How to even begin to describe the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia, a country with a level of sensory overload I had only previously experienced in Istanbul, is beyond me. Flashing lights, vibrant colors, potent smells, all kinds of screeching and crashing sounds, and images that whiz by stacked impossibly onto each other combine to form a whirlwind of chaotic life so far unmatched for me in South America. In a failure of streamlining and efficiency that serves as a model for the rest of life, Bolivia has two capital cities, with the executive and legislative branches located in hectic La Paz and the Supreme Court in stately Sucre. The unusual, unexpected, and the uncomfortable quickly become the norm for those willing to submit with an open, accepting, and curious attitude. A sense of humor is absolutely crucial, because every turn is filled with obstacles and unpleasantries that could be miserably discouraging for someone expecting many normal standards of order and civility. Bone-jarring roads, acrid wafts of burning trash, and the use of many public spaces as restrooms in ways nearly unimaginable provide a glimpse into this window of craziness. Whether it is termed as organized anarchy (per my hermano Jackson) or Elitches transposed into real life (my own) Bolivia certainly fits the theme park metaphor well.
However, there is no doubt there is an extraordinary amount to be gained from visiting and experiencing Bolivia. The almost raw savagery of life in places provides a stark contrast to relative luxuries in the western world, and even the vast majority of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. Such a perspective is undeniably invaluable; not in a guilt-inducing materialistic fashion nor in egocentric reaffirmations of self or wholesomeness, but simply from an observational standpoint of cultural, political, and economic differences. Contrary to popular belief Bolivia can be a very safe place to travel if simple and sensible precautions and proactivity are applied, and doing so can open up a vast land of spectacular natural scenery, some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, almost dreadfully low prices, daily twists and turns that are equal parts shocking and comical, and overwhelmingly pure fun.
For all that it is Bolivia is certainly not boring, and every day, every hour really lends itself to scenes and stories well worth the price of admission. An example: Jackson and I decide to head to Cochabamba from our starting point of Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands. We head to the bus station with two Argentines (now good friends) from our hostel early in the morning to buy tickets, only to discover that a rockslide has destroyed the highway and the trip will be over 24 hours long. After deciding on the spot to head to Sucre instead, we board our bathroom-less bus later that day and settle into a 14 hour overnight ride, Jackson sitting next to the last row of the bus where space for three is occupied by a couple, a single mother, and no less than 4 children, all of whom have bought tickets directly from the driver and not the company, ensuring that they are not insured in any way in the case of an accident.
Twenty minutes into the trip the bus pulls off the side of the highway to allow a hardworking gentleman the opportunity to cram an inordinate amount of brooms strapped together into the already full luggage compartment underneath the bus. Shortly after returning to the road and literally while I am writing this very paragraph (I do almost all of my writing on the road on my trusty iPhone 4 I’ve had for over five years now) something grey and heavy falls from above my head onto the floor next to me with a bang loud enough to startle me through the music playing in my headphones. I look up to find a brick-sized hole missing from the ceiling and a hunk of six-inch plastic laying next to me. All this while driving into a setting sun dripping golden rays into the cloud forest on the horizon. As the day descends into darkness, we are treated to pit stops for bathroom breaks where the toilets are simply holes in the ground and are so vile that most people decide to do their business on the side of the road instead. The overfilled bus means that many people sleep in the aisle between the seats, and I have never seen something so cute and heartbreaking as the two children placed next to me on the floor and wrapped in a blanket, two smiling faces along for the ride. As the bus flies down a dirt road so bumpy it’s not even an option to sleep, I close my eyes and try to ignore the stench that is coming from my left and the smell of whatever is burning outside the window on my right. Two days later, our planned itinerary was again thwarted by highway closures. Such are things in Bolivia, where the stories and the decisions make themselves. In evaluating the frequent choice between humor and frustration, there is no doubt, especially following a few multi-digit hour overnight death rides later that one feels alive in this locura of a country.
As such, a special section needs to be devoted to driving in Bolivia, where it seems like the only rule of the roads is that there are no rules. Drivers of small and medium-sized vehicles act as if the are heading into battle, always hunched over a steering wheel gripped tightly with two hands, that is unless there is a phone call to attend to, a text to send, a soda bottle to unscrew, a sound system to reboot, or really any action that might come into one’s frame of mind while hurtling down a mountain road marked with ridges and potholes and alternating between chunky pavement and dirt. Horns are constantly honking and brights are flashed frequently: to alert oncoming traffic going around the countless turns, at any approaching vehicle, at people on the side of the road, or really just for fun. City busses, called trufis and usually small vans or refurbished, decked-out old Dodge school busses, are an ever-entertaining amusement park ride with an all-knowing conductor bouncing merrily in the driver’s seat swinging a tassel-covered stick shift back and forth, never coming to a complete stop and picking up any passengers who flag him down. Riders, no matter their age or health, approach these stops resembling athletes in a ready position, knowing they have about four seconds to exit the bus once the door clangs open. Any transport outside the city is called a micro and will consist of a small van or hatchback with a sticker stating the destination slapped on the windshield.
Micros don’t leave until they are filled to and past capacity, and like most things in the Andean countries are built for people that are much closer to five feet tall than six.
Really anything can be used as transportation, my favorite being large-hold trucks carrying fruits to market that are followed by an identical truck, this one crammed with people instead. There is certainly never a dull moment on the roads, but few things are as comforting as the arrival of Imodium-induced bliss during a bumpy, endless ride of terror.
La Paz, the larger of the two capitals, is anything but the peace, instead a constant headache of altitude (13,000 feet above sea level), congestion, and craziness. The altitude and a persistent musk that I can only describe as a mixture of body odor, rotting meat, and diesel infiltrate both the skin and the mind. Street vendors are planted wherever they see fit, and nearly every street is an oxygen-less mass of people, lights, sounds, and smells. There is no denying the jaw-dropping beauty of the city’s location and layout: a valley set underneath massive snow covered peaks where the urban planning looks like someone dropped a handful of spaghetti into a bowl (per Jackson). The city is incredibly random, with things happening every second that are hard to believe, but are hard to keep track of due to cars and people that threaten your toes at every moment. In a city that seems to have infinite vendors entire streets are devoted to a single product: lightbulbs, hair salons, earthenware pots, bootlegged electronics, soccer jerseys, aquariums, animals, cakes, keys, shoes, wigs, leather jackets, sunglasses, etc. Food markets and stalls are plentiful, with open-air meat stands and carts selling beer, Coke, and ice cream milkshakes planted next to a covered tarp under which a plump all-knowing woman in an apron dishes up surprisingly complex soups and fried goodness to people seated in a semicircle around both her and a massive pot. One of the most striking images of La Paz is of the cholita women inhabiting most of town, especially the poorer and more traditional neighborhoods closer to the slums of El Alto as well as the surrounding rural areas.
Their traditional dress comes from the period of Spanish rule when women were told to dress like Queen Isabella, and what this has evolved into is a masterpiece of a costume including a frayed skirt, either an apron or shawl, black shoes, a multicolored cloth with which to carry things, often including children, thrown over a shoulder, hair tied into two long braids with tassels at the bottom, and a petite bowler hat perched on top of one’s head just for good measure. Startling are kids of all ages working all day, especially shoeshiners who wear robbers’ black masks to cover their faces, with only holes for their eyes and mouths, as to not be recognized by classmates and teachers from school. The airport in El Alto is the highest in the world at over 14,000 feet and has runways over two miles long due to the lack of oxygen in the air. The city sprawls out into the valley below in an inconceivable way, is an incredible bargain, and in combining both historical ruin and pride is a fascinating nexus of a place that seems to combine hundreds of years into a single modern whirlwind.
Bolivia’s culinary strengths lie in extraordinary produce and tremendous cost value. Tropical fruits in particular are an especially strong area: painfully sweet bananas, massive, blood-red papayas, tart passionfruit, velvety custard apples (cherimoya), goopy mangos, avocados as large as feet, and all kinds of apples, melons, peaches, grapes…the list goes on. Ever present and often phenomenal are salteñas, (American) football-shaped ridged cousins of empanadas that consist of sweet pastry dough filled with meat, potatoes, the occasional vegetable, and dripping with hot soupy liquid. In lieu of hot sauce there are chopped locoto peppers that pack a punch. While I have previously expressed my love for a good empanada, I have to say that a solid salteña beats out a ‘nada anytime: while they are smaller, they are packed full of more filling, and eating them is an activity; originally made so that miners could take hot soup to work, they must be eaten with care, because spilling any of the liquid is considered bad luck. Salteñerías are only open from 9 until around 11 in the morning, when they promptly sell out. Sucre’s versions, eaten in the courtyard of an old colonial building called El Patio, were larger and easily one of my top five meals in South America. We also frequented a great spot in La Paz where they where both a tasty, filling breakfast and a phenomenal hangover recovery tool, washed down with some fresh squeezed passionfruit juice. Food is embarrassingly cheap on the consumer end, with a set lunch in a market, including a sizable soup and a hearty main course of meat and rice, costing on average U.S. $1-2 and leaving the eater filled to the gills. Typical meals include sopa de maní, a creamy peanut soup, and pollo a lo picante, chicken in a cayenne-based red sauce. Much like the culture in general food is humble and catered to the poor and the workers, but markets especially are always bustling and a great place to explore. In La Paz we ate incredibly well, with a step up from the base price range into the $3-4 dollar zone resulting in remarkably good restaurants that would often be the equivalent of a $15-20 dollar meal in the U.S. As for drink, Bolivia produces wine in the southern region of Tarija that while not stellar was better than many I had in Chile. Other drinks include chicha, fermented maize from the central Cochabamba region, and singani, a rough grape liquor.
Food aside, intersections of history and development are especially fascinating in this country of exceptional diversity. Bolivia takes the typical South American tale of colonialism and degradation to the extreme. According to legend, following centuries of Inca rule, the Spanish extracted enough silver from the Cerro Rico mine in Potosí to build a bridge back to Spain. Spaniards imposed ruthless versions of the mita and encomienda systems of forced labor onto the natives of the area, and toxic working conditions in the mines resulted in a virtual genocide of millions. The conquistadores bolted when the silver dried up, essentially leaving local communities to deal with the aftershocks of exploitation of the highest level. Infrastructure was only built in order to further the mining industry and to support religious conversion of natives, and by the 18th century Bolivia was far behind even other countries in the region in terms of economic development. In the early 1800s the country’s namesake Simon Bolívar led the first revolution for independence against the Spanish, but the success was short lived. The discovery of tin was infamously converted into prodigal wealth by the self-named “Tin King” (Rey de Estaña) Simón Patiño, who monopolized the entirety of Bolivian tin interests and partnered with British corporations to earn an enormous fortune. By doing so Patiño robbed the state of the opportunity to produce any meaningful, sustainable heavy industry and as a result became one of the wealthiest men in the world, spending his time galavanting around Europe in the company of royalty while millions of his countrymen were left to suffer. The wars of the Pacific (with Chile and Peru), the Great Alliance (Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), and the Chaco (Paraguay) resulted in the capture of lands rich in copper, nitrates, and rubber, as well as the loss of Bolivia’s access to both the Pacific Ocean and the Amazon River, at the hands of foreign-backed militias protecting corporate interests overseas. In a period of 25 years Bolivia’s already downtrodden position was worsened and then solidified with the loss of its most valuable natural resources as well as the elimination of any access to commercial shipping routes.
The areas around Santa Cruz contain the majority of the country’s cocaine production, the third largest amount in the world annually behind Peru and Colombia. President Evo Morales has fought tirelessly for the rights of coca leaf production, retention, and removal from international lists of dangerous substances, because the leaves have enormous traditional and cultural significances for native indigenous peoples, especially to relieve the effects of altitude, fatigue, and hunger. While there is no doubt that coca leaves are enormously different from cocaine, the latter of which is essentially a combination of battery acid and other tasty chemicals, cocaine production has increased under Morales, begging the question of whether relaxing rules of coca production is the culprit or rather other policies that include the rise of a thriving black market and political corruption in the wake of mass nationalization of land and industry. Cocaine tourism is huge in Bolivia, with backpackers flocking to spots such as La Paz’s famed Route 36, a late night bar that changes locations frequently and is reported to have the cheapest and the best of the white stuff.
Modern-day Bolivia, while headed by the first democratically-elected indigenous president in the world in Morales and home to over 30 different ethnic groups, still struggles with the same problems it has been plagued with for centuries: the balance between foreign investment and development of domestic industries and markets, free market capitalism and competition versus peasant and workers’ rights and agrarian land reform, and cultural identity and representation in a country with the highest proportion of indigenous citizens in the world.
Much of the country lives in destitute poverty, with La Paz’s sub-urban neighborhood of El Alto and rural areas around the capital containing the worst living conditions I’ve seen in South America, with crumbling hovels and general squalor ever-present. This is a revolutionary country with a strong spirit of rebellion and protest that extends back both to its namesake Bolívar but also Che Guevara (who died in an attempted guerilla attack near Santa Cruz), both of whom dreamed of igniting a continent-wide class revolt against colonial rule. Children abound everywhere, often carried by mothers that would still have drivers’ permits in the United States.
An anti-imperialist attitude towards the United States is fairly hostile, always interesting given constant American music being played and WWE wrestling and the Simpsons always to be found on televisions everywhere. After hearing nonstop stories about scams in which men in fake police uniforms trick tourists into giving up their passports, we were asked for our documentation by four fully-armed military policemen in the frenetic Santa Cruz bus terminal in a heart-stopping welcome to Bolivia moment. Exiting the country, also in the Santa Cruz airport, I was asked to take first my shoes, then my socks, and finally my pants off and was then patted down in my boxers quite vigorously in front of about 30 people by two gentlemen who for some reason didn’t believe I was traveling alone to meet up with a friend in Chile.
There is a healthy rivalry, both culturally nd economically between the mainly Aymara and Quechua Andean people of La Paz (paceñas) and the Amazonian industrial powerhouse of Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands (cruceñas), many of whom are more Brazilian in nature, are descendants of Spaniards instead of indigenous peoples, and who fervently oppose the nationalization and land redistribution efforts of the Morales government. Upon arriving in Santa Cruz the hostel receptionist told us to “tell Obama that he would shoot Evo (Morales) if he was paid in U.S. dollars,” a statement that was made even more uncomfortable given the fact it was the day following my visit to the Museum of Memories and Human Rights in Santiago, dedicated to the CIA-backed overthrow of the Allende government in Chile and the subsequent two decades of state-propagated terrorism and murder under the Pinochet regime. People are very proud and seem to be able to deal with adverse conditions with a reserve that many people, including myself, could stand to learn from. Folks are definitely more reserved and formal in La Paz, while cruceñas are sun-loving, loud people (much like the many Brazilians we met there), but very nice and welcoming, exemplified by our hostel owner roasting an entire lamb and inviting us to have Sunday lunch with his family. The entire country takes a little more effort to get around and is exhausting, but there are always surprises waiting in the shadows.
Our trip took us to infinite natural beauties of incredible range. Snowcapped Andean peaks frame the western part of the country, accompanied by dizzying heights. The dazzling alpine salt flats of Uyuni and the surrounding altiplano were a true spectacle, with flamingoes resting in multicolored lakes colored by bacteria and chemical reactions in the water.
A four-hour micro that included hitting a pothole so hard that people smashed their heads on the roof of the van took us to Sorata, a tiny town situated in a lush valley at the foot of the Illampu massif. After hiking up the steep dirt trail to town from our cabin in pouring rain we stumbled upon a packed restaurant where you order two “dinners” for a dollar fifty each and sit back and watch the Simpsons.
We also glimpsed the blue expanse of the inland ocean that is Lake Titicaca, the tropical delights of the Amazon, the whitewashed colonial architecture of Sucre and Potosí, and biked down the world’s most dangerous road from La Paz to Coroico, a long yet easy descent of about 9,000 feet where the most difficult part of the trip was not the biking but instead surviving the guides who began to drink heavily immediately after we had finished and had to change a tire midway through the van ride home. Three weeks wasn’t even close to enough time to see the natural splendor of the country.
In the end, Bolivia is a land of exceptional natural beauty and geographic and cultural diversity. Walking into the cemetery in peaceful Sucre (one of the top three places I’ve visited in South America) struck me as a supremely Bolivian moment. After we passed rows of elementary-aged girls selling flowers amidst intermingling wafts of roses and urine we entered a huge cemetery with gorgeous old trees and family mausoleums as large as my home in Colorado. Drums were beating and trumpets shrinking loudly in celebration of Three Kings Day, and children danced wildly in every direction. Talking to my “cabbie” on the way to the El Alto airport, a boy named Leo who couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 yet whom I for some reason trusted far more than the crazed devils who occupy the roads, I was again struck with how despite drastically different living conditions people yearn for the same things: family, friends, food, and fun (I say this in all seriousness despite our conversation mainly centering around the group of Swedish girls he saw me walk out of my hostel with). While not perfect, home to the occasional bedroom scorpion, and a place where when you order trout and are served salmon you’re happy it’s fish, Bolivia is a mandatory experience for anyone seeking adventure and discomfort, perspective and humility, and the entire human spectrum of emotions in a way that is terrifying, refreshing, and invigorating.