Illuminating Bolivia

Perhaps it is the numbing effects of the coca tea (the perfect antidote to altitude sickness), or maybe it’s the lack of Latino and the dominance of the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia that lets me feel at ease almost from the start. Nobody seems to think it funny or intriguing to see a woman alone in the streets and whilst there is sometimes curiosity, Bolivians usually don’t comment or whistle or show much interest. I don’t think the men would dare. When a group of shoe-shine boys crowd around me in La Paz, it is only seconds before two Cholas, indigenous woman in wide skirts and bowler hats, appear and chase them away with gruff shouts. They shoot broad grins in my direction, adjust their loads which are tied up in colourful cloths, and continue on their way.

Whether living on little more than potatoes and quinoa on the high plains, surviving in El Alto the impoverished urban sprawl above La Paz, or toiling in the dangerous mines of Potosi, I sense a determined spirit which has little time for niceties and a lack of tolerance for injustice. Bolivians are not ones to put up and shut up. In the Cochabamba ‘Water Wars’ of 2000 for example, the World Bank forced the Bolivian Government to sell the province’s water utility to the private western company Bechtel. As water rates soared, the local people took to the streets and Bechtel was forced out.

The vivid rainbow checks of the Wiphala flag representing the native population of the Andes, is a fitting symbol of this feisty people. It flutters in stark contrast to the muted altiplano landscape, which lacks both trees and grass. The new Bolivian constitution of 2009 adopted it as the second national flag, and it officially flies alongside the existing red, yellow and green tricolour banner. Quite right too in a country which, at 62%, has the highest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America.

In 2005, the Bolivians elected their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, former cocalero (coca grower) and leader of the socialist party. Despite enacting some radical reforms, including nationalising the Bolivian energy industry and introducing land reform, neither of which endeared him to the Santa Cruz elite in the lowlands, he was re-elected in 2010 and has been in power for eight years. This is quite a feat in a country that’s seen a staggering 192 different governments in the 187 years since Bolivia first gained independence.

Road blockades, which bring the country’s infrastructure to a halt, have been used to force many changes in government and have, of course, frequently disrupted the travel plans of those exploring Bolivia, sometimes for weeks at a time. Blockades are a way of life in Bolivia; an effective form of direct action which doesn’t usually deteriorate into serious violence.

In September 2012, a cooperative of miners brought La Paz to a standstill demanding that the government hand over part of the recently re-nationalised tin and zinc mines. Bolivia is rich in mineral wealth although modern-day stocks are depleted and the unsafe working conditions make recovering it far from glamorous work. The mining city of Potosi sits beneath the Cerro Rico (rich mountain) whose silver mines famously fed the coffers of the Spanish during the colonial period. The huge wealth and industry involved in mining the precious metal meant that Potosi was once one of the largest cities in the world and the architectural legacy is a delight. When the silver lost abundance, tin mining took over, and today there are still lots of freelance miners, many organised into cooperatives.

President Morales remains popular and is part of the South American ‘club’ of leftist governments. He has reversed the previous zero tolerance policy to coca plants but not their chemical derivative; cocaine. The coca leaf and its bi-products is integral to many Bolivians’ culture and is used widely to dull feelings of cold or hunger suffered by those living on the unforgiving altiplano.

But the country is not all dust, bleak plains and llamas. The ‘Road of Death’ leaves La Paz (already high enough for visiting football teams to protest that the home side have an unfair advantage), and climbs to 4650 metres. Then, in 40 gut-churning miles it plunges down to the lush vegetable gardens of Coroico in the temperate Yungas region, altitude 1200 metres. Mostly single track, including extreme drop-offs of 600 metres, no guard rails and liable to landslides, it’s a road that should be treated with respect but is a riding experience not to be missed. Continue into the flat Amazonian lowlands of the Beni and you find green, sticky warmth which most would associate with Brazil, not Bolivia. In fact huge areas in the east of the country are covered with rainforest or have been cleared to farm beef.

It was down in the lowlands of Vallegrande that Che Guevara met his end. Shot by the CIA, the revolutionary hero instantly became an icon, now emblazoned on t-shirts the world over. Of course Bolivia has other revolutionary connections, named as it is after Simon Bolivar. This Venezuelan general was instrumental in liberating the region from the Spanish.

Back on the road, no overland traveller would or should bypass the Uyuni region, part of the world’s largest salt flat which boasts huge mineral reserves of sodium, potassium, magnesium and, currently most valuable, lithium. As I travel across the vast blinding white solid crust of the Salar and explore the Dali-esque islands which are covered with giant cactus, I feel completely satisfied that I have seen some of the most impressively beautiful and surreal scenery one could hope to encounter. It seems almost greedy to continue south west and find oneself confronted by equally stunning but totally different landscapes; rich red sand dunes and desert, volcanos, mineral rich pink and green lakes spotted with flamingos, geysers, and the Arbol de Piedra (tree rock). Many tour the region by taking 2 or 3 day tours in a 4X4, but the journey across the Salar and beyond is quite possible on two wheels, though less easy in the wet season. At such times it is wise to cover your entire bike in a layer of WD-40 to protect it from the vicious salt spray.

On route south from Potosi to Villazon (and the border with Argentina), is tranquil, laidback and pleasantly warm Tupiza. When I visit, the burning blue skies show off the surrounding canyons of sepia-red, their craggy fingers reaching skywards from grey rock below. The nooks and crannies here were the last hide-out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, before the Bolivian army caught up with them.
With jaw-dropping scenery, friendly straight-forward people and a refreshing fizz to its politics, Bolivia has been the perfect place to get lost for a while. As I leave, travelling south, a sign reads ‘Esta es mi tierra, Bolivia’ (This is my land, Bolivia) and I feel a surprising jolt of emotion. It’s not my land but seldom have I felt so at home in a place or so fond of it. How can you not love a country that lost its only bit of coastline to Chile in the 1880s, and still insists on maintaining a Navy? Apparently its role is to patrol rivers and Lake Titicaca but I’m convinced it’s there more as an enduring symbol of protest. Bolivians are still very sensitive about their landlocked status – after all, Chile attacked during carnival and that must be an injustice worth a road block.

Megan Ciotti