Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bolivia-a Third World Dream

     If you are a lover of traditional culture or an avid photographer, an admirer of spectacular scenery or just someone who enjoys being in a place that is dramatically different from your customary surroundings, Bolivia might be just your cup of tea. The landlocked boundaries of the country contain a very high percentage of Indians who settled there long before the Conquistadors sailed to the New World. Many of them still speak the languages their ancestors did during Inca rule and a great number dress very much the same today as they did hundreds of years ago.

     A prominent feature of Bolivia is that it is one of the pathways into the Amazon Jungle. The eastern part of the country is rain forest. I went into the Amazon on an earlier trip to Peru so I did not explore the Bolivian rivers but I understand that they are equally interesting. The western part of the country is primarily Andean. One typically starts in the capital, La Paz, and just the experience of landing at El Alto, the town after which the airport is named, is an adventure in itself. Imagine stepping out of a plane onto ground that is elevated over 13,000 feet high. The oxygen is low and the challenge is high. If one works too hard or otherwise ignores the altitude, the price is a few days of vacation in bed, feeling horrible and missing the sites of La Paz. The capital itself is a startling place for the visitor. Along the streets one encounters Indians dressed in century old style. Most of the rural Indian women wear wide, flowing skirts and artistically woven, colorful cloths. Since the weather can get quite cool in the highlands, the outfits are mostly wool from the llamas and cover the entire body. The head ware is also quite unusual. Usually, women wear black bowler hats. In some Andean towns people wear miner's hats or hats which mimic those of the Colonial era. There are wonderful, brightly colored weavings sold in most of the towns and cities.

     My favorite shopping town in South America is Tarabuco, nestled in the mountains. Just walking down the street one can select from a variety of local crafts, especially woven goods of high quality, see the people wearing completely traditional clothing and observe the greatest variety of hats I have ever seen anywhere. Equally interesting is the town of Potosi where the Spaniards mined an enormous amount of gold and silver during their occupation of the area. There still stands a very interesting mint in the town containing a fine collection of coin presses and a comprehensive assortment of the coinage produced in the building over the years. The visitor can descend into a working mine in this delightful town and get an idea of what the miner's experience is even today. A gift for the miners you will meet, a visit to the shrine to honor miners who died there and a stop to say hello to El Tio, a fantastic, devil like creature, who protects the mine are necessities. There have been reports about child labor on this site so inform yourself ahead of time. Going into the mine was a travel highlight for me: don't miss the opportunity if you get there.

       Another must stop in Bolivia is Lake Titicaca. There are thousands of Indians in the villages surrounding this high, freshwater formation. Several dialects that were common at the time of the Inca are still spoken there. The lake is full of reeds which the locals often weave into sailing boats that the fishermen have used for centuries. One can purchase miniatures of these intricate artifacts which take a good amount of skill to fashion. They come in all sizes. On the lake, there are a number of small islands fashioned from the reeds where the Uros Indians actually live. They do their fishing from boats or holes cut into the islands right outside of their reed huts. This group also wears a distinctive, traditional dress. Their marital status is advertised by their headdress so no innocent mistakes are possible. Nearby the ancient Tiwanaku culture has left impressive monuments many of which have yet to yield their age old secrets. If you are so motivated, the little town of Casablanca on the shores of Titicaca has a church where the priest will bless your vehicle to insure your safe journey. Bring a little gift for the church or the priest if you want a blessing.  Bolivia has a great variety of offerings for the visitor even if its tourist infrastructure is limited. But that is why we call such places part of the Third World. Don't go to Bolivia for fancy hotels. Travel there for amazing scenes, varied cultural sites, beautiful Andean views, fascinating people and all the rest that one finds off the beaten path.

Woman, Murillo Square, La Paz, Bolivia

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