Drive Through Bolivia

Drive Bolivia
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Bolivia was like a little step back in time. We didn’t intend to stay too long but we ended up hanging around and working on a few projects over Christmas and the New Year. Coming from Peru, you get to La Paz straight away and the glorious chaos of that city is refreshing and infectious. Then you get sucked into the rest of the country, each new town as vibrant and energetic as the last, until you’re finally back down from the Altiplano, the Andes giving way to the flatlands that stretch towards Brazil. Here is our drive Bolivia report:

The Poverty

The poverty compared with all the countries we have visited in the last four years seems much worse – it’s in your face with kids forced to dance in the streets, legions of old people employed to beg for money, drugged-out shoe-shiners sleeping in doorways.

Government money must be in very short supply – all over the country. The border we came in at had a power cut but no back-up generators. The passports were checked by candle-light, the face-recognition cameras sat idle in the dark. The border that we exited was just a small room sweltering in the jungle heat with no air-con – I think they were modernizing: the office next door was slowly being demolished by a kid in flip-flops with a big hammer. Lack of paved roads; ancient buses spewing out choking fumes down medieval-sized streets; people pissing everywhere; hundreds of kids on rural roads begging, some of whom threw stones at passing vehicles who declined to stop and cough up money; animal butchery performed next to gutters and drains. Visually, things reminded me of somewhere like small-town India and I still fail to understand why when Bolivia is endowed with so many natural resources, a small population and a “socialist” president.

The Park Ups

La Paz – We parked up right in the center of town a couple of blocks up from Plaza de San Pedro and a block from the main drag. It was an unusual road in that it didn’t have any stores or buildings on it so was used, by day, by commuters and taxis. Occasionally, a cop would come round with a wheel clamp but would only put it on a car which he knew would want to leave soon because then he’d collect the 50Bs fine. We were there for 3 weeks over Christmas and never had any bother from anyone – the only problem is that it’s a public urinal for thousands of desperate people and they tend to make a bee-line for the privacy that a big, parked truck offers. After Burning Man and the nudist Wreck Beach in Vancouver, we’d never seen so much cock in our lives. Officially the Hotel Oberland, south of the city in Mallasa, is the overlander’s choice for parking up. It’s a nice enough establishment, the only problems being that it’s a fairly miserable parking lot that you’re living in and you’re a couple of buses or taxis away from the city action. And they charge 50Bs per person.

Ojo del Inca is a geothermally heated pond a few miles north of Potosi which lets people pitch a tent or park up. Nice place to park for a few days but watch the batte-axe of a woman who runs the place. At first she charged us 85Bs but dropped to 25Bs when she saw we were quite happy to park just beyond the property. To visit for the day, you have to pay 10Bs each.

We spent a couple of weeks on the streets in Sucre. We tried out one place in the center that used to let people camp in their garden but he’d closed up, saying it was too much bother. Not much bother at all, however, is just parking up on the streets. A really nice spot is by the Parque Bolivar – at the bottom is an ex-gas station where you can shelter from the weather – although the best things about Sucre are the climate, which is perfect for living in a truck, and the friendly stray dogs that inhabit the center of town.

Samaipata is a small town 100 klicks up the hill from Santa Cruz. Just out of town is a three thousand year-old site, the center  to many nice treks and stuff. It is also heavily expatted with lots of comfortable hostels, bars and restaurants. We stayed at the Jaguar Hostel for 15Bs each per night – a small place run by friends and popular with Argentinian campers. This town is a pleasant place to rest and take a deep breath before heading down into the heat of the lowlands.

Agua Calientes is half a day’s drive from the Brazilian border. For 10Bs each, you can camp under trees by a geothermal lake which is very popular Bolivians and the local Mennonite communities.

The Internet

Internet in general in Bolivia is pretty bad. But using 3G on the ol’ smartphone was surprisingly good. Sure, most times, I had to work at night to get some reasonable speed but quite often I had to use my phone when we sitting in a café or restaurant because it was still faster than the Wi-Fi on offer. The phone package was kind of a good deal – $1.5 buys 500mb that lasts for a day but rolls over when you next charge up the credit. Problem was, usually, trying to get through 500mb was wishful thinking.

The Food

There are markets everywhere in Bolivia – they are obsessed. Even on Christmas Day, some of the stalls were set up and selling. The range of vegetables is limited but they are tasty and cheap. If they aren’t exactly organic, they are grown from good seeds and you can bet it was human labor that spread the chemicals and harvested the produce, brought to market in the back of a small truck. In the bigger cities there are a few supermarkets but everything was a few Bolivianos more than the markets. The purpose-built markets in every town are a good place to get a cheap meal – the central market in Sucre was pretty busy with big communal tables – and there’s an evening version too. La Paz was excellent for vegetarian food.

The Roads

We gave up on going to see the salt flats. We knew it was the wrong moment – the rainy season had been underway for a while and the incoming Dakar rally was going to mess everything up – but it was the 100km of corrugated dirt track to get there, affording an average speed of 15mph, that ultimately put us off. There is a skeletal network of goodish roads running from La Paz to Santa Cruz and, then, a new, smooth one across the flatlands to the borders. Coming out of Sucre, for example, there were two choices: (a) go on a 200km detour to get onto the nation’s main highway or, (b) use the unpaved, direct road between the nation’s traditional capital and their biggest city. We chose the direct way and ruined a tire on the sharp rocks – never getting above 20mph for two days. Yes, the roads are pretty bad in Bolivia. Even when they are paved, they’re full off potholes, ruts and crazy undulations – and when it rains, the unpaved ones turn into rivers of mud.

The Fuel

Buying fuel in Bolivia was a novel experience. The rule is that, if you turn up at the gas station with a foreign-registered vehicle, the fuel is (currently) 9Bs as opposed to the normal price of 3.7Bs.  I believe that another rule is that you are limited to one container if you turn up with fuel cans. Coming in from Peru, we could only find one gas station in La Paz which let us fill our truck up for 5Bs; driving further inland, most gas stations began to sell us diesel at that price and then on the highways between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba gas stations would charge us the normal price. Past Santa Cruz, though, heading towards the Brazilian border at Corumba, we found it very difficult and resorted to buying 200 liters of diesel from someone’s backyard in San Juan de Chiquitos. From there it’s 200km to Brazil and we passed no gas stations at all until we hit the border town itself.

When looking for a lower price, there are a few tricks: You should ask for a price “sin factura” and tell them not to worry about the cameras – they don’t work. You can try later in the evening when the manager might not be around. You might even be able to convince them that your vehicle is Bolivian, you just haven’t changed the plates over – or you can even Photoshop a couple of Bolivian plates and stick them in the window. Don’t let them charge too much – we felt 5Bs was a fair price and on a 50-litre-amount, the attendant is making nearly $10; a nice bonus for him or her. But don’t moan at them – some of the attendants are pretty paranoid about the whole thing and it’s your responsibility to be able to just say “OK, thanks but no thanks”, and still be able to drive on to the next gas station.

You might think that it’s immoral to steal tax from Bolivia by buying their subsidized fuel – and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. If you can afford it, the diesel price of 9Bs per liter is hardly super expensive and still cheaper than most of Europe, say. But there must be many immoral facets to Bolivia’s economic situation and, I believe, the fuel is subsidized in order to please the more wealthy folk who can afford to run their own cars or own transit companies and the poorer folk who don’t trust the government to deliver the benefits that higher fuel taxation would bring…


You will probably get offered cocaine before getting offered marijuana – a depressing fact that will probably make you want a spliff even more. The drug of choice, of course is chewing coca leaves, popular with people of all classes but especially any worker with a tough, physical job. We hardly ever saw a builder or mechanic without a bulging cheek and a small green plastic bag close at hand. The desired effects of chewing this stuff come after a few hours persistence – try rubbing in a bit of soda to speed up the process. Our main substance abuse was focused on e-liquid which is available from some people in La Paz who don’t have a shop yet; find ‘em on Facebook and arrange to meet up!


We didn’t change our pattern of behavior much at all – but we managed to get robbed three times in one month. Not from the truck – petty stuff like pick-pocketing, bag-snatching and a couple of kids ran off with our e-cig after we’d been partying together all night… While this post should be about our experience, I’d like to mention one episode some friends had with the cops at the same time we were there: One night a “cop” came banging on their door, wouldn’t show his badge and kept a torch shining in my friend’s face. In the morning, he saw that the GPS had vanished and, as they were driving out of town, decided to report the incident to the police station. Inside, he recognized the guy from the night before who actually was indeed a police officer and, after a bit of shouting, my friend got his GPS back. I mention this story because, again, this family’s driven all over the world and only ever had a problem like this in Bolivia.


Since arriving in Bolivia our stools were always soft – every day for two months. Since getting back down from the Altiplano and entering Brazil, they’ve been back to normal.  There, you really needed to know that, didn’t you? It could have been something to do with the altitude. It could have been something to do with the poor hygiene skills at the markets and eateries. I have a suspicion that it is that much harder to kill everything when the water boils at a lower temperature than sea level or maybe our hand-pump filter couldn’t cope with the bacteria-loaded, untreated water. Our coffee was probably infecting us with a low dose of germs every morning.

The Landscape

What can we say that a thousand photos cannot describe better? Stunning.


Meeting the Mennonites of Bolivia

Mennonite children

Back down from the Altiplano and well past Santa Cruz, we turned our orbital craft onto the road that heads hundreds of kilometers east across the empty lands towards the Brazilian border. It was proper tropical now, and through the heat and humidity, sure that our usual scant research had implied that there was not much happening round here, we settled back for the long cruise out of Bolivia. But then we came across something unexpected, something that really made me wonder about the earth, the people on it and how they choose to organize themselves. Unexpected too, that I had to dig out some German phrases. Low German phrases.

There’s a cartoon I’ve had in my head for many years – I would post a link to it but I can’t find one, it being a pre-internet sort of cartoon. I’ll try and describe it: The first panel has this guy driving a lonely road through the American Mid-West. There’s a hitch-hiker, dressed in a suit with a briefcase but he pays him little heed and drives on. On the second panel, he’s still driving and sees another hitch-hiker who looks exactly the same with the same briefcase – he passes him but does a double-take. The third panel, again, has him driving the same road and there are three hitch-hikers; two together and one further up – all looking identical with the driver now completely google-eyed. On the fourth and last panel, there, by the side of the road is a big factory with a sign “Clones Inc.” and dozens of the hitch-hikers spread along the side of the road.

It was kinda like that, these guys dressed up exactly the same with black dungarees, blue shirts and beige cowboy hats.  One after the other, sometimes in pairs, standing where a dirt track met the main road. By the time we got to our fourth panel, there was a whole bunch of them mingling around a couple of shacks at a junction; a few of them even had tractors pulling wagons full of their women all dressed in identical plain dresses and sun hats but most of them were hitch-hiking or, at least, waiting for the bus. These were the Mennonites and we stopped to give one of them a ride.


The Mennonites are a large global community of 1.7 million people in over 80 countries. They have in common their religion which began hundreds of years ago in Europe, following the teachings of Menno Simons: adult baptism, a belief in the simple life and pacifism. This move away from Catholicism was a part of the Protestant Reformation – a supposed move towards a more rational view of the relationship between humans and their God – but it was also a move away from mainstream society. Suffering various forms of persecution, a great many Mennonites were allowed to settle, first in Russia, and then, when the authorities turned against them there during the last decades of the nineteenth century, in Canada where they were valued as self-reliant pioneers.

Our hitch-hiker, Cornelius Neulander, told us about his own grandfather who had lived in Canada but left for a new life in Mexico where his father was born. His father had emigrated, with hundreds of other Mennonites, to Belize to farm the land and raise families. From there, Cornelius had brought his own family to Bolivia to start afresh some ten years before. We asked him how many of them were here and he replied in Spanish, “My colony, Colonia Belize has three thousand” and, in fact there are 60,000 Bolivian Mennonites in dozens and dozens of settlements and we were intrigued by their story, a movement across the planet that meant each generation had a different passport but suspecting that the specific nationality meant very little to them.

You have probably heard of the Amish who are an off-shoot of the Mennonites, originally from Swiss German regions of Europe. But, unlike their North American relatives, the Bolivian group, although they are described as “Old Colonialists” who have preserved their original beliefs in the face of the world’s modernization, are unexpectedly comfortable with some aspects of modern life. Their homes have generators and solar panels; they use tractors, machinery, and artificial fertilizers and pesticides on their farms. Cornelius even had a mobile phone and a camera and he was going the same way we were – to Aguas Calientes, a thermal spring that heated a whole lake and was a popular recreational area for the locals, native Bolivians and Mennonites alike.

Agua Calientes

A couple of hundred kilometers down the road, then, we found a spot under some trees to park up in the attractive camping area at one end of the small lake. The waters bubble up from the ground and, although it covers a large area, are never deep. The temperature is around 30°C, kept warm, I imagine, as much by the tropical sun as by geothermal activity. In the shallows there were many families relaxing and the Mennonites were easy to spot; the women sitting together in groups with their full-length wet dresses clinging, scarfs around their heads, and the boys displaying their white skin and blond hair. Further up, there must have been 25 tents huddled together in the shade which was the Mennonite camp, communal cooking gear at one end with hammocks and washing lines stretched out between the trees. Here the older guys still wore their immaculately pressed black dungarees, blue shirts and beige hats to be copied exactly by the kids once they’d got out of the water. It was kind of surreal to see all this, here in the middle of the Bolivian lowlands, a tribe of clone-like European immigrants calling out to each other in Low German, laughing, playing, chilling out, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, seemingly not so far from the local norms and the people who they talked with too and made their acquaintances.  But in reality so, so different.

We sat down with two brothers and a cousin from Colonia Berlin, brought some beers out and asked them to tell us more about their lives.  They were shy at first and we talked in Spanish which the older two could understand but the youngest, who was fifteen, had problems following. Apparently they are not taught any Spanish and the men only pick it up in order to conduct business with the local people. The women can only speak their particular dialect of Low German – the reason offered plainly was that they’d be less likely to leave the community if they didn’t understand the language of the country in which they were born.

It was an interesting conversation and we learned that they didn’t have television, had never used the internet and didn’t play any music beyond singing in the church. They all worked every day on the farms and pretty much never went further than the nearest small town to get diesel or supplies. The oldest, of 25 years, had only ever been once to a city – Cochabamba. None of them could say much about the history of their people – the older two had moved here from Belize when they were very young and couldn’t remember anything about it. We prompted them from what we had learned from Cornelius; their history back to Mexico, Canada and Russia but their faces were as blank as when we’d told them about our own origins in Portugal and England.

Meeting the Mennonites

Reaching internet land again, a few days later, I googled up what I could about the Bolivian Mennonites and it seems that, although their independent communities may be an attractive way of life, there is a cost to this social cohesion that has kept them all together for so long. I read about the Ghost Rapes where a number of Mennonite men anesthetized whole families by night and sexually abused them. It is a disturbing story which seems most incredible because the lack of communication, education and information within their society contributed to these events happening over several years to a still unknown amount of victims before ten perpetrators were caught and sent to prison.  And there is even some suspicion that it’s all still going on. In Bolivia, in some small communities, the authorities only have jurisdiction over the worse of actions like murder – a system that is designed to protect the integrity of traditional, indigenous cultures. That’s why the Old Colonialists are here. They left Canada because they were being forced to send their children to normal schools and they moved on from Belize because their growing community was too big to be kept separated from mainstream society.

But before I had read about all that, back at Agua Calientes, the next day, the Earthcircuit Crew drank their coffees and tatted down for the final last drive to the border. It was still bothering me that here were these people, living off-grid, thousands of miles from their origins, moving across the world, it seemed, as slowly as it took time to raise a family and forget about the generations before that had started this exodus. We sought out the oldest looking guy and explained that we wanted to know something more of why there were here. His name was Peter and even here couldn’t (or didn’t want to) tell us much about life back in Canada where he was born or the their history before. He told us “Here, in Bolivia,” he said, “we can be what we want to be”.

The Mennonites we met were all very polite and friendly. They did seem kind of wary of us but they did invite us to their settlements and it’s a shame that we didn’t take up their offer. Because knowing what I now know, I’m not sure it would have been the best of ideas…

Stray Dogs Of Sucre

Stray dogs of Sucre
Stray dogs of SucreIt’s not a long way between Potosi and Sucre – a few hours’ drive and a drop of 1000m from the barren hills around one of the world’s highest cities down through the valleys to the eternal-spring climate and greener region of Sucre, Bolivia’s traditional capital and beautiful, most perfect city.

The ancient connection between these two towns is a strong one: Poor Potosi, site of a silver mine where millions died and where, even today, thousands continue to work in terrible conditions and Super Sucre, the place built on Potosi’s money by the mine-owners and still now the posher side of Bolivia, a city both well-funded and steeped in pre and post-colonial history. So far on our travels through Bolivia, Sucre stands out as a beautifully preserved Andalusian downtown surrounded and supported by industrious working class neighborhoods. The buses run cleaner than in La Paz and there seem to be far less children dancing for money in the street – we arrived on a Sunday evening, drove through clean and orderly suburbs and stopped by the main square, parking up with lots of lovingly restored antique cars, their owners enjoying their stroll among the palm trees and fountains. But over the next couple of weeks, as we toiled with the Bolivian internet and did some work online, one incredible thing marked this city out as truly unique – not just for Bolivia, or for South America, but pretty much for the whole world. And I’m still racking my brains trying to understand what it means for the city, the history and the people: From the first day to our last, we enjoyed the company of a few of the dozens of friendly stray dogs of Sucre as we joined them on the streets.

Dogs the world-over

In the West, dogs tend to be attached to their owners or locked away behind fences and gates. In the South, there are, of course, the same kind of pet dogs but there are also loads of them wandering the streets or loose in and around the area where they live. Often they have owners but the relationship of responsibility is subtlety different than is it is for your standard pet – these dogs aren’t really strays, of course. They are not lost – they are free-roamers.

And they are never particularly friendly. I mean, they might tolerate a pat on the head or appreciate a little attention but they generally don’t seek any of that from a stranger especially – you see them sniffing about pretty oblivious to your calls or heading down the road straight past you, purposefully on a habitual route. In places, like at the beach or at some tourist spot, there might be a pack of them used to the kindness of visitors, well-versed in the art of blagging food – and the dogs we met in Sucre come close to this category. Close but entirely different; they weren’t begging for food, they just seemed to hang around the parks, squares and green areas and, well, they just seemed to want to hang out with the people there.

Where you can find friendly dogs in Sucre

A few blocks down from the main square, the Plaza 25 de Mayo, is the Parque Bolivar – a broad and long, well-treed park with fountains that were lit up at night at the bottom and food stalls at the top. There’s an enormous children’s playground, a public swimming pool and tennis courts down one side and, in the middle, a kind of miniature Eiffel Tower thing that you can climb up. Around the perimeter, joggers join forces with kids on hired mini-quad bikes and, basically, on any day of the week until 11pm or so the place is a good example of an urban recreational area complete with the odd picnic and plenty of romantic teenagers. And loads of dogs who wander around being friendly. They might occasionally join in on the jogging for a few laps. They might interact with their leashed brethren. Mostly they go from park bench to park bench just sitting and chilling with whoever’s there. They never went near the Eiffel Tower thing. If it’s a hot day, they stretch out under a bush – in the evenings, to be honest, they just look like they’re having a right laugh. And after midnight, there’ll be a pack of them all trying to get some sleep in a quiet corner somewhere.
Maybe it’s hard to imagine. These aren’t your typical mangy mutts – the long-haired, smaller breeds looked a bit of a dreadlocked mess but, mostly, they were big, good-looking, healthy dogs. With smiles on their faces, ready to look you in the eye and interact.

There’s one parallel that might illuminate and that’s the infamous Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, Lima, Peru where you’ll find dozens of cats hanging out and dozens of visitors come to watch them. The situation is similar, especially when you see them curled up on the flowerbed as if they were part of the horticultural design. Except that these are, of course, dogs and not cats and, for that reason, just that bit more cuddlier.

Sucre and Sucre’s Mate

Sucre and Sucre's Mate

Our second day in Sucre, we were still getting our bearings and looking around for a good place to park up and live. This process, in a city, generally leads us towards the green spaces. We stopped by one, not far from the central market, and got out to check the area on foot. A beautiful husky-type thing started to follow us, responding to our greetings and letting himself be stroked. He walked with us up the road and then ran back down once he’d realized we had turned around. And when we got back to the truck and opened the door, he jumped straight in and wouldn’t leave until we physically pushed him out.

By the time we had got into a routine of mostly parking by the big Parque Bolivar or up by the main square to get a better internet connection, we had won ourselves a couple of regular canine friends – who we unimaginatively christened Sucre and Sucre’s Mate. I first met them up at the square on a couple of consecutive evenings – an hour or so playing with them and then they’d be off chasing motorbikes. Then once when we drove back down to the park, they ran after us, opting to sleep the night curled up together just outside our door. After that, they were often around, following us about, waiting outside cafes and stores for us and winning a few nights sleep-over actually inside our truck  – Sucre especially liked the bit of carpet at the front.

What does this say about Sucre the city?

I don’t know if anyone reading this finds it all so strange; but I do. You might find this kind of canine behavior at the beach but in a city? I never have before. For sure, some people we spoke to said that the dogs had owners but that they were just left to roam free – and none of them looked underfed or seemed fearful or aggressive as many street dogs do. Judging by Sucre and Sucre’s Mate, who never begged us for food or seemed particularly interested in trash, we think they must have had a regular place where they could go get fed – a place which you might call their home but a place where they only ever spent a few hours a day. Of course, we were always asking ourselves whether they endured any suffering, suspecting a dark side to this story – but you only have to look at them; they looked happy and dogs don’t fake that.

And I’m still wondering why in Sucre, the “nicest” city in Bolivia, this situation has come to be… A perfect balance of factors, probably: A constant, comfortable climate; a people chilled out enough to tolerate and even appreciate them; a municipal authority not quite resourceful enough or minded to get rid of them; maybe a tradition stemming from some long-forgotten event or practice. Whatever: For two dog-lovers living on the road they certainly made Sucre a special city.

Vegetarian Restaurants In La Paz, Bolivia

Vegetarian Restaurants in La Paz Bolivia

Being a vegetarian in South American countries can be a testing experience and, in general, Bolivia is no exception to that rule. In their capital city, Nuestra Señora de la Paz, however, you will find plenty of healthy, good food that has been cooked deliberately without meat or fish – pretty much an oasis of vegetarian food that will appeal to anyone who could do with a rest from the meat-eating norms. And, while proper vegetarian food is often over-priced tourist fodder, here you will find places where the locals eat. Here is our list of vegetarian restaurants in La Paz.

The Best – Natur Center

Best vegetarian restaurant in La Paz, BoliviaOur favourite place was on Calle Murillo just down from Mariano Graneros, that narrow market street, lined with blue wooden stalls, that climbs steeply up the hill. Here there are set meals with two options for the main dish. The menu changes every day and costs 16 Bs ($2.20) but was always delicious. This place sells a few traditional health products too, soya and bread and has yogurt based drinks and desserts for around 5 Bs. Get there in good time (12pm – 1.30pm) or you might miss out – it’s very popular with the locals and you share tables.


Centro Vegetariano Reneuvo

Centro Vegetariano Renuevo MapOn the other side of the same road, further up the street, is a vegetarian store inside a small arcade of stalls. Climb the stairs and there’s another restaurant with the same kind of deal although the food was a little more challenging the few times we went there. Again, get there in good time because it’s very popular – we saw the same crowd here on a Saturday when the restaurant above was closed. The set meals were 15 Bs.


Tomatecafe Cafeteria Vegetariana

Tomate  Cafe Cafeteria VegetarianaOn Calle Ayacucho going up on the left below Calle Potosi, this place is a foreign-owned, slightly posher cafetería catering for tourists and business folk. Again, get here early because the salad bar was running close to empty whenever we arrived. For 20 Bs, the set menu is always inventive and delicious but the portions are a bit small considering lunch is the main meal of the day in Bolivia. They also do veggieburgers, coffee, cakes and serve a few spirits. They have Wi-Fi but it’s typically slow. Watch your bags round here – the business area has rich pickings for thieves…


Tierra Sana

Tierra Sana Vegetarian RestaurantFriendly staff and free Wi-Fi; delicious food that is obviously lovingly prepared and presented. There’s a good menu here but it’s yet another step up in price – 30 Bs for the set course with portions on the smaller-size. This place is on the pedestrianized Calle Tarija round the corner from Oliver’s Pub and down the hill from the Museo de Coca.



Some health food stores, snacks and other places we found:

On Zoilo Flores close to Amirante Grau and a couple of blocks from Plaza de San Pedro, there are a couple of health food stores for your TVP and soya chunks and stuff. There is a also a fairtrade store at Avenida Costanera 36.

Here you might also find a street stall selling papas rellenas – mashed potato around meat, cheese or egg and deep fried. This is a delicious snack found all over Bolivia, served with a tangy sauce and usually costing 3-5 Bs. There’s a busy stall selling these on Calle Oruro just up from the main drag.  Other snacks to watch out for are humintas (corn and cheese steamed in leaves) and sonso (barbequed yucca and cheese).

If you’re in the south of town, on Avenida 20 de Octobre between Calles Guachalla and Aspiazu, there is an interesting cafe and community space focused on the feminist struggle and gender politics. I can’t remember the name but it has an unmissable mural painted big on the outside wall. There’s Wi-Fi here and occasional vegetarian grub served up cheap.

One other thing, if you find yourself in a smallish place that’s not too busy, is to just ask the cook to swap the meat for cheese, an egg or extra vegetables. Often they’ll be making it from scratch anyway – just don’t expect too much of a discount in price…

Some other vegetarian restaurants in La Paz that we didn’t go to:

  • Armonia at Avenida Ecuador 2286 – by all accounts, vegan and organic with set meals around 30 Bs.
  • Namas Te at Zoila Flores 1334 – well-established, maybe a little posh – or, at least, a treat.
  • La Mia Pizza at Calle Illampu 809 – ask for the meat-free and vegan options.
  • Hare Krishna Temple – we could never find this place but there is one around…

Nations Unknown: Tawantinsuyu

TawantinsuyuTawantinsuyu is the name the Incas gave to their empire. It means in Quechua, “Four Regions Together” or “Four Directions-under-the-sun United” – and reflects the expansion of the Incas from their homeland in the Cusco region of south-central Peru. By the time the Spanish arrived and took over the show, the Inca Empire had stretched north to Columbia; west to the Peruvian coastlands; south far into Chile and east into the Aymara lands of Bolivia. Of course, the modern nation of Tawantinsuyu doesn’t exist in any official sense and you will hardly find it mentioned anywhere beyond history books and the propaganda of some of the more ambitious American Indigenous groups. However there are some important elements to traveling through this part of the world that we couldn’t fail to see and thus begin to believe that these lands are in fact a nation unknown.

Tawantinsuyu shares a geography: The Andean mountain range which rises up in Colombia and runs for the thousands of miles south. On its eastern flanks are the Amazonian highlands – to the west, there’s the driest desert in the world stretching down the coast. This area shares a people: It was always the most populated part of South America and gave rise to many civilizations and cultures – it still has a large indigenous population whose style and look draws deep distinction with anywhere else on the planet. It shares a history:  From times before the Incas through domination by the Spanish and the struggle to survive in the modern world. And, also, they share the rainbow flag.

The Incan identity

But while the notion of Tawantinsuyu hardly exists, it is the legacy of and identification with the Incan Empire that is more visible in the minds and lives of the Andean peoples.  In search of a cultural tradition to either stand proud against modern-day exploitation, to repair the dignities lost in a colonial past or to forge new nationalisms, the concept of Inca is used wherever their empire stretched. So, in Ecuador, for example, the indigenous Saraguros people have increasingly built a self-identity with the Incas, naming schools and offices after Inca emperor –heroes and taking Quechua names as they take their place in the pan-Ecuadorian indigenous organizations that have formed to protect indigenous rights. On a grander scale, in Peru, the Inca legacy as a great empire centered on Cusco has been adopted on a country-wide level and used to build a national identity that is not simply to draw in the tourists. Equally in Bolivia, where the Aymara language and culture predates Inca control and the use of Quechua, the modern process of indigenous political emancipation and equality has employed symbols that have as much to do with conquering Incas as they have with any of the more ancient traditions.

No one is quite sure when the more organized cultures arose in this part of the world. Ruins have been found that date back to times before the Giza Pyramid of Egypt, some 5000 years ago – and the years since have been sketched in with the rise and fall of such civilizations as the Chavin, Paracas, Nazca, Huari and Tiwanaku. Many of these cultures held similar religious beliefs and managed the dry desert, mountain valleys or altiplano using the same technologies. It is obvious, of course, that there is a continuous evolution from the earliest to the later, culminating in the Inca. In fact, the Inca had only moved beyond their homelands to control this vast area in the century before smallpox arrived to ravage their population – followed within a few years by the Spanish. In the north of their empire, some of the regions would have had only a generation or two of Inca domination before they were forced to submit to the Spanish crown instead. Even at the center of the empire, Machu Pichu (that amazing feat of construction and engineering) was only completed a few months before the age of the Incas drew to a close. And yet, though there may have been only a mere flash of Inca right at the end of a long and industrious Andean culture, it is the Inca identity which is assumed by the descendants of their subjects.

Let’s perform a thought experiment: Imagine that Germany had won the First World War and had assumed control over Europe. A couple of generations later, then, imagine that the US had suddenly invaded and completely and utterly took control for the next few hundred years. In the distant future, an indigenous European people emerging from American dominance are searching for an identity by which they can promote their rights, preserve their dignity and take their place at the political decision-making table.  But instead of re-adopting the notions of French, British, Spanish or Italian, the Europeans are thinking themselves as the inheritors of a German culture – even if in reality they had only been forced to be German for a short while before being forced to be American.

The formation of an Andean identity

So why is this kind of what we see in South America? The first two answers to this are, of course, what happened during those years of Spanish control and what happened before, as the Incas built their empire. The Spanish Conquistadores were quick to destroy as much as they could of the symbols of indigenous identity that they found. Temples and buildings were torn down and recycled as churches, records were burnt and traditional practices were forbidden. The people were forced to dress differently and their whole society was rearranged to benefit the new rulers. And within these ashes the truths and facts of life before the Incas were seldom preserved.

But this process of forgetting was kicked off by the Incas themselves. As they expanded across the region, they practiced their own version of the classic “divide and rule” which they called mitmaqkuna. They transplanted conquered communities far from their ancestral lands so that their “federated” empire was a hotch-potch of different ethnicities. Going back to the example of the Saraguros in Ecuador:  Many of these people are descendants of a group that was forcibly moved there from Lake Titicaca, thousands of miles south in Peru, by the very same Inca conquerors they are presently working to identify with. This relocation of communities was performed all over the Incan empire and, once it fell to the Spanish, many people attempted to return to their proper ancestral homelands. The reality was a mixing, blending and unification of a large proportion of indigenous population… A second Incan effect was the spread of their own form of Quechua which quickly became a lingua franca throughout the empire. The Spanish were quick to use this single language to communicate with the varied peoples. And because of this it became easier for them to characterize the indigenous as a single cultural entity – a unification of identity that is still so evident today.

Which brings us to the modern nation of Tawantinsuyu.  The flag that I has been chosen to represent Tawantinsuyu is the rainbow flag known as the Wiphala. You set it fluttering proudly outside houses as soon as you climb into the Andes crossing south from Colombia. By the time you get to Cuzco it is deployed in the central plaza as the official symbol for that city, the former capital of Tawantinsuyu – and, in Bolivia, it’s alternate, squared version, has been adopted as the national flag, paired up with their traditional tri-color on police uniforms, government buildings and military aircraft. The Wiphala’s origins are pretty vague. It is known that the Inca employed a three-color rainbow combined with serpents as the crest for the Inca Emperor himself and remains of vases from the ancient Tiwanaku capital in present-day Bolivia also depict the squared pattern. But the very idea of a flag, fluttering high in the breeze and emblematic of a nation is a European invention and, so, we must examine what is meant by the indigenous communities, the length and breadth of the Andes adopting this re-vitalized motif.

In the north, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador have long been fighting the commercial exploitation of their lands. In Peru, where they have brought in an “Indigenous Peoples Consultation Law”, to include the indigenous in decisions about mining or oil extraction,  they are now arguing who is truly indigenous and who is ‘merely’ a highland peasant. In Bolivia, Evo Moralas, the first indigenous ruler of a South American country, continues the “socialist” revolution and tries to make it acceptable to all the peoples of that divided country. The modern nations might be separate but the concerns are the same – that the original peoples have long been treated badly by outsiders and that they face a hard struggle to reconcile their situation with the rapidly developing world they exist in – even as they are afforded more and more rights. An identity, a background or a conscious history is an essential tool in this fight and they find that, by adopting an Incan identity and the rainbow flag, their heritage is actually a shared one that exists all over this region that was once called Tawantinsuyu.