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Stay Curious: Experience Bolivia From Your Living Room

Cholita women from Bolivia's indigenous Aymara tribe. The tradition of wearing bowler hats is thought to have started a century ago, when a shipment of the hats, sent to British railway workers who were stationed in the country, turned out to be too small |
Cholita women from Bolivia's indigenous Aymara tribe. The tradition of wearing bowler hats is thought to have started a century ago, when a shipment of the hats, sent to British railway workers who were stationed in the country, turned out to be too small | | © Arterra Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo
As staying in becomes the new normal, Culture Trip invites you to indulge in a spot of cloud tourism: experiencing the sights and sounds of a place without even leaving your home. Next up on our virtual tour is Bolivia.

Bolivia is an acid rollercoaster ride of a country. It is elemental. If your visit to this landlocked, altitude-bending wonder does not meddle with you at the cellular level, then you’re doing something wrong.

Stuck at home, you can’t feel the full-body giddiness of negotiating passport control at sky-high La Paz airport; you can’t have that moment of surreal communion with the rabbit-rodent viscacha of Eduardo Avaroa Park; you can’t creep about witches’ markets peeping at dried llama fetuses, set foot in perilous silver mines and prisons, or ogle candy-cane Neo-Andean architecture; you can’t careen down The World’s Most Dangerous Road (™) or lose your sense of self on horizon-busting salt flats.

La Paz witches’ market is one of the most memorable sights in the city | © OnTheRoad / Alamy Stock Photo

What you can do is prime your brain for any future Bolivia trip so that, when you’re there, you’re more of a cultural participant (dare we say culture-tripper?) than a surface sightseer. Get yourself into a Boliviano state of mind with these Bolivia-inspired lockdown activities.

Don your cosmovision specs

Some reckon this pandemic is terrible evidence that our relationship with nature is very seriously out of whack. Step up Pachamama, the Andean Earth mother, potentially a righteous new addition to 2020’s long line of coronavirus superheroes.

Who is Pachamama? In a hopelessly inadequate nutshell, Pachamama and the “Andean cosmovision” centered on her are about collectivity and harmony with nature rather than individualism and exploitation.

Pachamama is an adaptable goddess (she is sometimes conflated in Bolivia with the Catholic Virgin Mary). So, worshipping her at home need not be disrespectful to Andean culture. She and the “cosmovision” she represents might be a fitting subject for meditation – for instance, if sitting has been one of your good isolation habits. Alternatively, with many of us currently discovering the tree-hugger within, giving that flagging succulent or bedraggled basil pot a little love is sure to please the goddess.

Making an offering to Pachamama is all about the spirit – not the form | © dave stamboulis / Alamy Stock Photo

At mealtimes, you might even make an offering to Pachamama (particularly on 1 August, which is Pachamama Day). It need not be elaborate – as the opening of this article makes plain – but do it mindfully and with gratitude to the earth.

Cultivate Bolivia belly

Our deafness to Pachamama has caused suffering in Bolivia. When quinoa gained international acclaim as a sort of Andean superfood, the west went for it – in large portions. Soon this Bolivian staple had become too expensive for locals. Quinoa might be a suitable Bolivian meal, then – as would a spud smorgasbord – but bear the ethics in mind.

If it’s “ethics, schmethics!” while isolation’s holding sway, then go the whole hog with the horrific guilty pleasure that is pique macho. It’s good that you’re making this “dish” in isolation, as some recipes are really not for public consumption. Chuck fried potatoes, onions, chili, boiled eggs and chunks of beef on a plate, then squirt condiments all over the butt-ugly pile. This does not go beyond these four walls, ok?

Posting pictures of pique macho may lose you Instagram followers | © Erlantz Pérez Rodriguez / Alamy Stock Photo

Singani for your supper

You’d be forgiven for thinking that bars in Bolivia are all about the white stuff. I’ve not stepped foot in the notorious cocaine bars of La Paz, but I have visited a famous joint in Uyuni, where the floor is thick with salt, in homage to nearby Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.

You can’t be so profligate with kitchen cupboard essentials during these straitened times, but you can recreate a Bolivian bar vibe all the same – whipping up a round of chuflay, the national cocktail, is about as easy as mixology gets. The Bolivian spirit singani is key to this drink. If you can’t get hold of it, an acceptable substitute is… Or, maybe just have a beer: The Washington Post explains here why singani is unique (and quite possibly better for the Bolivian economy to buy than quinoa).

Tickle your fancy

Fancy dress is big in Bolivia. At weekends, the children of La Paz seem to morph en masse into fantastical munchkins and scurrying superheroes, while zebras direct traffic on their hind feet. Of late, the police have been donning adorable virus outfits.

So spice up that Zoom hang with some outlandish attire. Klaxon! While dressing up like one of the iconic images of Bolivia – the cholita – is obviously tempting, it is not “fancy dress”: cholita fashion is serious stuff. If you do go the cholita route, the Bolivian Express gives some insights. Should you wish to give it the full cholitas luchadores and have a melodramatic yet pain-free barney with your family or housemates, there’s all manner of video inspiration out there.

Cholitas keep the commercial lifeblood of Bolivian towns pumping | © Arterra Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Read this and watch that

A pitifully small amount of Bolivian writing is translated into English. Finding English versions might prove tricky, but Bolivian writers to seek out include Edmundo Paz Soldán, Juan de Recacoechea, Oscar Cerruto and Alcides Arguedas. Short stories are often a good introduction to a country’s contemporary literary scene: try Sangre Dulce/Sweet Blood (2006) by Giovanna Rivero Santa Cruz.

If you want to offer something to Bolivia ahead of your trip, you might consider supporting one of the country’s children’s literacy organisations.

The charming animated film Pachamama (2019) offers more insights into that Andean cosmovision we’ve talked about. It’s only 71-minutes long, so won’t aggravate any isolation-shortened attention spans or hold up your progress through that “to watch” list that was exciting to compile but has now become a source of guilt.

Make sweet solidarity music

Oneness and community is folded deep into Bolivia’s music. Panpipes are traditionally played in a manner that evokes and celebrates the ties between us, with the melody shared between two musicians.

Played traditionally, with two musicians sharing the melody, panpipe music represents togetherness | © Jose Luis Quintana / Getty Images

With solidarity a great source of strength right now, bring a Bolivian vibe into your lockdowned home via some cacophonously dreadful jamming. This article has 52 DIY instruments for you to A-Team together, or you might stick to singing – sea shanties are good for the soul. The UK’s Institute of Contemporary Music Performance also has a great page filled with digital-music-making resources.

Turn your little sister into a wheelbarrow

Rueful humour around the (groundhog) days merging into one abounds at present. The Bolivian game of thunka (or thunkuña) is a barrel of hop-scotch laughs as well as a handy means of keeping track of the days. See here for a fuller explanation (the wheelbarrow-inspired carretilla also looks fun, but let’s agree to ignore tarasca or pato enterrado). Then there’s Evopolio board game, a cynical take on Monopoly, dubiously “inspired” by former president Evo Morales.