As I flew into Bolivia I kept thinking this was the country where the famous outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid made their last stand. You get weird thoughts while on a plane. They had apparently worked in a silver mine but stole from others. Finally it caught up to them and they had a shootout in St. Vincente in 1922.
It was the very same silver that drew the Spanish conquistadors to Bolivia. Of course it wasn’t Bolivia then, that would come much later.
Then it was a part of the Inca Empire that Pizarro conquered. The Spanish discovered rich silver deposits in 1544 and created the town of Postosi to mine it. At one time it was the largest community in South America and was the base of the Spanish economy for almost two centuries.
Pizarro and one of his commanders would fight over control of this region until it was brought firmly back into the Spanish empire in South America.
It would remain there until Simon Bolivar came along to drive the Spanish out of Panama, Colombia, Venezuala, Ecuador, Peru and what would become Bolivia. Under Spanish rule Bolivia was a province of Peru but was renamed in honour of “El Liberador.” In 1825 it would become an independent state. Bolivia today is the only landlocked country in South America but it wasn’t always. A war with Chile saw its only stretch of coastline annexed.
Perhaps it’s volatile history of dictators and military rule had something to do with keeping this country poor. Over a period of 25 years ( 1964-1989) Bolivia had 19 presidents (13 were generals), with only two completed a full term in office.
During that time the most famous of South American revolutionaries Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and his tiny liberation party came to Bolivia. He would ultimately be killed there in 1967 trying to help the poor of the country.
Democracy would have to wait until 1980 to become a reality for this poor country.
All in all I was excited to be traveling into Bolivia. The main reason was Aboriginal people make up 80 per cent of the population, partly because Bolivia is so remote compared to its neighbours. They are also the poorest of the poor.
La Paz is the highest national capital in the world at an altitutde of four kilometres above sea level. There are few trees in or around La Paz. This city though is bustling with many types of people. You’ll see Native women wearing bowler hats (I later found out that if they are on top of their heads firmly, the woman is married and to the side means they are single).
I stayed at the President Hotel, near a famous church, the Iglesia de San Francisco. It blended both Native and Spanish styles in its construction and was something to see. Much more interesting was the market around and near this church. Shops sold everything, from books, watches, pottery, batteries, clothes, food and just about any thing you could think of and a few I didn’t. Wandering up and behind the church was the “Witche’s Market.” There were charms, amulets, strange brews and potions, candies, silver jewelry and fetuses. The llama fetuses were used in a number of ways. The most popular magic method guaranteeing pregnancy…so it was said. I noticed a couple consulting the woman witch and pointing to one but decided to move on before seeing what they did with the fetus. It is a part of the culture, that while many are devout Catholics, they will also consult the witches on different matters. Seeing all this makes you know you aren’t in Kansas or Eeyou Istchee anymore. With that feeling I enjoyed my first night in La Paz just walking around and seeing the sights. It was colourful, different and interesting. One word of warning though, a lot of the streets are narrow and one way. Cars seem to take the corners fast and without looking. In fact Bolivia has some of the worst road conditions in South America.
The next morning I was on yet another plane flying out to Rurrenabaque.
This is a little frontier town on the Río Beni, about 300km north of La Paz. Talk about untouched paradise. You are loaded into a small plane with about 14 other people. This small plane, at the end of the trip, suddenly turns sideways and then descends in a strafing dive. You land on a grass runway feeling like some drug lord making a pick-up or the police making a surprise visit to someone. The airport was small but well maintained and I was greeted with smiles.
The original inhabitants of the area are called the Tacana. What is fascinating about these people is they actively resisted both Christianity and Western-style civilization. This, perhaps, accounted for the unspoiled quality of the area.
Shopping in this town was great. There are tons of little shops specializing in everything. A pair of handmade boots would cost around $30 for example and a great meal, a few dollars. The roads are dirt and you see a lot of motorcycles. No one asks for your driver’s permit when you rent a motorcycle but will ask for your passport. Do not part with it. A simple call to the travel agency cleared the way to riding around. Since this country is poor with an average salary running at around $ 1,000 a year things were relatively inexpensive overall.
My guide Eric told me we were ready to go and we were off to Chalalan Lodge by boat. The jungle here is different from the Peruvian Amazon. It has beautiful scenic mountains and you get a good look at them as you travel up the Beni River. From the Beni you make a right turn and travel for four hours on the Tuichi River. We saw many types of birds, capybaras and some very colourful butterflies. Finally we arrived at Chalalan Lodge in Bolivia’s pristine Madidi National Park. The lodge is wholly owned by the indigenous community of San Jose Uchupiamonas. Eric, himself one of the Quechuas people, would tell me of the hard work his community did to make the lodge possible. It would be six years of community members volunteering their time to build it and the reputation it has today.
Two foreign aid organizations would help out (financing from the International Development Bank and technical assistance from Conservation International).
The lodge is a prime example of what a community-based eco-tourism venture can achieve. Although the community received help from outside organizations in the beginning, the lodge is now owned and managed entirely by the indigenous Quechuas. Made from mahogany, it is surrounded by 4.5 million acres of protected wilderness. Canada, once again, was a player in making this area a protected wilderness. It was a continuation of the agreement that I saw in Peru to protect the Amazon rainforests. It is nice to know that Canada is doing so much to help out this planet’s ecosystem.
Chalalan is not intrusive, blending in with the natural surroundings. It was built using material from the Amazon forest and is powered by solar energy. The lake is protected and only dugout canoes are allowed on the lake. I was itching to try one out almost as soon as I got there… much to the amusement of the locals. I had a chance to paddle around and saw an amazing abundance of life. There were monkeys, caimans, turtles, hoatzins (stinky bird), and macaws. All yelling, barking and screeching. It was great and I only pad-died a little during the day. As I’ve wrote before, the caimons come out at night, so swimming by choice or accident is not really encouraged or advisable. Nature hikes into the jungle at this lodge aren’t only during the day. Walks at dusk into the night are part of its attraction. I saw, but luckily didn’t experience, the bite of the many poisonous spiders. I was extremely lucky to see a pair of 300 pound tapirs feeding. Unfortunely as I set up the camera the timid beasts took off.
At the camp some American tourists came in. These brave souls traveled by bicycle over 300 miles from the Andes Mountains near La Paz to the lowland jungles and rain forests to Rurrenabaque. They would descend 13,000 feet during their journey. The plucky bikers were traveling to raise money for the Río Beni Health Project. The reason why they were raising money is that the late Doctor Lou Netzer had traveled around after retiring from his Santa Barbara, California practice (where the bikers came from). His travels brought him and his wife into the Bolivian jungle. There he learned that a trip to the doctor cost the equivalent of a half month’s pay. To buy the prescriptions took the rest of the month’s pay. He thought this was outrageous and with help from his friends back in the US he opened a clinic. Costs are minimal for patients at two Bolivian pesos per visit. Interns and other doctors would show up and help out. Besides Rurrenabaque with a population of 12,000, the Río Beni Health Project serves 60 jungle communities. Most of these communities are only serviceable by boat trips taking hours. Before the Río Beni Health Project, people in these villages would die of infections and fevers easily treated elsewhere.
To be continued next issued.
Beesum Communications and The Nation Magazine would like to acknowledge that this story was produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (ClDA). Without them, this story would not have been possible.