My Bolivian Debacle

Ok guys, I know it’s only the second blog but we are gonna take a break from Peru already (or are we?) to delve into my excursion through Bolivia. I had about a week to travel south of Cusco after I finished my Spanish schooling and once I reached Puno and saw the sun rise of Lake Titicaca, I simply had to see what was on the other side. Despite the $135 price I had to pay that is required for a United States citizen to acquire a visa, my trip was definitely worth it

Lake Titicaca how you beckon me.

(besides, what’s a little dose of our own outrageously expensive US immigration tactics). While I ended up spending 4 nights out of my week on night buses on the ridiculously bumpy roads of Bolivia, this allowed me to see as much of the amazing natural and cultural wonders of Bolivia one could fit into a week. Though I have much more to see (definitely within the next 5 years before my visa runs out), I was able to get a taste of a country that is persistently dedicated in identifying itself apart from Peru, while in reality they share a history inevitably tied together through the land, the people, and the culture that have created the modern day Andes. Peru and Bolivia share so much more than the shores of Lake Titicaca, and perhaps what drew me to Bolivia was an attempt to understand the country I will be residing in for the half a year through the view of its wild brother to the south.

I started out my Bolivian sidebar after crossing the border at Kasani with my Bolivianos in hand, which are extremely inflated even compared to the Nuevo Sol, Peru’s currency. I ended up walking the 8 km to Copacabana because of my frustration with immigrations and my impatience of waiting for the combi to fill up with enough people to drive there. I was surprised at how deserted the border actually was, but in retrospect I realize that most people cross the border in tourist buses while I had decided to do it myself (which is decidedly less expensive, yet way more of a pain in the ass). Needless to say, the  walk ended up being a gift in disguise in the amazing views I had as I passed through the rural villages that have subsisted along the shores of Lake Titicaca for thousands of years. On my way, I happened upon a cluster of archaeological sites including the remains of a colonial church, which was located among the backdrop of an enormous outcrop of rock that was home to some pre-Incan sites, named Cantera de Locka (I’m guessing it was a quarry of some form from the word “cantera”). If I would not have had a deadline of sunset and six more kilometers to go then I definitely would have climbed up to see those sites, but you can see the hike I would have had to undertake from the photosynth I took.

As a side note, besides being a stop over for excursions to Isla del Sol, Copacabana is home to an absurd ritual during August in which Catholics flock to the beautiful Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana to receive the blessing of mobility on their vehicles.

I finally arrived to the picturesque town of Copacabana, that may not be the same Copacabana in Brazil that is the hottest spot north of Havanna, but still is a beauty in its own right. After I walked down to the the beach to find the first restaurant I could find, I struck a conversation with my waiter. Humberto was a Chilean who had traveled all around South America, yet had found nowhere comparable to Copacabana. As I watched the sun set on the shores of Lake Titicaca, I could definitely see where he was coming from. In the course of two days I had worked my way around the massive borders of Lake Titicaca in order to see both a sunset and sunrise on this beautiful lake (one in Peru and the other in Bolivia… Impressive, yes?)

The next day I caught a boat to the fabled Isla del Sol where according to legend, Manco Capac arose from a sacred rock here to go on and to found the city of Cusco and form the great Incan empire. Ok, so this may not be true and is among quite a few other versions of Inca origin, but regardless it can be seen why these legends were inspired from the beauty of the largest island on Lake Titicaca. Though there has been evidence of human occupation on the island as far back as Archaic times, its Incan heritage remains the definitive marker of the island. The most striking features that immediately stunned me upon arrival was simply the view of the lake surrounded by the ice-capped mountains of Bolivia in the distance. This honestly was one of the views that will stay with me for life, and really made it seem possible that the beginnings of an empire could have began here. As I made my way around the island with a German traveler I had met in Copa (as the locals call it), I very quickly noticed the extensive terracing of the island for

Isla del Sol, and as you can see here easily confused with Santorini.

cultivation as a result of its ancient occupants. Subsistence agriculture is still in use today and the terraces are utilized even now, but for the most part, the several communities situated on this island make the majority of their revenue from the ever-increasing onslaught of tourism (hmm sounds familiar). This is evident as you follow the Inca highway (more like a trail as there are no roads on the island) from the sight of newly erected, almost luxurious, residences being constructed for tourists and the unlimited amount of pizzerias lining the side of the road that seem to number more than the residents. And all the while the inhabitants of the island still live in the bare-bone adobe brick houses. From what I have read and heard, the people of the island control all of the incoming and outgoing transportation, as well as the tourism on the island. Yet they do not build these luxurious resorts for themselves.

I finished the length of the island and walked along the terraces to the remains of the Incan structure of Pilka Kaina where I took this photosynth. The terracing can be seen lining the side of Isla del Sol, and in the distance you can spot Isla del Luna where the moon was born (it’s not the big round one, but that itsy bitsy one to the left of it).

Next stop was La Paz. The ascent into La Paz will take your breath away. As you drop into the crevasse where the city is located, the urban sprawl seems lika a growing, breathing thing with its muted, brown brick buildings that creep over the edges

For me, this is a snapshot of life in Cusco: the cholita women with their vending stands, the ever-present taxi that is there when you don’t need and occupied when you do, and dogs all wrapped up in a cobble stone street. In all honesty, I could take the exact same picture in La Paz maybe with less dogs though.

of the valley from its epicenter of high-rise building down below. As I wondered the streets, not only were the souvenirs eerily the same as in Peru, but the everyday life was definitely familiar to me from my experience with Cusco. Vendors line the street with everything from chompas to Casino cookies. Public and private space are one in the same as people pack on the buses to the point of claustrophobia and couples display affection in public like its going out of style. Campesinos come down from their farmland to sell produce and protest against yet another government project to encroach on native lands. In all of this I felt the unique blend of Andean and Spanish culture that had developed in the Andes mountains, yet when I talk to Bolivians and Peru happened to come up they would always tell me how different Peru had become. “All they want is money now” is the general reply I would get.

It looks like the matrix, but its a crusty layer of salt. Pretty cool huh?

Continuing with the wonders of Bolivia, I traveled to the southern end of Bolivia in the department of Oruro to visit the Salar of Uyuni. The largest salt flat in the world at a whopping 10,582 kilometers squared is a vast expanse of white nothingness (here is a photosynth from a volcanic island named Incahuasi at the center of the Salar where the only thing that can grow are these massive cactuses). However this nothingness is far from nothing. Salt has always been an incredibly important commodity in Andean culture and the development of trade between coastal and highland people. Some of the first civilizations that developed on the Peruvian litoral (an expanse of coastal desert that runs the length of the majority of the western South America) thrived because of the necessity of salt that was only available to highland people through the trade with these early important economic and religious centers in the desert. However, this particular source of salt is located in the altiplano as the result of an ancient salt lake formed by the uplift of the Andes mountains. There are multiple archaeological remains surrounding this salt flat, and the communities today still harvest its salt.

Aside from the obvious source of salt (I feel like I’ve said salt too many times already) and the Salar’s overwhelming presence that truly is one of Pachamama’s greatest works of art, this blank canvas contains 43% of the world’s lithium reserves. Highly sought after, the extraction of lithium for batteries from foreign companies met strong opposition from local communities who assumed (and rightly so) that they would not receive the dividends of the economic development of the salar. This is one of the few examples of local communities’ successful resistance of large corporations, who in general have exploited many of Latin America’s developing countries. Right as we speak, residents of Cajamarca (where Pizarro first encountered and eventually killed the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa) have had violent protests over a gold and silver mining corporation (U.S. owned to all of our apparent dismay) whose plans to displace lakes for a reservoir that will be used to wash metal out of crushed rock using cyanide have led to massive demonstrations. I think that the common interests of all of the residents of the Andes is one of self preservation at the least.

The sacred position in which nature is held by the people of the Andes is very special, and the connection that Andeans have with their environment is something so different than from what the rest of the world thinks of natural resources. The Andes and its surrounding landscape, as you can see from the few examples that I have given, are just freaking awesome. The Andean mountains, their glacial mountain tops (quickly melting from the affects of global warming) and the water that runs from them (those that run through cities are heavily polluted) were and still are revered in Andean mythology. Its seems as this has changed with the exponential increase of capitalistic ventures in Cusco which has exploded with its rapidly expanding tourism based economy.

It did make my heart sink a little bit when I heard that tickets to sit up close and center to the Inti Raymi procession at Sacsayhuaman cost upwards of $150, and also because of tourist complaints instead of sacrificing an actual llama, they had changed it to a toy. Was this festival that had been resurrected from Incan times, and Cusco’s largest festival simply a money collecting scheme? How could a festival of such ritual importance at one time be so diluted by the desire to make a buck? This is such a tricky subject to deal with. How can the country of Peru arrive at a prosperous state economically without being just “all about the money”. It is unfortunate that the success of any country now a days is based upon a capitalist economy and a monetary system. We are so trained to see progress as equated to the size of an economy that it is difficult to see past a country’s “poverty”. Bolivia’s hesitation to associate with Peru really seems to me to be a resistance of the naturally and culturally degrading forces of capitalism that seems to create money-thirsty monsters of its citizens (inevitably, as it can already be seen from my examples, capitalistic ventures are making their way in Bolivia).

I will state again about the uneasy nature of this subject. At the same time as we can talk about the destructive nature of capitalism, capitalism cannot be seen as an unstoppable beast and even though it is hard for me sometimes, I cannot take on a defensive position of Andean culture surrounded by romantic notions of the pristine culture it was before the Spanish arrived. Even the supposed “pristine” culture that was present at the time of the Conquest was the result of historical occurrences and the changing dynamics of different social relations that represents an ever changing, adapting culture. Capitalism affects all levels of society differently in many forms. As Marshal Sahlins taught me, culture is an adaptive strategy that allows its people to continue persisting (ironically enough) in their own “philosophy of life”. The people of Cusco may have adapted capitalistic strategies in order to siphon money from stupid tourists who are willing to pay the bucket loads of money to watch some dancers (which I saw for free from above aka this guy is not a stupid tourist), but that does not mean that Cusco is something completely different from the Cusco with its ancient heritage and dynamic history.

So after my ramblings, it seems as if I have ended up back in Peru. After spending a month in Cusco, it is clear to me how amazing this city is. Despite critics that say Cusco is all about the money, I have seen the vibrancy of life that is still exuded by those who reside here, and during June in “el mes de jubilar” the celebration is everyday and it is definitely not for the tourists sake. Regardless of all the problems they face, from poverty to pollution, the majority of people here only want to see Cusco improve and become a better place for its citizens not exploit it. In many ways this surge of tourism has helped to improve conditions in Cusco even though it is heavily criticized.

It is also important to remember the active role that we play as tourists in this equation. Tourism is designed to suit the tourist, and if we choose to exploit the people of these amazing countries in Latin America and disregard the importance of their own unique cultures for our own entertainment then we are no better than the Spanish royalty or the large corporations.




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3 Responses to My Bolivian Debacle

  1. Jessica Blanco says:

    Great blog! Cant wait to see what you write about Hualcayan!!

  2. Rani Alexander says:

    Wow, Braeden,

    Nigel and I are really impressed by your trip to Bolivia. Your method of travel has given you a completely different view of the landscape.

    Thank you for the insightful commentary, and keep up the good work!


  3. Michael Mares says:

    This is so kick ass man, keep it up.

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