In some areas little has changed in hundreds of years
Well, we obviously were not here a hundred years ago but women in Andean towns and villages probably at that time looked very similar, wearing colorful clothes, often carrying a baby on their back.
But there are other aspects of life in Bolivia as well where you think time has been standing still for decades. On the altiplano, much of which is above 4.000m, people still live mostly from agriculture and nearly no buildings have heating. When it gets freezing cold during the night the answer is simple: more blankets. This is also true for hostels by the way, you have to pay a lot extra to get a heated room.
Infrastructure in many parts of the countries has improved a lot during the last years. Still, there are quite a few railway lines that used to operate but since have gone out of business. Speaking of infrastructure…
Bolivia has appalling infrastructure
Especially compared to some neighboring countries such as Chile, Bolivia still has a lot of catching up to do in terms of infrastructure. In Copacabana, which is on the shores of Lake Titicaca and sees a ton of tourists, some people have no water in their houses. This is also one of the places by the way where there is hardly any heating in the houses.
Speaking of access to water, this seems to be a general problem in many cities here. La Paz is sometimes running dry due to a terrible water distribution system. Cochabamba occasionally has periods where people only get access to water a few hours per day. At least to us tourists this seems a problem that would be possible to solve, given all the fresh water lakes and mountains in the area.
Finally, one specific local situation struck us as peculiar. Everybody who goes from Copacabana to La Paz by car or bus has to cross Lake Titicaca by ferry. Also, they have to take a separate boat from their vehicle since their car/ bus could fall into the water due to high waves (has happened before). It seems that building a bridge would easily be worth it over the long term but there does not seem to be any funding for this…
The Spanish of the Bolivian’s is surprisingly clear and easy to understand
Only after having left Bolivia (and also Peru for that matter) did we realize how clear the pronunciation was here. With our modest Spanish skills we were still able to understand 95% of what the people were saying to us. In Chile and especially the northern coast of Columbia things were totally different… 🙂 Bolivians do not swallow any letters and also seem to speak rather slowly, maybe a symptom of the overall speed of life here…
Politics are and have always been in the hands of a tiny elite
Little seems to have changed since the territory was governed by the exploitative Spanish Empire. At least this is the impression we got when learning about today’s Bolivia. These days for instance international conglomerates (Chinese companies spearheading this apparently) mine the country’s abundant resources and pollute the environment in the process.
When it comes to national politics there is no way around Evo Morales. Evo, si! Is painted on sheds and farms all over the altiplano. South America’s first indigenous president seems to divide the country. He is obviously hugely popular among some parts of the, mostly indigenous, population. On the other hand we spoke to many Bolivians who called him extremely corrupt and authoritarian. The fact that he overruled a referendum to change the constitution allowing him a third term as president is just one sign of this kind of behavior of him.
As a former president of the Union of Coca growers, he is now dubbed South America’s biggest drug Lord. He has been in power since 2006 and his new constitution allows him to stay in power for much longer.
The goverment owns all major news channels and opposition politicians are slighly eliminated through alleged corruption scandals and other shady tactics. When we were there the mayor of Cochabamba, an Evo critic, had been accused of corruption based on bying backpacks for students that were too expensive. It is not hard to understand why people were protesting waving banners saying “Salva la Democracia!”
In an case, the cocaleros seem to enjoy an unprecendented time of expansion. National Parks are shrinkimg to make more space for coca trees, the cultivation of which sadly pollutes the water supply.
Bolivia has a national trauma over losing the coast to Chile
It turns out Bolivia was about twice it’s current size when it was founded during the legendary quest of Simon Bolivár for a unified independent South America. The country then lost a big chunk of its territory through a series of wars to nearly all its neighboring countries. Of all those losses it seems that the loss of territory during the Salpeter war to Chile hurt the most since this meant losing access to the sea. Even though there are now free trade routes in place, Bolivia is still fighting for this piece of land and we heard many stories about the war. It seems that Bolivia (rightly so) has not yet overcome the trauma of losing this land…
Bolivia is a country of wild and rare beauty
Lastly, any summary about Bolivia is not complete without a reference to its incredibly beautiful landscapes. While some stretches of land are rather homogeneous and uneventful, there are some areas that truly look out of this world. Simply take the bus from Copacabana to La Paz (make sure you sit of the left side) and you will be breath-taken by the beauty of the Cordillera mountains, many more than 6.000m high. Probably on of the most beautiful, unforgettable and literally awesome landscapes we have ever seen was in Bolivia’s south-west when we drove in a Jeep from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile – see our post here.