Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Not A Peaceful City

La Paz is not just the highest capital city in the world, it towers over its nearest rival (Quito) by a full 800m. It is a city that takes your breath away. Literally. People who fly in directly from lower altitudes often suffer headaches, pains and other symptoms of altitude sickness and need a few days to acclimatise. At ground level La Paz is anything but peaceful: traffic-clogged streets, old buses belching fumes, poor homeless sleeping on the street, rubbish. Yet I love this city. There is a vibrancy and industriousness that many places lack. A hearty snack (though often of dubious benefit to the well-being of your stomach) is only a few footsteps away, markets spill out onto the steep streets, Aymara women tend stalls where you can buy traditional herbal and folk remedies, from coca leaves to dried lama foetuses, old and new jostle for position on an all-out urban assault on the senses. Then climb up the hillside to El Alto (The Heights), the slum that has metamorphosed into a thriving city in its own right, and peer down at the metropolis, not quite unfolded, as the sheer valley topography creates creases and crinkles in the patchwork of brick houses. Terracotta is the dominant colour, shining in the high altitude sun, as most can't afford to paint or plaster their walls. And above it all, lording over the fine panorama, is Illimani, Bolivia's second-highest peak. Only down in the teeming calles of the city proper can you get away from its hypnotic presence. And then you wonder whether you're out of breath due to the altitude, or because of the view before you.

Illimani looming over La Paz, as it tries to squeeze into every last nook and cranny afforded by the valley topography.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cocha Cuisine

Santa Cruz may be a pleasant place to spend a few days, but it's not the "real" Bolivia. The real Bolivia is all about mountains, thin air, pan-pipes, woolly ponchos and llamas. So I left the lowlands and headed westwards and upwards. My intermediate goal was Cochabamba. Not just because the city has one of the best names in the world, but because, sitting at a major transport crossroads in the country it is the most important market town in Bolivia, the gateway between the mountains and the lowlands. At "just" 2500m altitude the weather is mild all the year round, making the surrounding countryside particularly rich and productive, and able to churn out up to three harvests a year. Historically this was also the frontier of the mountain Inca empire, and the valleys leading east to the plains are host to important archaeological sites that protected the kingdom from the jungle barbarians below.

The ruins at Incallajta are the largest Inca-era remains in Bolivia. They're not particularly impressive, but their location in a remote valley that can't be reached by public transport (the nearest you can get is 9km before you have to start walking) make them worth visiting.

Monday, May 20, 2013

It Makes The World Go Round

Almost any article written about Bolivia will mention that it is the poorest country in Latin America (and so here I am perpetuating that trend). Of course, like everywhere, wealth is distributed unevenly. Bolivia's richest region is that of Santa Cruz, in the lowlands in the east of the country, whose prosperity mainly derives from oil and gas that is to be found in the plains. Yet despite being the richest and largest city in the country Santa Cruz looks and feels more like a small town than a metropolis: in the city centre few buildings are more than a couple of stories high and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of large-scale business going on. Nevertheless it is a pleasant place to spend a few days, trawling the used clothes market, where traders sell second-hand clothes that have been donated to charity in the West, for bargains (I picked up a nice fleece jumper for only $2 to replace the one that I had inadvertently left on a bus in Brazil); people-watching in the main square in the evenings where families and lovers congregate and old men play chess; heading out to visit the gorgeous Jesuit mission churches of the Chiquitos; and waiting for the inevitable Bolivian strikes to end so that the road-blocks can be lifted. Many of these aspects form facets of what I want to write about in this post: money.

The sumptuous Jesuit mission church in Conception. OK, it's been seriously restored, but faithfully according to old plans and using traditional methods.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Chaco Church

Among South American countries Paraguay probably has the saddest history. Coming down from the zenith of the Jesuit utopia there followed colonial stagnation, then independence that brought on a trio of dictators who, successively, hermetically sealed the country from the outside world, turned it into a personal fiefdom, and finally dragged it into a suicidal war against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. It would be no understatement to say that the War of the Triple Alliance absolutely annihilated Paraguay. Out of a pre-war population of some 500,000 Paraguay lost 300,000 people, or about 60% of its population, giving it the dubious distinction of being the most destructive (per capita) war of modern times (and possibly ever). Towards the end there were almost no men left in the country and little kids were sent to the front lines wielding little more than sharpened fruit and domestic utensils (hence the well-known phrase regarding kitchen sinks). And all this over an issue that didn't initially involve Paraguay at all.

Stained glass window in the national pantheon depicting Francisco Solano Lopez, Paraguay's dictator who plunged the country into the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance. Recently his historical legacy has been reviewed and he is now a national hero.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Missionary Opposition

You don't have to know me (or read my blog) for long to know that my views of organised religion are sceptical to say the least. I have seen far too much intolerance, violence, fear, hatred, bigotry and plain ignorance stemming from religious faith for me to want to have anything to do with it. Sure, it can be a force for good, though it seems to me that those are always individual cases that probably occur in spite of religion rather than because of it. Paraguay's history, however, provides one example of a religious organisation living up to its promises of fairness, justice, betterment. Sadly the temporal success of the Jesuits amongst the Guarani provoked the jealousies of the stronger colonial powers. Nevertheless their achievements still live on in today's Paraguay and form an integral part of the national narrative.

All that remains of the vast Baroque church at Jesus de Taverangue, a church that would have been considered grand even in a large, European city of the time, but built  entirely by Guarani.

Friday, May 03, 2013


Paraguay is something of a black hole as far as Latin America is concerned. Despite being in the centre of the continent and part of the Mercosur block, not only do we hear little about it, but even within South America it's something of an unknown. Furthermore it lacks any major tourist draws and so it gets bypassed by most visitors to the continent even when they're doing a so-called "Grand Tour".What actually is there in Paraguay? what are its people like (because I had never met a Paraguayan before)? how do they differ and how are they similar to their South American neighbours? These were all questions that were impatiently straining at the bit in my head; desperate to see what all the lack of fuss is about.

The spillway of the Itaipu dam, used on the rare occasions when the water level is too high. The main dam with its 20 turbines can be seen in the background.