One of the few countries with a majority Native American population, Bolivia is a landlocked country situated between Brazil, Chile, Peru, Paraguay, and Argentina. Its isolated location among the Andes mountains has earned it the nickname “the Tibet of the Americas”.
Bolivia was originally known as Upper Peru during the colonial period, when its silver deposits made it a valuable possession of the Spanish Empire. The country gained its name from Simón Bolivar, the revolutionary leader who liberated much of South America from Spain, including Bolivia. The 19th century was marked by a series of border wars with its neighbors, and despite increasing prosperity from trade in the early 1900s, poor living conditions among Bolivian natives became a source of political instability. Several coups d’état took place during the 20th century, fueled by labor disputes, government corruption, and problems dealing with illegal coca production.
Although rich in natural resources, including tin, silver, and natural gas, Bolivia’s economy is one of the poorest in South America and is heavily dependent on foreign assistance. The country was severely damaged by the drop in tin prices in the 1980s and a withdrawal of aid following the end of the Cold War, and is consistently impeded by lack of development and governmental stability. Nevertheless, it exhibits great long-term potential, with South America’s second largest natural gas reserves and an export-driven mining industry. Membership in the Andes Community provides a favorable environment for the development of investment and international trade. Although hampered by the absence of necessary infrastructure and accommodations comparable to those found in other countries, tourism has grown slowly in the past 15 years. With Bolivia’s vast wealth of natural beauty and unique blend of cultures, this could become a major industry in the future, and now attracts a few thousand visitors per year, mostly of the rugged, ecotourist type.
Bolivia once experienced significant immigration, and communities of the descendants of emigrants from Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, and Japan are still found in the country. Today, however, the migration rate is low. Most expatriates who visit Bolivia do so to experience its vibrant indigenous culture and breathtaking scenery, and low prices make it easy to save up enough for an extended stay. Volunteering with one of the many development and environmental organizations in Bolivia is a great way to participate in your host country’s community. Bolivia is also becoming an attractive destination for international Spanish students, owing to the easy-to-understand local accent, and there are a variety of quality language programs available.
Bolivia’s official languages are Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. Quechua, once the language of the Inca Empire, is spoken in the Andes region, alongside Spanish; it is the most widely spoken indigenous American language today. Aymara is common in eastern Bolivia. A fourth language, Guaraní, is spoken in the southeast. There are around 30 minority languages that are co-official at the local level; Spanish fluency is rare in rural areas, so make sure to learn a few phrases in the local language before venturing outside the city.