Skip to content

We ask you, humbly: don't scroll away.

Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you.

Help Now >


Free World Class Education
FREE Catholic Classes

A South American republic which lies between longitudes west of Greenwich 57 deg. 30' and 74 deg., and latitudes 8 deg. and 22 deg. 50' south. These figures are, however, still subject to treaty changes.


The republic covers an area of 702,767 sq. miles (1,822,334 sq. kilometers) and ranks as third in size among the South American countries. In 1905 its population was estimated at 1,816,271, or a little more than five persons to every two square miles. Of these, 231,088 are reported as whites; 484,611 as mestizos, and 792,850 as Indians. Besides these, there were about 4,000 negroes, and the residue are of unascertained origin. The proportion of Catholics to non-Catholics is approximately as seventy-two to one. All these figures are taken with reserve, since the efforts at serious statistics are but very recent.

Since the close of the war with Chile in 1881, Bolivia has had no sea-coast. It is bounded on the west, north-west, and north by Peru ; on the north-east and east by Brazil ; on the south-east by Paraguay ; on the south by the Argentine Republic, and on the south-west by Chile. Its communications with the outer world were still defective in 1905. A line of steamers on the Lake Titicaca then plied between the Peruvian port of Puno and the Bolivian of Huaqui, and stage lines, between La Paz and the Chilian frontier. On the east side of the Andes, in the Basin of the Amazon, rivers, which are often interrupt ed in their upper course by rapids (cachuelas) afford the only means of transit. Bolivia had two short railroad lines of its own, besides the Chilian line to Oruro, of which the terminus is upon Bolivian soil. The two Bolivian railroads were trunk-lines, with an aggregate length of sixty-five miles. Work was, however, progressing on several other newly begun lines.

Bolivia is divided into nine departments and a "National Territory of Colonies", the area of which covers somewhat less than one-third of the whole surface of the republic, while its population is only one-sixtieth of the whole. Of the nine departments, La Paz is the most populous. Since 1899 the national capital has been La Paz de Ayacucho, with a population of 59,014 souls, situated in this department. Next to La Paz in importance is Cochabamba with 21,886 inhabitants. Sucre and Potosi are reported with 20,900 each, and Santa Cruz de la Sierra with 18,000, while the important mining centre of Oruro has a little over 15,000 inhabitants.


The south-western third of the country lies at a great altitude above the Pacific Ocean. The Puna, or table-land comprised within the Departments of La Paz , Oruro, and Potosi, has an average elevation of nearly 13,000 feet. Two lofty mountain ranges form natural breastworks to Bolivia: in the west, the Coast Cordillera (Chilian frontier) and, in the East, the Bolivian chain, consisting of the Andes of Carabaya and Apolobamba towards the North, and the Royal cordillera or central Bolivian range, with its southern ramifications and prolongations to the Argentine lines. The mountainous section of Bolivia has no important rivers. Its drainage is in the North to Lake Titicaca, which itself empties to the South into the Lago (Lake) Poópó, which has no visible outlet. Towards the East mountain streams descend abruptly into the Basin of the Amazon. But the mountainous section has the two largest, and also most elevated lakes of South America: Titicaca, 12,500 feet above sea-level, 138 miles long from north-west to south-east, and of varying width, and Poópo, farther south. The eastern two-thirds of Bolivia, that section lying towards the Atlantic, is traversed by mighty streams (e.g. the Beni and Mamoré) and their affluents, all the which rise in the Central Bolivian chain. Bolivia has properly but two seasons: winter, corresponding in time to summer and part of fall and spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and summer embracing the rest of the year.

The mineral resources of this republic are known to be very important, but as yet they have been only superficially prospected. Difficulty of access to the country, unsettled political conditions in former times, and cumbersome, primitive transportation have been the main cause of this backwardness. The upper regions of the Amazonian Basin are known to contain coal, but there attention has been given chiefly to the vegetable resources, the India rubber tree having rendered possible the establishment of a highly important and growing industry. The same section, also, produces both coffee and sugar, and today the coca shrub is a staple, while calisaya bark is returning into favour. The highlands in the departments of La Paz, Oruro, Potosi, parts of Cochabamba and Tarija about in a variety of valuable orders. Gold is not generally distributed, and is extracted mainly by "point" mining, as for instance at Chuquiaguillo, near La Paz. In the first half of the nineteenth century the Tipuani district, so difficult to access, was productive of gold of great fineness, and in quantities very considerable for that time, and the Tipuani mines are even now far from exhausted. Quartz gold is worked at Araca. Silver is very plentiful, and is extensively extracted in places. Native copper is mined at Corocoro, where it crops out in veins of unusual richness and width, but other copper ores are found in abundance also. Of late it has been established that Bolivia is probably one of the countries in the world, where tin (casterite) is mot abundant, and the same may be said of bismuth. While on the eastern slope of the Andes the existence of gold and other mineral wealth has been proved, the attention of prospectors and miners has been turned chiefly towards the mountains themselves. The process of mining and treatment of the ores are still, in many places, rudimentary and primitive, but with the influx of foreign capital and the introduction of machinery, conditions are rapidly improving. On the shores of Lake Titicaca bituminous coal is found both east and west of that lake. Besides mining, the chief industry of the mountain region is agriculture. As this branch is almost entirely in the hands of the Indians, it will be treated in connection with the ethnography of Bolivia.

The Amazon Basin and its forests, as well as open spaces with high grass, are full of animal life. The large rivers, as everywhere in tropical south America teem with fish, crocodiles, snakes, and other amphibia, and the manatee also occurs. Aquatic birds, parrots, etc., are abundant. The fauna of the mountain districts is more in evidence, but much poorer in species and individuals, than in the adjacent countries. The llama and its congeners, the alpaca, vicuña and guanaco, belong to the Bolivian fauna. The llama and alpaca are domesticated by the Indian. Beasts of prey are not numerous and are found only within the limits of arboreal vegetation. Lower down the great ant-eater is occasionally seen, the puma and the bear ( Ursus ornatus ). In southern Bolivia, as well as in the eastern sections, the American ostrich occurs, and a tiny armadillo has its home in the cold, arid Puna, south of Lake Titicaca. Over the highest peaks soars the condor.


Bolivia, then the Spanish colony of Alto Peru , or Upper Peru, declared its intention to achieve political independence 16 July, 1809, and actually became an autonomous republic 6 August, 1825, taking its name in honour of Simon Bolivar, its founder. The Constitution under which the republic is now governed dates from 28 October, 1880, and aims at a "unitarian republican" polity. Under this Constitution the legislative power is vested in a Congress which comprises a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate, the former body consisting of 72 members elected by direct popular vote for terms of four years, the latter of 16 members also elected by direct popular vote, but for terms of six years. The executive power is vested in a president, elected by direct popular vote for a term of four years. The president, however, can exercise his authority only through his Cabinet, which consists of five Ministros de Estado , jointly responsible with him for all his official acts. Under this chief executive the civil government of the country is carried on by prefects of Departments, appointed by it and directly responsible to it, and they in turn have under their jurisdiction sub-prefects and Corregidores for the subdivisions of Departments. The revenue of the republic for 1905 was stated at 7,928,730 bolivianos (1 boliviano=$0.422 in United States currency).

By Article 2 of the Constitution of Bolivia, "The State recognizes and supports the Roman Apostolic Catholic religion, the public exercise of any other worship being prohibited, except in the colonies, where it is tolerated". For the support of Catholic worship, in general the State pays the sum of 182,027 bolivianos ($76,815 U.S. currency), besides 14,000 bolivianos ($5,908) for missions to the aboriginal tribes. There is one archbishopric, Sucre, or Charcas, formerly La Plata , with 146 parishes, three colleges of the Propagation of the Faith, and five monasteries. The suffragan bishoprics are: la Paz, with 102 parishes, and 5 monasteries ; Cochabamba, with 69 parishes and 4 convents, and Santa Cruz, divided into 73 parishes. Both La Paz and Santa Cruz were erected into bishoprics in 1605, the Archbishopric of Charcas was founded 1609, and the Diocese of Cochabamba in 1847. Efforts are kept up to gather the unsettled tribes of the Amazon Basin into permanent settlements (reductions), a very slow and difficult task.

The legal status of marriage is thus summed up in Art. 99 of the Civil code of Bolivia: "Matrimony being in the Republic elevated to the dignity of a sacrament, the formalities necessary for its celebration will be the same as those which the Council of Trent and the Church have designated." Bolivian law, recognizes no divorce permitting re-marriage, and all questions arising between husband and wife can be decided only by the ecclesiastical tribunals.


The comparatively small proportion of whites among the Bolivian populations makes of the Indian the numerically preponderant stock. The mestizos, while not disclaiming their partly white origin, sometimes stand, in the country and among the lower classes in towns and cities, but slightly higher than the aborigines, being distinguished from the latter mostly by the fact that they wear European costume. Of the Indians several linguistic stocks inhabit the country. The roaming tribes of the Amazon lowlands are neither numerous nor important enough to deserve mention here. But in the mountains two powerful stocks, sedentary, agricultural, and pastoral ever since they have been known to the whites, form the working lower class of the people of Bolivia. These stocks are the Quichua and the Aymará. These two large tribes may, perhaps be about equally numerous. The Quichua occupy southern Bolivia and the Andean districts adjacent to Lake Titicaca on the East; the Aymará hold the upper valleys of the Andes, the West, and the centre. Physiologically, no great difference in type exists. They are, first of all, husbandmen, in fact they control agriculture. Nearly all agricultural lands being held by whit es or mestizos, who do not themselves cultivate, but prefer to live in settlements following some trade or commerce, the Indians, who are settled everywhere, take care of the fields. This they do, either in a kind of serfdom, living on the property and performing, also, some personal services for the proprietors, or, as Indian communities settled near the land, they have a tacit lease of it. The Indians organized in communities according to their primitive customs control the land, through their labour, virtually more than the owners, and thus remain a power in the republic, since they are the feeders of the people. Their serfdom is much more apparent than real, for the masters depend upon them for subsistence. Some alimentary plants in the high regions are potatoes, quinua, oca, etc., as well as maize in districts suitable for its growth, with coarse beans ( habas ) and barley, the last two being of European origin. The Indians raise cattle for themselves and sometimes for the landowners. All their farming is done in a primitive and very slovenly way. Next to agriculture, transportation and personal service in housework are also in the hands of the Indians. In fact their silent influence pervades the whole public and private life; their industrial methods are obsolete, and they resist improvement with the greatest tenacity.

As the Indian has maintained his primitive organization with few changes, he might form a State within the State, and thus become a grave danger to the whit es. But as he never had any conception of a State, being, moreover, divided into autonomous or independent tribes, that danger is much diminished. Neither the Aymará nor the Quichua could coalesce to form a homogeneous body. This they have shown ever since the Spanish occupation, and during the most alarming of their attempted uprisings, such as that of 1781. They would like to return to their primitive condition of barbarism, but feel that, despite their vast superiority of numbers, they are virtually powerless. In addition to these two principal Indian groups, the mountain districts still shelter the Uros, feeble remnants of a tribe dwelling among rushes and reeds, and comparatively little known. Of the white population of Bolivia little need be said that is not applicable generally to the whites in other South American countries. They differ of course from the inhabitants of less mountainous countries in that they have the general characteristics common to all mountaineers.

(For special information on the individual dioceses, aboriginal tribes, languages, etc., of Bolivia, see articles under separate headings.)

Join the Movement
When you sign up below, you don't just join an email list - you're joining an entire movement for Free world class Catholic education.

Saint of the Day logo
Prayer of the Day logo

Catholic Online Logo

Copyright 2024 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2024 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.

Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.