Thursday, June 4, 2009

The many faces of Bolivia

I suppose it is a big country - Lonely Planet claims roughly the combined area of France and Germany, but still, it's hard to get used to the extreme changes in climate that this country subjects you too. You can travel from the severe-looking, glacier covered mountains near La Paz

to the palm trees blossoming out in Cochabamba in a less than a full day.

The cathedral in Cochabamba, presiding over a palm-tree lined main plaza

And Cochabamba is still at 2,500m above sea level, so it's only relatively low in fact, it's actually surrounded by mountains:

From Cochabamba, you take another 10 hour bus ride, and now you are really in the lowlands: sunny Santa Cruz, altitude 500m above sea level.

More palm trees, and, believe it or not, another cathedral here!

To underscore this point, my hostel has a pool. Well, the water's cold, but it's the thought that counts, I suppose. The change becomes evident on the bus ride down - you go through the last of the mountains, and all of a sudden, you are in the hot, steamy, vibrantly green jungle. The freezing cold of the Salt Flats feels like a very distant memory as we roll through greenery that might as well be Vietnam... or, I suppose, neigboring Brazil. Interestingly enough, the differences don't actually end with the temperature and altitude - the lowlands cities, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Tarija are also clearly more affluent than the mountainous counterparts such as La Paz, Uyuni, and Potosi (Sucre is somewhere in the middle on both counts). Ironically enough, the lowlands seem to attract far fewer tourists than the mountains. It's undeniably refreshing that here in Santa Cruz, the shops and cafes in the center of the city are designed to cater to the locals, and if a tourist happens to walk it, so much the better. This tends to eliminate the concept of 'tourist prices.' Things I've seen in Santa Cruz that I haven't seen anywhere else in Bolivia so far: expensive cars (BMW and Mercedes), including even women driving them, and a subway - no, not the underground transportation network, an honest-to-goodness Subway restaurant (my actual reaction: holy shit, there's a Subwat here!). All this does make it a little hard for me to comprehend why a lot of the miners working themselves to death (quite literally) in the Potosi mines actually come from these regions. I suppose city life, which I get to see, isn't quite the same as farming...

Well, that's enough cultural anthropolgy for today, now back to vacationing... Unfortunately, as I had mentioned, not nearly as many tourists seem to make it down into the lowlands, so walking down a street you are not constantly bombarded with offers to do something exciting, or at least, potentially interesting. In fact, Cochabamba, will hereby be referred to as the tourist free zone. The only attraction I could find is Jesus looking over the valley, so naturally I headed over there. Jesus presides over the top of this hill.

Climbing hills is still a challenge at 2,500m above sea level

Normally, the chair lift, that you can see in the picture here, shuttles you up and down for a nominal fee. But this being the tourist-free zone, the chairlift deserves a break every Monday. I was here on a Monday... so I was walking - taking a cab didn't appeal. 45 minutes, and a good bit of puffing, later I was face to face with the Jesus and looking down at the city below.

This felt like enough of an accomplishment, so the next morning, I departed Cochabamba and headed down for Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is sort of a gateway to the Pantanal region, which sits on the border between Bolivia and Brazil, so there's a few tourists, as well as an occasional travel agency here. Talking to the travel agencies quickly convinced me that if I wanted to head North towards the Brazilian Amazon, the Bolivian side of the Pantanal wasn't going to be in the cards for me, so I bought my bus ticket for the San Mathias border crossing to Brazil (I expect this one will fall squarely into the 'rarely used by foreigners' category), and took off to wonder around the city a bit:

I was a little tired of pictures of cathedrals by now (even though admittedly the ones here do offer a lot more variety than the pagodas in Japan...), so instead, here's a duck wondering around our bus on the way from Cochabamba

Ok, ok, here's Santa Cruz' cathedral, but with a bit of a twist on the angle

Lit up fountains near the main square

In preparation for [hopefully] lots of wildlife upcoming in the Pantanal, Amazon, and the Galapagos, I decided that being in a sizeable metropolis like Santa Cruz was the right time to invest in a lens with more zoom for my camera. Sadly, no exotic animals here, so a nice zoomed in picture of the Simon Bolivar (I think) statue for you instead

And this, I expect, will bring my Bolivian adventure to a conclusion. It's been fun, it's been cheap, it has uncomfortable buses, which I still get to experience for another 16 hours or so overnight on the way to the border - on to expensive Brazil!

PS. For those of us allergic to Facebook, there's a new album with a bunch of pictures of my trials and tribulations in the mountains of Bolivia, Southern Peru, and North-Western Argentina over the last two months here.

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