Bolivia Geography and Population

By | January 8, 2023

Bolivia – geography

Bolivia is twice the size of France, but immensely sparsely populated; over half of the country are virtually untouched natural areas.


The largest ethnic groups are the Quechua and Aymará Indians in the highlands; they constitute resp. 30 and just over 20% of the population. In the northern lowlands, there are a number of smaller Indian tribes, totaling approximately 3%. Slightly more than 1/3 is mestizos, i.e. mixed European/Native American, 1% are descendants of black slaves from the Potosímins and 6-8% are of European descent. The country’s power elite comes mainly from the latter group.

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Since the 1980’s, there have been significant improvements in health conditions, but the widespread poverty and harsh living conditions in the highlands mean that child mortality remains high. The average life expectancy has increased from 40 years in the 1950’s to 64 years around 2006, but is still one of the lowest in South America.

Nearly 40% of the population lives on the vast Altiplano plateau, but living conditions are difficult, so many young people move with government support to the lowlands. The large eastern department of Santa Cruz thus has a population growth of over 4% per year. The northern department of Beni, which is partly located in the Amazon rainforest, is also experiencing strong growth, while the traditional mining areas around Potosí and Oruro are stagnating. Of greater importance, however, is the vigorous migration from country to city; in the three largest cities, the twin city of La Paz-El Alto (1.7 million residents), Cochabamba (930,000) and the low-lying village of Santa Cruz (1.4 million), live almost 45% of the country’s residents (2006). Bolivia’s official capital, Sucre, lost its role as seat of government and administrative city to La Paz as early as 1899; left is only the country’s Supreme Court.Andes Indians. For culture and traditions of Bolivia, please check calculatorinc.


Traditionally, Bolivia is an agricultural and mining country. The highlands and valleys are characterized by small unmechanized farms with sparse yields and limited development opportunities. Yet, today, 3/4 of the food supply here. In the highlands, barley, quínoa and a variety of different types of potatoes are grown for the families’ self-sufficiency. Quínoa is a local species of the saltwort family with small, bitter, starchy fruits, popularly called “Inca rice”. The livestock is significant. It consists of sheep, of which there are 12 million. in the country, llamas and alpacas. The poorest part of the population also keeps a lot of goats, which can wear hard on the natural vegetation. In the valleys, agricultural opportunities are greater, but erosion is a significant problem.

Most of Bolivia’s area is made up of the sparsely populated eastern lowlands. Here are a few giant cattle farms and large modern farms that mainly produce for export; the traditional export crops sugar and cotton are increasingly being replaced by soy and rice. In the northern rainforest areas, a lot of precious wood is felled, while the collection of rubber has decreased due to low rubber prices. The lowlands also produce and export coffee, cocoa and Brazil nuts.

Mining has a long tradition in Bolivia. Even before the Spanish conquest, the Indians mined precious metals, and around 1650 the silver city of Potosí was one of the great cities of the world. Silver production and prices declined during the 1800’s, and tin took over the role of the main export commodity. Strong competition in the tin market has hit Bolivia’s economy hard several times, including in the 1980’s. However, the country still has significant mining; in addition to tin, antimony, zinc, gold, silver and tungsten are mined. In the eastern and south-eastern regions, oil and natural gas have been found; sales of natural gas to Argentina form a significant part of Bolivia’s exports.


Hard-to-reach mountains and forest areas, which are often flooded, make it difficult and costly to develop infrastructure. Trade and other connections with the outside world are hampered by this and by the lack of direct access to the sea. Only a very small part of the road network is paved, and even on many main stretches the roads are difficult to access due to the terrain and periodic floods and landslides. It also affects the country’s 3,500 km long railway network, which is divided into two parts without interconnection. The west is connected to Chile, from where a large part of Bolivia’s exports are shipped. These railways are some of the highest in the world with several lines at over 4000 m altitude. The eastern network is connected to Brazil. Compared to the road network, however, the railways have only a very limited significance for land transport.

In the northern, low-lying part of the country, passenger and goods transport is often only possible along the rivers. There are many domestic flights, but only a few abroad. El Alto International Airport at La Paz is located at 4050 meters above sea level and is the world’s highest civilian airport.

Natural conditions

Bolivia has a magnificent and very varied nature. The Altiplano between the eastern and western Andes chain forms approximately 16% of the country. Large parts of the plateau are above 4000 m, and several mountain peaks are above 6000 m; Nevado Sajama at the border with Chile is 6542 m. The large Lake Titicaca is located 3810 m above sea level on the border with Peru and has regular scheduled sailing. In the arid southwestern areas are large, completely or partially dried up salt lakes, of which Salar de Uyuni is the largest. This huge salt crust is estimated to contain 32 km 3sodium chloride. The area is almost uninhabited and difficult to access. The climate in the highlands is cold but dry and sunny in winter from April to September. The summer months offer moderate rainfall, 300-600 mm. The winds in the highlands may seem almost arctic, yet indoor heating is largely unknown.

The valleys below the highlands to the north and east make up 19% of the area, and here live 40% of the population. The climate here is humid and warmer.

The large lowland areas have tropical rainforest in the north, grass steppes with annual floods in the central part and dry steppes to the south. In this largest part of the country live only 1/5 of the population.

Wildlife is varied. In the highlands, the llama and alpaca wildlife live guanaco and vicunja, the rabbit-like viscacha, and in most lakes there are flamingos. In the lowlands there are alligators, turtles and snakes as well as a myriad of different monkeys, parrots and butterflies. Less common are highland jaguars, cougars, anteaters and condors.

Bolivia – language

Since 1991, Bolivia has had three official languages: Spanish, which is spoken by half of the country’s residents, and the Native American languages Quechua and Aymará, which are spoken in the highlands. In addition, a small proportion of Bolivians speak the Tupi language Guaraní.

Bolivia – economy

Bolivia is South America’s poorest country, it is indebted and like the others characterized by high income inequality. It is rich in raw materials, natural gas and ores, but historically corruption and international exploitation have hampered development. Falling international metal prices, oil crises and rising interest rates meant that Bolivia, like so many other Latin American countries in the 1980’s, was hit by a deep economic crisis. The crisis involved declining output, hyperinflation and debt problems; in 1984, interest payments on foreign debt were suspended. In 1985, a new economic policy was introduced, whose aim was the abolition of government regulation, the fight against hyperinflation and the implementation of a currency reform. Prices, wages and exchange rates have since been determined by market forces, foreign trade has been liberalized and import restrictions have been reduced. Furthermore, the state’s role as a producer of goods and services has been reduced through a comprehensive privatization program, just as foreign investors have been encouraged to participate in e.g. the country’s energy and mining industry.

Support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has reopened access to the international capital markets and facilitated the possibility of obtaining debt restructuring and reduction agreements with the country’s creditors. The reform policy resulted in a period of economic growth and low inflation, but it had severe social effects and the illegal sector grew. Around 2000, GDP growth stagnated, and a number of government measures, including plans for increased gas exports and restrictions on coca cultivation, triggered social unrest. The new government (from 2005) decided to introduce state control of the energy sector during 2006; after this step, foreign investment has almost ceased.

The informal economy is mainly based on cocaine trafficking. Bolivia is considered to be the world’s third largest cocaine producer, and its extensive drug exports have periodically strained relations with the United States, which is one of Bolivia’s most important financial backers and trading partners. Other important trading partners include Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Bolivia has been actively involved in the development of regional cooperation and is a member of the LAIA (Latin American Integration Association) and the Andean Pact.

In 2005, Denmark’s exports to Bolivia were DKK 24 million. DKK, while imports only amounted to 3 mill. kr.

Bolivia Geography