Study in Bolivia, Land of Superlatives

by Djulia Montana de Veyra

“Biggest,” “highest,” “largest” and “most …” are words commonly associated with Bolivia. Some examples? The country has the most rugged and highest terrain in South America. Running through Bolivia are the Andes Mountains, the longest continental mountain range on earth. Also found here is Lake Titicaca, one of the largest, highest, and most fascinating lakes in the world (shared with neighboring Peru).

The Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia
The Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia Photo Courtesy Phillie Casablanca on Flickr

You will find in Bolivia the world’s highest administrative capital city (La Paz) and the world’s highest legal capital city (Quito), and some of the most salty, arid, and swampy lands found anywhere on the planet. With more than 60 percent of Bolivians having indigenous heritage, this is the most indigenous nation in South America. Bolivia is the poorest country on the continent, but the nation makes up for its economic shortcomings with some of the richest natural resources in the world.

Studying abroad in Bolivia means experiencing some of the most extreme cities and landscapes on earth. This is truly a humble yet beautiful country of superlatives.

Visit Lake Titicaca. Visit the birthplace of the civilization of Inca. A favorite destination in South America, Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world, and the largest lake in South America) is the picturesque backdrop to the Inca Empire’s former dwellings. The floating islands of Uros, Isla del Sol with more than 180 Inca ruins, and many other archaeological sites are found amidst deep blue waters and clear skies.

Trek Along The Salar De Uyuni. Located in the southern altiplano (high plain) of the country, the Salar de Yuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It is an enormous, blindingly white, sun-baked plain — truly a sight to behold. A breeding ground for pink flamingos, the place offers a great backdrop for amazing photos. You will also find a vintage “train cemetery” of abandoned trains from long-gone mining operations just outside Uyuni. As this salt flat sits at an altitude of 12,136 feet, visitors should prepare to acclimatize to the height.

Visit The Ruins Of Jesuit Missions of South America. The priests working for the Society of Jesus in the 17th century built settlements that would expand into small cities … and would one day become favorite stops on the tourist circuit in South America. The settlements include magnificent churches, European art-inspired native carvings, and the legacy of the Jesuits’ benevolent leadership. Time your trip right, and you can catch one or more of the famed festivals in these towns.

Discover Bolivia’s National Parks. This landlocked country has untouched, rugged and wild national parks, featuring a variety of wildlife species in their natural habitat. Within the country’s largest park, the Kaa-Iya National Park, are exotic wetlands and indigenous people. A more diverse habitat is found in the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, which holds more than 4,000 species of vascular plants in a vast 1.5 million hectares of varying terrains. This national park takes pride in its five distinct ecosystems: dry cerrado, savannah, semi-deciduous tropical forest, gallery forest, and rain forest. Visit the Beni Biosphere and Biological Station and be inspired by the population of 200,000 living in harmonious balance with nature.

The Madidi National Park is the largest expanse of protected land in the world, and features an ecotourism reserve created by the locals. Handmade canoes take visitors to an area strewn with thatch-roofed huts and to the bio-friendly Chalalan Ecolodge (a great place to watch animals in their natural habitat). Located within the Amazon River basin and encompassing massive mountains with glaciered peaks, cloud forests and savannahs, this national park borders the Manu Biosphere Reserve, the Manuripi-Heath, and the Apolobamba (in Peru).

Bolivia’s “Dinosaur Park,” Cal Orck’o, is located just outside Sucre and is the world’s largest repository of dinosaur footprints. Its “dinosaur wall” used to be a flat plain where dinosaurs once left their giant footprints. Due to tectonic activity, that plain is now a huge vertical wall featuring tracks from 330 dinosaur species.

Travel To Exotic Cities. Situated high above sea level and surrounded by the soaring altiplano, La Paz is aptly called the city that touches the sky. The snow-covered, triple-peaked Illimani towers over the city. Southeast of La Paz is another city in the high altiplano, inhabited by only a few people. Here, interesting people flourish in the wild, windy wilderness. The city is home to folkloric traditions that have enough universal value to humanity to be considered a Tangible Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city of Sucre has a wealth of historical architecture. A popular locale for study abroad in Bolivia, this university city houses one of the oldest universities in the Americas — the San Francisco Xavier University, founded in 1625. It overflows with cultural attractions, shops, museums, and restaurants. Sucre gives off an endearing charm with indigenous locals maintaining their traditional clothing and customs.

Enjoy Festivals And Carnivals. With its inception in the 1930s, the Fiesta del Gran Poder has gone a long way from a small dance exhibit to the huge international event that it is today. The festival is La Paz’s biggest street party, with parades and processions honoring the dark figure of Christ, coupled with music and costumed dances depicting the local cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Celebrated every June of each year, the fiesta brings people to the streets where local food and beers overflow.

Anyone spending the spring semester abroad in Bolivia can catch the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria. Held in February, this celebration boasts colorful parades, music, cultural costumes, and a great deal of drinking. The celebrations are held around Lake Titicaca, in the small colorful village of Copacabana and in Puno.

Carnaval celebrations go on for days in Bolivia, and the one held in Oruro tops the list with its unforgettable devil dance. This centuries-old ritual, called diablada (devil dance), features hundreds of participants dressed as demons, dancing to brass bands and drummers. This colorful, frenzied festival dates back to the pre-Colonial days, as an indigenous celebration to honor the earth mother and to portray the struggle between good and evil.

Engage in a Predominantly Indigenous Nation. While the urban-based Mestizo minority in Bolivia holds most of the economic and political power in the country, the indigenous groups Quecha and Aymara (which make up the majority) are increasingly becoming influential.

A couple of study-abroad programs in Bolivia focus on learning about these indigenous peoples. One, offered through SIT Study Abroad, connects students with development agencies that teach about indigenous Bolivian groups, their social movements and their dynamics. Another program, offered through Where There Be Dragons, puts students in contact with the simple way of life the indigenous people gracefully lead. It is designed to give an insight to their communal life and to the cultural ecological relations that characterize the area.

Learn Spanish In Bolivia. There is no better way to learn Spanish than to immerse in a Spanish-speaking country. Spanish Abroad, Inc., links students with a homestay and keeps them busy with cultural activities and weekend excursions to get them speaking Spanish all the time.

Combine Learning And Service Where It’s Needed. As the poorest country in South America, Bolivia is an ideal place for service learning. Child Family Health International’s health care programs in Bolivia have medical, nursing, and other health service students filling a void in Tarija, where there is a gross lack of healthcare personnel. Students participate in clinical rotations, getting insight into the rural and community health in the region. Child Family Health International also offers a similar program in an impoverished section of La Paz. Students work with the large number of city children who have no other access to decent health care. In a placement wrought with issues such as malnutrition and poor sanitation, students find themselves both grateful for what they have back home, and wanting to help even more.

Bolivia is anything but average. While it is not an up-and-coming country in terms of economic development and modernity, it exudes an exoticism that you simply must experience.