Study in Bolivia: Land of Extreme Beauty

by GoAbroad Writing Team

Bolivia boasts an exotic beauty with many superlatives. From the highest cities in the world to the highest navigable lake, Bolivia is filled with extremes. Studying in Bolivia introduces students to a culture that’s extremely well preserved, and starkly different from what most international students have experienced at home. Here are a few things that students can expect to experience during a study abroad program in Bolivia.

Campesinos on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia

Campesinos on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia - Photo by Eileen Loh

1. Extreme Temperatures.

In Bolivia, you get to experience all sorts of climatic zones, from humid and semi-arid to Arctic cold. Bolivia’s climatic extremes occur in Uyuni with its icy winds and in Puerto Suarez with its immense heat. Climate in Bolivia can be very unpredictable though. Don’t be surprised to find yourself sweating in Uyuni or freezing in Puerto Suarez.

Summer in Bolivia is the rainy season. From November to April, traveling can get difficult with some areas completely mired in water and mud, making overland transportation almost impossible. The ideal time to travel around Bolivia is during winter. From May to October, the climate offers dry, clear days.

Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Isla del Sol

2. Lots To See And Do.

Study abroad programs in Bolivia are well suited for those who love rugged outdoor beauty. Bolivia’s exotic national parks, with their extensive array of fauna and flora, offer a great venue for trekking. Local guides can walk you through the native plants and wildlife. You can also take advantage of the mountain biking routes here, which are among the most awesome in the world. In a land where mountain peaks go as high as 5,000 meters, studying abroad in Bolivia is heaven for mountaineers and skiers. The world’s highest ski resort, Mount Chacaltaya, is in Bolivia.

Calle Sagárnaga, located in La Paz, offers a shopper’s paradise. It has a vast array of exquisite native handicrafts, leather bags, clothing, and textiles. Local markets are also a great place for shopping — the Sunday Market in Tarabuco is especially popular. Expect to find great deals for second-hand goods, souvenirs, handicrafts, textiles and clothing.

3. Proud, Complex People.

The Bolivian population is 30 percent Quechua, 25 percent Aymara, 30 percent mestizo and 15 percent Caucasian. The official language in the country is Spanish, with 39 other languages spoken in different regions. Half of the country’s 10 million inhabitants identify with the indigenous culture while the other half consider themselves as white or mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous blood).

A discernible class system exists in Bolivia along the lines of race and socioeconomic factors. Be wary of the racial divide between the collas (Native Americans) in the west and the cambas (white and mestizo) in the east. The two groups are not on good terms. Avoid talking about your travels to the other side of the cultural region. Also, steer clear from using the word indio to refer to an indigenous person, as is sometimes done here — this is considered offensive. Use the more accepted term campesino.

Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana, Bolivia

In spite of the racial tensions, Bolivians are generally warm and friendly. You’ll blend right in if you say “buenos dias!” or “buen dia!” to people on the streets. It is also a common practice to offer your seat on public transportation to someone older, or to a woman.

In Bolivia, friendship is highly valued and the family is the central unit of the social system. Education is given prime importance, but is not always accessible to Bolivian children. Although the law requires children to attend school from ages six to 14, fewer than half make it through primary school.

If studying abroad in Bolivia involves a homestay with a local family, embrace the rare experience to get to know the culture from a native’s perspective — and get ready to be treated with warm hospitality. The people of Bolivia are very welcoming and generous to guests.

4. Eating Your Way Around Bolivia.

Bolivian dishes mainly combine Spanish cuisine with native Bolivian ingredients. But other immigrants to Bolivia — namely, Italians, Basques, Germans, Russians, Poles and Croats — also influenced the local cuisine. Three important staples in Bolivian meals are potatoes, beans and corn. Other common staples are wheat, rice, pork, chicken and beef.

Breakfast usually consists of bread rolls coupled with honey, jam or cheese. Buñuelo (fried dough ball) with cane syrup is also commonly served for breakfast and is readily available in the market of Copacabana. They also serve coffee, tea or chicha morada (made from purple corn). After such a light breakfast, mid-morning snacks similar to coffee breaks are popular in Bolivia. Served at about 10:30 am, the snack usually consists of salteña and a beverage.

Almuerzo (lunch) is quite an event in Bolivia. The people take long lunches, about three hours (from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.). Businesses and shops close so that workers can go home and have a leisurely meal. Almuerzo usually consists of rice, meat, potatoes and soup, dessert and coffee. After lunch, Bolivians take a nap or siesta (a tradition that most people studying abroad in Bolivia grow to love!) There’s an early evening tea break, and dinner around 8 p.m.