I’m writing this post from a charming little hostel on a hill overlooking Lake Titicaca.
We’ve been in Bolivia for about a month and have a week left, and we’ll be coming back after our month in Patagonia. I’ve visited many countries in my very fortunate life, and Bolivia tops the list for being one of the coolest.
Here’s why. In no particular order.
1. It’s literally cool.
Bolivia does have portions of the Amazon which are probably really hot, but my first impression of Bolivia, arriving at La Paz airport from the Peruvian Amazon, was seeing my breath fog in the air and seeing people wearing ski jackets. Everywhere we’ve been has been over 8,000 feet, and it’s awesome to wear jeans and my favorite flannel again.
Kind of feels like we’re enjoying autumn and winter with the folks at home, too. (Aw, do we miss home? Sure do.)
2. La Paz is a huge bustling capital city in a canyon.
Flying in, we saw the snow-capped Andes towering over the clouds, and we descended onto the Andean plateau, where the grid of an earthen city sprawled out against the cold wind. The snowy peaks surround the lip of La Paz’s canyon, and then we descended and a massive city unfurled before us like waves. La Paz is a city of texture – roads rise and fall, neighborhoods are traversed by staircases, and we’re always heading up or down.
3. The capital of this poor country has one of the coolest public transportation systems I’ve ever seen.
As an American, I’ve been shamed by the public transportation systems in London, Paris, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur – but for Philadelphia to be put to shame by La Paz … shaking my head.
The people of La Paz use the Teleferico, an aerial cable car, to commute, so when they head to work, they basically fly over this beautiful city full of crags, canyons, and cliffs, overlooked by white and gray mountain peaks.
4. Dramatic landscapes.
Leaving La Paz toward the north or south, soft, golden hills glow in the sunset, with little pueblos and livestock dotted throughout, and beyond, the jagged, white peaks of the Andes. Heading toward Lake Titicaca, the plateau gradually climbs until trees begin replacing the scrub. Heading south and then east, we climbed over the mountains.
The tortuous road gradually rose up into the mountains and wound its way among lichen-covered, silvery rocks, the clumps of grass clinging to the earth against the wind. A shrine with a cross and cairns marked the highest point, and the descent chased after waterfalls, yielding larger and larger flora until finally bushes became trees.
In the darling town of Quime we spent three days hiking the lush valley, made even more beautiful by stands of blue eucalyptus among the green hills. Sheep and llamas grazed along walks we took on mining roads. Pigs browsed on the streets and the stairs that led steeply up to our Spanish-style hostel nestled in a garden.
We hiked up amongst cascading waterfalls to a lake in the summits. The fairytale beauty suddenly gave way to alarm. Lightning bolts streaked across the sky. “Let’s not climb a mountain in a thunderstorm,” Aaron said, and we descended again as hail pelted us. Even the weather took on an ominous beauty, and a magical drama.
5. When the president arrives, everyone parties.
While we were in Quime, the president flew in by helicopter, and his arrival for a 10-minute speech and a two-hour series of self-congratulatory speeches by local dignitaries created a two-day party. The town footed the bill for chickens, potatoes, and plantains to be roasted in pits in the ground. Woodwind bands accompanied by drummers hypnotically droned the same ancient tunes as ladies danced, spinning their skirts, for hours and hours.
Evo Morales is campaigning to have the constitution amended to allow him more terms as president. I don’t want to get too political, but there are two really cool things about the president, and Bolivia, I want to address.
One, Bolivia has long had a reputation as being the poorest country in South America – and that is evident on the high plateau, where people scratch potatoes out of the wind-swept earth with little more than sheer tenacity, while living in mud pueblo houses with thatch roofs, their cows and llamas nipping at stunted grass.
But, Evo’s investments in Bolivia during his ten-year tenure are obvious. In all the towns we’ve visited so far, there’s tons of economic activity. People are spending money, people have money for movies and dinners and nice clothes.
I’ve been to a number of places in my life and yes, Bolivia’s plateau is one of the poorest places I’ve seen, just in terms of a dearth of resources. It’s a desert. However, Bolivia’s towns and cities are bustling and thriving.
The other cool thing about Bolivia’s president was how close I could get to him. Ladies took selfies by the stage as he spoke. There’s no way anyone would be able to do that with a leader from the United States.
I don’t mean to blow anyone’s whistle here. We’ve been in Bolivia a short time and don’t understand the nuances of the country’s politics or economics. There are plenty of problems, which are plainly evident. This is just an impression of the general welfare of the people we’ve come across.
We have one week left in this little Andean country before we head down to Chilean Patagonia, but we’ve enjoyed it so much that we’re coming back after our Christmas trek. So stay tuned for more Bolivia, next week and beyond.