One of the items at the top of my lifelong bucket list had been to visit the Galapagos Islands. My husband helped me check that item off my list when he found a travel package a few years ago that included Bolivia, Machu Picchu, and the Galapagos, with lots of unexpected treats in addition. As we started the trip, I was thinking I’d more or less just be going along for the ride until we hit the Galapagos. How wrong I was.
Things I learned about the fascinating country of Bolivia:
1. The Andean plateau is very high. We flew from sea level in Miami to an altitude of 13,325 ft when we landed at El Alto International Airport near La Paz, the second highest commercial airport in the world after the one in Bangda, Tibet. Wow. That definitely affects your ability to breathe for a few days. Drinking the requisite coca tea and taking it easy for a few days helped us acclimatize, but we were reminded to treat high altitude with respect!
2. Spanish conquistadors didn’t restrict their early presence in South America just to the accessible coastline. La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia, sits at nearly 12,000 ft. in a high canyon cut by a river and surrounded by mountains, including at least one that is always snow-capped. And it’s oozing with history. The Spanish conquistadors established a settlement there in 1548, although, of course, it was already an established indigenous settlement. You aren’t in Bolivia for very long before the predominance of indigenous people is obvious, and not just because of their wonderful colourful clothing. There are lots of them. At 60%, Bolivia has the highest percentage of indigenous people of any country in North or South America. And Bolivians just got their first indigenous president in 2006. They waited for Evo Morales for a long time.
La Paz has a unique market called the Witches’ Market at which you can buy regional farmer’s market produce and crafts, plus in-demand ingredients for Aymara rituals and other folk remedies such as llama fetuses (for prosperity), dried frog talismans, stone amulets, owl feathers, herbs and related goods. Ward off bad spirits, get help passing your exams, or cast a spell on your boss. We just looked!
3. Peru may have Machu Picchu, but why hadn’t I heard of Bolivia’s Tiwanaku? Tiwanaku, or Tiahounaco in Spanish, is an extensive archeological site of pre-Inca settlement, with impressive architectural features and elaborate carvings. An early Spanish explorer found these ruins in 1549 while looking for the Inca capital; meanwhile, the world-famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu were only discovered (aka made known to the outside world) in 1911. [Of course, local Quechuas were actually living in the structure and took Hiram Bingham to it, but still!] Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there’s an archeological site on Earth that could possibly be more impressive than Machu Picchu – the setting would rank right up there even without the ruins – but why wouldn’t we have heard of the Tiwanaku ruins and culture, even if it’s on flat terrain?!
4. I had heard of Lake Titicaca, but I couldn’t have imagined such vibrant and interesting communities, nor could I have imagined the beauty of a very large, clear lake sitting at 12,500 ft., rimmed with the snow-covered Andes. Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake and South America’s largest fresh water lake, which I vaguely knew. But I didn’t know about the Uros, indigenous people who pre-date the Incas and who live on artificial islands they make of reeds. Not surprisingly, they also make their fishing boats out of reeds. In fact, one of the Uros boat builders helped adventurer Thor Hederdahl build his second reed boat, Ra II, which Hederdahl subsequently sailed successfully from Morocco to Barbados, proving that this could have been done by earlier people.
5. I knew there was Copacabana in Rio, but not at Lake Titicaca. A visit to the town of Copacabana on the southwestern shore of Lake Titicaca is a lovely experience. Our lady of Copacabana is the patron saint of Bolivia, and this town has a basilica to do her proud. Outside the doorsteps of the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana sit numerous vendors who are selling amulets and totems for every conceivable need. Bolivians seem to have done a good job of seamlessly integrating their strong adherence to Catholicism with their indigenous spiritual beliefs, and people buy everything from tiny models of a house or a car to little packets of fake money to place at an alter or shrine along with lighting a candle and saying a prayer. One of our favourite sights in Copacabana was witnessing a long line-up of cars, trucks and buses, all decorated with ornaments and flower garlands, and with hoods all raised with engines likewise decorated, waiting to be blessed by a priest and sometimes also a shaman. This is a weekly ritual blessing. We were told that it was a welcomed alternative to car insurance, which wouldn’t be affordable!
We only touched on Bolivia, but it has stayed with us. We were in the Andean part of the country, high up. A great deal of the country is in lowlands, forming part of the Amazon basin. Bolivia has vast contrasts in geography and climate, from glaciers to tropical rainforests, from high cold deserts to low hot deserts, and even with some moderate forests thrown in for good measure. One interesting geographical feature is the Uyuni Salt Flats; aside from its unique beauty, it is the source of about 60% of the world’s known lithium reserves. Bolivia is blessed with many other natural resources as well. So much potential. So many challenges. I love that the official name of the country is the Plurinational State of Bolivia to reflect their multiethnic character. And I love that they have a Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, which accords nature the same rights as humans. Bolivia, you have my fervent wish for an increasingly bright future – for everyone.
Bolivia/Peru/Galapagos: #3 of our top 5 favourite trips of all time.
Photo credits: andes-amazonia.com (map), Howard Fritz