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In October 2011 our little group: Sonia, Craig, Wendy and Richard visited Bolivia. We left Puno in Peru by bus to Cococabana in Bolivia. After the usual border form-filling and stamps, and a guided visit to the church in which the ‘Black Madonna’ resides, we boarded a cruise boat, a large catamaran, to Sun Island on the Bolivian side of the lake.


Sun Island

Sun Island the largest island in Lake Titicaca is particularly picturesque; ringed by ancient manmade terraces on a vast scale interrupted only by spectacular volcanic outcrops and glacially eroded, twisted geological strata; creating, side by side, huge natural walls and pleasant, sheltered little valleys. 



After being rowed to an otherwise inaccessible beach we hiked over the island to some of the Inca ruins and then walked back overland for an overnight stay on the boat before visiting more ruins in the morning.  While the ruins are interesting it is the spectacular scenery that repays the effort at this high altitude – pant, pant. 



From my travel notes:

“Our Bolivian guide tells us that religion was used by the Incas to control the masses and the Spanish used it to help enslave his people.  He claims that until 2010 it was compulsory for all Bolivians to be Roman Catholic; of course many did not practice this; but now Bolivians are free to practice any religion. Later he tells us that traditional medicine is effective as the best witch doctors cure the soul before prescribing natural medicines; and illness is the sign of a sick soul. The next minute he is showing us fossils and talking about plate tectonics.  He is a kaleidoscope of the old and new; often disjointed and contradictory.”



After a night on the boat we spent much of the next day exploring more of the island which is stunningly beautiful with the snow-capped peaks in the distance and the ancient terraced hillsides interspersed with islander houses and fields and Inca ruins.


La Paz

Now I feel a bit silly criticising Juliaca in Peru. For hundreds of square kilometres around La Paz the outskirts resemble that benighted town.  At some point a massive building boom has come crashing down, leaving what looks to be about half the buildings uncompleted and empty.  An unfinished hospital competes with an unfinished university for the largest unfinished project. Very wide roadside margins covered in rubbish; or rubble; or dusty car parks; or open drainage ditches suggest a yet to be built divided highway.

Our introduction to this increasing chaos of vehicles and people and confronting landscapes was the road from Lake Titicaca. Much new building is in concrete and terracotta blocks.  These blocks or bricks have longitudinal holes that are mostly left unfilled at the end of each course. The effect is particularly ugly. But worse the blocks are often used to add a second floor to traditional mud block (adobe) dwellings. This is likely to be a disaster in an earthquake.  As in Turkey, where I previously remarked on the patently inappropriate building practices, this is an earthquake prone area, occasionally suffering shocks of up to 8 on the Richter scale. There is potential here for massive loss of life.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. Fortunately it has significant natural gas and mineral resources and a relatively strong growth rate.  But while it does not have the starving poor of India, poverty is omnipresent. In La Paz, which is relatively wealthy, you can take a cab to any part of the city for less than $A2.  Most of the city is very poorly maintained with crumbling buildings and public infrastructure.



We chose on-line a small hotel in a good suburb; with half a dozen rooms, both of ours having a kitchenette; and one a sitting areas with collapsible chairs. At least one did under Sonia; causing a minor injury.

Although all the houses and flats in the area had elaborate security; including recently added barbed wire; electronic entrance devices; and regular police patrols, we saw nothing alarming; except perhaps the shotgun armed guards outside some office buildings near the plaza.

Actually our local plaza was very nice and peaceful with a children's playground and it adjoined a very pleasant park and lookout that was favoured by courting couples. Just down the hill was a larger plaza consisting of a very well kept park surrounded by restaurants, shops and cafés. The main business district is on a wide tree shaded avenue: 16 de Julio, lines with high rise offices much like those in any city. But you don't have to stray too far to find yourself amongst the decay and chaos that distinguishes much of the city.



Due to massive population growth the city has been divided into two. The traditional city occupies a vast valley or canyon in the surrounding plateau. The newer part, on the plateau above, is called El Alto and is the highest urban area in the World.  In La Paz the better areas are lower, away from the surrounding cliffs that look as if they could slide down in the first downpour or earth tremor. The lower areas also provide some relief from altitude sickness and more shading from the vicious sun for un-acclimatised visitors. 

The indigenous population are immune from these problems, having sun resistant skin and higher haemoglobin and lung capacity. Bolivia has the highest proportion of indigenous people of any country in South America but many are mixed race so that the native people stand out; particularly the women who are very short and have characteristically wide hips, over which they wear vast skirts; and on their heads a high bowler hat.

Of course they don't stand out as much as we do.  Here tourists are in the minority and most are well above average height. We can be seen blocks away. Most are back-packers. There is no way to be inconspicuous. No locals ask us for directions, as they do in Germany or France.

La Paz grew up around a Franciscan mission.  The name is an abbreviation of 'Our Lady of Peace' and the oldest part of town is San Francisco (St Francis). Part of the old convent is now a museum and the original basilica is still in use. In the attached museum there is an odd juxtaposition of the secular and religious in successive displays.

At one point Christianity is explained in very neutral analytical language, as a religion having certain characteristics (belief a trinity, incorporating the maker of the universe; his son the saviour of mankind; the spirit and so on), But at another we are told that there is only one eternal God and that earlier (non Christian) religions were reaching for him but imperfectly as if this is a fact, rather than an unverifiable belief held by some Christians. Yet further on we are told that the Catholic reverence for Mary was a reaction to the protestant reformation and their iconoclasm; and did not pre-exist that time; and that the Mary cult was adopted in part for its utility in converting primitive peoples; who were used to idols. We are left with the impression that the Mary cult was a political artefact or contrivance of the 16th century, convenient for accumulating followers; rather than a spiritual conviction.

The basilica itself is not huge but is a wonderful demonstration of superior European architecture.  It’s a gem of rare quality thrown in the face of the vastly more extensive Inca masonry of the Andes.  It is only a century younger than Machu Picchu but features domes and sweeping internal buttressed arches, well beyond the engineering capabilities of the Inca.   The roof was extensively reconstructed in 1784, after being damaged by snow.  Now the building stands in much the same condition as when it was restored.



Buildings like this, as much as Spanish gunpowder, steel, saddles, superior battle tactics, and ability to navigate the globe must have been a devastating revelation to the Inca, and their brutalised dominions; demonstrating that they were now confronted with an enemy from the future; with vastly superior technology in every respect. Many of these dominions saw in the Spanish a way of escaping the Inca yoke and quickly allied themselves with the strangers.

Again, there is here among the guides; in the general tourist information; and even in the knick-knacks and remedies sold in tourist markets, a post-glorification of the Inca civilisation. I find it annoying. It seems to be fuelled by the same sentiment we have seen applied to other ancient and not so ancient cultures.  These were cultures that by today's standards were not only ignorant of humanity's insignificant place in a vast universe; the nature of matter; basic chemistry and biology; electromagnetism; nuclear physics; and so on, and so on; but held religious beliefs we now know to be fanciful in the extreme and often barbaric in nature and execution.  It's all very well to say that they had great art or sensitivity to nature but every culture is informed by its beliefs and knowledge.

Erroneous beliefs lead to a faulty culture.  Truth is seldom, if ever, based on a lie; and a faulty belief is the same as a lie that goes unrecognised.

We need to keep things in perspective. It is evident that like the ancient Egyptians, the Inca carried out primitive brain surgery and had a partial grasp of astronomy and agronomy; cross breeding crops for improved yield.  They were also accomplished civil engineers, particularly with water management; and of course accomplished soldiers.

But to claim that in any respect they knew more than 16th century Spaniards is ludicrous. The Spanish saw them for what they were: brutal primitives who had enslaved a substantial part of the continent with bizarre and vicious religious practices; even by Spanish standards.



In British tradition the Spanish are often typified as ignorant, religiously fanatical barbarians…  ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’.  This largely stems from the Elizabethan period when they effectively controlled the Roman Catholic Church; were behind a number of plots against the English Queen; and staged a failed invasion of Britain. Until the Napoleonic period they were Britain’s most consistent opponent in competition for Empire. But they were not less knowledgeable of medicine, the sciences or engineering than other 16th century Europeans.  

Compared to the Inca the Spanish had far more advanced surgery, indeed ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were well in advance of the Inca. Although they had no idea of the age of age or scale of the universe and knew virtually nothing of biology or modern physics, the Spanish already knew the earth was roughly spherical and orbited the sun in an elliptical orbit. They had advanced mathematics and could navigate relatively accurately around the planet. They had had the wheel for over three millennia and they had gears clocks and other sophisticated mechanical devices; in addition they had materials and manufacturing techniques completely unknown to the Inca.  Their knowledge of engineering and science, and consequently their ability to succeed with fewer human resources, was vastly superior to the Inca.



The use of coca leaves as a tea is universal in Peru and Bolivia. The leaves are everywhere and are believed to relieve altitude sickness and assist in carrying heavy loads.  Chewing them is addictive and of course they contain cocaine which is extracted from them; or these days can be synthesised artificially.

There is obviously no official prohibition.  There is a small museum here in La Paz outlining the history of the drug, from its initial proscription by the Catholic Church as evil and the work of the Devil, to its official acceptance as a useful drug to assist mine workers increase their output and improve worker compliance. It also offered an opportunity for taxation (like tobacco in the west).

At one point in the 1960's the UN identified coca addiction as the cause of low productivity and slowed intellectual development, leading to poverty in the Andes. It was resolved to destroy the plant completely but here it is widely cultivated and freely available for virtually no cost; it’s like instant coffee and can be had in hotels and coffee shops alongside coffee and tea.  The eradication campaign may have been more about trying to prevent its refining to cocaine for sale in the US.  The eradication imperative has certainly gone away since 'crack' and other synthesised varieties of cocaine have become available on the streets of LA.

At the beginning of the 20 the century Coca-Cola saw 'the writing on the wall' and removed cocaine from their beverage, where it had been a key ingredient along with the kola nut. The kola or cola nut, like tea, coffee and guarana, is rich in caffeine.  But Coca-Cola reportedly continued to use coca leaves, from which the cocaine had been removed, to maintain the traditional flavour until quite recently. Today Coca-Cola is the top selling beverage and grocery item worldwide; but it now relies entirely on caffeine and sweetness for its addictive properties; use in moderation!

Synthesised cocaine and derivatives are widely used in medicine as anaesthetics.  For example codeine is often added to analgesics and most local anaesthetics, like those used in dentistry, are based on variations on the cocaine molecule.  Most variations are moderately to highly addictive.  Hence the widespread addiction of Australian women to 'over the counter' powders, initially taken for period pain, in the 1950's and 60's and the popular saying: 'all you need is a cup of tea, a BEX and a good lie down'. 

There was some suggestion in the museum here that western drug companies stole the active molecule from native people; who apparently somehow owned it.  As this requires advanced chemical knowledge that they do not possess, I think they have a better case when it comes to the more blatant theft of the rubber tree, coffee, potatoes, maize, tomatoes, chocolate and so on.  Similarly rice, wheat, barley, sugar cane and beet, sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, dogs and cats were all 'stolen' at some point from other 'native owners' elsewhere.  But then we all love to hate drug companies.

Coca numbs the mouth and masks muscle pain.  It may open the airways too; but it certainly allows people to keep working when their body would normally scream 'stop'.   Hence the enthusiasm of the Spanish for the continued use of the drug by native and imported African mine slaves, and later, rubber plantation workers.  Despite its widespread acceptance here, it's use and consequent addiction to it; it can't be good for the local people; like chewing betel nut in New Guinea and Asia. 

For once I find myself in agreement with the early Catholic Church.  Unfortunately they later lost their scruples on this matter.  No doubt real politics played a part; and possibly a more compliant congregation helped them to receive the gospel.


Also see:

Argentina and Uruguay





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