Country Number 57
When? August 2000 coming overland from Peru
How? Train, car, boat, bus
Who? With friend Elaine
Departure from Lake Titicaca and the Islas de Sol, to Bolivia is as mesmerizingly beautiful as our arrival via Peru. More crystal blue waters, more snow-capped mountains in the background, the Cordillera Real. A car awaits and we set off for La Paz, through the highest mountains in South America. We dip into the picturesque town of Copacabana. This is the original – the more famous beach area in Rio is actually named after this lakeside settlement, which has cobbled roads, an old Spanish cathedral, and a small bustling market. The last two are intertwined.
La Paz is arguably the capital of Bolivia – the government is located here, but Sucre is the constitutional capital. La Paz is also arguably the highest capital city in the world (if it is the capital). Lhasa is 58 metres higher, but Tibet is an ‘autonomous’ region of China. Whatever, it’s scenically situated in a steep-sided bowl lined with a sprawl of adobe and red-brick buildings and framed by more white tipped mountains. It’s an odd city to wander around. It feels chaotic, disorganised and untidy. There aren’t many landmarks other than the statues in Plaza Murillo and San Francisco Church. The famous Witches’ Market is a fascinating (and creepy) hotch potch of weird items: spell boxes, amulets, lotions and potions, llama foetuses (essential for the foundations of new buildings), aphrodisiacs, snakes, dried frogs, turtles, feathers and armadillos. Presiding over this hocus pocus are the ladies of La Paz in their scarves and bowler hats. They adopted the hat wearing habit from the railway workers of the 1930s. Also wandering the labyrinth of stalls are the distinctively woolly capped Yatiri or witch doctors, who can solve your health problems and tell your fortune.
We’ve decided to opt out of the cycle ride down the deadliest road in the world, but other excursions are on offer. The lunar landscape of Moon Valley, just outside of the city, is a stark contrast to the urban maze with its wind-eroded rock pinnacles.
We’ve also met an archaeologist, in a bar, so on his recommendation, we embark on a half-day tour to the Tiwanaku Archaeological Site, where he is excavating. The Tiwanaku Empire was a pre-Incan civilisation (200BC), inhabiting both the Bolivian and Peruvian sides of Lake Titicaca. There are miniature pyramids, temples and a gate, dotted with stone faces and mysterious carvings. Much of the work is still underway and we have to peer at these wonders through barbed wire.
Landlocked Bolivia is the highest and most isolated country in South America.
The official capital is Sucre, the government is based in La Paz and the largest city is Santa Cruz de la Sierra
The country was once the centre of the ancient Tiwanaku Empire and from the fifteenth to the early sixteenth century it was ruled by the Incas. After the arrival of Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors, Bolivia was subsumed within the Viceroyalty of Peru. Spain built its empire in great part upon the silver that was extracted from Bolivia’s mines. The republic was finally established in 1825, after many years of war, named for Venezuelan Simón Bolívar, El Libertador. More war followed, with Bolivia losing control of several parts of its territory, including the seizure of its piece of Pacific coastline, by Chile in 1879.
Though historically rich in mineral and energy resources, Bolivia is one of South America’s poorest countries
To see more of my photos of Bolivia, visit this page.