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ecoDestination - Bolivia
Bolivia contains over 40 million hectares of relatively intact natural ecosystems. The jungles, forests, savannahs, tundras, steppes, deserts, and wetlands of Bolivia all provide important cultural, recreational, educational, and spiritual benefits to the people. Traditional uses of ecological resources for subsistence and livelihood are still common in Bolivia, such as gathering for firewood, building materials, wild foods, and medicinal plants. So far 14,000 plant species, 323 mammals, 186 amphibians, 260 reptiles, 550 fish species, and 1380 bird species have been catalogued. In addition, Bolivia is also known for its orchid diversity with up to 2,000 species, of which more than 25% are endemic. All these numbers are extraordinary, yet scientists have still researched only a small fraction of the country.
Prior to 1990, Bolivia had a relatively low rate of deforestation, but currently about 300,000 hectares of forest are lost each year. Reasons are varied but include unsustainable infrastructure, mining wastes, illegal harvesting, forest fires, and the production of soya, timber, and cattle. Over 40% of Bolivia is protected, but while they have been legally created, they have been very poorly managed.
Climate change is another issue greatly affecting Bolivia, which is home to about 20% of the world’s tropical glaciers. Zongo and Chacaltaya, two glaciers located just outside the capital of La Paz, supply most of the drinking water for the city’s one million residents, as well as a source for thousands of poor farmers to irrigate their fields. In the 1990s, these glaciers shrank 10X as fast as they had in previous decades.
The government of Bolivia recognizes 36 indigenous groups, the largest being the Quechua, the Aymara, the Guarani, the Chiquitano, and the Mojeno. According to OxFam International, 62% of Bolivia’s population is indigenous, the highest demographic out of all of South America. This is one of the many reasons why Bolivia’s indigenous languages and ways of life have been maintained throughout the decades.
Though most Bolivians today are Roman Catholic – a legacy of the Spanish colonial era - many integrate Christianity with indigenous beliefs. Since pre-Incan times, Kallawayas, or itinerant traditional healers from the Andes, have traveled throughout South America collecting and learning about medicinal plants, minerals, and animal parts to treat a variety of ailments. Kallawayas believe in Pachamama, or Mother Earth who provides life, food, and protection. She is present in indigenous healing practices that persist alongside modern medicine. In return, Kallawayas make offerings at sacred places, such as mountains, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls to ensure the prosperity and health of the communities. Other rituals for Pachamama include the burial of cooked foods, coca leaves, grains and corn flour, cigarettes, and chicha to nourish the mother earth. Chica is a traditional and intoxicating brew made out of corn. It is considered to be the “Nectar of the Valley” and is especially important at celebrations and religious ceremonies when people spill a small amount of their drink on the floor before downing the rest.
While traveling throughout Bolivia, you might notice a q’owa, which is an offering to Pachamama so that she will protect their homes and businesses. The ideal day for offering a q’owa is the first Friday of each month, as well as holidays such as the Tuesday in Carnival. An important element of q’owa is the coca leaf, a sacred leaf that has nutritional, healing, and spiritual qualities.
You might also notice the Wiphala, a flag consisting of seven horizontal stripes of rainbow-colored squares that is a symbol of national and cultural harmony among indigenous people. It is thought to have originated either during the Tiwanaku or Incan era. In modern times, there are several varieties representing different regions throughout Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and even parts of Argentina, Chile and Colombia. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, who is indigenous, established the Qullasuyu wiphala as the nation’s dual flag.
Despite the vibrancy of Bolivian indigenous cultures, many experience marginalization, discrimination, and extreme poverty. Since the 1990s, there has been a strong trend towards the reaffirmation of indigenous identity and culture. Important advances include a re-drafting of the 1994 Constitution, which finally recognized the rights of indigenous peoples.
Other ethnic minorities are Afro-Bolivians, descendants of the slave trade who were brought by the Spanish to work in the mines. There are also significant numbers of European immigrants from before, during, and after World War II, including both Jews and former Nazis. Smaller groups include Japanese, Mennonite, Vietnamese, and South Africans.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
Fuerte de Samaipata: This archaeological site is the ancient spiritual and residential center of the Mojocoyas culture, which existed as early as 300 AD. It was during this time that the ceremonial center was constructed out of a monolithic rock of red sandstone. This monument, which overlooked the town below, includes carvings of sacred animals. In the 14th century, the Incans occupied the site, constructing a large central plaza, many public buildings, and terraced fields used for agriculture. When the Spanish conquered the area a century later, they used the site as an important staging post along the highway that linked the silver mines of Potosí to the port cities.
Potosí: During the 16th century, Potosí was the silver capital of the world. The Spanish exported the silver throughout the world, from Spain to the Philippines, resulting in globally significant economic changes. By the 17th century there were 160,000 colonists living there, along with 13,500 natives who were forced to work in grueling conditions in the mines. The whole industrial production chain has been conserved, from the mines with its dams and kilns to the Royal Mint to the churches and homes of the colonists and their laborers. Use of the mines slowed around 1800 but they are still in use today.
Qhapaq Ñan: This is the old Andean Road System and the newest edition to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, having been added in 2014. It was an extensive system used as a link from Cusco, the Inca capital, to the rest of its empire, spreading over 30,000 km (18,640 miles) along the Andes. Its most famous portion is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Sucre: This was the first capital of Bolivia, founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and was originally called Ciudad de la Plata de la Nueva Toledo (City of Silver of New Toledo). The wealth from the nearby silver mines of Potosí made it an important cultural center of the region and there are many well-preserved architectural gems, such as the churches of San Lázaro, San Francisco, and Santo Domingo. In 1825, independence from Spain was declared and the city was renamed Sucre, after Mariscal António José de Sucre, who fought for independence.
Tiwanaku: This is the ancient capital of a powerful pre-Incan society that existed between 500 and 900 AD. It is located on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca at an altitude of 3,850 m (12,600 ft). The most impressive monument is the Pyramid of Akapana, originally built with 7 platforms of stones, rising up to over 18 m (59 ft). Only the lowest and intermediate walls are currently intact. Carved heads were inlaid into the walls, symbolizing the practice of exposing severed heads of defeated enemies within the temple. Another impressive temple is Kalasasaya, which is believed to have been an observatory. Inside the temple are two carved monoliths and the Gate of the Sun, which is made of a single slab of andesite stone cut to form a large doorway with niches on either side. Carvings on the structure depict a deity with an elaborate headdress, holding a staff in each hand. The deity is flanked by rows of anthropomorphic birds and a series of human faces. This bas-relief is thought to be an agricultural calendar. Surrounding the city are 50,000 agricultural fields and terraces with advanced irrigation technology. Only a small portion of this city has been excavated.
Madidi: Over 20 years ago, an activist named Rosa Maria Ruiz fell in love with the Madidi area and rallied the community against the loggers who were decimating the land. She created the Eco Bolivia Foundation and led a team from the National Geographic Society throughout the area. The resulting article drew significant international attention, helped to establish the Madidi National Park, and halted plans for a hydroelectric dam to be constructed. Unfortunately, her vision was destroyed by allegations of corruption and law-breaking, causing the closure of the Eco Bolivia Foundation. The national park spans from the imposing mountain ranges of the Alopabamba to the Amazonian Pampas. With such extraordinary ecological features, it is no wonder that scientists call this area a “biodiversity hotspot”. It has the largest number of endemic species on the planet, with some 6,000 species of vascular plants, 1,000 species of birds (out of the world’s 9,000 species), and 1,300 species of vertebrates. So far, scientists have surveyed only a fraction of the park.
Noel Kempff Mercado National Park: This national park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the largest and most intact areas of the Amazon. It boasts an evolutionary history back to the Precambrian period, and scientists estimate that there are some 4,000 species of flora, as well as 600 species of birds. The variety of ecosystems includes upland evergreen forests, deciduous forests, Cerrado savannah, savannah wetlands and forest wetlands. Large populations of tapir, brocket deer, jaguar, long-haired spider monkey, marmosets, monks, and pampas deer can be found. The Catarata El Encanto, or The Enchanted Waterfall, plunges over the edge of the Huanchaca Plateau and eventually feeds itself into the Amazon.
Sajama National Park: This park is off-the-beaten track. It’s difficult to get to but it’s worth the hassle. As you hike up to the ruins of the Eagle Men, the City of Stone, and Mt. Sajama, Bolivia’s highest peak, you enjoy herds of vicuñas, flocks of nandu birds and lakes full of Andean flamingos. In addition there are thermal hot spring, cave paintings and pre-Hispanic burial structures.
Torotoro: The main attraction of this national park is the caves, 11 of which have been surveyed by scientists, with another 35 remaining. The top 3 include El Vergel, where a series of waterfalls have carved a 100m (330 ft) deep canyon that is covered with lichen. At the bottom of the canyon are natural pools of crystal clear water. Another cave is Batea Q’oca where you can observe cave paintings dating back to the Incan Empire. Then there is Uma Jalanta cave, where you’ll discover stalactites and stalagmits, blind fish, waters, and 2,500 dinosaur footprints!
Lake Titicaca/Copacabana: Copacabana is Bolivia’s launching off point for Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. The town is also known for the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, which enshrines the Virgin of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia. Its religious celebrations and traditional festivals are known throughout the world. Make sure to be there for the Fiesta de la Virgen de Copcabana, celebrated on the first 2 days of February when Aymara dancers arrive from all over Bolivia and Peru. Also check out Holy Week, during which throngs of the faithful walk from La Paz and culminate in a spectacular candlelight procession on Good Friday. The lake is pretty spectacular as well. Its water source is from rainfall and the melting glacier water off the Andes Mountains. It is so large that it is even able to form its own waves! Within the lake are some 40 floating islands made of totora reeds, which are also used to construct the locals’ homes and boats.
La Paz: Situated in a valley in the Andes, La Paz is the world’s highest capital. It is a beautiful city full of 19th century churches, museums, and spectacular views. The Witches’ Market is a must-see destination while there. One can find a variety of souvenirs from colorful alpaca sweaters to herbal tea infusions, coca leaves, snakeskins and even dried llama fetuses, which are used as an offering to give thanks to Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
Salar de Uyuni: This is the world’s largest salt flats, containing an estimated 10 billion tons of salt and covering an astonishing 12,000 sq km (4,600 sq mi). It was once a part of the prehistoric salt lake, Lago Minchín, which when it dried up left only a couple of puddles of water and the Salar de Uyuni. One can still find unusual coral-like strucutes and deposits that consist of fossils and algae. Aymaran legend tells us that the surrounding mountains of Kusina, Kusku and Tunupa were once giant people and that Tunupa and Kusku were married. When Kusku betrayed his wife for Kusina, Tunupa’s tears formed the salt flats. The landscape is entirely flat, except for a few small “islands” such as Isla Incahuasi, which accentuates the beauty of the area. Another attraction is the train cemeteries, which once carried minerals to the ports along the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century, but has since been abandoned. It is also the breeding ground for flamingos that eat microscopic plants and animals by filtering water through densely packed rows of “teeth” in their bills.
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