Many sides of Bolivia

Travel Destinations — By on October 20, 2008 at 7:35 am

Bolivia is a fascinating nation – one of the highest altitude countries in the world and a place where past and present co-exist in various interesting ways. That’s what Patrick Symmes discovered during a recent visit, which he wrote about for the NY Times travel magazine.

Bolivia is the poorest and highest country in South America, and La Paz is its lively, fermenting main city of 1.5 million, stuck into a cleft in the Andean plateau. High and low, La Paz throngs with a slightly feudal aura, where clothing trends of the 1890s and the 1980s mingle, and politics seamlessly blends the 1960s with the 1690s.

The exotic is right at the end of the block, where at dawn, checking into my hotel, I encountered the end of an overnight festival, with wealthy women in bowler hats knocking back beers and dancing to a brass band. Then a man walked by carrying 10 mattresses on his back. There was a fistfight. Someone emptied a chamber pot from a second-floor window. Todo normal here means 17th-century cathedrals and 21st-century lodgings, witchcraft markets selling disenchantments, eco-tourists packing telephotos and storefront ‘‘mentalists’’ peddling lottery predictions to the hopeful…

There is no doubt that Bolivia is still a hard place, physically, emotionally, aromatically. Compared with the Europeanized societies of neighboring Chile and Argentina, it’s a step back in time, a rustic patchwork quilt of cultures and environments, with large swaths of the country accessible only by beaten tracks and mud roads. (Travel is what Bolivians call imprevisible, unforeseeable.)

But things are getting easier, and today’s visitor is admitted to a particularly sweet spot in Bolivia’s history, a moment when the roads are new but the ways are still old. I’ve had the classic Andean destinations of Isla del Sol, in Lake Titicaca, and the mountain town of Sorata on my to-do list for a dozen years. Yet only now have Bolivia’s stars aligned to make them not just possible, but possible with the surprising ease and unexpected rewards that mark the best days of travel in a difficult place.

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