(8) Bolivia: South Central
I had criss-crossed Bolivia like a politician campaigning for office. From Paso Tambo Quemada to La Paz, south to Cochabamba, east across the Chapare and the Beni via El Camino Nuevo to Santa Cruz, north and east into the Missiones district, back west on El Camino Viejo and south to Sucre, further south to Potosi and Tarija. Then east again to Villamonte and finally south to Yacuiba where I plan to make my exit to Argentina.
What a grand country. What a country of contrast and change...from high, arid altiplano to the lush tropical Amazon, the middle agricultural zone and finally the low and arid desert zone of the Chaco, with everything imaginable in between.
Bolivia was once twice the size it is today. It's numerous wars with its neighbours have been wars of attrition. They lost land to Brazil in the rubber rich area of the Acre. They lost their east coast access via the River Paraguay to Paraguay, most recently in 1932. They lost their Pacific Coast access to Chile in 1884 in the War of the Pacific. And finally, they lost land to Peru in the lower Amazon basin in 1909.
Political instability has not been kind to Bolivia. They have endured 192 changes of government in 178 years as a Republic. Social reform lags, but the people endure. They are the most resilient, most friendly, most helpful of all the countries I have visited.
Twice, in different cities (Sucre and most recently Potosi) I have pulled up to the curb and opened my Travel Guide to the city map to try to determine where I was relative to where I wanted to go. My book was barely open when a lady came up and asked where I wanted to go. She set me straight in two minutes flat. This has never happened to me anywhere, in any country before...only BOLIVIA. Simply incredible!
The road to the Chaco, from Potosi, was through Tarija. It was a long eight hour drive over gravel roads to get here. Most of the road was being prepared for paving, with many detours; hence the extra time to cover the 380 kms.
The country changed before my eyes, from high altiplano at 14,000 ft to middle altiplano at 10,000 ft and then a lovely red valley at 8,000 ft. From there I climbed back up to 10,000 ft ever so gently. If I hadn't check the GPS I would not have known. I was expecting my destination any time now but my GPS said another 38 kms. I thought I would just drop off of the altiplano down to Tarija but no, that was not the case. There was a mountain between me and the city.
The steep ascent had but a few switchbacks as I climbed up to 12,700 feet. A totally different environment greeted me as I crested the mountain. The descent too was a different story. The spiralling descent into Tarija at 6,200 ft. was one I had never seen before. Hundreds of tight switchbacks covered in deep, floury powder, the road barely wide enough for a single vehicle...the corners almost too tight for a bus to negotiate. The temperature warmed with every turn until it was finally 20C when I reached the bottom.
Tarija, an isolated oasis of tranquility. What a lovely, delightful town. It is disconnected from the rest of Bolivia and I am told because of its proximity to Argentina its citizens feel a stronger affiliation for that country and lifestyle than that of Bolivia. The rest of Bolivia seems to share that sentiment too. I think when the road is finally completed all of that will change as Bolivia discovers the gem they have forgotten.
I was quite surprised to find that some of the police here ride the K100RT Police Model. The officer told me they have ten of these bikes in this metropolis of 132,000 people. There cannot be more than 100 miles of paved roads in and around Tarija and yet this model had 118,000 kms showing on the odometer. You have to wonder where he went. There is a flurry of Japanese 250 cc Police Models also. This country just never ceases to amaze me.
Tarija...the only city in Bolivia that I have visited that has normal, legible street signs. What a pleasant surprise to be able to navigate about town with confidence.
For many years the world has seemingly thought that there were no dinosaurs in South America. The tracks near Sucre should have proved different. The museum in Tarija surely will dispel any such notions...dinosaurs, mammoths and giant armadillos over six (6) feet in length, just to name a few. Many more remain to be discovered.
Posted by Robert Bielesch at May 28, 2006 01:05 AM GMT