Bolivia and Argentina: General Observations

I think our posts generally do a decent job of describing where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and what we’ve been eating, but I’m not sure we’ve given you our general impressions of the countries or their culture (although you can often probably gather some of that). In any event, the last two countries we’ve been to–Bolivia and Argentina–are quite different from each other in many respects.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. We read one article that said it has the same GDP as Sudan, which sounds pretty bleak if you ask me. But despite the poverty, the people seem generally content. Mostly everyone we encountered was pleasant, friendly, and extremely respectful. I would think that a country so poor would have high crime rates and that foreigners would have to take extra care not to get robbed, especially in big cities. We were only there for two weeks, so all our observations of course have to be taken with a huge grain of salt, but we really never felt unsafe, we never had any aggressive or uncomfortable encounters with ‘salesmen’, and we never felt ripped off. While La Paz was quite modern in some respects (modern architecture, international food, and a lively bar scene, for example), it was the only capital city where the vast majority of the women we saw were dressed traditionally. Sure, Bolivia suffered from painfully slow wifi and lower-quality buses and roads compared to other countries, but that is to be expected given that it is so poor. La Paz also had a surprising German influence, mostly visible in the restaurants and cafes with their excellent pastries. We talked to some Bolivians who said that many Germans came to Bolivia (and Argentina) after WWII.

Hats for Sale in La Paz

Bolivia has some of the most spectacular landscapes we’ve ever seen. In the southwest region of the country, there are high-altitude deserts, endless salt flats with coral islands, multi-colored mountains, brightly colored lakes, and strange rock formations caused by high winds over the years. In the east of the country is the rainforest, quite unexplored in some places. Bolivia has also been heavily mined, and the adventurous tourist can still tour some of these huge mines at his or her own risk (from what I hear, these tours are the kind that would never exist in the US because of the dozens of inevitable lawsuits that would ensue due to safety hazards). Overall, we found Bolivia widely varied, beautiful, extremely affordable, and friendly.

Argentina, the eighth largest country in the world, feels very different from the rest of South America (or at least from the countries we’ve been to on this trip). As soon as you get to any city of notable size in Argentina, you start to feel that you could almost be in Europe between all the croissants, cappucinos, and old Peugeots everyone drives around. Argentinians seem to enjoy a high quality of life: the wine and meat is excellent and plentiful, their capital is arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the continent, their beloved tango is a world-renowned dance, they’ve got world-class skiing and trekking in Patagonia, and continue to have a strong gaucho (cowboy/ranching) culture which one can still experience by visiting one of the many estancias throughout the country. Especially in Patagonia, there is a visible German and Italian presence, especially in architecture and food (Argentina can’t seem to get enough of their Milanesas: breaded and fried meat that is cooked much like a schniztel). Unfortunately, Argentina isn’t blessed with the tropical climate that its northern neighbors experience, so the fruits and vegetables are much less plentiful, fresh, and readily available. Whatever they lack in fruit and vegetables, they more than make up for in the meat department; I cannot stress this enough! And they don’t waste too much time with sides: rice and potatoes are generally side dishes that are ordered seperately; meat simply comes on a plate on its own, no need for anything else! Empanadas are delicious and eaten as an appetizer or a street snack. Everyone drinks mate all the time (herbal tea that is made with loose leaves and consumed out of a gourd with a silver straw).

Cathedral in Salta, Argentina

Transportation in comparison to the other countries is luxurious, if more expensive: long-distance bus rides include a host, several meals, wine, games of Bingo (?!), and very recent movies. Highways are actual highways: multiple lanes and paved! No longer do we have to endure hours of bumpy rides in umcomfortable seats with extra passengers crammed into the aisles and salsa music blasting.

Argentinians operate on a different schedule than most countries we’ve been to: siesta is observed religiously, so stores and some offices are closed from about 1:00 to 5:00 or 6:00 pm, when they open back up until 9:00 or 10:00 pm. After siesta, Argentinains can be found at a cafe, drinking an espresso and having a pastry. Happy hour starts around 8:00 or 9:00 pm, dinner doesn’t begin until 10:00 pm at the earliest, and people don’t really go out until after midnight. I still don’t understand how they manage to get to work at the normal hour of 9:00 am!

I hope that gives you some feel of what these two countries are like. In the three months we’ve spent in South America, we’ve definitely started to feel at home, we have appreciated the similarities between all these countries, and enjoyed spotting the differences. Now we’re looking forward to forgetting all that and learning about a whole new set of countries in Africa!


One response to “Bolivia and Argentina: General Observations”

  1. […] square and the cafés that surround it, and watching the locals go by. And, as Claudia hinted at in her Bolivia / Argentina post, we enjoyed the European influence, and the cheese, cured meats, and espresso that it provided. As […]

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