Reflections of Bolivia

July 7-13, 2007
Day 647-653

Picture of La Paz.

La Paz, with Illimani in the background, and a sign for Evo Morales in the foreground.

My plan after getting back from the mountains was to rest a few days and catch up on some menial tasks. I washed my tent and all of my clothing, cleaned out my stove and pots, and bought a few small things I knew I'd need soon. I was soon ready to head to Peru.

I went to the bus station to buy my ticket, but the lady at one company said she couldn't sell me one until Friday. I thought that was strange and went to the next company. This time the salesperson told me the same, but added that there was a strike in Peru and all of the roads leading into the country were blocked. Every other company I talked to gave similar advice. It sounded like it was the miners once again. I got lucky a week ago when I missed the mining strike in Bolivia that left some of the main roads blocked. This time I wasn't so lucky and would have to wait a few days for the roads to open back up again.

It all seems to be happening in this region right now. Besides the mining strikes in both Peru and Bolivia, the bakers in La Paz recently went on strike, leaving no bread in the entire city. It started snowing in El Alto, and with no infrastructure for snow removal, many of the roads became impassible. I saw a bunch of kids and teenagers walking down the road one day dressed up like witches and shouting, but it turned out that they were just on there way to watch the latest Harry Potter film (yeah, it's even popular in Bolivia). There are protests in Sucre because the government wants La Paz to be the only capital of Bolivia, whereas Sucre has maintained its historical capital identity for decades. This latest strike will apparently shut down all commerce in La Paz one day next week. The city still seems peaceful, however. The only reason I know all of this stuff is happening is because the local people tell me. There are protests almost constantly in Bolivia, but they rarely turn violent.

Picture of beer sign.

A beer sign boasts La Paz's altitude of 3593 meters, while the much higher Illimani sits in the background.

In the meantime I spent some time hanging out with Keru, a local Pace?ño I met when I came to the city after the animal park, and his friends. We watched several Copa America soccer games, in which the US lost all of its games, Brazil barely beat Uruguay in the semifinals in a shootout, Argentina crushed Mexico in the other semifinal game, and Brazil easily won the championship, as expected. We also went to El Alto to visit the largest flea market in South America. Absolutely anything you could possibly want was for sale there. We saw tools, old t-shirts, bootleg CD's and DVD's, refrigerators, cars, and much, much more. I heard the Brewers were doing well this year, so I bought a new Brewers hat for $3. Leo got a Tickle Me Elmo for $2.50 and a "Pig Floyd: Pork Side of the Moon" t-shirt for $1.25. It took all day to see only twenty-five percent of the fair, and I was told that it was empty because it was a weekday. Oh yeah, the view of La Paz and the surrounding mountains was great too..

Bolivia is a great country to visit. There are so many interesting and unique things to see and do here. For example...

The Jungle: You can take a tour in the Amazon rain forest and discover the vast diversity of wildlife that exists there, or you can do as I did (twice) and buy a canoe and paddle it down an Amazon tributary to your heart's content. Or, if you really want, you can volunteer at an animal park walking through the jungle with a puma, no experience necessary.

The Mountains: There are several incredible mountain ranges in Bolivia. You can undertake treks that require major expeditions, like those in the Cordillera Apolobamba, or ones for which you don't even need a stove, tent, or guide, like those in the Cordillera Real. And if walking around the mountains isn't enough for you, you can also climb them. There are 6000-meter peaks that are climbable by anyone with a reasonable level of fitness, and those that require extreme technical climbing skills.

Culture: The European conquests have touched Bolivia less than any other country in South America. Outside the big cities, many people still speak native languages like Aymara and Guarani before they learn Spanish. People still practice ancient rituals like burying a llama fetus in their yard to ward off evil spirits. There are villages all over with no modern technology where life still is almost the same as it was before the Spanish arrived in South America. There are even still uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, not that I'd recommend visiting them. Even La Paz is interesting, sitting in a "bowl" at 3500 meters, with its mixture of (a small amount of) European influence and native traditions.

Unique Experiences: You can ride a bicycle down the world's most dangerous road. Or visit a silver mine with almost no modern technology. Or drive across the world's largest salt lake. Or see geysers erupting at 5000 meters at temperatures well below freezing (or at least try). Or see flamingos on colorful high altitude lagoons. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Money: If you don't have much of it, Bolivia is the place to be. You can get a hotel room for $2. Restaurant meals normally cost anywhere from fifty cents to $1. I once had a meal of soup, bread, salad, rice, a milanesa de pollo (a flat breaded piece of chicken), desert, and a glass of juice for sixty-three cents in La Paz. You can get a licuado (a smoothie of banana, papaya, strawberry, or a number of other fruits blended with milk) for twenty-five cents, or a large glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice for eighteen cents. A taxi across the city will cost $1, but if that's too much, you can take the bus for eighteen cents. And my favorite thing, the Internet, will cost you a quarter an hour to use.

Of course, Bolivia is a very poor country. A lot of people say it's dangerous, but if you take some simple precautions, it's unlikely anything bad will happen to you. I spent six months traveling around Bolivia and never got robbed there. The tourism infrastructure is bad, and you have to build a few extra days into your schedule for the inevitable delays, but travel there can be quite rewarding. For now the tourists who do come to Bolivia are almost all backpackers with very few high-end tours finding their way into the country. Still, Bolivia can be a great travel destination for anyone with some time, lots of patience, and a heart for adventure.

The photo album for this entry is here.

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