Crossing the border from La Quiaca, Argentina to Villazón, Bolivia, the differences between the two countries are immediately apparent. Though both sides of the border display a heavy indigenous influence, the Bolivian side is poorer and more chaotic. The streets throng with litter, mud and market stalls packed with pirated goods. Women on sidewalks stoop over steaming skillets or sit idly by mounds of spices, coca leaves and vegetables. People talk in hushed tones and switch to indigenous languages in front of tourists.
Upon first entering Bolivia, I longed for Argentina, with its homemade cakes and alfajores served with the afternoon teatime ritual known as merienda, the flowing wine, the gregarious and friendly people. However, as we traveled along the Bolivian Altiplano from Villazón to Uyuni, our principal destination, my initial discomfort evolved into utter fascination.
The Bolivian Altiplano, a high desert similar to the Argentine Puna to the south, is home to many deserted mining towns and discarded trains, a testament to the region’s long and troubled relationship with the mining sector that rocketed Bolivia to riches during the Spanish colonial era. Indigenous women donning English top hats, long braids and layered skirts present another constant and ubiquitous reminder of the country’s origins.
And yet, beside these reminders of the past, there are also conspicuous signs of the excesses of the modern world. Luxury vehicles, Range Rovers and Lexus SUVs, are everywhere. Many of them are said to be stolen, brought into the country illegally through the porous border with Chile. Floods of ecstatic backpackers and Japanese tourists also run rampant. Tourist agencies and hostels call to them with glaring posters, wedged between discreet handwritten signs advertising the small hole-in-the-wall businesses frequented by locals. This constant juxtaposition between old and new, between tradition and disorder make Bolivia fascinating.