“But you know why Americans need a visa now, don’t you?” asked the middle-aged Bolivian consul in Cusco, after I grumbled about the onerous visa requirements placed only on Americans.
“Yeah, I heard Evo Morales is not a big fan of the US,” I said.
“Do you really believe that?” he began. “Our dear president, who is a great man and thoughtful leader, has been very clear. We love Americans. We love receiving American tourists. But we will not allow the US to continue meddling in our politics.”
“I didn’t come here to meddle in Bolivian politics. I’m ju-” I began.
“And look how far our country has come under this president’s leadership!” the consul interrupted. “The fastest economic growth in the history of our republic. Poverty rate halved. Illiteracy rate halved. This is what happens when you finally tell the US, ‘No, sorry, Bolivia is for the Bolivianos.‘”
The Bolivia visa fee seemed liked a fortune to me at the time, jobless as I was and with no shortage of visa-free options in the region. Ultimately it was the words of one unapologetically blunt British traveler who sold me on the idea.
“Well, look, Bolivia is really weird. One of the weirdest places I have ever been, in fact. It’s not like Peru. It’s not like Ecuador. It honestly feels like another planet,” he said with his characteristic lack of nuance. “Chile is nice, too. But it’s just like Europe. So take your pick.”
And that was all I needed to hear. I swallowed the steep fee. I wanted something different.
Copacabana & Lake Titicaca
On the bus ride to Bolivia from Puno, Peru, I befriended a 28-year-old Colombian backpacker named Diego who convinced me to get off the bus at Copacabana, a lakeside town just over the Bolivian border. He could not afford a hotel room without sharing it with someone, he said.
Just one hotel in town had a vacancy. The hotel clerk, an indigenous cholita woman wearing a bowling hat, ignored us as long as she could. When we finally did manage to get her to respond, Diego tried to negotiate the price. It was a hard “no” from her.
All we could get from her was “no.” Could we have the WiFI password? “No.” Could we have a towel? “No.” Could we get a room with warm water? “No.”
We got a heavier dose of culture shock when went to get dinner at a local cafeteria, and Diego tried asking the clerk a question about something on the menu.
“Excuse me, what is silpancho?” he asks the cholita woman behind the counter.
Instead of responding, the woman calls out to one of her colleagues standing behind us and starts gossiping as if we were invisible to her.
“What is silpancho?” Diego repeats.
The woman turns away. She scans the counter as if she is searching for any possible distraction to help her avoid talking to us.
“Sorry, what is silpancho?” he asks yet again.
Instead of responding, the woman turns to a colleague next to her and begins chatting, continuing to ignore Diego.
“What is silpancho?” he repeats, holding up the menu. I am in shock. Diego seems unaffected.
“Why is she doing this to us?” I ask Diego, cracking up. “Why does she hate us?”
“Hola señora, excuse me!” I yell.
Finally, she seems to acknowledge our presence. Diego asks again, and she tells him that silpancho is fried pork. He asks what the price is. Why would he do that? Can’t he read? The prices are clearly labeled on the menu.
The woman says it costs $2, but the menu says $4. I ask for the price of chicken milanesa. The woman says it costs $4, but the menu says $7. Diego says that’s too much, so the woman agrees to $2. She tells us to pay up.
Obviously $2 + $2 = $4, but she calculates our total as $7 on a calculator. Diego protests this total is not correct according to the prices she just agreed upon. She insists that it is.
I disputes the price, too. She relents.We pay and then sit down at a table.
An hour later, a young waitress asks what we would like to eat.
“You mean the cashier didn’t tell you what our orders were an hour ago?” I ask.
“No,” she says.
I glare at the cashier woman, who I see hanging over the counter loudly gossiping with coworkers across the room from her.
La Paz, the Real Capital
La Paz, Bolivia’s capital in all but name, is a fantastic city that most people don’t like. Diego and I arrived there together late at night. We met up with a sweet Bolivian woman named Eva, who he had connected with on Facebook.
“Dude… she’s with her friend. It’s perfect. Eva is for me and her friend is for you,” Diego said as we waited for the girls to pick us up from the bus terminal.
I told Diego that he had the wrong idea about me.
Eva kindly volunteered her time to show us around the city, starting with the Valley of the Moon, a tantalizing clay landscape formed by millennia of erosion.
Eva told us there are jack rabbits living here. A few minutes later we saw one jump on to a tall pinnacle. Ever the charmer, Diego picked up a small rock and tried to pelt it at the jack rabbit to make it move. Vegan animal-lover Eva was not amused.
Afterwards, Eva took us for a ride on Mi Teleferico, the world’s biggest cable car network, which helps the fragmented city circulate over mountains and steep hills.
As our cable car passed over the working-class suburb of El Alto, I noticed among the district’s uniform concrete tenements a couple of shimmering kaleidoscope facades. I returned the next day to get a closer look.
It’s exactly what it looks like. Modernism adapted to local identity. Freddy Mamani is an indigenous architect who draws upon traditional Aymaran patterns and motifs in what has been dubbed Neo-Andean architecture.
Another notable Bolivian quirk in La Paz and other cities are the witches’ markets. Supernatural wares including talismans, amulets, llama fetuses, and magic potions are all on sale.
Many items, such as these llamas fetuses, are meant to be offered to Pachamama, the supreme Andean mother earth goddess. The Spaniards equated Pachamama to the Virgin Mary to facilitate the conversion of the native to Catholicism, hence the Virgin Mary and Pachamama coexist side-by-side in the modern Bolivian pantheon.
In my earlier narrative of Copacabana, I described my first encounters with Cholitas. Cholitas, as they are affectionately known, are indigenous women who wear an adaptation of late 19th century European women’s clothing, usually a poofy gown, frilly petticoat, shawl, bowler hat, and long braided pigtails tied together at the ends.
The cholita archetype has its roots in the colonial era when Spanairds forced indigenous peoples to adopt European clothing “to rein in their subversive airs.” Over time, the cholita modified her attire to her liking, and now the cholita is a proud symbol of indigenous identity.
Until recently, Cholitas were stigmatized as lower-class peasants and forbidden from entering many establishments. They were even banned from Plaza Murillo, the civic heart of La Paz where the presidential palace sits. All this changed with the 2006 election of President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president.
Evo Morales is a controversial populist a-la-Chavismo who has fiercely championed the empowerment of Bolivia’s indigenous majority. By the same token, he has also fashioned the young democracy into a kleptocratic dictatorship.
Jonathan, a 25-year-old anthropology student I met through Couchsurfing, invited me on a trip to the Valley of the Spirits.
It’s called the Valley of Spirits because early explorers thought the pointy pinnacles resembled spirits reaching toward heaven.
We spent several hours sitting in front of this view before Jonathan noticed that the trio of pinnacles to the left have faces. I thought it was just our imagination, but he said such things are common in the valleys surrounding La Paz.
My reason for visiting Bolivia’s third city, Cochabamba, was that it was the site of the 2007 Guerra de Agua (“Water War”), a mass populist uprising that successfully reversed the World Bank’s forced privatization of the municipality’s water supply.
A young man I bought ice cream from in Cochabamba asked where I am from. I said Brazil. He got excited. He said he was Brazilian, too, and began speaking to me in Portuguese. Busted! I knew no Portuguese at the time,
Sucre, the White City
Sucre, “the white city” as it aptly nicknamed, is the cultural and historical capital of Bolivia and perhaps one of the most pleasant cities on the continent.
I spent a week in Sucre just applying to jobs in the US using the hostel WiFi. Sitting on the hostel porch at 2:00 AM one chilly evening, disillusioned with my career options and given over prematurely to despair, I decided my life goal would be to visit every country on earth. If I could do that, my life would be a success.
I was already more than a quarter of the way there, I realized, so why not finish what I started? The missions still stands to this day.
A few kilometers outside Sucre, a cement factory mistakenly uncovered a massive fossil sheet containing over 5,000 dinosaur footprints. You can’t get very close because there are private industrial facilities in the way, but it’s still incredible to see from a distance.
One my favorite places in Bolivia is gritty, half-abandoned mining town called Potosí. This is it? This is what I came for? I thought to myself during my first hours inspecting the moribund brown city. But Potosí is a lot more the meets the eye.
This cityscape, monochrome, poor, and neglected as it is, harbors within it an extravagant colonial core fitting of its former status as the epicenter of the Spanish Empire.
Looming beyond these cobble-stone streets is the reason for it all, the fabled Cerro Rico (Spanish for “Hill of Riches”) from which most of the global silver supply once originated. This is the hill that bankrolled the Spanish armada, the European renaissance, and the continuing conquests of the New World.
Potosi’s importance has dwindled with Cerro Rico’s mineral wealth. Today the mines are still active, but the hill has been hollowed to such an extent that it may collapse at any time and bring the city of Potosí down with it.
Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of indigenous miners have died within the mines under horrific circumstances, including mine collapses, gas leaks, dynamite explosions, and other such accidents.
Inside the Hill That Eats Men
It’s possible to tour the mines, though many choose not to because the tour is depressing and dangerous. Personally I consider it obligatory. If someone went through great suffering to extract the silver in your iPhone, the least you can do is see what that entails.
Donning hardhats and boots and carrying huge sticks of dynamite, we set out to the mines under the lead of a knowledgeable and charismatic ex-miner named Edgar.
Like most miners, Edgar was left disfigured from his years underground. He is partially deaf and partially blind. He walks with a limp and a hunched back. He counts himself as one of the lucky ones: most of his former colleagues died in accidents.
Edgar worships the devil. Centuries ago, the Spaniards told indigenous slaves that Satan would cause the mines to collapse on them if they didn’t mine fast enough. From the indigenous perspective, this meant Satan was an all-powerful god who needed to be constantly worshipped and appeased. They erected hundreds of statues in his honor across the mines,
To this day, the miners offer cigarettes beer, and coca leaves to the horned one in exchange for his blessings. They refer to him as Tio (Spanish for Uncle) because Dios (Spanish for God) is not pronounceable for native Quechua speakers.
The Salt Flats of Uyuni
From Potosí, I went to a most abandoned desert mining town called Uyuni. On the edge of town is a creepy train cemetery.
Trains transporting minerals to ports in Chile used to crisscross Uyuni. The last of the freight lines was decommissioned in the 1980s. The final resting place of the abandoned trains in the train cemetery just outside Uyuni town is a haunting sight.
Today Uyuni is known mostly as the jumping-off point of the vast and infinitely photogenic salt flat of the same name. The flat was created when a vast prehistoric salt lake connected to Lake Titicaca dried up leaving only salt behind.
The 2014 Dakar Rally passed through Uyuni leaving behind this monument in the middle of the salt flat along with the country flags of that year’s competitors.
This rocky cactus-covered outcrop was once an island in the prehistoric lake that spanned the region. During the rainy season, it briefly becomes an island again as the surrounding area floods.
The Atacama Desert
Where the vast white infinity of the salt flats ends, a new natural wonder begins: the Atacama Desert. Split between Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, the Atacama is littered with volcanos, sulfur lakes, geysers, and unusual rock formations.
The Atacama Desert is dotted by salt lakes that nourish one of the two ecosystems on earth that do not depend on the sun for energy. Instead, underwater volcanic vents spewing heat form the energy base on which life here survives.
When you’ve seen a good portion of the world, you are asked frequently which country is your favorite. It’s a question the well-traveled always struggle with no matter how many times they are asked. My answer evolved over time, but eventually it became clear to me that one country left more vivid and positive memories than the other sixty-four. That country is Bolivia.
This comes not on account of its people, who I found generally less friendly, hospitable, and open than most places. Nor was it on account of its food, which I would often shrink away from, or even its breathtaking nature, a category I tend to undervalue in any destination.
Ultimately it was something fuzzy, intangible, and beyond easy words that made Bolivia unforgettable. It was the chill that went up my spine every time I wondered if I were not invisible trying to communicate with strangers who pretended not to see or hear me. It was the eeriness of llamas fetuses dangling across a storefront, rusting trains sinking into desert sands, and the contours of prehistoric faces emerging ever so faintly from the Valley of the Spirits. It was the mystery of dinosaur footprints scrawled across vast rock sheets and ancient landscapes alien and indifferent to humans.
Bolivia, to me, is as unworldly as it gets.