The country of Bolivia tells a story. For those who wish to fly into the capital of La Paz and then skip across the terrain quickly and efficiently, they will miss the whole tale. But in order to soak it all in, the best way is slowly--on marathon bus journeys through deserts and jungles and mountain ranges, across white-knuckle roads that wind along cliff edges with careless indifference towards plummeting death only a few inches away on either side.
Bolivia stretches from the mind-numbing expanse of the Chaco desert in the south and the depths of the most impenetrable Amazonian rainforests in the east to the very heavens itself. Most of of the country rests on the altiplano (or high plains) above 10,000 feet of altitude. The borders with Chile and Peru are flanked by the Andes mountains that stand like frost-peaked sages on the distant horizon. Bolivia is often called “the Tibet of the Americas”, a nickname which has as much to do with its comparable geography as its physical and cultural isolation.
The country is officially titled the Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia (the Plurinational State of Bolivia) and for good reason. In pre-colonial times, due to the steep and treacherous topography, almost every dip and valley in the mountains played host to its own cultural traditions and unique social groups. The Incan empire of the Peruvian highlands never penetrated most of the country and therefore, such independent cultures were able to persist until well after the Spanish conquest. While there was undoubtedly much inter-communication and trade among these myriad of cultures, especially between the altiplano and the low-lying tropical areas (where the infamous Bolivian coca plants are cultivated), it is cultural diversity which best defines Bolivia.
In the latest census, there were still 35 different languages (other than Spanish) being spoken throughout the country, most of those being preserved in far-flug and isolated rural mountain villages. There are several dialects of Bolivian Quechua and Bolivian Guarani, which differ greatly from the Quechua and Guarani spoken in neighboring Peru and Paraguay, respectively. When I tried to speak Guarani (the dialect of Guarani I have learned over the course of 2 years living in Paraguay) with a campesino woman from the Chaco lowlands, it was as if we were speaking two entirely different languages. In reality we were. Some of the sounds, specifically the nasal intonations and inflections, were the same, but the vocabulary and the words couldn't have seemed more different.
International politics, especially as of late, would paint Bolivia as a rouge leftist nation continually butting heads with American economic imperialism. And perhaps on one level, that is correct. But such things are the playing fields of politicians and policy makers. On the ground, with the people in the cities and towns, one gets a very different impression. Bolivians are a proud and beautiful people whose traditional cultures have survived while in many other places around the world such history has either withered into obscurity or become unrecognizably commodified. Bolivia is considered one of the most traditional countries in Latin America and that is more than evident in the brightly-colored, Quechua filled market places.
Many women of Bolivia still dress in the iconic cholita style (although these styles differ greatly in detail and name in different parts of the country). This style often includes knee-length or longer plain skirts, often worn in multiple layers to combat the cold mountain winds, as well as 19th century English bowler hats. This specific “style” is not traditional insofar as it is not indigenous in origin; instead this was the mode of dress imposed on many Bolivians by the British bankers and opportunists who unofficially filled the power-vacuum left by the defeated Spanish colonial rulers following independence. Still, it is ironic that the world's largest market for industrial-era European head-wear exists today in the most isolated and culturally diverse country of Latin America.
The last piece of the cholita style (and my absolute favorite) is the hair-braiding. I am not sure whether this is as well British in origin or whether perhaps this aspect reaches deeper into Bolivian history than that, but irregardless, it is gorgeous. For the traditional Bolivian women, their silky black hair is grown out for almost their whole lives. This is then fashioned into two elegant, long braids—one on each side—that often stretch below their waist. As with many fashions, there are communicative subtleties woven into the tradition that are not decipherable to outsiders—the length of the braids is a mark of experience and age, the exact angle and jaunt of the bowler hats indicates marital status, among others.
So much more to say, but this should be good enough for now.