The culture and customs in Bolivia are unique and have been shaped predominantly by the Catholic Spaniards, traditional Andean culture and ancient indigenous groups. You won’t find anything quite like it anywhere in the world and you’ll quickly fall for the fun-loving locals and quirky celebrations that they enjoy (quite often, it seems).
It has been said that there is no such thing as 'Bolivian Culture' and this is down to the 36 different indigenous cultures within the country, each different to the next but all proud to be under the name of Bolivia - so you won't be short of variety as you move around.
Without learning about all 36, there are a few things that you should know before you head off on your travels, you can find out a bit more about what to expect and the do's and don't's below.
Meet and greet
The most common form of greeting in Bolivia is the good old handshake, direct eye contact is also appreciated as this shows that you're a trustworthy person. For those that are better acquainted a pat on the shoulder or kiss on the cheek is shared.
Bolivians can be shy at first but they're generally very friendly and kind people. They have a different idea of personal space and stand very close when conversing, so don't be alarmed, it's perfectly normal. They also appreciate good posture, so stand up straight!
Don't be surprised or offended if people stare at you whilst on your travels, especially in rural areas. It is still an up and coming tourist destination and you will likely look and dress very differently to what the Bolivians are used to. Unfortunately staring back is deemed rude, so you'll just have to let them win this one.
Bolivia is largely made up of indigenous Bolivians and they can be extremely photogenic, especially the older generation. However, they're not all that keen on having their photos taken and you should ask for permission before doing so - just don't be surprised if they ask for some money in return.
Socialising over an alcoholic drink is very much a part of the culture in wider Bolivia and you won’t struggle to find a cosy bar to settle down in throughout the cities. However, it is important to know that drinking in public is strictly prohibited and you will be in trouble if you're caught doing so. To add further confusion, this doesn’t seem to be the case during the parades as the streets are quickly filled with Bolivians celebrating, drink in hand.
If a Bolivian offers you a gift you'd be wise to accept it. Even if you're extremely kind in your rejection, it is considered rude and at times, offensive. So accept with a smile and a kind 'gracias' and you can't go wrong.
If you're planning on giving a gift, price isn't important but quality is. If you're invited to somebody's house for dinner you should take either flowers, spirits, pastries or sweets. If you decide to take flowers then avoid yellow or purple as these have negative connotations.
Some handy tips
- If you know something about Bolivian sport you'll have plenty to chat to the locals about.
- Do not give your political opinions on Bolivia and refrain from talking about poverty, religion or crime in the country.
- Punctuality isn't held in high regards, if you're invited to dinner it is expected that you will arrive 15-30 minutes late.
- If you're in rural communities it can be seen as offensive if you're exposing too much skin, it is good practice to cover up unless it's extremely humid, in these conditions it is seen as acceptable.
- At nighttime dress is more formal, Bolivians will dress smartly when going out for dinner or drinks and if you're dressed too casually you may be denied entry.
- Smoking indoors is not against the law and asking a person to stop is seen as rude and imposing.