It’s always fun getting to visit different places. There are different people, with different names, different cultures, different ways of talking, different interests, different currency, different types of restaurants, different modes of transportation, different religions, different priorities, different weather, and different things that bring people together.
We spent eighteen days in Bolivia, and experienced all kinds of different! I thought I’d share some of what we did in Bolivia, and some of what life was like where we were.
Firstly, we spent a lot of our time in La Paz, Bolivia. It is the largest city in Bolivia, with almost 1 million people, and a population of over 2 million when you include the surrounding area. La Paz isn’t the capital of Bolivia, but it is probably the most well-known and most popular city.
Though it was in a third-world country, it still had a big city feel. Hustle and bustle, businessmen in suits walking to work, tall buildings, ladies with high heels and makeup on point, and teenagers staying out way past dark, talking and laughing and pairing off.
Most people in La Paz speak Spanish, but there are a couple of native languages called Aymara and Quechua that about a quarter of the population speak. You’ll find that many of the people in the older generations still dress and speak more traditionally and old-fashioned, using the native languages and wearing the big colorful skirts and tall bowl hats. Most of the younger people seem to speak mainly Spanish and wear clothing that seems a bit more modern (my closest comparison is European).
Rather than everyone having their own car, most people take public transportation to get where they need to go. There are taxis, which are privately-owned cars where a driver takes a single party to the location they request. Those are a bit expensive. The other main method of getting around is what they call the “minibus.” Even when speaking Spanish, they just use the English word “minibus.” Minibuses are big vans that have regular routes (their destinations marked by signs in the front windows) that twelve or more people squeezed into to get places. Minibuses were the most popular and most economical way to get around.
The last form of transportation we tried was the gondola system. Bolivia built these gondolas just a few years ago to get you all over La Paz. They are color coded (Orange Line, Linea Naranja, Red Line, Linea Rojo, etc.) so you know where you are heading and when you needed to switch which color gondola you are riding to get to where you need to go. They fit about eight people and rise above La Paz, making them a bit quicker, and much more picturesque, than the traffic below. Quite an interesting mix having such a modern method of transportation in an otherwise pretty traditional and rudimentary place.
The other city we spent time in was Collana. City is probably too strong of a word. It was a little mountain town with probably no more than a few thousand people living in it. It was an agricultural town, with shepherdesses leading their flocks down the main road, tiendas (little shops) in the town square, cows mooing from the pastures, and teenage boys riding around town on their motorcycles.
The people of Collana were simple. They were more traditional than the people in the city. No one wore makeup, clothes were practical, many of the ladies wore traditional clothing, and no one had much of an agenda at all.
We stayed on the property of an Adventist church and school. Several students lived on campus, but most of the them went home every day after school and over the weekends. There were several little buildings with living quarters, a public bathroom, the church, a cafeteria, the bakery, classrooms, and the live-on-campus students’ bedrooms.
Most of the land up in Collana was fairly arid. There were hardly any trees, and there were some grass and shrubs that were mostly brown and uninviting. There was more trash on the ground in Collana, and it was more dirty-feeling in general. No one had water heaters, so your best options were a freezing cold shower or to use an electric heater (it heats the water using electricity just before it comes out of the shower head). Warning: You may get electrocuted. Your call whether it’s worth it.
There was running water in both Collana and La Paz. The water isn’t purified, though, so it’s not safe to drink, and you want to use hand sanitizer after washing your hands to kill any bacteria. The plumbing system in Bolivia isn’t great, so you always put your toilet paper into the trash can, rather than flushing it in the toilet. Some people in La Paz had water heaters, but there is no form of heat for the houses anywhere in Bolivia. The structures are not well-built or efficient, so the houses may protect you from the rain or most of the wind, but they don’t keep the temperature of the outside air from getting into the house. So the houses are very cold, even during Bolivia’s summer months.
Like many third-world countries, and specifically Southern and Central American countries, there were a lot of stray dogs. Most people don’t have dogs as pets, so in general you just want to leave the dogs alone and not touch them. Even the cute ones. There were a few cats around. And some birds. Up in Collana there were a couple different varieties of pretty birds, but in La Paz all you saw were pigeons. Big, chubby, scary ones that stared at you from the rooftops.
So there you have it. A little overview of what life in Bolivia looks like. I’ll be posting more on Bolivia in the future, but feel free to comment with questions! We would love to share more with you.