La Paz. A capital city where El Presidente has a clock placed high up on the exterior of a government building — a beacon — ticking backwards. The timepiece is a statement, protesting the very idea of advancement. So, my first understanding of Bolivia was that El Presidente, Evo Morales, boasts his reign over a country in retrograde.
On the wall opposite that government building, the other side of the square, bullet holes are displayed like medals received in the last revolution, the one that took Morales to power and had the former Presidente fleeing into the arms of North America. Half a dozen expensive cars were parked outside Morales’s offices that day; an unembarrassed display of wealth that, together with the altitude, took my breath away.
La Paz is a city with steep, narrow streets lined with modern shops selling touristic gear and some really good restaurants serving excellent wines. Also, Witches Market, and the peddling of herbs, some unadulterated and some packaged commercially, alongside a whole array of good-luck-charms.
Yet it was only on leaving the city to explore the unusual landscape of Moon Valley that I started to realise something wonderful for our group but sad for the country; archaeological digs and places of interest were almost completely devoid of other tourists.
Nearly everywhere we went we were looked down upon by the snow capped Royal Range of Andean mountains, and so it was when we made our way to Lake Titicaca, and stayed in a Huatajata where we spied the night sky through a telescope without any light pollution and learned about the mystic ways of the Kallawayas.
Then onwards to Sun Island, where we watched the locals party dressed up in their finery. Dancing, flirting, passing out, and fighting after an excessive intake of alcohol.
A picture of good times.
However, in Candelaria, — a hacienda owned by the family of our guide for generations and previously in the possession of the Jesuits —we got to see the down side of a Morales government. Our guide and her mother bring visitors and employment to the village (also named Candelaria) but the house has not been renovated in over sixty years. Their kitchen was how I imagine the kitchen in Like Water for Chocolate, and the common rooms and bedrooms were straight out of how I imagined the doctor’s house to be in Love in the Time of Cholera. Our group loved the authenticity of the place, but if the hacienda was to be made into a luxury hotel it would benefit not only the owners but the whole community. Yet here’s the thing, even if mother and daughter managed to raise the money and refurbish, they would then run the risk of the government confiscating their property.
On to Sucre, the designated capital of Bolivia since 1825 when Simon Bolivar led his troops to independence. I found Sucre to be far more atmospheric and enchanting than La Paz, a little lower too, which made walking around a lot easier. We visited a convent where we learned about the hardship of the nuns who lived there in Spanish Colonial times, daughters whose lives were donated to the church in order to secure the religious standing of their family
And then to Potosi, and to the mine that has yielded gold, silver and tin over many generations, and to Bolivia’s ancestral mint where the tragic history of slave labour has been so vividly preserved.
On the way to our next stop — the largest salt flats in the world — we passed the town of Pulcayo where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed their last train. We had lunch in Uyuni, the kind of ghost town you might see in a spaghetti western and afterwards, paid our respects in the cemetery of dead trains, before continuing our journey to a hotel made entirely of salt.
The next day we explored some of the 4,000 miles of salt terrain including a strange cactus island,
and at the end of the day, witnessed one of the most mesmerising sunsets I have ever seen.
On our way back to La Paz we visited a wildlife sanctuary in the low jungle region of the country, and climbed high again, to a coca leaf plantation where we learned that the plant is two hundred times more lucrative than any other crop grown in Bolivia. The plant itself is legal. The locals both chew and make an infusion with the leaves to help with altitude sickness. But much of the crop is used to make cocaine for illegal export to the United States and beyond. El Presidente, an ex coca leaf grower himself, is keen to boost and promote coca leaf production, despite the plant being a drain on the fertility of the land. In 2008 Morales expelled the US Drug and Enforcement Administration from the country. He is currently, according to People with Money magazine, the highest paid politician in the world. His combined earnings total an estimated $58 million. Both the tourist and mining industries are in severe decline, but with a wage packet like that, and his clock ticking successfully backwards, I don’t suppose Morales is terribly concerned.
Bolivia, in my opinion, is a wonderful country. There is an absence of abject poverty, and its culture and history are beautifully conserved. It is authentic South America, a must see place, but also a far cry from a utopian paradise. Whilst young people dress up and dance joyfully through street festivals, every single road journey risks a protest blockade. And all the while, El Presidente's face looks down smugly from hoardings plastered all over the land.