Bolivia was my first experience of South America where I enjoyed three months of Spanish lessons, a homestay, volunteering and exploring the country. It remains one of my most memorable travel experiences to this day.
Bolivia is a thought-provoking and unique country, with friendly locals who will share a smile with you despite the daily hardships they endure in the poorest country in South America.
You know you are in Bolivia when:
Your first short walk in the country leaves you out of breath after landing in La Paz, the highest airport in the world at more than 4,000 metres.
You realise high altitude does not discriminate as your young, strong and fit travel companion suffers headaches and nose bleeds at 5,000 metres whilst an overweight, older smoker races ahead on a hike unaffected.
You enjoy people-watching in Plaza Avora in La Paz or Plaza 25 de Mayo in Sucre, observing a diverse mix of young students dressed in jeans and t shirts and older woman in their full skirts, shawls and bowler hats.
You practice your Spanish with young shoe shiners who attempt to convince you to pay them money to clean your North Face trainers with black shoe polish.
You find yourself in a moral dilemma as you exit a club at closing time to be greeted by young children trying to sell you sweets. Do you follow your heart and buy all their sweets, or do you follow your head and refrain knowing that giving them money is the reason their parents keep sending them out to sell late at night?
You join every other foreign female in Sucre for a screening of Thelma and Louise at Joy Ride Café.
The only difference between the starter and main dish served by your host family in a homestay is the broth added to the soup. You soon learn there is nothing unusual about eating potato, rice, pasta and meat from the same plate – every day!
You work off your daily homestay meals with an evening game of Wally, the Bolivian version of volleyball where the ball remains in play off the walls and all body parts can be used to get it over the net.
You return to your host family’s house to find a group of drunk Bolivians singing along to a hired karaoke machine and are thoughtfully handed an English song menu with the words “Hotel California” being chanted at you.
You discover the month of Spanish lessons you took are no help when locals at the day care centre engage in conversation with each other. When you learn they are speaking Quecha you realise your Spanish is so bad you didn’t even realise they weren’t speaking Spanish!
You take part in a salsa lesson, moving your hips with enthusiasm despite knowing you have no rhythm and look ridiculous.
You lose track of what the latest protest or parade is for.
You embrace your inner Sabrina at the Witches Market in La Paz, perusing the eclectic mix of wares on sale, including llama foetus.
You blame the altitude for struggling through a day of cycling in the mountains, remain motivated by the cold beer waiting for you back in town and become horrified to discover alcohol is not served during the Easter weekend.
You discover politics is not a forbidden topic of conversation and locals either strongly support or oppose the current leader Evo Morales
You learn Sucre is the official capital by name only and all administrative functions are performed in La Paz. You soon learn not to bring this up in conversation with residents of Sucre!
You learn the Spanish word for fleas is pulga after a month of scratching the 200+ bites on your body. You also learn antibiotics are the only solution for infected bites and are handed over the counter prescription-free.
You enjoy a break from local food with a choice of four Italian restaurants in Tupiza, only to discover they all have the exact same menu.
You embrace your inner outlaw as you explore Tupiza on horseback, where according to legend Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their demise
You buy a stick of dynamite from a local store and ignite it at the start of an enjoyable but eye-opening underground mine tour at Cerro Rico, the mine from which silver once made Potosi one of the biggest cities in the Americas. You feel haunted by the tragic reality that is Potosi today, a location that has seen thousands of mine-related deaths and one where manual processes, outdated equipment and toxic gases contribute to a miner’s life expectancy of just 35 years.
You discover what darkness really means when you turn your headlamps off in the Potosi underground mines.
You find yourself in a heated debate about the production of coca leaves, popular in the countryside and with workers trying to stave off hunger and fatigue, and its conflicting impact on the Bolivian economy and cocaine industry.
You meet El Tio, a statue representing the god of the underworld which is present in every mine and is perceived as the devil. To appease the devil, offerings of coca leaves, alcohol and soft drinks are made every Friday and in certain months of the year a llama is sacrificed for additional good luck.
You take locals’ advice to bypass the ‘public pools’ and jump on a local bus from Potosi to a random stop out of town. You are rewarded with incredible scenery and the chance to relax as you share the hot springs with new local friends.
You join in fanatical celebrations after Bolivia upset Argentina 6-1 in a World Cup Qualifying match and as the party continues late into the night you have to remind yourself it was just a qualifier and not the real thing.
You read Rusty Young’s book Marching Powder and feel both disturbed and entertained by his reflection on his time in the infamous San Pedro prison in La Paz.
You are blown away by the diverse scenery during a four day tour from Tupiza to Uyuni as you enjoy lakes, volcanos, llama and vincuna filled plains, flamingo, hot springs, geysers, mountains, canyons and salt flats.
Your driver routinely puts on his overalls as he changes flat tyres and fixes engine problems on the jeep that is taking you to Uyuni.
You are grateful you have packed layers and a warm jacket as you experience the drop in temperature in the evenings on your way to Uyuni.
You stay in a hotel made entirely of salt.
You begin to think all cacti look the same, only to find yourself standing next to one that towers over you at the Uyuni Salt Flats.
Every object around you becomes a prop for an optical illusion photo on the largest salt flat in the world as you enjoy Bolivia’s number one attraction, Salar de Uyuni.
Playing your iPod on full volume in an attempt to tune out the loud, violent movie being played on a bus and being unable to sleep for the 16 hour journey becomes par for the course
You meet another traveller covered with cuts and bruises and know before asking that he has just finished a bike ride on the World’s Most Dangerous Road towards Coroico.
You realise you have no chance of winning during a game of basketball with children in a small village at an altitude of 5,000 metres
You board your plane at La Paz airport with great memories and experiences, but feeling conflicted about the country you have just visited. You find it hard to come to terms with the simplified reality that there are rich people in the world - and there are poor.