As one of the poorest countries in Latin America, Bolivia is a nation that, more than most, would benefit from your tourism. However, a historic lack of investment in infrastructure throughout the country and a reputation of political instability has left this nation neglected by foreign visitors.
Despite being more difficult to explore than neighboring Peru, Argentina or Brazil, Bolivia is a country that shouldn’t be missed. It has a wealth of diversity of natural landmarks, from the soaring Andes Mountains to the huge plains of salt flats to the Amazon jungle, as well as tiny communities inhabited by local, indigenous people ready to share their culture with curious travelers – and who really benefit from the income that responsible, considered tourism brings.
So here are 5 ways that you can do your bit to make a positive impact when you’re traveling in Bolivia.
1. Go Local
Many of us are more comfortable booking tours ahead of our trip to ensure that our visit runs smoothly and no time is wasted. But it can be difficult to know exactly how much of the money you’re paying is being invested into the country you’re visiting and whether the local people there are actually getting a fair deal.
Instead, booking tours when you arrive or online with locally-run, sustainable tourism agencies based in Bolivia will insure 100% of your money goes directly to the local people, meaning you’ll have a positive, responsible impact through your tourism.
Luckily, Bolivia has a growing number of excellent, responsible companies to choose from. Some of the best include:
Condor Trekkers based in Sucre is a hiking tour agency that leads treks into remote villages in the Andes, with hikes passing along stretches of preserved Inca trail and to landscapes potted with dinosaur footprints. They feed all of their profits back into the communities through which their tours pass to support locally-run, sustainable development projects.
The San Miguelito Conservation Ranch, a short distance from Santa Cruz, is a private reserve and conservation project that protects a section of wetlands acknowledged as having one of the highest concentration of jaguars in South America. This eco-tourism project runs tours to spot the big cats, birds and other wildlife in the reserve and uses the profits to maintain this important habitat.
Nick’s Adventures, another company based in Santa Cruz, runs a series of tours throughout the country, including spotting big cats in Kaa Iya National Park, the only park in South America established and administered by indigenous people. This agency supports sustainable development by providing employment to local people as drivers, guides and cooks and replaces any cattle killed by jaguars to stop ranch owners from shooting the cats, thus meaning that no jaguars or other native wildlife have been killed since Nick’s Adventures began this project.
La Paz on Foot runs walking tours in La Paz itself, as well as hiking trips further afield to indigenous communities. These communities receive much of the profits and La Paz on Foot have established a series of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation projects.
Solace Trekking Tours based in La Paz takes visitors on cultural tours to indigenous communities to take part in workshops about dancing, weaving and other traditional activities, as well as running climbing, biking and hiking trips to remote villages. Some of the profits of these tours are used to support the indigenous communities that are visited, as well as others who are fighting to save their land and water from mining – something that is a real threat to both natural habitats and the livelihoods of local people.
2. Don’t bargain too hard
Like many Andean countries in South America, artisanal goods of fluffy llama wool jumpers and delicate jewelry are hawked by locals on their stalls in every city and travelers are always keen to get a good bargain. But unlike parts of Asia and India where haggling hard is par for the course, in most of South America and particularly Bolivia, it’s not always the case.
Yes, you should expect prices to be higher for you; unfortunately, as a foreigner you will be charged an inflated rate. Negotiating a small reduction is sometimes possible, but most of the time, you shouldn’t try and push for prices that are vastly lower.
Shop around a bit and get a feel for what things cost, but follow your conscience with what you spend. Saving a few dollars on a jumper probably means very little to you in the long run, but in a country where 45% of people live in poverty and earn less than $2 a day, avoiding haggling sellers into the ground is the responsible thing to do.
3. Get off-the-beaten track
Most travelers in Bolivia stick to the main gringo triangle: La Paz, Sucre and Uyuni. And while these are certainly highlights of the country, other places also need the investment that tourism brings.
Towns such as Rurrenabaque, the best place in the country to access the Amazon Jungle, really need the support of responsible tourists. Once receiving lots of Israeli visitors (because of an Israeli who got lost in the jungle here a few decades ago and wrote a book about his experiences), numbers have dwindled since the Bolivian government decided to support Palestine and introduced a fee for Israelis entering the country.
Tourism is currently at a record low in the region and desperately needs travelers who are keen to visit. Check out sustainable operators, such as Mashaquipe Eco Tours, who charge fair prices and work responsibly to protect the jungle.
Another under visited location is Potosi. Here you can actually visit Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), the famed mountain of silver that was plundered by the Spanish conquistadores.
Potosi is now the poorest city in the country and while many local people still attempt to make a living mining the last remaining minerals in the mountain, tours with ex-miners such as with Potochji tours, located in Calle Lanza, provide another option. Visitors can enter the mountain to see the terrifying conditions and ensure that their money supports ex-miners and the mining unions that now operate there.
4. Stay and volunteer
One of the most profound ways that you can help to support social development in Bolivia is by staying for a period of time to volunteer with grassroots projects. I’m always hesitant to volunteer for less than at least three months; I know that it takes time to learn about the organization and how best you can support its work.
In Bolivia, where few people speak English and where the culture is far more reserved than in a lot of other Latin American countries, it can definitely take time to start feeling like you’re making an impact.
Unfortunately, 90-day visas are the norm for most travelers arriving into the country, which can put a time limit on your volunteering. However, a visa of up to a year is not impossible to come by, but does require you to put a lot of effort into acquiring the necessary papers.
There are plenty of organizations that need your help, including Up Close Bolivia and Prosthetics for Bolivia in La Paz, Sustainable Bolivia in Cochabamba, Communidad Inti Wara Yassi in the Bolivian Amazon and Biblioworks and Inti Magazine in Sucre.
5. Or become an ambassador
But if you can’t commit to volunteering, how about becoming an ambassador or fundraiser for a charity based in Bolivia? While travelling in the country, take the opportunity to visit some of the many volunteering organizations to get an idea of what they do. When you’re back home, it’s easy to find a way to support their work.
You can become an ambassador who promotes the charity to their friends and social media followers, as well as signing up to make a regular donation. You could also volunteer long-distance by supporting fundraising efforts or helping with their social media accounts. Most importantly, you can spread the word about what they’re helping to achieve and find other volunteers or sponsors who can support their efforts.
Ultimately, Bolivia is a fascinating country to visit and so by traveling responsibly and considering how you can make a positive impact as a foreign tourist will support social development projects in increasing the quality of life for the Bolivian people.
Steph is a literature graduate and former high school English teacher from the UK who left her classroom in July 2014 to become a full-time writer and volunteer. Passionate about education and how it can empower young people, she’s worked with various education NGOs and charities in South America.