*By Mariana Radisic Koliren
Bolivia is one of those countries at first you’d think has nothing to offer. Getting to know it is not only a great journey full of beauty and new knowdlege, but one in which you learn to see the world for what it is and not for what you would have expected.
We first came to it crossing through the Argentinean frontier at Villazón, and oxygen started running low as our body pressure dropped, with dizziness and exhaustion taking over us. Every step towards migrations became a challenge, while we watched native bolivians ‘cholitas’ running around and I started to curse this land with no air. Within a few hours, we were able to walk and enter that hideous border town. As soon as we stepped into Bolivian ground, we were overwhelmed by the screams: ‘To potosí’, ‘To la Paz’, ‘Uyuni’, etc and bolivians were all around us trying to get us into their bus.
We hopped into a minivan and left for miner town and foundational stone of modern Latin America Potosí. The driver changed lanes recklessly and the road changed randomly from pavement to soil, and -at times- disappeared completely. I can not even start to describe the terror looks upon every one of my friends. I guess I must have had it too. Arriving to Potosí at 2am, we watched the city bathed in the gold of its lights. We were entering the city that forged, by the blood and sweat of its natives, one of the largest empires this world has ever known.
The following day we toured the historical centre, a labyrinth of stone streets where european architecture met the smells and colours of the great-great-sons of the Aymara and Inca indians. A place where classic rock met the sounds of Andinian folklore, where Quinua soup preceded a cheeseburger course. All of Bolivia lives in a constant duel between what’s from and what has been brought to this land.
We learned more on that on the third day, when we booked a tour to the mines for a penny. The mines, which are active since 1545, are nothing like we thought from watching Snowhite. With tunnels so narrow you had to crawl to get through, and temperatures going up to 60º (though our guide Oscar didn’t take us there: ‘you white people faint when you reach fifty two’, he said in laughter) this brave miners often leave their lives at work. In the mine I was invited to offer and drink 96º booze to godly couple Pachamama (mother nature) and ‘el Tío de la Mina’, a smiling fat man, fond of coca, cigarettes and booze. I drank this pure liquor for the miners, who believe offering pure things will get them pure minerals. Going to a mine on a friday means seeing little mining, and lots of drinking. After making our way into the heart of the mountain, we came out to daylight, and I felt like something inside me had changed.
Still overwhelmed by the greatness of the silver city, he headed towards La Paz. As we descended to the capital valley we gazed an ocean of brick, a city that melts into the mountains. La Paz, like Bolivia, has the colour brown not only in it’s land, but in it’s people and in their houses.
The city itself is chaos in colour: there’s people everywhere, shouting and selling; there’s no such thing as traffic laws, and the vans, tourists and the always colourfully dressed cholitas look like a swarm of bees coming and going. We went up Sagarnaga street, and visited the Fransiscan Church, a stone temple which origins are covered in blood and hope: in colonial times, the only spare day that was given to the natives was on Sunday, so that they’d become catholics. In the very corner we stood, once a week families reencountered, and sad news of loss were given. As the spanish stood in their fancy gowns, the Aymara and Inca would dance, for they knew their meeting on the following sunday was only a matter of chance, a matter of survival.
We went up a few exhausting blocks towards Linares street: the world famous Witches’ Street, where the cholas sell all sort of things, from love potions and psychoactive drugs like San Pedro and Ayahuasca to dissected llama foetuses, for luck. This is also a street where fine luthiers sell their creations: charangos, cuatro venezolanos, mandolins and guitars are sold amongst luck seeds and fertility powder. Hidden between ponchos and hats, we found the Museum of Coca, a place to learn about the sacred leaves that almost every bolivian chews. We finished the day watching toddlers making bubbles and laughing at Murillo Square, the backyard of the presidential palace.
We woke up and took an early van to Copacabana, a small town in the shore of Lake Titikaka, a vast paradise. There, we took a boat to the famous Isla del Sol, a place with no more than 150 houses and more tourists than residents. Being so close to the sun, we stripped off the layers of clothing we’ve been wearing, and enjoyed the beaches and the clear water of the lake. The island was inhabited by the Incas, an empire from neighbour Perú. A short walk from the village, we found ruins of one of the largest pre colonial civilisations. Bolivia has a living memory of its ancient traditions: it holds two flags, one for the nation and one for their original inhabitants. Most bolivians -specially in the north- continue to speak the original languages Aymará and Quechua, and believe in ancient nature god Pachamama, respecting and communing with it.
For every place we’ve been to, we were told of many others we missed: Uyuni’s salt flats, where the rains form the largest mirror in the world, Coroico’s death road, white city Sucre, amongst others. We learned that there are still places where the people are one with the land, where comfort doesn’t overpower tradition, where the past still lives in the eyes of the newborn. Bolivia is a place to change minds and recall what is important. Bolivia is for the bold hearted, and for those who will not settle with the world they’ve been told of.