Country Facts #2: Bolivia to Costa Rica

This week: gigantic rivers, luxury car collections, eccentric  African dictators, environmental disasters, aircraft hijackings, aphrodisiacs, and Colombian drug lords.

Bolivia – For over a century, landlocked Bolivia has had something of an infatuation with the sea. It lost its coastline to Chile following the War of the Pacific in 1883, and since then it has been on a futile crusade to get it back. On 23rd March every year Bolivia celebrates the Day of the Sea, and a small Navy is maintained on Lake Titicaca, 3,500m above sea level up in the Andes. READ MORE

Bosnia Herzegovina – If you find politics in your country frustrating, just be glad you’re not Bosnian. The country is home to three different ethnicities- Bosniak, Croat, and Serbian- and after the devastating war fought between them in the 1990s, a convoluted political system has been implemented in order to appease them all. Amongst a legion of politicians there are three presidents- one for each group- and they rotate power between them every eight months. READ MORE

Botswana – Botswana’s Okavango Delta is an inland river delta that deposits its waters in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. 90 million litres worth of rainfall flow down through the Okavango each year from the Angolan highlands over 1000km away, with the heavy summer rains flooding the delta annually and bringing both vegetation and wildlife to the barren landscape. The area is so flat that the floodwaters can spread for 150km, tripling the delta’s size. READ MORE

Part of the Okavango Delta viewed from above – A View Down Into the Okavango Delta / Justin Hall / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Brazil – Despite being the world’s second longest river, the Brazilian Amazon has no bridges, excluding its tributaries. But since the river can grow more than 40km wide during the rainy season, perhaps that’s no surprise. Every year the Amazon floods over 350,000 sq. km, effectively creating a lake the size of Venezuela. Overall, the river releases more water than the world’s next seven longest rivers combined. And so vast is the mouth of the river it contains an island roughly the size of Switzerland. READ MORE

Brunei – The Sultan of tiny, oil rich Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, is worth more than $40 billion, making him one of the world’s wealthiest monarchs. The royal family owns a collection of more than 2500 luxury cars, with an eye watering estimated cumulative value of $5 billion. READ MORE

Bulgaria – Like Russia, Bulgaria was until the mid-20th Century ruled by a Tsar. (Incidentally, the word Tsar is derived from the Roman title Caesar, as is the German term for royalty Kaiser). But, despite being deposed by the Communists following World War and spending several decades in Spanish exile, the fall of communism allowed Bulgaria’s Tsar Simeon II (who had nominally ruled the country as a child king in the 1940s) to make a remarkable comeback as the country’s democratically elected Prime Minister in 2001. READ MORE

Burkina Faso – Across Africa, in stark contrast to much of the Western world, larger women are often considered more attractive than their slimmer counterparts. In 2003 and 2004, beauty pageants for big women were held in Ouagadougou, the (superbly named) capital of Burkina Faso. On both occasions the winner of the title Miss Pog Bedre- Large Lady- tipped the scales at over 100kg. READ MORE

Burundi – In the unlikely event you’re ever asked to name a famous person from the tiny East African nation of Burundi, you’ll probably draw a blank. But in the even more unlikely event you’re asked to nominate a noteworthy Burundian animal, choose Gustave. This dastardly 6m long crocodile dwells on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, and has allegedly killed hundreds of humans in its lifetime whilst evading numerous attempts at capture or killing. READ MORE

Warning signs in Gustave’s hunting grounds – Rusizi National Park / Dave Proffer / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Cambodia – On January 13th 2007, a woman emerged from the jungle of Ratanakiri in North West Cambodia. Filthy and dishevelled, moving on all fours and unable to speak intelligibly, the story emerged that she had gone missing aged eight and spent the previous 18 years living alone in the wild. While the international media lapped up the claims, human rights groups believe she was more likely a more recently escaped victim of abuse. Whatever the reality, in subsequent years she has sadly been unable to readjust to human society and frequently escapes back into the jungle. READ MORE

Cameroon – One of the most terrifying natural disasters in human history occurred at Cameroon’s Lake Nyos in 1986. One evening, a huge surge of carbon dioxide bubbled up from the depths of the lake and into the air, spreading over surrounding villages and suffocating 1,700 people as they slept. Alarmingly, scientists believe a similar disaster could one day occur at the much bigger Lake Kivu between Rwanda and DR Congo, and that millions of people living around its shores could suffer a similar fate. READ MORE

It may look benign, but Lake Nyos can be deadly – Lake Nyos 1986 / Courtesy of the United States Geological Survey

Canada – Perhaps the world’s most unnecessary territorial dispute is over the 1.3 sq. km Hans Island in the Arctic Ocean, which lies almost exactly between and Canada and the Danish territory of Greenland, and is claimed by both. There’s no discernible reason to want the island- it’s uninhabited, freezing, rocky and apparently oil-less- yet both sides campaign for sovereignty regardless. One seemingly tongue-in-cheek Danish website,, compares Canada’s “occupation” of the island to the Nazi invasion of Denmark in 1940, and demands that Canada is kicked out of NATO. READ MORE

Hans Island: tiny, barren, but in demand – Hans Island / Toubletap / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Cape Verde – The African archipelago of Cape Verde is unusual in having a diaspora larger than its domestic population. Besides the 500,000 citizens on the islands themselves, Cabo Verdeans can be found abroad in their hundreds of thousands, particularly in their former colonial ruler Portugal and the United States. READ MORE

Central African Republic – African countries are sadly notorious for their brutal and eccentric dictators, but Jean Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic was perhaps the oddest of the lot. He took power as president in a 1966 coup, but a decade later he decided to upgrade his status to emperor. His lavish coronation ceremony in the capital Bangui, complete with diamond encrusted crowns, thrones, and horses and carriages, took up a third of the country’s annual budget. Thankfully he was ousted in 1979, though the CAR remains poverty stricken and unstable. READ MORE

Bokassa resplendent with all of his self awarded military honoursBokassa Portrait / Romanian National Archives / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Chad – Chad, located in central Africa straddling both the Sahara and the Sahel, is something of an environmental basket case. Let’s start with Lake Chad, the water body which gave the country its name- it’s shrunk by 90% in half a century through unsustainable usage. Desertification is extensive, with the encroaching Sahara swallowing almost 50 sq. km of new land every year. Droughts in 2010 and 2012 left millions of Chadians in need of food aid.  And to put the icing on the cake, the country’s population of elephants has been utterly decimated by ivory poachers. Hurray for humanity!… READ MORE

Chile  – Chile’s uniquely narrow shape means almost all of the 4,300km long entire country lies on a tectonic plate boundary. Hemmed in between the South American landmass to the east and the Nazca and Antarctic Plate’s to the west, Chile is plagued by regular earthquakes, including the most powerful ever recorded at Valdavia in 1960. The 9.5 magnitude quake created a 25m high tsunami, as well as landslides and volcanic eruptions, and as many as 6,000 people were killed. Further destructive tsunamis cause by the tremor travelled across the width of the Pacific and wreaked havoc on Hawaii and Japan, too. READ MORE

China – In China, a tiger penis is often worth thousands of pounds, as it is popular both as an aphrodisiac and as food- though scientists agree that in reality they have no medicinal or culinary worth. And while the immature amongst us may find that amusing, the sad reality is that this trade poses a critical threat to an already endangered species. Happily, buying or consuming tiger products was made illegal in 2014, though whether the new laws will do much to curb the trade is doubtful. READ MORE

Colombia – For decades, Colombia has been blighted by its notorious drug cartels, who control the production and distribution of around $10 billion worth of cocaine. And though the local police have had some success in arresting the ringleaders, keeping them behind bars has proved a rather trickier task. Notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar shot his way out of the luxury prison he had designed for himself, while others made their escapes by forging release documents, hiding inside sofas, or simply being driven out straight past unsuspecting guards. READ MORE

Comoros – In 1996, an Ethiopian Airlines plane en route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi was hijacked by Ethiopian men seeking asylum. Their master plan failed to take into account the fact that Australia was some 10,000 km to the east, and thus the plane would not have enough fuel to complete even a fraction of the journey. So, the pilot attempted to land the aircraft on the Comoros Islands to the south in the Indian Ocean. A dispute with the hijacker left him unable to land at the airport in the capital Moroni, so instead he ditched the aircraft as best he could just off the coast. While the majority of the 175 people on board were killed, there were 50 survivors- including the heroic pilot and co-pilot. READ MORE

Congo – With the exception of Italy and the Vatican City, whose capitals can both be found in the city of Rome, the world’s two closest capitals to one another can both be found on the banks of the Congo River in Central Africa. On the north bank is Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, and a few hundred metres away on the south bank is Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Together they form an urban area of 12 million people, the third largest in Africa, but in keeping with the underdeveloped nature of the region, not a single bridge connects the two cities. READ MORE

Costa Rica – Costa Rica is by far the largest of the 16 countries around the world that are not protected by armed forces. The Central American country demilitarised in December 1948, just months after a deadly Civil War, and in subsequent decades it has remained peaceful, democratic, and relatively prosperous. Perhaps other nations should take heed. READ MORE

If you have anything to add to any of these entries, you can offer a better one, or you just want someone to talk to, please leave a comment!


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