Of the intrepid few who visit Bolivia, most begin by flying directly to La Paz, the cultural capital of the country. That is a big mistake because all flights land in nearby El Alto which is the highest large airport in the world at a bone chilling 13,323 feet.
Since most people live at or near sea level, the result is that many tourists gasp, wheeze, and sometimes fall over dead. Those who survive the initial lack of oxygen develop throbbing headaches, debilitating weakness, brutal sunburn, and an inability to sleep while they slowly freeze. A week later, if all goes well, one can begin to have fun.
Dr. Ann and the Weazel are not beginners, so we decided to avoid all that by starting our adventure in the lowland city of Santa Cruz, then work our way up from there.
Unfortunately, American Airlines had discontinued its Bolivian routes, so we had no choice but to fly to the nearest other city served by the airline. Lima, Peru is only 1000 miles from Santa Cruz, but the two cities are separated by some of the tallest mountains on earth, so they might as well be on opposite sides of the moon.
Those who use frequent flyer miles can expect to be tortured by the airline company. Penniless peasants such as ourselves are offered only the worst seats on the worst flights. So it was that in the time of Covid we were forced to connect in four different airports including Miami International which is a pesthole of disease.
Though not quite so squalid as many tropical port cities, Lima is the ugliest place this side of the Middle East. (Nothing on earth could be uglier than Kuwait!) Though situated at sea level at the same tropical latitude as Aruba in the Caribbean, only in the southern hemisphere, Lima is perpetually cold and dank. Though the humidity hovers around 90 percent, it never ever rains. The result is that there is no natural vegetation whatsoever.
Here is a view of nearby Mt. Ugly from our hotel room. (The tree on the right was no doubt planted in a courtyard and nourished with sewage effluent.) What is your favorite shade of beige?
Our most excellent hostal, a veritable oasis known as Mama’s Backpacker, was located in an affluent and fairly safe neighborhood near the airport. Elsewhere, other than in the colonial center, and the wealthy seafront community of Miraflores, the beige slums go on forever.
Having been there and done that on previous trips we elected to stay in our room, venturing out only to gorge on ceviche, until it was time to catch our 1 am flight to Santa Cruz the following day. During our flight the moon was full, and we were treated to a sublime view of the snow covered peaks of the Andes and lake Titicaca glimmering far below in the moonlight.
We arrived in Santa Cruz at 4:30 am after many hours without sleep only to discover that we were denied entry into the country. Covid restrictions had made travel a nightmare. Proof of on line hotel reservations was required, along with a geolocation app, but I don’t own a cell phone. I had printed proof, but that wasn’t good enough. We were stuck until Ann remembered that I had forwarded the reservations to her, and she had a copy on her cell phone. Apparently a digital copy of a document is more real than reality itself.
Our troubles didn’t end there. There is almost no illegal immigration from Bolivia to the United States, but the Trump administration assumed that all swarthy Spanish speaking people are the same, so the US imposed a $160 visa fee to discourage Bolivian visitors who don’t have money to burn. In response, the Bolivian government imposed the same fee for American visitors. Most other nationalities get a free visa. Worst of all, though the visa was good for ten years, we were only given a 30 day stay, a problem which greatly complicated our 45 day trip.
The delay in acquiring visas caused the only other travelers at that hour, a group of fellow gringo tourists, to miss their connecting flight. The disappointed travelers had no choice but to return home from halfway around the world. The immigration agents apologized, but rules are rules. By that time we left the airport it was dawn and we were delirious from exhaustion.
As you can see in the following image, Santa Cruz de la Sierra is in the middle of Bolivia, which is in the middle of South America.
We grabbed a cab and headed into town only to discover that we were back in Miami. Santa Cruz looked nothing like the other Latin American cities to which we were long accustomed. Everything looked new and fairly clean. There weren’t even many mangy dogs! Sleek high rise buildings sprouted from leafy neighborhoods, while businessmen rushed to their offices in spiffy new SUVs. Even at that hour the roads were chaotic.
I had heard terrible things about Santa Cruz, that it was the most dangerous city in Bolivia (which it is), a place where drug addled switchblade wielding “cuchilleros” stalk the streets, and cartel bosses collude with penthouse dwelling politicians to deliver tons of cocaine to our Nation’s inner cities. Instead, it looked like a south Florida suburb with too many developers and bad planning. Even the palm trees were the same. If local lore is to be believed, it is all an economic miracle paid for by cocaine revenues.
In 1561 the city was founded by Spanish conquistadors including my personal hero Mr. Cowhead, also known as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. This was long after Mr. Cowhead spent eight years wandering naked across the entirety of the North American continent, the first person to have ever done so.
Thereafter, what later became known as Santa Cruz slumbered in ignominy for some four hundred years, all the while fending off attacks by the disgruntled Indians, none of whom really wanted to be Catholic. (Interested readers may wish to watch The Mission, an excellent movie starring Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro which concerns the colonial conquest of the area on behalf of Beelzebub.)
In the mid twentieth century the previous backwater metastasized into what is now Bolivia’s largest city with some 2.5 million inhabitants. At first growth was driven by the advent of lowland agriculture, but soon thereafter much of the so called ‘civilized’ world discovered recreational cocaine.
Coca, a small shrub technically known as Erythroxylum coca, has been cultivated by the indigenous peoples of the Andean pre-cordillera for over 3000 years. It was considered sacred. The dried leaves were traded with highland people who chewed them to combat fatigue and hunger. None of this ever caused any problems.
In the mid nineteenth century artists and intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud discovered that a concentrated extract of coca known as cocaine could give the user a ‘buzz’. Soon thereafter, Coca Cola started putting the buzz into their beverage, hence the name.
By 1914 the use of cocaine had spread to the lower classes. As a result it was outlawed. Reefer madness and prohibition were soon to follow. Whatever the lower classes do for fun must be outlawed! (There is some truth to that, for enough idiots in one place doing one thing can ruin anything!)
These developments coincided with overpopulation in the Andes due to advances in healthcare and social services. One can grow only so many potatoes in a given plot of frozen rocks and dirt, so the second sons and daughters, along with the 3rd through 13th sons and daughters per family, had to go somewhere else.
There was no place to go, and nothing to do. Every square inch of arable land in the highlands was already in use. Mechanized farming of the flatlands was well underway, so no Indians with grub hoes need apply. The cattle ranchers had no desire to share their vast estates with grubby Indians; after all, they had already gone to too much trouble to eradicate the ones who originally lived there.
A few of the dispossessed tried to hack out subsistence farms in the Amazonian rainforest, but the jungle, and especially disease, soon defeated them. That left only the most savage wilderness of all, the unpopulated slopes of the Andean pre-cordillera, a hellish nearly vertical landscape composed of impenetrable vegetation, a place where torrential rains cause whole mountains to collapse on a regular basis.
The soil should be fertile but isn’t, all the nutrients, along with the soil, are washed away with the next rain. It is almost impossible to build a road in such a place. The rivers become raging floods every time it rains, and it always rains. Only those who have been to montane rainforests can appreciate how difficult it is to even traverse, much less farm, such a place. How steep is it? This steep.
Any poor pleasant who attempted to hack out a farm in the pre-cordillera soon learned that the only hope lay in planting a perennial shrub such a coca which would bind the soil, and be worth a great deal of money later. With money one can buy food rather than grow it! So began the onslaught, as landless peasants streamed into regions known as the Yungas and the Chapare.
My Gawd how the money flowed in! The peasants prospered to a certain degree despite their plantations being sprayed by DEA choppers, but the middlemen, and especially the “Jefes” became rich! Every time a disco hipster in Miami tooted a snootful the cash register would ring, only there weren’t any registers, and no record was ever made of the transactions. Needless to say there were no taxes, except those paid to the thugs who extracted their pittance as the poor peasants attempted to bring their harvest to market.
What to do with all that money? Pablo Escobar just piled his up in warehouses, but what good does that do? A fellow can buy only so many hippopotami and polyester leisure suits. Not even purchasing a fleet of airplanes and submarines put a dent in the profits.
What was needed was a good money laundering scheme. Any creative accountant will tell you that the best way to transform an intangible like money into a tangible asset is through real estate development. Build a skyscraper with your ill gotten gains, and poof, there is the proof! Plus, you can charge rent! So it was that the modern city of Santa Cruz was born.
Some may feel that such corruption is a terrible thing, but if there is there one thing I have learned in the course of my travels, it is that high level corruption is often tolerable on a personal level, but low level corruption is not. To put it another way, as you are walking through the darkened streets of a foreign city, who are you more worried about, Bernie Madoff, or the aforementioned cuchillero?
Not even a drug lord wants to foul his own nest, nor does he want his daughter to be molested on her way to school, so any undesirable in the neighborhood either works directly for the boss, or gets rounded up by the cops, all of whom work for the Boss. Should any thug fail to get the message he simply disappears. It makes for a nice safe neighborhood.
Throughout the world, whenever and wherever there is trouble, do-gooders yap about human rights, but the foremost human right is the right to be able to walk down the street unmolested by a petty criminal. People who live with crime and strife just want it to end, so it doesn’t really matter who brings order, or whether the formalities of law are involved.
I have no idea of who runs things behind the scenes in Santa Cruz, nor have I spent time in the squalid periphery, but I do know that I would prefer to walk through downtown Santa Cruz at midnight than to walk through the streets of Belize City at noon.
Santa Cruz is not an international vagabond destination like Bangkok, so Hippie hostals are few and far between. We wanted to stay downtown within the “Primer Anillo” (City neighborhoods are demarcated by “anillos”, which means concentric rings); so, we settled on the Hostal 360 Grados located next to the old market. It proved to be a most excellent choice.
All around us was the hustle and bustle of the busy market. Great heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables spilled from bags and baskets onto the street. The air was redolent with the aromas of grilled meat, rotten fruit, exhaust fumes, and dog shit. Impatient taxis beeped at vendors as they laboriously pulled handcarts piled high with merchandise through the narrow streets. The meat market at the center was a veritable abattoir with piles of guts and grinning pig heads hanging on hooks. How much for the eyeballs?
I have often found it odd that no matter how large the market, in Latin America all the tiny tiendas all sell the same things, bags of rice and beans, canned goods, fresh vegetables, kitchenware, and patent medicines.
This was the real Bolivia. Unlike most other Latin American street markets which are usually only a few blocks long, this one was huge. It occupied a large neighborhood.
The market featured not just goods, but also services, such as this shop which specialized in the refurbishment of baby Jeasuses (Jeezi?).
In the midst of all the manly Mestizos and colorful Indians I was astonished to see a large number of dour identically dressed German giants who closely resembled the puritanical farmers depicted in the famous painting American Gothic. This was my first glimpse of the Mennonites.
It turned out that everything east of the Hostal 360 Grados was a specialized market dedicated to supplying the needs of the Mennonites. The road was the dividing line.
Here they are in real life.
The Mennonites have need of cowboy hats, saddles, hammocks, and wallets in which to stuff all their hard earned money. Such items are their only concessions to vanity and comfort.
I later learned that there are two flavors of Mennonites. The “liberals” use electricity, drive trucks and tractors, and come to town for supplies; whereas, the “conservatives” will not come to town, and will not allow any aspect of modern technology to pollute their pristine lives. Fundamentalist fanatics speak only low German, not Spanish, and may be seen in the countryside riding around in horse drawn buggies with steel or wooden wheels. No rubber tires are allowed, because rubber is a new fangled invention.
Mennonites are not Mormons, and do not in theory practice “plural marriage”, but there is something about being a fundamentalist fanatic in an isolated colony that often leads the faithful to mass rape facilitated by animal tranquilizers. Such an incident recently led to a book and movie exposé. Read all the sordid details here.
It was immediately evident that although the Bolivian people were generally polite and friendly, the same could not be said of the Mennonites. The men, though extremely grim, would at least nod and grunt when greeted, but the women were overtly hostile to anyone who so much as looked at them. If one made the mistake of politely saying, “Buenos dias, Señoras”, the lead hag, usually the oldest in the group, would glance daggers at the passerby, hiss, then she and her subordinate women would turn away in unison like a murmuration of starlings. What were they murmuring? “God damn that filthy infidel, how dare he speak to me!”
Worse of all were the expressionless children. Below the age of three the kids would smile and giggle as kids do, but past that age silence was beaten into them. Nothing distracts them, they stare straight ahead as they march resolutely toward God’s kingdom.
Surrounded by the chaos of the market, but above it all, stood the Hostal 360 Grados, a clean modern five story building with all the conventional amenities. The price was quite reasonable. The rooftop terrace featured expansive views of the city.
The best thing about the 360 Grados was not the building or the rooms, but rather the excellent service provided by the owner Esteban and his uncle Raphael. Both men are brilliant, bilingual, well traveled, and veritable fonts of information about Bolivia. Their advice was well worth the price of admission. Their guests included ordinary Bolivians, Mennonites, and oddball travelers from every corner of the earth, some of whom appeared to be refugees on the lam. I felt right at home.
To my extreme dismay, as soon as I reached the rooftop terrace I discovered that a howling cold dry wind was blowing in from the south. I knew that I had arrived at the onset of the austral winter, but I never expected a tropical location in the middle of South America to be so damnably cold! Esteban explained that brutal cold fronts known as “surazos” blow in from antarctica every winter, but that eventually the weather would return to normal.
Our first order of business was to extend our 30 day visas, so we walked down the street to the “Migracion” building, but the guard wouldn’t let us in. He explained that if we wished to extend our visas we had to return in exactly 30 days, not a day sooner or later. Then, and only then, would we be allowed into the inner sanctum.
What must it be like for Bolivians who want to visit the United States? For them the bureaucracy is an almost insurmountable hurdle. Perhaps that explains the huddled masses along our southern border.
Why must all modern government buildings feature brutalist architecture? Kafka well understood such things, it is to make certain that you are cowed into submission and hopelessness. At least we were not transformed into cockroaches.
We continued downtown to the Plaza to find an ATM, and to have lunch with an old friend. The Plaza was quite lovely, but the doors to the old Cathedral were closed, for the Bolivians have lost much of their faith.
The United States is graced with great natural beauty which we should celebrate, but do not; likewise, we treat our major cities not as exemplars of civilization, but rather as centers of commerce surrounded by the dregs of humanity. Why, other than in New York and San Francisco, do our cities not have grand parks and plazas? Even the humblest Latin American towns have plazas where people can see and be seen in the context of beautiful gardens.
Many Americans are unaware that Central Park in New York City, the finest urban park in our nation, was once a teeming slum filled with the refuse of Europe. In 1853 America’s first and foremost landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, decided to evict the squatters and tear down the slums to enable the creation of a 778 acre park in the middle of America’s greatest city.
The Toboroche tree, Ceiba speciosa, a type of baobab, is the icon of Santa Cruz. Its bizarre swollen trunk and magnificent blossoms grace every park in the region. They bloom during the austral winter, as does the equally beautiful Pink Tabebuia, Handroanthus impetiginosus.
Urban parks need heroic statues of historical figures, regardless of whatever sins they may have committed in the eyes of today’s censors. They need to be places where women can safely stroll with their children to feed the pigeons.
There may have been some controversy in regard to the eviction of the squatters in New York in 1853, but it has long since been forgotten. If it were up to me we would do the same thing today, take the wreaking ball to our inner cities and create great parks in their place.
Of the many conceits that afflict the world today, the idea that ‘human rights’ are somehow more important than the intellectual and material advancements of civilization is among the worst. The inevitable result of such thinking will be a squalid future devoid of culture, knowledge, beauty, nature, and the natural resources upon which we depend. But I digress, back to Bolivia.
In Santa Cruz the women are brave and strong, as well they should be to live near the wild frontier of the Gran Chaco, especially when oil was discovered.
In 1957 the Central Government decided to nationalize the burgeoning oil industry, thus depriving the Cruceños of royalties. Worst of all, the natives, who had done the work but had not been paid, became restless; so, the women marched to defend the city from the unwashed oil workers.
Here they were in real life.
The struggle continues. Nearby was an abandoned building covered with pro feminist graffiti that had once been an Avant-garde art gallery until closed by the patriarchy.
The struggle between the crusty Cruceños and the impoverished Indians and their leftist supporters will never end. As I write this on January 3rd, 2023 riots between the factions are raging in the streets of Santa Cruz. If people want to demonstrate that’s fine, but let us all hope that the inherent and unsolvable differences between the Cruceños and everybody else will not lead to the intractable mayhem and murder that has been going on in Colombia for the last 100 years.
After stocking up on money, booze, dope, and food we returned to the Hostal 360 Grados where Esteban asked us about our plans.
I explained that we wanted to visit nearby Amboro National Park, but that we did not want to do so on a tour. (It is prohibited to visit a National Park without a guide.) There is nothing worse than a damned “tour” where a tame Indian points out birds and trees. Aside from that, all tours are ridiculously expensive. The going rate for an Amazonian “nature tour” starts at $90 per night for lodging in a wretched hut. No way Jose! All we wanted was a place where we could be left alone deep in the jungle.
Esteban smiled and said, “I know the prefect place, and it happens to be the closest such place to here. It is called Villa Amboro. It is in the wild jungle, costs $14/person, and the Indians won’t bother you unless you want them to. The problem is that it is almost impossible to access by public transportation. It would take several days, and you would still have to walk for almost fifteen miles with your heavy packs; but don’t worry, I can take you there in my 4×4 Ford Raptor for 400 Bolivianos (400B = $55). It is a 2.5 hour ride over very bad roads and includes crossing several rivers. We can stop along the way to pet some pet peccaries”
I was taken aback by the cost, $55 bux! But then I paused to consider that our short taxi ride from where Ann left her car in Gainesville to the airport was almost that much. Divided by two that was only $27.50 per person, less than I would spend for a burger and few beers back home. Deal! It was the best decision we could possible have made. Our adventure was about to begin!
Join us for the next installment of our thrilling adventure as we visit a jungle paradise where the Weazel almost loses his life, or at least his testicles, to a rattlesnake!