Our South American Neighbors - G. Southworth

Bolivia and its Chief City—La Paz

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth

The title to this chapter is "Bolivia and Its Chief City, La Paz," not "Bolivia and Its Capital City, Sucre." The reason is, that although Sucre is indeed the official and legal capital of the republic, La Paz, today, is nevertheless recognized as Bolivia's actual seat of government.

No act of the Bolivian Congress has as yet put this change into effect. That is why there, is a slight confusion as to which city is the capital. Does it seem unjust that La Paz, almost four times as large as Sucre, has sort of stolen the latter's title? You would not think so if you were one of the foreign representatives to Bolivia. La Paz is hard enough to reach, but Sucre is much worse.

It is just because of the hard journey to Sucre that the foreign representatives to Bolivia have come to stop off at La Paz, the President of Bolivia has come to reside in La Paz, Congress has consequently come to assemble in La Paz, and thus La Paz has grown to be the actual capital of Bolivia.

In speaking of Bolivia writers use such adjectives as "remote," "isolated" and "inaccessible," and for years Bolivia was known as the hermit republic. Why? Because Bolivia is one of the two countries in South America which have no coast line whatever.

And lacking a coast line, Bolivia. has been likened to a man who has a farm not reached by any wagon road, and who, therefore has to ask permission to travel across his neighbor's land in order to reach the public highway. The comparison is very close, indeed, for this is just what Bolivia has had to do. By means of government treaties, she has secured permission from her neighbors, Peru and Chile, to make use of certain of their Pacific ports.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


To these ports Bolivia has had to build her own railways and this has been a long and expensive process. Just as in days of old, "all roads led to Rome," so, in Bolivia, all railways lead to La Paz.

The Pacific ports with which La Paz is connected by steep railroads which wind up and around the jagged, sky-piercing peaks of the Andes are Mollendo on the southern coast of Peru and Antofagasta and Arica on the northern coast of Chile.

The Arica-La Paz line has been opened only since 1912 and forms the shortest connection between La Paz and the sea, having a total length of 274 miles. In building the road, enormous obstacles had to be overcome, obstacles which required the most skillful engineering. Such things as blasting through solid rock, carrying water for miles and miles through a dry desert country, and losing men by the score, these were the problems which daily confronted the undaunted engineers of the Arica-La Paz railway. It is little wonder that it cost the huge sum of $12,250,000, an average of over $45,000 a mile. But Bolivia believes that the line will more than pay for itself, so she does not begrudge the money.

The Mollendo-La Paz and the Antofagasta-La Paz railroads are much longer than the Arica-La Paz line, the former being 330 miles and the latter 719 miles. These three railway lines form Bolivia's only connection with the outside world.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


Part of the Mollendo-La Paz route is by way of Lake Titicaca. One-half of this lake is in Peru and the other half is in Bolivia. It lies 12,545 feet above sea level and is the highest navigable body of water in the world. It also claims the distinction of being the largest fresh water lake in South America, having an area of 4,000 square miles.

But although Bolivia now has these means of reaching the outside world, the republic is no better off for interior connections. The people are scattered, their interests are different and these conditions naturally account in large measure for the country's lack of development and lack of unity. Bolivia is trying hard to forge ahead, but what she needs most is railways, railways running in every direction like our great efficient lines. in the United States. In 1921, Bolivia had 1,100 miles of interior railways in operation. Further lines are being built or planned, but progress is slow.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


Bolivia, however, is well worth the effort it takes to reach her. This country is like a very rich nut meat incased in a very hard shell. Hidden in her mountains lie great mines of gold, silver, copper, zinc and tin. Tin forms the great bulk of Bolivia's export trade and goes to all parts of the world.

Tin ore looks much like silver ore. Often these two minerals are found mixed together in the same vein. The story of tin is an interesting one. The ore is dug from the rocks, then broken to pieces and ground into powder. Sort of a battered life so far, isn't it? The powdered tin is put into a furnace and melted into a liquid. Then it flows out in a bright silver stream and is run into molds. Each mold contains fifty pounds, which, when cool, forms a brick of tin.

Bolivia's second most important mineral is silver, which in being prepared for export undergoes much the same process as tin. Then comes copper, not silvery gray like the other two minerals, but looking like dull burnished gold. Bismuth also comes from the mineral districts and is sold to druggists in many different parts of the world.

The centers of these great mining industries are all near Bolivia's western boundary, a bit to the south.

A few miles from Lake Poopo is the city of Oruro, famous for its tin. Still further south is Potosi, named after the great mountain out of which has been taken almost $3,000,000,000 worth of silver. It is claimed that this rich mountain has given more silver to the world than any other place on the globe.

The center of the copper industry in Bolivia is in the city of Corocoro. As a branch of the new Arica-La Paz railway has been built to Corocoro, it is expected that Bolivia's copper industry will now greatly increase, for it has not been copper but transportation that has been lacking heretofore.

The western part of the country, important as it is, is not the only region which supplies the republic with exports. The eastern section is divided into the southeastern and northeastern parts. The southeastern part. is a plateau or series of plateaus which gradually sink into the vast levels or plains on the borders of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Much of Bolivia's plateau land is too dry or too rugged for cultivation or even for ranching. However, there is enough fertile land to support quite an agricultural population, although Bolivia in no way could ever be called an agricultural country. In the sheltered nooks of this region are found occasional tropical groves which supply the markets of La Paz and other cities with luscious fruits.

The northeastern section of the country is a part of the great low forest-covered Amazon selvas which stretch far out to the east. Save for a few small settlements, the only inhabitants are uncivilized Indians. From this very region, however, comes another of Bolivia's important exports, rubber. From Brazil we learned much about rubber; how the sap is gathered and the rubber hams prepared for market. So here it is only necessary to find out how Bolivia's rubber reaches the outside world.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


Fortunately, Bolivia has one or two convenient rivers up here in this northeastern section, and down the Beni, the Madeira and the mighty Amazon, she is able to ship her rubber by water all the way to Para—Brazil's great rubber port.

But now to visit La Paz. The most common route is by way of Lake Titicaca, over the Mollendo-La Paz line. The trains rise slowly through the bare hills and then come out on an immense level, walled in on either side by stupendous mountains. Over this level stretch the trains roll onward until a spot is reached which seems to be the very end of the world. There the traveler, walking a few yards to the east, is startled by the great yawning abyss below. Right beneath him, fifteen hundred feet down, a gray, red-roofed city fills the bottom of a gorge and climbs up its sides.

Every street and square, every yard and garden of the cloudland city of La Paz is laid out before the traveler's eye as though on a map. One almost seems to hear the distant noises of the town coming faintly up through the thin air.

From the edge of the canyon, electric ears descend into the city over a track which doubles back and forth in zigzags down the almost alarmingly steep hills. At last La Paz is reached. Think of being in a city at almost the height of Pike's Peak! La Paz, standing at 12,100 feet above sea level, is some 2,000 feet higher than Quito and more than 5,000 feet higher than Mexico City.

The keen air of this elevation has a fine, bracing quality, although it is so thin that the person subject to mountain sickness is apt to suffer for a while. Another disadvantage of the climate is that one is never warm except when actually in the sunshine. There are no fires in most of the La Paz houses, partly no doubt because there is nothing to burn. Wood is exceedingly scarce, there being practically no trees except an occasional Eucalyptus. And coal, due to the high cost of transportation, is frightfully expensive, costing from twenty to forty dollars per ton.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


The inhabitants of La Paz dress according to this temperature, the average of which, by the way, is fifty degrees. Workingmen—and these are mostly Indians or half-breeds —are seldom seen without their heavy ponchos. Ponchos are gayly colored, picturesque blankets and are characteristic of many parts of South America.

The native women also wear very heavy garments. They are extremely fond of voluminous skirts and wear a number of them. And the more brilliantly colored these are, the better. Strong and solidly built as the Indian women are, one often wonders how they can get around carrying the weight of four, five, or even more, of these thick skirts of closely woven cloth. Surely as they pass along the streets they present as brilliant a sight as any tulip bed in Holland. Besides their gay skirts most of these women wear long, silken fringed shawls and little quaint felt hats. The long black manto is also common in La Paz.

Indian women are very numerous, particularly in the markets of the city, for they are the venders of La Paz. In the morning scores of them go scudding through the streets, carrying fruit and vegetables to the markets for sale. Their burdens are tied up in striped blankets of red, blue, yellow and green.

Most noticeable in the La Paz markets is the great variety of fruits. These come from the southern part of Bolivia. On the stands are peaches, pears and quinces as well as oranges, lemons and pineapples.

Because of the large majority of Indians in the city's population, one hears Aymara, the most common Indian dialect, quite as. much as Spanish, the official language of the republic. Indeed Aymara is the language commonly spoken by three-fourths or more of the inhabitants of La Paz.

[Illustration] from Our South American Neighbors by G. Southworth


La Paz, as one might suppose, is very hilly; in fact, the streets plunge down one hill only to ascend another, and are so steep that all carriages must have four horses. However, very little carting is done by horse and wagon. The llamas are much used as beasts of burden. And there are also human "beasts of burden" for the majority of the packages and freight are delivered on the human back. The loads are sometimes far bigger and weigh more than the men carrying them, but in La Paz nobody regards such a sight as unusual.

Once having seen La Paz, one cannot forget the steep, rough streets, the flocks of graceful llamas, the sturdy dray-men with their huge, top-heavy loads, the swarthy Indians in their bright, picturesque costumes, and above all, the magnificent, snowy mountains towering into the sapphire sky.

Because it is unusual, Bolivia's city of La Paz makes for itself a niche in the memory and stays there.

Questions for Review and Study

  1. What city is the capital of Bolivia?
  2. Is the capital the country's chief city?
  3. How does it happen that the seat of Bolivia's government is actually at La Paz?
  4. Why is Bolivia called the "hermit republic"?
  5. What enormous obstacles had to be overcome in building the Arica-La Paz railroad?
  6. In what two respects is Lake Titicaca remarkable?
  7. What about the railroads within the republic of Bolivia?
  8. What effect does this have on the country's development?
  9. What minerals are found in Bolivia?
  10. Which forms the bulk of her export trade'?
  11. Tell the story of tin ore.
  12. In what section of Bolivia are the centers of her great mining industries'?
  13. Describe the southeastern and northeastern sections of Bolivia and name the productsof each of them.
  14. Describe La Paz as to location, climate and people.