Karen is officially “out of the office” getting to know a new special person in her life. (I’ll let her share the details!) I’m Elizabeth, and I’m excited to be your Guest Blogger for this week. I hope we’ll have some fun while we eagerly await Karen’s triumphant return.
As Karen mentioned, I’ve been taking short-term trips to Bolivia at least once a year for about 6 years – originally for my job as a volunteer coordinator for a public health organization and, over the past couple of years, as a volunteer myself. Bolivia has become a beloved second home to me.
Where in the world is Bolivia?
I’ve found that most people in the U.S. (including myself six years ago) associate Bolivia with three things: poverty, llamas, and Lake Titicaca. Yes, Bolivia is considered the poorest country in South America, llamas are spectacular, and Lake Titicaca is, impressively, the highest navigable lake in the world. But there is so much more to this amazing place! Here are four of my favorite (possibly surprising) fun facts about Bolivia:
1. Bolivia is the Home of the Potato.
The potato actually originated in Bolivia (not Ireland, as I would’ve guessed). There’s some disagreement over exactly how many different types of potatoes there are in Bolivia. It might be 100 or it might be 600. I don’t know for sure but I can guarantee you they will stuff you full of them while you’re there. (And it’ll be delicious!)
2. Bolivia is the only land-locked country in the world with its own navy.
This is partly because Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and straddles the Peruvian border, and also, I suspect, partly because the Bolivians are still stinging from that time in the late 1800’s when Chile took their Pacific coast and never gave it back. At any rate, they have a navy and, more importantly, if you ever go to Bolivia be sure to visit Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca because it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.
As a side note: On my long list of Moments When I Wish I Had My Camera Ready is the time during my most recent trip when I saw a group of four guys from the Bolivian navy walking around a port town on Lake Titicaca… all wearing life jackets over their uniforms.
The view of the lake from the top of Isla del Sol is well worth the hike.
3. The Incas were not the original natives of Bolivia.
We just think they were because they happened to be in charge when the conquistadors arrived and because when most of us think of the Andes, we think of the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. However, around the same time that Columbus was sailing the ocean blue, the Incas were conquering the Aymarans – an older civilization believed to have lived in the area for as long as 5,000 years. Recent archaeological discoveries suggest the Aymarans had the most advanced irrigation system on earth and may have built pyramids even bigger than those in Egypt. Aymarans (along with other indigenous groups like the Quechuas) still make up over half of Bolivia’s population and many continue to speak Aymara as their first language.
Bonus Fun Fact: The civilization the Spanish encountered upon arrival were not called “the Incas”. According to my go-to Bolivian Tour Guide, Victor Ballesteros, Inca was the name of the people’s leader at the time and the Spanish started referring to all of them by his name. Like if aliens conquered us this year and we were forever after known as “the Obamas.” (I should note that although I trust Victor with my life, I haven’t actually checked his sources. It’s a fun story so I’m going with it.)
Aymaran mamas call their babies “wawas”.
4. Bolivians have larger hearts than Americans. Literally.
Although part of Bolivia lies in the tropical Amazon basin near Brazil, the Western part of the country (where I’ve spent most of my time) is perched high in the Andes, where it’s cold all year round, dry as a desert, and difficult to breathe. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at about 12,000 feet above sea level – about twice as high as Denver which is 5,280 feet above sea level. Oxygen is scarce at that elevation, and most visitors take medicine to avoid altitude sickness. The Bolivians of the altiplano (the highlands) have adapted to this by developing bigger, stronger hearts that allow them to better process and distribute oxygen throughout their bodies. According to my experience, they use this power primarily to mercilessly slaughter American visitors in friendly games of soccer and basketball.
The gorgeous mountains are one of my absolute favorite parts of traveling in Bolivia.
So, there you have it – a not-so-brief introduction to Bolivia. I hope you enjoyed the fun facts and pictures. If you’re game, I’d love to tell you more about my personal Bolivian experiences in my next post. Thanks for reading!