It’s 5:00 a.m. at the airport in La Paz, Bolivia. I’ve just landed and I’m walking up to a cubicle with $160 in US currency to pay for a tourist visa. As I hand the customs officer the money, she looks cautiously at me and then begins to analyze the cash. She holds each bill up to the light and then glances back at me. She stops a little too long at the final bill. She grunts and hands it back to me. She tells me it’s “Counter-feet.” Fortunately, I had a back-up bill.
So starts my exploration of this landlocked South American country of eleven million people.
The trip was amazing. The Bolivian people practice “direct democracy,” which means – basically – if they don’t like something, they take to the streets, protest, and whoever’s in charge either stops or is ousted. And, 189 military coups later, it’s just the way things are.
There were three distinct parts to my visit, which roughly correlate to Bolivia’s fascinating past:
- I checked out the amazing geological history from millions of years ago in the Salt Flats outside of Uyuni.
- I explored the Tiwanaku culture of thousands of years ago around Lake Titicaca.
- I investigated Spanish colonial period of hundreds of years ago at Potosí.
Candidly, I had not heard of the Bolivian salt flats (the largest ones in the world) before I planned my trip. I was way more interested in the Tiwanaku culture and the impact of Spanish colonization on the Incas. But, I tacked on the salt because it was so unique. And boy am I glad I did!
Bolivia has one of the most diverse landscapes in all of South America. They’re landlocked thanks to a devastating loss in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) in which Chile took their access to the Pacific. They’re still pretty bitter about it and even have a hashtag #MarParaBoliva (“Sea For Bolivia”).
But I digress. Back to the matter at hand. Millions of years ago, the Andes Mountains rose bringing with them part of the sea. Over time, the water evaporated leaving 7,500 square miles of salt that’s up to 360 feet thick in places. The result is a spectacularly flat resource that’s used for tourism and salt mining. The salt flats are visited by thousands of people each year. It’s particularly popular with the French (who like to bicycle across them) and the Japanese (who like taking pictures during the rainy season). When I visited, I asked whether many people come from the US?
“Visitors from your country come like blessings.”
“In small doses.”
Let’s just say we don’t have the best reputation among Bolivians. They don’t particularly care for nations they regard as “empire builders” and they’ve lumped the USA into that category.
In any event, the landscape in the salt flats is totally unique.
Whether to call it Tiawanaku, Tiahuanaco, Tiwanaku, Tiahuanacu, we simply don’t know. What we do know is that this was the culture that preceded the Incas and lasted about 2,500 years before falling for unknown reasons at about 900 A.D. (like most other contemporary cultures in Mesoamerica).
The people of Tiwanaku were certainly unique. They were extremely advanced in several ways…
- Master stone carvers: Somehow they carved stones to perfection. There are rocks at Pumapunku (very close to Tiwanaku) that are shaped more perfectly than poured concrete. We aren’t 100% sure how they did it.
- Unmatched farmers: They leveraged a combination of raised beds and live fish in moats around fields to produce 21 metric tons of potatoes per acre. Modern techniques (even with 21st century fertilizers) can produce a mere 14 metric tons in the same space.
- Picasso-esque artists: They created abstract art that has to be seen to be believed. Further, even though they lived thousands of years before Columbus would sail the ocean blue, they made ceramic figures, which look strikingly like visitors from Asia, Africa, and even Europe.
Tiwanaku is only a “stone’s throw” away from Lake Titicaca, which is the world’s highest navigable lake. Spending a day on the lake meant visiting interesting places:
Copacabana: It was a Sunday when I visited and people from the surrounding areas brought their cars in for a blessing from the Priest at the local Catholic Church. For about $10, he’d sprinkle some holy water on your car, van, bus, or truck, pose for a picture and wish you well for the year.
Around the corner, I found a guy who was willing to read my fortune by tossing some molten lead into a bucket of cold water. For about $3, I was told,
“You had a good childhood, you wanted something you couldn’t get, you got over it, and the future looks good.”
I think I got ripped off. Or else something got lost in translation.
Sun Island: This is where the foundation of the Inca Creation Myth begins. We climbed up some Inca Terraces and found the Fountain of Youth. There were three nozzles. They represented the three Inca rules:
- Don’t steal,
- Don’t lie, and
- Don’t be lazy.
I took a quick shower (taking care at the direction of my guide not to drink the water).
I found Tiwanaku and Titicaca to be much more interesting than Machu Picchu, but the Peruvians have done a better job of marketing the famed Inca Trail through the Sacred Valley than the Bolivians have done with their own amazing sites. Which is really too bad. I’m optimistic that one day, these places will get the attention (from Archaeologists and Tourists alike) they deserve.
The period of colonial occupation was a dark time for most of South America. Perhaps no place was as devastated as Potosí in Southwest Bolivia.
In 1544, the Inca Huayna Capac was sent by the Spanish Conquistadors to look for silver. As legend goes, he arrived on a mountain and set up camp. He lit a fire and heard tiny explosions (in Quechua, his native tongue, they were called “Potoxshis”). These explosions were silver melting and popping as a result of his fire. He had stumbled upon a mountain that was quite literally made of silver. Some 60,000 tons of silver were mined from this mountain during colonization. The city at the base of the mountain took on the name Potosí, which was the best the Spanish could do to pronounce the Quechua word.
My desire to see this place, Cerro Rico, a mine that has been operating continuously since it was discovered in 1544 largely motivated this trip. Fortunately, I was able to get inside the mine. Crawling into a mountain that has been turned into Swiss cheese over the last 472 years was a bit nerve-wracking. Especially when the safety briefing was limited to a warning to “Watch your head.”
On the way to the mine, we stopped at the aptly-named “miner’s market,” which sells such treasures as dynamite, coca leaves, and alcohol. These three items are the oil that has kept the mines running for nearly five hundred years. Miners use each resource. Dynamite opens new seams, chewing coca combats hunger, and the alcohol, I was told, “goes down like water” satiating thirst.
Shortly after hunching through a hole and climbing into a mine shaft, we were greeted by a religious icon called “Tío.” In Spanish “Tío” means Uncle and was the closest the Incas could come to pronouncing “Dios” or God in Spanish.
I was told that miners today “abandon their Catholic faith and adopt a more ancient religion when they come underground.” I did, too. I had the opportunity to participate in the ceremony in which coca leaves and alcohol are sprinkled on the Tío. What I didn’t expect was that I would need to chew coca and drink the alcohol as part of the ceremony (it was 9:00 a.m.).
The coca leaves were no problem (my gums just went numb). The alcohol, though. Let’s just say 96 proof grain alcohol does NOT “go down like water.”
Along we went, exploring the mine with only a slight buzz. It was really something. These guys – ranging in age from 16 to 65 – work hard. Very hard. And are noticeably shorter than me. I can’t tell you how many times I slammed my head into a rock or wooden support beam. The headache was a not-so-gentle reminder of the safety briefing to “watch your head.”
The nation’s confusing history is embodied by this mine. Originally, it was a pristine mountain, a perfect cone set high in the Altiplano. Its natural beauty was discovered and extorted by Spanish Conquistadors who forced the native people to literally kill themselves to collect silver. Today, it’s still an active mine and appears at the center of the nation’s flag. Despite the horrid history, they’re proud of the essential role it played in the early stages of globalization. This mine provided much of the capital that fueled the rise of the Spanish Empire.
Potosí was once the wealthiest city on earth. Today, it’s one of the world’s poorest.
Bolivia was truly un-bolivia-able. Its rich culture combines ancient peoples and a modern take on “direct democracy.” And all of it is in an unbelievably beautiful landscape.