Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Country Review: Bolivia

Dates there: 4th January to 8th January 2014: 5 days

Bolivia's Wonders: none

On the Longlist: Tiwanaku

We were warned about La Paz before we went: it's crowded, it's squalid, it's chaotic, it's dangerous. Left to my own devices, I would probably have given it a miss and skipped straight from Peru to Chile. But Danielle was intrigued. Despite the above reports, a few others filtered through, saying that yes, sure, it's all these things, but it's also fun. So we went. And yes, it was fun.

Too much fun at first. Our first night in a party hostel packed with youngsters showed us up for the oldsters we are. I was suffering the next morning but my suffering paled into insignificance against the death-staring Danielle, who was as weak as I've ever seen anybody. On a normal occasion, she'd have just stayed in bed all day, but on this occasion we had to move hostel. If you've ever shoved a corpse into a taxi and dumped it by the bus station while you've wandered the streets for an elusive hostel, then you'll know exactly our experience.

Once Danielle recovered, we were able to enjoy the city, rather than just the hostel bar. And while it would be a stretch to describe La Paz as lovely, it's certainly a compelling place to visit. High up in the mountains - it's at 3600 metres in altitude - the city itself is placed in a dip between peaks. But unlike, say, Cuzco, where this dip is long and wide, La Paz's dip is steep. In effect, walking around the centre is like being in a city-sized amphitheatre, as the rest of the city stretches up around you. It may make for a lot of strenuous walking, especially given the altitude, but it also gives the city a whole load of character. The buildings may be shabby, either half crumbling or half built, but the setting gives the city an essence of the spectacular.



It won't be to everyone's taste. One person's lively and packed-with-personality is another person's dirty and congested. The main streets are clogged with cars, everything is falling apart, it's noisy. There's no visual highlight, no obvious focus to the city. Yet, Danielle and I loved it.

La Paz has some charming, if utterly filthy, colonial architecture, but nothing remotely approaching Wonder status. The San Franciso Church looks pretty good compared to some of the drab tower blocks in its vicinity, but is hardly an outstanding example of its genre overall.


And then's there's the bus station. Ah, but not just any bus station, but the bus station that Danielle used to gently coerce me into going to La Paz in the first place. "Oh, it says here than Gustave Eiffel built the bus station," she said, referencing the Lonely Planet. Mr Eiffel appears to have been rather busy in South America in the late 19th Century. In Peru, he built all kinds of things - a bridge, a market, a (now) hostel, a spiral staircase - and in Chile we found a church and a train station. Ok, none of them are quite his famous tower, but his love of iron was clear. Though let's be honest, if the Lonely Planet hadn't told me he was behind La Paz's bus station, I wouldn't have given it a second glance.


We'd both love to return to Bolivia, because we know it's got a lot more than just La Paz. For our travels, we just didn't have the time to give it a proper go. It was a flying visit only. Pretty clearly, Bolivia isn't a deluxe all-star highlights destination for coachloads of package tourists. It's a rough, tough, messy place - and that's precisely its appeal.

In terms of man-made Wonders, Bolivia doesn't really have much. The only thing it has that stands out to me is one that, shamefully, I didn't visit. I could have, but I was tired... yeah, it's a poor excuse. It's called Tiwanaku, and it's not far from La Paz. It looks like this:


While modern-day Peru has the lions share of all the ancient civilisations of the region, Bolivia chips in with this one. We see pictured the Gateway Of The Sun, a speculative appellation for the site's most impressive feature. It's restored, after being found in the 19th Century in a state of collapse, but is something like 1500 years old. The massive, precisely-cut blocks have given rise to plenty of alien theories, but you know, maybe people back then could be diligent and smart too. Just maybe. Anyway, the Gateway Of The Sun is just part of a larger city, now mostly broken-up remains after it was abandoned in around 1000 AD, seemingly due to lack of food and water.

 
Like many of these civilisations, they didn't write stuff down so we don't know much about it - not even its original name (Tiwanaku is probably a name given by later people). Anyway, I know even less as I didn't go, which I kind of regret given that it appears to be Bolivia's best stab at a Wonder. Sorry Bolivia. Maybe if La Paz was a little less fun...

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