the Franco-Prussian War. A downpour sobered him up and the project was abandoned. The banishment of the British ambassador was another of the leader's misdemeanours - force-fed chocolate and strapped naked to a mule the poor man was exiled for not drinking enough beer.


Bolivia gained its nationhood in 1825 in the wake of the South American independence movement that had taken hold of the continent in the first quarter of the century. General Simon Bolivar had already been instrumental in liberating Venezuela, Colombia and Peru from Spanish rule - he gave his name to the country and became its first president.


The War of the Pacific against Chile between 1879 and 1884 saw Bolivia lose its only access to the sea, as well as the copper and nitrate-rich sands of the Atacama desert. This has never been forgotten by Bolivians who continue to see it as a cause of underdevelopment. From a nation of well over 2m sq km at the time of independence in 1809, this territory loss has more than halved its size.


Besides a wind-proof jacket, a hair- cut and respectable clothes for the more shabby-looking are recommended to avoid being type-cast as a drug dealer or carrier. A knowledge of Spanish is also useful.


Bolivia is generally a safe and friendly country to visit, but finding yourself in the vicinity of a cocaine processing laboratory is not a good option. White skin can lead to the assumption that you are working for the CIA or DEA, whose presence is not welcomed by cocaine barons.

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