Thoughts on Bolivia

Posted by Arlo on Apr 8, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel, Videos

I’m glad we approached Bolivia after traveling through Ecuador and Peru first.  I think it lessened the inevitable culture shock.  On the other hand, when we arrived in Chile (a post for another day), it felt almost like we were returning to the United States, the quality of living (and prices!) were so much higher.  Below are the things that occurred to me as we traveled through Bolivia.

Coca Leaves

What’s the first thing you think about when someone mentioned Bolivia.  It’s “cocaine,” isn’t it?  The whole time I was there, I didn’t see or hear anything about the white powder.  Not that I was running in those circles or anything, but no one even offered it to me.  I found it surprising, considering that it happened more than once in Peru.

What Bolivia does have, though, is coca leaves.  You can buy them by the bag-full at any outdoor market and, if you ask for the activator (a sticky, bitter substance made of ash, sap, bananas and/or who knows what else), you can get “high” with them in a perfectly legal, even morally acceptable way.

Oksana and I tried them a couple times and the effects, for me, were on par with drinking a venti-sized cup of coffee from Starbucks (assuming, of course, your coffee tastes like freshly-cut grass and completely numbs your cheek and tongue!)  Oksana really liked chewing coca leaves while hiking – they allowed her to completely ignore any pain she was feeling on the long, steep hike up Colca Canyon.

(In Potosí, it was almost comical the way the miners kept stuffing the leaves into their mouths.  Plucking each stem, they’d add them one at a time, over the course of hours, until their cheeks were bulging like a greedy hamster!)

After seeing the widespread use of coca leaves in both Peru and Bolivia, I’d guess it’s about as addictive as marijuana and about as socially acceptable as smoking cigarettes.  I wonder if that’s why the two countries have relatively few smokers…

Order from Chaos

One welcome surprise in Bolivia was the apparently lack of “hurry.”  Whereas in other countries a bus stop would be a loose crowd of people that, when the bus arrives, becomes a knot of humanity shoving towards the open door, Bolivians form a very orderly line (sometimes stretching back a full block.)

The cab drivers in Ecuador and Peru seemed to have a death wish in comparison.  In La Paz, we moved at a slow and sedate pace.  Traffic didn’t faze our drivers and they didn’t immediately lean on the horn when someone stopped in front of them.  It was quite nice (except when we were in a hurry…)

Oksana theorized that it’s the high altitude that’s to blame for this surprising docility.  At over 10,000 feet above sea level, there’s just not enough oxygen to waste on getting somewhere fast.


In Ecuador and Peru, I was always annoyed by the bus station exit tax.  While I appreciate that they’re starting to get behind the whole idea of even having a bus station in some cities, it’s a bother to dig out a few coins, while you’re burdened down with bags, just so you can exit the waiting area into the lot where the buses park.

In Bolivia, they turn that on its head.  Instead of demanding a tax when you leave the bus station, some stations made you pay before you can even go in.

Neither method works well.  There were always people hanging around outside the bus station, waiting for the buses to leave before flagging them down.  The bus drivers, wanting to fill their seats, would still stop for them, delaying the whole process of moving people from one city to another.

What I can’t understand is why they don’t simply add the tax into the cost of the tickets?  I suppose it’s because in countries where corruption is accepted, bus companies can’t be relied upon to accurately account for all those pennies.


Full-size buses don’t seem to be the predominant form of public transportation, perhaps because there are so many narrow, winding, climbing streets.  Instead, the mini-van (or “combi”) rules the city of La Paz.

When I wrote about Ecuador, I think I mentioned how they often have a “helper” on every bus that hangs out the door and shouts out the bus’s destination.  They have the same thing in Bolivia, but with mini-vans being smaller, the helper can only hang out the rear window, from a sitting position.

Of course, it’s his job to drum up business, so he’ll be calling out locations to everyone on the sidewalk.  To everyone.  I can’t imagine doing that all day.


Oksana and I took a train from Uyuni to Oruro one night.  Its scheduled departure was at midnight, but the train was almost two hours late because of, well, who knows…?  We’d paid for the highest class of service, but as we stood out in the cold, I wondered what sleeping on a Bolivian train could be like.

Not so bad, all things considered.  The seating was more like bus seats – the chairs tilted back and the person in front of you was almost in your lap.  My fears of being too cold were completely unfounded.  Heaters under the seats quickly fogged up the windows and quickly brought the temperature in our car up to, I kid you not, 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Where it got a little weird was in the services offered.  A nice attendant (or conductor, or whatever you call them) handed out thick wool blankets and pillows.  Okay.  I was grateful for a pillow, but the heavy blanket was more hassle than help in that heat.

The next morning, they handed out breakfast.  It was in printed white paper bags that looked sort of classy, what with their woven string handles.  Inside was a box of juice and a flat, smashed bread roll stuffed with a sliver of ham and cheese.

It’s like… I don’t know, it’s like businesses in Bolivia have read about what a higher class of service is supposed to be, but they’ve never actually experienced it themselves.  Therefore, their attempts to reward you for paying a little extra are sometimes misguided.  (I would much rather they save their money on the branded bags and give me a decent sandwich instead.)  But at least they’re trying to offer some elevated levels of service because the baseline…?  Let’s just say it leaves a lot to be desired.

Shoeshine Boys

One of the first things you’ll notice wandering the streets of La Paz are the shoeshine boys.  On practically every corner, one or two will be crouched down, offering (or simply waiting) to polish someone’s shoes.  Which wouldn’t be so strange, in and of itself, if not for their unusual attire: Fingerless gloves, knit hats, and ski masks.

Not having shoes worth shining, I’ve never had any interactions with them beyond a quick “no gracias.” I searched on Google, though, and discovered that they’re called lustrabotas.

Shoeshine boys have such lowly status in this Andean metropolis that they hide their faces in shame behind ski masks. The children, known as lustrabotas, dart around like phantoms, dodging shop owners who shake them down and motorists who try to run them into the gutter. [Wall Street Journal]


High Society

Much of Bolivia is deep in poverty.  It’s not that you see hundreds of homeless people or giant shanty towns – most people we encountered seemed to have jobs and homes – but the work is hard and it doesn’t pay well.

For that reason, most of the cities and towns we visited felt very similar.  Even in La Paz, a capital city, there were fewer people in business suits than those wearing traditional alpaca wool.

Except for Sucre.

As soon as we arrived in the other capital city (yes, Bolivia has two capitals!), we noticed something was different.  People were better dressed, and in the latest fashions, too.  When women passed us on the street, we smelled perfume instead of body odor.  (Perfume is something you notice very quickly when it’s been absent for a month!)  Oksana and I even decided that people were actually taller in Sucre!

Likely all this has to do with the city’s history.  In the heyday of the Potosí mines, the mineral wealth coming out of Cerro Rico was staggering.  Potosí is a harsh place to live, being above 13,000 feet and with all the pollution surrounding the mining industry there.  Because of that, the owners of the mines lived in Sucre and most of the wealth coming out of the mountian was funneled through there.

I’m not a Boliviapologist, so I don’t really know, but Sucre may be the only place in the country with a Bolivian “high society.”

Side note: I think that Sucre has only been able to maintain its capital status by clinging to the judicial branch of the government and they’re desperate not to lose that, too.  If the entire seat of government moves to La Paz, they worry that the division between the high and low societies will erode and open the doors for a more fully socialist society to take its place.

Rules & Safety

One thing traveling has taught me about my own country is that the United States is big on rules.  On the whole, people in America respect the law more than just about any other country.  The rules in Bolivia are, shall we say, a little more lax.

Take, for example, “the World’s Most Dangerous Road.”  The Camino de las Yungas connects La Paz to the jungle on the other side of the Andes and since it was built in the 1930s, hundreds of people have died on it every year (usually by plunging off a cliff in a bus or truck.)

Today, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Bolivia is to ride a mountain bike down “the death road.”

I couldn’t figure out why, if the road really was so dangerous, that they’d keep playing up its deadly aspects!  I mean, the guides on these excursions gleefully tick off all the tourists that have died since they started offering bike rides about ten years ago (anywhere from 12 to 30, from what I heard.)  Aren’t they afraid of scaring off prospective paying customers?

Well, partly it’s all marketing bluster: Who’s going to pay good money to ride a bike down “The World’s Much-Safer-Now-That-New-Road’s-Been-Built Road?”  But part of it is that people just accept this level of danger in Bolivia because, if someone ends up getting hurt or dying, no one is really going to be held accountable.  With that in mind, it’s more amazing that a new road was ever built (in 2007) rather than the fact that tens of thousands of people died along the old one.

The mining industry in Potosí underscores how little human life is valued (or perhaps, how much more the minerals themselves are valued.)  Rumor is, an average of one miner dies per week working in Cerro Rico and, having seen the conditions myself, I can believe it.  Even if a miner is exceedingly safety-conscious (let alone lucky enough not to be caught by something outside their control, like a cave-in), the airborne silicon and asbestos in the mines reduces their life expectancy to 40, give or take a few years.  Their only hope, slim as it may be, is to strike it rich early in their career.

An organization like OSHA is (painfully, obviously!) non-existent in a place where a tourist like me can stroll into a mining store and pick up a stick of dynamite, a bag full of sodium nitrate, a detonator and a fuse for about the price of a Big Mac at McDonald’s.

Seriously.  I bought five.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Most of the places we visited in Bolivia were situated at high altitudes and both Oksana and I were very glad we had “prepared” for it by traveling through Ecuador and Peru first.  I think we would have been much worse off if we hadn’t already acclimatized.

Think about this:  When a jet takes off from La Paz’s “El Alto” international airport, it’s on a runway that’s almost 2.5 miles long.  With less air resistance, the jet needs to build up more speed before the wings achieve enough lift.  Before the wheels leave the tarmac, the plane is already at 13,325 feet above sea level, almost half the height of most flights’ cruising altitude!  Makes you wonder:  Can you have your electronics powered on for takeoff if the airport itself is already over 10,000 feet?

One of the symptoms I usually experience when getting used to the altitude is a severe lack of sleep.  I know why: It’s because I have sleep apnea. I sort of hold my breath from time to time while I’m asleep.  At higher elevations, by the time I need to take a breath again, my lungs are crying out for oxygen.  Until my body readjusts, I wake up all night, gasping for breath.

Fortunately, I didn’t have that problem in Bolivia.  I did notice, however, that most mornings, my mouth would be bone dry.  Seriously, like so dry I couldn’t even swallow until taking a sip of water!  I don’t think it’s because the air in Bolivia is especially arid – after all, it was the rainy season just about everywhere we went – so it probably just means I slept with my mouth open all night.


Did you know that you can rent an apartment in Bolivia for free?  You don’t even need good credit to do it, either.  All you need is good anti-credit!

This is such an interesting concept!  Okay, here’s how it works:  Say you find a property that costs $500 a month to rent.  That’d be $6,000 a year, right?  But the owner is willing to give it to you for free, using your anti-credit!  All you have to do is give him three times the yearly amount, say $18,000-20,000, up front.  Don’t worry, he’ll give it all back at the end of the year!

Figured it out yet?  Basically what’s happening is the landlord is taking your money, investing it for a year, and then giving you back the principle.  You get an apartment for the year and he gets to rake in the interest rates… assuming the economy doesn’t crash in the meantime.

Seems like a crazy risk to me.  If you have that much money, why not invest it yourself and use the interest to pay for your own rent?  I mean, what happens if the landlord loses your money? (I assume there are legal repercussions, as anticredito seems to be a generally accepted practice in Bolivia.)

(Later, in Argentina, we heard stories of 40% interest rates for savings accounts – savings accounts! – at some banks.  FORTY PERCENT!  If you think that sounds great, then you don’t understand how interest rates and risk are inversely proportional to each other!)

Convenience Stores

Many, if not most of the convenience stores in Bolivia have big iron gates across their doors.  Instead of walking into a store, gathering up some items, and then paying for them at the counter, you stand outside the store while the owner gets everything for you.  I assume it’s a security precaution – maybe with all the poverty there’s an inordinate amount of shoplifting.

Still, the setup lends itself to some strange interactions.  Often, you can’t see into the corners of the store and have to ask what might be available.  Sometimes you have to crane your neck this way and that, looking for a Diet Coke or a package of cookies.  And, I learned through observation, if no one is in sight when you approach the gate, you simply shout out, “¡Véndame!” or “Sell to me!”

The Landscape

The best thing about Bolivia, hands down, is the landscape.  From the jungle to the Andes, from the salt flats to Lake Titicaca, and from the unpopulated deserts to the densely packed city of La Paz, they say that Bolivia has everything.  And it would be true, too, if Chile hadn’t taken away their ocean!

A traveler moving through Bolivia wants to see it all, of course, but the infrastructure makes that difficult.  When we took a bus from La Paz to Uyuni, for example, we were told just before boarding (after they had already accepted our money, naturally!) that the normally 10-hour ride might take up to 24 hours!  Why?  Well, because it’s the rainy season!

That bus ride was one of the worst I’ve ever been on, by the way.  Imagine an overnight journey, 8 hours of which are on a very bumpy dirt road.  Now imagine trying to sleep.

Even the second and third day of our Uyuni excursion, which we expected to be rugged, surprised us.  Every road we drove on was dirt, but when we left the main road, we were driving on Jeep trails through the mountains for a day and a half.  As we passed through various desert landscapes, sometimes we drove over miles of flat rocks with no indication that any 4×4 had passed before us and other times we drove over sandy landscapes with tire tracks heading off to every horizon.

If I were to go back to Bolivia – And I might!  My visa is good for five years! – I think I would like to rent, or buy, an SUV.  That would be a fantastic way to see the country!  The roads between populated areas are practically empty and, with the exception of La Paz, I think most of the cities we saw would be easy enough to navigate.

Having your own 4×4 would give you the freedom to explore the fantastic deserts and mountains near the Chilean border on your own time, too.  Want to stop for a few nights at a perfect, emerald green lagoon?  Pull over and set up your tent!  Just be sure you have a GPS and satellite phone for emergencies…  Some of those places are the very definition of remote!


It’s so depressing to see a country as beautiful as Bolivia buried underneath a layer of trash.

In Uyuni, with its salt flat of unsurpassed beauty, the desert along the sides of the road is covered with plastic bags and bottles.  Our English-speaking guide seemed disgusted by the sight and I asked him why people put up with it.  He told us a story about how the last mayor was largely elected on a campaign to clean up the city, but his solution was to simply create a new landfill out in the desert.

As so often happens in Latin America, someone cut corners so they could pocket the extra money.  They didn’t so much as dig a hole for the garbage; they just dumped it in one spot on the endless sandy plain.  The wind took care of the rest, blowing the plastic bags and empty bottles back towards the town.

I didn’t bother to clarify my original question, so I left without the answer I really wanted.  Setting aside issues of municipal garbage collection and disposal, why don’t people just get out there and clean it up?  If I lived there, I would…

One day in Sucre, while Oksana and I were sitting in a cab at a stoplight, we watched a businessman cross the street in front of us.  He stripped the wrapper from a popsicle or a candy bar and causally tossed it behind him, in the middle of the crosswalk.  I later told Oksana that it’s times like that I wished my Spanish was a lot better so I could get out and ask him a few questions.

Do you love your country?
Do you consider yourself patriotic?
Then why the hell would you destroy its beauty like that?
How hard is it to carry a piece of paper until you reach a trash can?

I’m proud to say that I always carry my empty soda cans, wrappers, and whatnot to dispose of them properly, even if it means taking them all the way back to my own hotel room.  There’s a reason I’m a tourist in their country – I want to see it! – and even if they don’t care, I promise my visit won’t make their country any uglier.

Ask a foreigner visiting the United States about their first impressions of our country and I’ll bet you, “it’s so clean!” is in their top five responses.  I’m not especially patriotic, but that makes me proud to be an American.