With its rugged, untouched beauty, a living pre-Inca culture and hundreds of years of colonial history, Bolivia is one of South America’s most intriguing – and perhaps most misunderstood – nations. From street food and local markets to colorful festivals and Pachamama rituals, here are just some of the ways to delve deeper into the Bolivian way of life during your visit.
Offering a unique glimpse into the lives of local people, a homestay is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a new culture. From tasting traditional home cooking to joining a relative’s birthday celebration, staying with a Bolivian family will not only give you a whole new perspective on the country, it will also be the perfect opportunity to practice your language skills. If you’re looking for Bolivia’s most authentic homestays, the Andean region is the best place to go. Here, you’ll likely learn how to cook over a wood-fired stove, how to herd a pack of llamas and how to weave using the ancient backstrap loom. Homestays can be organized through most language schools or volunteer organizations.
Speaking of volunteer organizations, offering your time to local projects is another way to explore Bolivia on a deeper level. Whether you’re looking to teach English to primary school children, help out at a dog shelter or get take part in an Amazon conservation project, Bolivia has plenty of volunteering opportunities, most of which run from La Paz, Sucre, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Tarija.
As in any Latin American country, the street food scene in Bolivia is not only where you’ll find your best meal, it’s also where you’ll get a true taste of everyday Bolivian life. Whether you’re in the bustling city of La Paz or the tiny lakeside town of Copacabana, grab a few bolivianos and head straight to the nearest street food vendor before doing anything else. Don’t leave without trying salteñas, buñuelos and pasankallas.
You may have done plenty of guided tours around a local market, but have you ever done your grocery shopping in one? It’s one thing visiting, taking photos and browsing the stands, but actually buying produce and interacting with the vendors is a great way to get involved in everyday Bolivian life. In La Paz’s popular (and huge) Mercado 16 de Julio, for example, you can easily spend a morning picking your way through exotic fruits, multicolored quinoa, Andean cheeses and thousands of potato and corn varieties. Take a bag and a few bolivianos and get stuck in!
If there’s something Bolivians know how to do expertly well, it’s throwing a party – and what better way to get to know a place than by attending one of its biggest celebrations? There are tons of religious and cultural festivals, pilgrimages and parades throughout the year, up and down the country. Before you plan your itinerary, do a quick search online to check Bolivia’s calendar of events, and, if you can, time it so that you get to experience at least one of the big local celebrations. Carnaval, a four-day street parade that features elaborate masks, 150 marching bands and thousands of colorfully dressed dancers, is well worth a visit.
In Andean culture, Pachamama – meaning Mother Earth in the ancient Quechua language – has been revered as the world’s fertility goddess for hundreds of years. To give back to Mother Earth, the people of Bolivia’s Andean region (as well as in Peru, Equador and Colombia) often perform ceremonial rituals, where local shamans bless and burn packages of coca leaves, incense, dried Amazonian flowers or maybe even a llama fetus. Taking part in a Pachamama ritual is easily organized through an Andean homestay and will provide a rare and fascinating insight into a culture that has gone unchanged for more than 500 years.
While it is possible to get around Bolivia with limited Spanish (it is known, after all, for having the easiest-to-understand Spanish of all the South American countries), there’s no doubt that speaking the lingo is one of the most powerful tools you’ll have for immersive travel in the country. It not only allows you to communicate easier, but it also gives you the confidence to get off the beaten track, travel independently and make a more meaningful connection with locals. You’ll find the best Spanish language schools, offering anything from one-off taster classes to intensive six-month courses, in La Paz and Sucre.