What picture comes to mind when you think of South America? Jungles? Maybe. Machu Picchu? Possibly. Beaches? Of course. Colonial architecture? Certainly. Countless tourism brochures and TV shows have etched the picture of South America’s colonial gems into minds everywhere. The reality though is different. Colonial architecture is far and few between in the modern cities of South America. From Rio to Lima, South America isn’t the centuries ago throwback that many visitors expect. Then where should time traveling wannabes go? Bolivia.
After a tumultuous start to the millennium, Bolivia has made startling progress both in embracing the new and restoring the past. It can be argued in fact, that Bolivia didn’t shake colonization until it elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, in 2006. That was the first time, since being colonized almost 500 years prior, that the indigenous, still a majority of the population, took control of their country. Evo, a polarizing figure, has led an effort to both to restore the historic sights and modernize the country. From my first visit 10 years ago to today, the changes to the naked eye are remarkable.
Bolivia’s cities are built around the colonial core, from La Paz to Sucre to Potosí. Each one has their unique aspects, but all have a central square with a massive church on one side and an administrative building on another. No matter what the buildings are used for today, visitors are guaranteed to see the colorful and grandiose edifices of South American tourist brochures.
From the town square outward visitors can still walk the colonial roads to explore Bolivia’s living history. Through tiny doorways are retail spaces that have changed only in goods over centuries, or possibly have offered the same services since opening their doors. To really understand Bolivia’s charm requires aimless exploration of the age old streets and alleys that reach out from the town square, every one seemingly ending in a magnificent church.
If taking a step back in time is what you are looking for, Bolivia is the place. It offers epic mountain scenery and valleys filled with gorgeous colonial architecture. There is no doubt that this architecture came with brutal colonization, but the restoration and maintenance of these buildings speaks volumes about modern Bolivia’s willingness to protect it’s history, while moving forward at the same time.
WHEN YOU GO:
-Consider a Spanish program in Sucre. Let’s face it, much of South America speaks horrific Spanish. Bolivians though speak clearly and slowly, making it a universal Spanish worth learning. Best of all, the cost of classes and accommodations are often cheaper in Sucre than in other Spanish-learning centers like Cuenca, Ecuador and Antigua, Guatemala.
-Watch your valuables. Theft is very common in Bolivia. Specifically on buses and in lodging. Almost everyone, seriously, everyone, we knew had something stolen from them while visiting Bolivia. In fact, in over 30 months of traveling, Bolivia is the only place in the world we had something stolen.
-US Citizens must pay a $100-130 reciprocity fee. That’s the deal, just be ready.