Bolivia: the mad wrapup
What can I say? A mad country deserves a mad wrapup. Bolivia has been a hectic month of much adventure, much frustration, much laughter, and much excitement. In some ways, Bolivia has been very much what I expected it to be; but in most ways, it's been quite a lot more than I ever could have anticipated. It's a land where nothing works; and where anything that does work, works in a way that defies all logic. It's a land where everything is cheap; but where you're still getting ripped off at every turn. And it's a land where, if you can see the funny side of things, rather than just getting angry at them, you can have an absolute blast. I can see why everyone's heading to Bolivia these days.
Sorry, but I really have to get this bad egg out of the way first. Bolivia has yet to discover the magical invention that is "the sealed road". Or the miracle that is "a comfortable and non-stop bus". When you go to Bolivia, you really should be prepared for atrocious roads, even between most major cities. They're just bumpy all the gawdamn time. The buses are cheap, but they're guaranteed to be always overcrowded, always stopping at random places along the way, and always filled with very smelly people and their screaming kids.
Don't forget the "exit taxes" that inevitably have to be paid when leaving any town, or the "entrance fees" that you'll be asked to pay when coming to any site of interest: they always get paid to a guy sitting in a little box; where the money goes, and for what purpose, is ever a mystery. Oh, and did I mention that the buses seldom leave on time, and almost always take longer than advertised to reach their destination?
In Peru, I got a bit of practice at bargaining with the locals. In Bolivia, it became compulsory. If you don't want to get completely ripped off during your travels in Bolivia, you simply have to negotiate. No price is ever written down or set in stone in this country. And when the vendor sees the colour of your skin, it automatically doubles. Don't be afraid to bargain long, and to bargain hard. For clothes. For dinner. For a three-day tour. For your bus fare. For using the toilet. For anything and everything, make sure that you get a half-decent price.
Which brings me to my next point: Bolivia is a really, really cheap place for foreigners to visit. This is a big reason why every man and his dog is coming here these days. What this means, is that you really can splurge and live it up in Bolivia, and still not go completely broke. I barely ate the local food for a month — I lived on gourmet gringo food — and despite being about 10 times the price of the local tucker, it's still peanuts. I drank more cocktails in my month in Bolivia, than I've drunk in my whole life, before visiting here: and hey, if you're gonna drink those Piña Coladas and Long Island Ice Teas anywhere, you may as well do it in Bolivia; because it'll send you broke within one evening, anywhere else in the world (and let's face it, the local Paceña beer tastes like $%&# anyway).
I really stopped worrying about money in Bolivia, because no matter how hard you try at livin' it up and burning ye ol' cash, a little bit still goes a hell of a long way. Money is so cheap here, that the government doesn't even bother making decent, durable currency anyway: the notes in this country really are made of loo paper; and even proper banks will give you notes that are held together with bits of sellotape. Just watch out for fakes: amazingly, I didn't encounter any; but I hear that they're everywhere.
No logic at all
When you're in Bolivia, you find that at least ten times every day, you discover the way that something "works" around here, and all you can do is just stare, and think: WTF?!? Restaurants have menus that are meaningless (for 90% of the things on the menu, no hay). Locals start randomly laughing at you, for no discernible reason. Cars navigate through a city devoid of any and all traffic rules, and somehow manage to not crash into each other. Twenty market stalls, all next to each other, will all sell exactly the same things (and will expect to somehow have a "competitive edge" over their neighbours); and none of them will have whatever it is that you're actually looking for.
People live, work, and shout at each other, in cities that are built at ridiculously high altitudes. So high, in fact, that you can't even bake a loaf of bread, without doing something extra-special just to make it rise.
In Bolivia, it's highly advisable for you to assume absolutely nothing, and to expect a 100% lack of logic in any and every little system that you encounter in your time here.
Don't expect much, and you won't be disappointed. As I learned, local Bolivian cuisine is extremely average. It makes Peruvian cuisine look positively outstanding and flavoursome. Local Bolivians are fond of such culinary delights as the deep-fried chicken, the empanada, the soup-of-brown-crap, the wafer-thin steak, and the large bottle of beer.
What's more, eating local food is virtually guaranteed to have you sitting on the crapper for the next week, wondering what manner of incurable disease you've contracted and will be cursed with forevermore. Amazingly, I actually didn't get sick in Bolivia; however, about 90% of the gringos that you meet in each hostel, either are currently, or recently were, spending most of their days ill in bed, in between bouts of running to the toilet with extreme urgency.
For all these reasons, do yourself a favour, and stick to the gringo joints. Every town has a pizzeria or two, a hip café that can do you a latte or two with your fillet mignon, or an Israeli hangout where you can grab a hommus-filled falafel (just ask for the non-Hebrew menu, b'seder?). In La Paz, you can even treat yourself to such gourmet stuff as Thai and Indian curry. It's worth a few extra bollies (i.e. "bolivianos"), to save yourself the pain.
This is one department where I really haven't been disappointed. When it comes to adventure, Bolivia has it all. For the cycling enthusiast (such as myself), plus anyone and everyone else, the death road is a must. For those looking to something a bit more extreme, don't look past the sweet mountain climbing around La Paz. And for the thrill of seeing exotic animals, exploring remote wilderness, and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, the pampas in Rurrenabaque are not to be missed.
This time around, I didn't even get a chance to try Bolivia's trekking, rafting, and (even) skiing. But I'm very satisfied with all the adventure that I did manage to pack into one month in this crazy country. Adventure is cheap (like everything here), it's top-notch, and it's well-established. Next time I'm in Bolivia, I have no concerns at all about there not being enough adventure left yet for me to embark upon. :P
I want to finish this wrapup of Bolivia, by commenting on how unbelievably fast the tourism industry seems to be growing in this country. Even by comparing what my out-of-date Lonely Planet says, with what's actually on the ground now in 2007, it's clear that tourism in Bolivia has skyrocketed, just in the past 5 years or so. There are so many gringos around here, and the hordes just seem to be getting bigger and bigger.
Bolivia is cheaper than ever. It's about as politically stable and as safe as ever (that's not saying much, mind you). And it's more geared for tourism than ever. You see everyone here. Loads of my fellow Aussies. Loads of Pommies (English), Froggies (French), Dutch, and Germans. Quite a few Brazilians, Argentineans, and even Peruvians (Bolivia's cheap for them, too!). And, of course, endless and relentless hordes of Israelis, usually in big groups, and ever looking for a bargain (places in Bolivia actually advertise to the effect of: "we have Israelis here, so that proves we're cheap"). Everyone wants a piece of hot hot Bolivia right now. I'm glad I got mine before it's all gone.