Much of my travel these days takes me back to places I’ve already been. The past couple years I’ve made repeat visits to UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Singapore, Saudi, Germany, Austria, Chile, Mexico. There’s a certain confidence that springs from familiarity: you cross the immigration checkpoint and walk the foreign streets with a comforting foreknowledge.
The past couple years I’ve also had the singular experience of arriving in several countries for the first time: Uganda, Kenya, Seychelles, New Zealand, Finland, Bolivia. A country moves onto the “places I’ve visited” list only once, of course, and the physical act that allows for this designation is a small but memorable sequence — the final set of doors opening from the airport, stepping onto the curbside outside the international arrivals terminal, and ahhh…. breathing in fresh outdoor air after hours of indoor air only.
There’s actually quite a bit you learn about a country in the first 10 minutes. You notice the ethnicities of the local staff waiting in the jetway to wheelchair out of the plane those needing extra assistance: that ethnic group is usually the ethnic group that runs the hourly wage part of the economy. You notice the norms around how locals exit off an aircraft and queue in immigration lines — the orderliness or lack thereof, which predicts for rule-following norms writ large. You notice the degree to which local taxi drivers try to hustle and scam you, respecting tout laws or not. You notice how nice the airport bathrooms are — your first glimpse at the wealth of the country.
Recently, I arrived in Bolivia for the first time. It was actually an overland crossing, which is rare for me. When we drove from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile into Bolivia, the first person to greet us — before even having arrived at the immigration checkpoint — was a tour guide woman who was waiting for someone else. Nonetheless, she flashed a big smile and exclaimed: “Welcome to Bolivia!!!” It was such a personality contrast from the Chileans who guided us until that point. Chile is a country I adore and lived in for close to a year but no one would characterize Chileans as jovial. Bolivians, in direct contrast, bubble with energy and friendliness. (At least it’s true of those who work in the hospitality industry in Bolivia.)
The immigration crossing itself into Bolivia also provided instant insight. Our guide escorted us to the immigration checkpoint which was stationed in a tent which was stationed on a dusty unpaved road at 14,000 feet elevation. He then “suggested” we offer the border patrol officer an extra $20 USD, personally, as a thank you for processing our visa-on-arrival so quickly. We did so, with gratitude. Yay for old fashioned hospitality and generosity!
Bolivia is a uniquely beautiful place. To be sure, we didn’t see La Paz or anywhere outside of the area immediately across from northern Chile and the Uyuni salt flats. But the desert wilderness near the salt flats, and the salt flat itself, is truly spectacular. I’ve seen many incredible mountain ranges, beaches, churches, mosques, rivers, skyscrapers, waterfalls, deserts, open savannahs, etc. The truth is many of those can blur together in your mind — they are remarkable but not totally distinct from other remarkable insatiations of that same thing somewhere else in the world. But, I’ve never seen anything like the Uyuni salt flat.
Finally, who knew Bolivia is one of the world’s largest exporters of quinoa, arguably the second best grain after farro? Quinoa fields as far as the eye can see.
I could see Bolivia breaking out and becoming a top tourist destination in the coming decade. More luxury hotels will proliferate, and the salt flat — in all its Instagrammable glory — provides the ultimate draw.