Responsible tourism in Bolivia

For most travelers to Bolivia, its appeal over its flashier neighbours is that is its past is still very much its present. Inca trails and ruined cities date back well over 1,000 years, and the majority of its people still speak the ancient languages of the Andes and Amazon. This is a land of panpipes and condors, of llamas and Earth Goddesses, of coca-chewing farmers and poncho-wearing politicians.

As a nation shunned by many others for its socialist politics, tourism promises a way of bringing the world in, without compromising Bolivia’s culture or environment. Rural areas in particular are in desperate need of employment, and the alternatives, if they do exist, may comprise backbreaking labour or illegal activities.

As responsible tourism begins to grow, many rural and indigenous communities are seeing the benefits, and protected areas can live up to their name. But many of Bolivia’s main attractions are located in remote areas – the Salt Flats, the high desert, the Amazon – where the lack of infrastructure combined with growing tourist numbers is resulting in landslides, the overuse of scarce water and the pollution of Lake Titicaca by untreated waste.

Bolivia is gradually overcoming a turbulent past dating back some five centuries, and one which has experienced as many revolutions and coups d'état as years of independence. Social unrest is a daily event in Bolivia, and pressure on the environment and resources will only make things worse, particularly for poorer and more traditional communities. Treading lightly is an essential part of being a tourist here.

People & culture

A new form of tourism

Bolivia has long been the ultimate shoestring destination, surrounded by increasingly more expensive, developed countries. With little to offer in terms of quality, Bolivia instead competed on price: $50 for a three-day tour of the salt flats, a couple of pounds for a dorm bed, a few pence for a tasty salteña on the street. It was a race to the bottom – a budget backpacker dream. But in a destination where almost 40 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, shoestring prices run the risk of preventing people from earning a living and failing to feed their families. It also means struggling tour companies may resort to unsafe practices to make ends meet: disintegrating jeeps, unqualified guides, food past its best.

Happily, that is now changing. Some of Bolivia’s hotels, ecolodges, tours and restaurants now match up in quality to its world-class landscapes. Better still, local communities are getting in on the act, by forming cooperatives, running their own accommodations, and guiding tourists through the mountains and the jungle they call home. With support from Conservation International, villagers living deep in the Amazon set up the brilliant Chalalan Ecolodge, a pioneering community-run tourism project. Working in the lodge, as well as providing guides, transportation, food and crafts, the project supports 74 families who are now able to stay in the forest, rather than migrating to the cities in search of work – or turning to activities such as logging or agriculture.

Similar projects have sprung up around Madidi National Park, on Lake Titicaca’s Isla del Sol, and even at the edge of the salt flats; all highly undeveloped regions inhabited mostly by indigenous people.

The Bolivian Network of Community and Solidarity Based Tourism, known as TUSOCO, supports a number of community-run tourism initiatives across the country.

What you can do

When booking your tour, request to stay in community-run accommodation for at least part of your trip, and take tours run by local guides.

Don’t be lured by the cheapest tours, guides and accommodation; this means poorly paid staff, and no social or environmental commitment. Likewise, always tip drivers and guides, hotel and restaurant staff, demonstrating that working in tourism doesn’t have to be a poorly paid career.

Cocaine shall fortify the Indian and destroy the white man.
– Curse uttered by Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, moments before his execution by the Spaniards in 1533

She don’t lie, she don’t lie… cocaine

Bolivia has a complex relationship with coca - and with cocaine. Visitors are confronted by the 'sacred leaf' almost as soon as they enter the country; they may well be handed a cup of coca tea (mate de coca), a popular infusion believed to relieve the unpleasant symptoms of altitude sickness. And throughout the highlands are locals with balls of chewed leaves wedged into their cheeks, used as a mild stimulant. Coca has long been a symbol of the struggle against colonial powers, and was used by enslaved miners working 48-hour shifts under Spanish rule to suppress fatigue, hunger and combat the extreme temperatures.

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca. The US-sponsored anti drug campaign of the 1980s was one of the most disastrous periods in Bolivia's turbulent history; crops were destroyed but the alternatives fared poorly in the soil. Coca thrives here, however, and is harvested several times a year; growers earn 10-20 times as much as farmers of other crops.

Opposing the destruction of their farms, tens of thousands of coca growers - cocaleros - formed powerful unions. Violent protests led to police clashes and deaths, struggling peasants were plunged further into poverty and hyperinflation destroyed the economy.

When Evo Morales was elected president in 2005, it was clear that things were about to change. Raised by poor Aymara farmers, Morales was the head of a cocalero union and an outspoken socialist who resented US involvement; his new constitution protects coca as part of Bolivia's 'cultural heritage'. In 2008, he expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration from the country, enraging the US, and causing fears that cocaine production would explode. But, with support from the EU, Morales transformed the traditional, militarised war on drugs into what is known as 'social control'.

With the policy of 'coca yes, cocaine no' Bolivia promised to reduce the amount of coca grown while still making it available for traditional use. Every farmer is permitted one cato of coca - around 1,600 square metres - considered enough to earn them a year's income. Anything outside of this must be destroyed by the farmer, not by force. The concept of community control, and giving power back to the unions, initially appeared to work, as coca production began to fall. While the patriotic cocaleros were resentful of the US military and unwilling to collaborate with them, they were respectful of Morales' policies, and are likely to report a neighbour who contravenes the law.

However, in 2017, Morales increased the total area where coca may be legally grown from 120km2 to 220km2, although aerial surveys have revealed the actual cultivated area is higher, and crops have even been found in protected areas [1]. It is also naïve to assume that coca can be separated from cocaine. Even while coca production was falling, the production of coca paste - the first step in refining coca into cocaine - was increasing, and Bolivia is now also the third largest producer of the drug, after Colombia and Peru. The production process involves toxic substances such as gasoline and sulphuric acid, harmful to the forest regions where the paste is produced.

Worse, the dangerous process is likely to be carried out by impoverished migrants and youths in search of employment, who suffer injury and ill health as a result of the fumes and contact with the chemicals, as well as risking long jail sentences. In a sinister echo of the slaves of the past, it is said that the workers are given coca paste to smoke while they work, to numb them to the pain of their blistered skin. Drug trafficking also promotes the use of the drug locally, as well as seeing a rise in prostitution and STDs in these rural areas with few sources of income.

It takes between 315kg and 370kg of dried coca leaves to produce just 1kg of cocaine [2], so it is clear where much of the crop ends up. The drug trade has boosted the Bolivian economy (in 2009, coca contributed 2 percent of GDP), and corrupt officials have been accused of profiting from the boom. The cocaleros won't associate themselves with cocaine production as it undermines their claims that coca should be protected as an Andean tradition - yet the disconnect is clear. While social control means that the violence and disappearances that have blighted Central America have not - so far - occurred in Bolivia, it is clear that not all Bolivians are being 'fortified' by coca, and Atahualpa's curse may yet be reversed.

[1] [2] Sources: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

What you can do

Drug tourism is an illegal yet widespread activity in Bolivia. La Paz’s cocaine bar has been described in travel blogs and national newspapers, while in the Amazon, legal operators take groups out into the jungle on illegal drug tours for several days. Sentences for possession are harsh. Additionally, they redirect tourists’ money away from legitimate activities, and further tarnish the image of the country.

Unlike in some Latin American countries, cocaine production is not associated with high levels of violence, and takes place far from any regions popular with tourists, so people should not be put off visiting.

Spend your time and money on legal, ethical tourism activities, and provide income in rural areas.

Visit the Coca Museum in La Paz, a fascinating if somewhat biased introduction to the coca leaf and its potent derivatives.

Wildlife & environment

Trophy hunting in the jungle

As with anywhere that abundant wildlife and poverty sit side by side, illegal hunting does take place in the Amazon. Animals are hunted for food – or for selling in local markets to earn money. While we don’t support the hunting of often vulnerable species such as caiman and peccaries, it is an understandable consequence of unemployment and the need to eat and sustain a family. Additionally, indigenous communities, such as the Tacana and Chimán, are permitted to maintain traditional subsistence hunting activities – an important part of their culture and often their only source of protein.

What we do find unacceptable are hunting tours. While they are illegal and not openly advertised, tourists can walk into tour operators’ offices in the Amazon to request a hunting trip – and several of them will say yes. Trophy hunters are always after the most impressive species – even the rare jaguar is a target.

What you can do

There is no reliable way to report these tour companies, who operate under the thinnest veil of secrecy anyway and are likely linked to the local law enforcement organisations. If you do come across any illegal tours, therefore, one of the best things you can do is name and shame on social media, forums and blogs to deter other responsible travelers from giving them business.

Book your own jungle or pampas tour with a responsible operator – such as the ones on our site – and demonstrate that wildlife is worth far more alive than dead.

If you do happen to be curious about hunting, several operators are owned by or work closely with local indigenous communities. Activities on the tour may include learning traditional hunting skills – as well as how to prepare and cook the catch – without actually hunting any wildlife. As well as providing an income for local communities in remote areas, it also promotes traditional culture.

Stay at a community-run lodge. There are several in the pampas and around Madidi National Park – and they allow you to discover the human side of the Amazon as well as the flora and fauna.

Responsible tourism tips

Tours of the San Pedro Prison in La Paz are offered to tourists. Tours of the prison are illegal and dangerous – to enter, you must be smuggled in by an inmate. Violence is rife within the prison, as is drug production and abuse.

Never book a tour with an agency that promotes, or has photos of, touching or feeding wildlife. This is dangerous for both the wildlife and tourists.

As one of the poorest countries in South America, exploitation of local people is very easy. Guides and drivers may be poorly paid or forced to work long hours, they may be unqualified and basic health and safety may be lacking. Ask questions of your operator before booking a tour regarding the wellbeing and treatment of local staff – any responsible operator will welcome your interest and will be able to answer the questions satisfactorily.

A severe lack of funding as well as corruption means that national parks and protected areas have insufficient protection, maintenance and rangers. Logging, clearing and poaching cannot be effectively monitored. By visiting these areas and paying your entrance fee, you are making an important contribution to their conservation.

There are plenty of volunteer opportunities in Bolivia – but not all are beneficial. Responsible Travel recently ran a campaign against unqualified volunteers in orphanages. As well as creating a “market” for orphans, it can also cause further damage to vulnerable children. Read more in our campaign.

Likewise, there are a number of wildlife volunteering placements. While some are legitimate and work towards conservation, many are little more than expensive petting zoos which are unpleasant for the wildlife, and downright dangerous for volunteers who – in some cases – have been left to look after big cats and other dangerous species.

There has been a certain amount of animosity towards the perceived colonial attitude of the US in recent years – including the eviction of US anti-drug squads and USAID. Visas for US citizens now cost around $150, despite not being required for most other nationalities. This has taken Bolivia squarely off the Gringo Trail; visitors today will encounter few American tourists. If you are visiting Bolivia from the US, you should encounter no problems – but a degree of cultural and political sensitivity is advised. The more you can do to fit in – from learning a few words of Spanish to dressing appropriately – the less likely you are to stand out.

Claus Meyer, founder of Copenhagen’s noma – recently declared the best restaurant in the world – has opened a second restaurant, Gustu, in La Paz. His Melting Pot Foundation is opening 14 cooking schools across the city’s most deprived districts, training underprivileged youths in skills which will gain them jobs in the tourism industry. The foundation also aims to revive Bolivian gastronomy and tradition, using indigenous ingredients and techniques. Book a meal at Gustu if you can – it’s an introduction to Bolivia’s cuisine, supports the foundation – and employs Melting Pot’s trainees in the kitchen.

Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ali Martin] [Cocaine plantation: CIAT] [Trophy hunting: Charles J Sharp]