From Cocaine to Monkeys: Bolivia, 10 First Impressions

Sometimes life’s complexities get in the way of a poetic narrative. Bolivia is proof of this.

Sacrifice Table on Isla del Sol - Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Sacrifice Table on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

The folds of Bolivia’s beauty – and its contradictions and struggles — defy a story line. It seems that every time we turn a corner, another piece of data in the form of an observation or conversation presents itself. Along the way, any pre-conceived notions that we might have had of Bolivia are further laid to waste, and the makings of a convenient narrative further deteriorated.

With this in mind, we share ten first impressions from our first two weeks as we sort through our thoughts and fill in our own canvas.

1. Inspirational Landscapes

The diversity of Bolivia’s natural landscape is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Panoramas are expansive, the pockets of desolation spectacular; a spectrum of colors and hues cascade down the frame of every photo. And where else can you climb from 2,200 meters through high desert to a mountainous 4,000 meters and back down through lush greenery to the jungle – all in the course of 100 kilometers and 2.5 hours?

And of course, as altitudes change, so do attitudes. Styles of life and socio-economy roll with the change of the land.

At an altitude of 3650 meters, La Paz, the de facto capital city of Bolivia, qualifies as one of the most dramatic urban landscape settings we have ever taken in. Homes are sewn into the surrounding hills unabated until they top out across the cities precipices. A range of snow-covered mountains, crowned by 6,400 meter (21,000 foot) Illamani peak, loom over the city.

Dusk Over La Paz, Bolivia
Dusk Over La Paz, Bolivia.

2. The Culture of Protest

History suggests that Bolivians enjoy the fine art of the protest. In fact, it’s a source of national pride. One Sunday in La Paz a group of flag-waving supporters of Evo Morales, the current president, marched in a political rally reminder of Bolivia’s upcoming national elections in December. Across town, the opposition (a ragtag bunch wrapped in yellow and red flags) were almost chased off the church steps by the police. This reminded us: when it comes to protests, cast a sharp eye as to who is funding the march.

Political Parades in La Paz, Bolivia
Political Parades in La Paz

Protest in the personal realm takes on an interesting appearance, too. Impatience turned to protest when a busload of angry passengers began shouting “Vamos!” (“Let´s go!”) to our bus driver as he sorted through official papers before departing the bus station. Individual shouts turned to orchestrated cries; even the children joined in. The voices became one: the battle cry of the Bolivian bus rider.

However, there seems a contradiction. When Bolivians discuss the broader injustices of their own society, they are often quick to dismiss them with, “Well, this is Bolivia. It´s what happens here.” This resignation finds its way from the insignificant – like the hotel’s reaction to having our phone stolen at the market – to the serious, including a woman’s reaction to the emblematic corruption of a local man paying off the police to look the other way when his taxi was found covered in a murdered man’s blood.

3. The Water Wars

No visit to Cochabamba would complete without at least one discussion of the infamous “water wars” that took place in early 2000. The prevailing narrative goes like this: Bechtel, an evil, extractive corporation once responsible for privatized water provision was driven out by a groundswell of grassroots protest (see #2). The Bolivian people took back their water – and the management thereof.

Many consider this particular example of people power a success. But at what price a Pyrrhic victory? If you speak to locals living in Cochabamba, approximately 50% of the residents in this city of 500,000 remain without access to water — now provisioned by a state-run company. Just goes to show that preemptive declarations of victory can be found at all edges of the political spectrum.

4. Coca and Cocaine

This is a gnarly one — so gnarly that we included it in the title and we’ll write a separate article about it next. Cultivation of coca leaves is a national tradition; chewing coca leaves is a national pastime. However, it is estimated that only 5-10% of coca leaf production is used for the relatively benign form of local consumption.

Coca Leaves for Sale - Huancavelica, Peru
Coca Leaves for Sale at the Market, Bolivia.

And the rest?

Although local cocaine consumption in Bolivia remains relatively low, the side-effects of cocaine production and its transport and export are numerous: polluted rivers, gasoline shortages, income inequality, corruption and crime. But a visit to Chapare, one of Bolivia’s heaviest coca production regions, helped us see first-hand the challenge of convincing local farmers to cultivate alternative crops.

5. “USAID Get Out of Bolivia”

There is apparently no love lost between the Bolivian people (or perhaps the current Bolivian government) and USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. From La Paz to Cochabamba, messages like the one above are frequent and clear: get out. Apparently, it worked in the Chapare region and USAID left in late 2008.

USAID Out of Bolivia - La Paz, Bolivia
USAID out of Bolivia.

But why the animosity?

One might imagine that coca farmers (Evo Morales, the president, was once a coca-grower himself) perceived that USAID projects were a de facto extension of the U.S. sponsored war on drugs and its companion coca eradication programs. The DEA (United States Drug Enforcement Agency) was kicked out of the region, too.

The great irony here: the police station we visited in nearby Cochabamba (in order to unsuccessfully report our stolen cell phone) was funded by – yep, you guessed it – USAID. Spiffy USAID stickers were plastered on the back of every chair and piece of equipment. Unfortunately, our Sunday visit showed us a police station that was relatively unattended, foreboding, derelict, and just plain falling apart.

6. Community Development and Microfinance

We’ve seen microfinance at work throughout Central and South America, but a visit with CIDRE, a Bolivian microfinance organization, illustrated how individual microloans can be used cooperatively for larger-scale community projects.

When a group of 28 dairy farmers needed a storage tank to control the temperature and quality of their milk, each took out an individual loan and pooled a portion of it for the purchase of the tank. Similarly, a community of over 20 farmers pooled their loans to purchase a pump and irrigation system for their fields. Prior to the system’s installation, the community could plant only once a year, depending on the rain. Today, the community manages three yields per year while carefully rotating crops to avoid stripping the land of its nutrients. A $6,000 loan changed the lives of at least twenty families.

7. A Little More Than “Camera Shy”

We have encountered some very kind interactions, particularly upon our entry into Bolivia and in and around Lake Titicaca. But to say that Bolivians are camera shy is an understatement. In a way, we were prepared for this. A Kiva Fellow working in the region shared with us the unmatched difficulties she encountered while trying to take photos of the organization’s Bolivian clients.

The suspicion of both cameras and outsiders often makes Bolivian people difficult to approach and to convey photographically. There are many historical and cultural explanations for Bolivians – particularly those from the indigenous community – to dislike cameras, but it saddens us to think we may not be able to share as much from this country’s wealth of human beauty as we have from others.

8. Food

Oh, how we wish we could wax lyrically about the beauty of Bolivian food. But alas, we cannot. Perhaps this is why sandwiches, hamburgers and pizzas seem to have become national dishes. However, there are some redeeming bites amidst the meat and potatoes and murky browns and grays. Take for instance the artistically presented, visually appealing salteña, a dough pocket stuffed with meat, potatoes and a stew-like broth.

Saltenas, a Favorite Bolivian Snack
Saltenas, A Favorite Bolivian Snack

9. The Only Americans

Are there any Americans on this bus?” the driver shouted down the aisle.

From Puno, Peru, our bus was scheduled to skirt the edge of Lake Titicaca and over the border to Copacabana, Bolivia. The bus was full of tourists, but we were the only two passengers to raise our hands.

Why single out the Americans? The bus driver just wanted to avoid delays at the border, for America has the distinction of being one of the very few western countries from which visitors are required to purchase a tourist visa to Bolivia.

Aside from a handful of Americans working and doing research in Bolivia, all the other travelers we’ve seen have been from everywhere but the U.S. We’re not exactly sure the reason. Perhaps it’s the rather stiff $135 price tag that drives so many Americans away.

10. Monkeys – Hugging, Licking, Grooming

At the edge of the Bolivian jungle, we popped in on Inti Wara Yassi, an animal sanctuary whose focus is rescuing and rehabilitating animal victims of the illegal pet trade. Although a puma, jaguar and spectacled Andean bear skulk around (all are usually leashed and require daily walks), monkeys rule the roost. A purported 1,500 of them amble and swing about the premises.

We made particularly good friends with the capuchin pictured here (yes, the one on the left). He even brought fruits and nuts from the brush for us to help crack. He placed the fruit in our hands and squeezed our fingers around it. Startlingly intelligent — and dare we say almost human-like.

Dan's New Buddy - Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia
Dan’s new buddy.

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Our early days in Bolivia were replete with discussions of politics and socioeconomy, particularly in and around Cochabamba. Perhaps as we head south and west to other parts of Bolivia, our intellectual and emotional loads will lighten. We also expect other regional personalities will evince themselves. Stay tuned for Bolivia Part 2, Lasting Impressions.

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Comments

  1. Pete De Ritter says

    My cousin RuthAnn and her husband Lonnie Hodge live in Cochabomba. I hope things are well with you guys. I was just telling the story of how we got to know each other and about your Grandfather a few days ago.

  2. says

    I had no idea that coca production was so huge in Bolivia. A friend of mine has most of her family in Colombia and she says that it is very much an unspoken but well-known issue that cocaine is being produced and trafficked by local farmers. She also mentioned that in Colombia, farmers refuse to grow other crops because coca is so profitable. And, frankly, I understand. If you are trying to feed your family and survive, does the potential harm to others in a far away land signify? In a way, it is like asking the American weapons engineer whether he feels ethically responsible for the lives lost in Iraq.

  3. says

    Always excellent and informative posts from you! We watched an excellent documentary about water in this world called “Flow” I think about how privatization of water is taking over the planet and it is very scary and extremely sad. Water should be available for everyone. If only the corporations that control our water would let it flow freely instead of damming and diverting it. So sad.

  4. says

    Great post and astute observations, as always. I too found Bolivians (both indigenous populations and otherwise) to be reticient to be in or near photos. In the Mercado de Hecheria, a woman actually threw fruit at my head because she thought I was taking her picture (I wasn’t) and then told me I’d need to buy her a llama fetus to make up for my Pyrrhic photo skillz. Ah good times. Re the coca farmers, it’s worth reading the chapter on coca leaves in The Devil’s Picnic. Good history and informative writing by Taras Grescoe. Looking forward to the Tupiza Tours writeup and seeing your optical illusions photos! – Jodi

  5. PaulineF says

    Fascinating post, and I do think there’s a narrative here (and not just a collection of observations). It seems like Bolivia is a country that’s very much in its own sphere and hoping to stay that way. What I’m getting from your writing is that contact from outsiders is accepted, but not embraced, whether that contact is social or political in nature. But despite that reticence, outside forces have been shaping life here–in the attempts at USAid (and control of narcotics), in the market for those narcotics, in the destruction of indigenous cuisine–mostly with negative results.

  6. says

    Yes, a $135 permission slip is a HUGE reason more Americans don’t go to Bolivia. Why would you when much more attractive Ecuador and Peru only make you pay 1/3 of that, and as an exit fee at the airport? (Less overland). Chile can get away with that because most of its visitors are on an expensive trip to Patagonia and this is just one small part of that. But if you’re coming to Bolivia as a backpacker, that’s a week’s worth of expenses, money not going to food, lodging, and transportation.

    To me that’s the government saying, “We don’t want you here.” (Just as our government is signaling the same thing to its visitors—and I don’t blame people for giving the U.S. a pass as a result.)

  7. says

    I enjoyed this piece and as (to my mom’s relief) we got to be travel buddies for some the time I vouch – these impressions impressed me – they’re honest. I look forward to part two especially after we visited that desert planet and its moons [that's where we went right?] . . . and Tarija – wine country always sounds lovely. Was it?

  8. says

    Thanks everyone for the very thoughtful comments. So many threads here. This is the sort of conversation we really enjoy.

    @Pete: Family in Cochabamba? Wish we knew. I think we are going to start putting itinerary details at the top of our “Where We’re Going” page for cases like this. The story of the balding spectacled bear is very sad (she looks like a rhino crossed with a Chinese crested dog, by the way).
    @Akila: You have made the case: economic incentive is one of the strongest forces alive in the realm of human behavior.
    @BrianJUY: We’ll be headed there sometime early next year, depending in part on our Argentina itinerary (after Bolivia and Paraguay).
    @Dave and Deb: Hopefully as humanity finds a way to make oil worthless, we can simultaneously tackle the scarcity of clean water. We are often shocked by how little value seems to be placed on nature and its resources…by corporations, individuals, interlopers and natives.
    @Jodi: Wow, and we thought we received some rough treatment. We actually had a fairly good experience at the Witches’ Market in La Paz, resulting in a 15-20 minute discussion with one of the indigenous vendors there. She began by explaining the various amulets, and we somehow ended up talking about our families, where we were from, etc. We’ll be sure to get our hands on the Devil’s Picnic. We have a growing “must read” list from our travels in Latin America. The Salar photos are up. We tended to focus on the natural, but there are a couple of photos in there of us doing tree poses atop a wine bottle:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/tag/goof/page1/
    @Pauline: You have read our observations very closely. From this piece, it’s fair to come to the conclusion that Bolivia is very much to itself in many ways. That said, we have headed east and the attitude appears to be changing – noticeably friendlier, more open, less insular. The only thing I would add: the outside influence has historically been from Europe and the U.S. In the current political environment, economic and political influence seems to be coming from Venezuela.
    @Tim: Certainly, the $135 visa fee plays a role in Americans visiting Bolivia. But how big a role, I’d hesitate to say without seeing data. There was a day (only a few years ago) before the reciprocity fee — and it’s not particularly clear that there were loads of American visitors then, either. Although the Bolivian visa fee may sound hefty, long-term travelers to Bolivia will more than make up the visa fee within a few weeks because the cost of travel is less than in Ecuador and Peru. On the subject of worthwhile sights, we found the Bolivian salt flats to be amazing. Coupling that with a visit to Lake Titicaca, La Paz, the jungle and drinking some nice inexpensive wines here in Tarija, a case could be made to visit Bolivia and amortize/spread the $135 over the life of your trip.
    @Gaea: Part 2 is being brewed as we speak. Tarija is quite different in temperament than the rest of the Bolivia, particularly the altiplano. And yes, the wine. Always helps to have some reasonably priced good food and wine around to help one contemplate a place.

  9. Blaž says

    Huh, I was touched by the story of the monkey placing fruits into your hands and wrapping your fingers arround … I would have melted at site!

    Keep well!
    Blaž

  10. says

    @Blaž: Our monkey friends at the sanctuary were incredible. The one that I’m pictured with (who wrapped my fingers around the fruit and also brought nuts to crush under my foot) was especially clever.

  11. Carlos Zarate says

    I was so pleased to stumble upon your web site however as i was very disappointed by your superficial impressions, comments and misunderstanding of Bolivia. Probably best not to take the local customs and law so personally, especially traffic – did you drive in that madhouse? I almost went crazy before i realized i was in an entirely different paradigm. Bolivia IS the uncornered market…

    I guess first impression are mostly determined by prejudice (pre-judgement), but let me see if i can help dispel some of your misconceptions.
    # 2 Please don’t confuse resignation with acceptance, that is they way thing are, but corruption is not exclusive to Bolivia, by any means, just look around wherever you are right now – it may not be readily apparent but it is there.
    # 3 I say water with crap is better than water from Bechtel, sad thing is the water with crap is affordable. When Becthel declared that all the water (even the rain water) was the property of this US San Francisco based company, the people of Bolivia where willing to protest, fight and die for the right to claim that the water of Bolivia belongs to the people of Bolivia.
    # 5 Nothing is free, please look at the impact of these USAID gifts of good will. They make the poor people of world, not only Bolivia dependent while destroying local agriculture self sufficiency and the self pride that comes from being SELF sufficient. I applaud Bolvians for wanting to stand on their own two feet.
    # 8 your crazy! or addicted to Micky-DeeDeeDees, either way your crazy; Sajta de pollo, Puca-capas, aji de fideo, Kara pecho, Majadito, sopa de mani, Chairito, chicharron, fricase, chuno puty, ala-ap-tapi, ummmmm so good. And did you taste the beef, a $3.00 asado from the mercado is better than any 100$ Chris Ruth’s stake any day of the week.

    # 9 Its called reciprocity, 135$ is the same cost that any Bolivian is charged by the US embassy to apply for a US visa- not to be granted one (most are rejected-and loose the $135. So imagine if you from a wealthy country feel cheated to have to pay 135 to GET a visa, most Bolivians have donate 135 $ just to apply to get one. All most get is a visit to heavily secured interior of the US embassy in La Paz to be told NO! Not even a thank you for your $135.

    Final thought on your phone, what did you expect everyone to jump up and do something? In America if they break into your house and steal everything you own the police will come and take a report, that is it, they will then file it at the end of the day and nothing will ever happen-whats the difference?

    Thanks for your writing, I really appreciated reading it. I hope that on your next trip you travel with an even lighter pack.

    Thank you, Namaste.

    -Carlos

  12. says

    @Carlos: Thanks for your long comment and sharing your thoughts on some of what we wrote above during our two-month visit to Bolivia in 2009. We spent over 15 months in Latin America so while we can never understand the local situation as well as a local, we were talking with local Bolivians in cities and rural areas in forming some of the impressions you see above. The fifteen months we spent in Latin America also provided some comparisons and contrasts. I’m sorry if you found some of these observations as offensive.

    If you read some other posts on our website, you will see that we agree that corruption is universal (but takes different forms everywhere), what the US charges for visas is ridiculous as it doesn’t guarantee an actual visa, and how big aid and organizations can do more harm than good (this is why we like working with certain microfinance organizations).

    Food is subjective to personal tastes and so we were just sharing our opinion, even after eating many of the dishes you had recommended. As for the reaction to a stolen phone, we were comparing the reaction to a similar theft (small camera) in another Latin American country where we had a very easy time getting a report for our insurance company. Thefts happen everywhere – it’s just part of traveling so we don’t take it personally.

    Thanks again for sharing your perspective and hope you enjoy some of the other posts on Bolivia from our visit!

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