Bolivia. South America’s poorest country — and in many ways its most intriguing. It retains many of its native customs, is socially divided into ‘collas’ and ‘cambas’, has integrated Catholicism with indigenous beliefs (Pacha Mama with Mother Mary) — and witchcraft, maintains a long and vibrant artistic tradition, has the highest administrative capital in the world, is admittedly rampant with corruption at all systemic levels — and just released a report on its 10-year effort to end narcotrafficking.


‘Collas’ and ‘Cambas’ — the great social divide of Bolivia. Collas are those who live in La Paz and the surrounding Andes region, with traditional appearance and strong indigenous roots; cambas are those in the plains including Santa Cruz and surrounds — light-skinned, European features, and more economically stable. Collas claim to be the true Bolivians; cambas claim superiority. A divide of geography, ethnicity, class, economy — though one that some, at least, are attempting to bridge.


Bolivia is immensely multicultural; in 2009, 36 indigenous languages were given constitutional recognition. Ancestral deities remain important to many Bolivians, their native worship a form of animism now integrated with the Catholicism brought by the Spanish colonisers. In the Andean region, sacrifices are given to Pachamama, or Earth Mother, even as prayers are made to Mother Mary; the eastern region maintains ancestor worship and sacred ceremonies. There is movement in some ethnic groups today to abandon the overlay of Catholicism altogether, for a return to their true spiritual heritage.


One of the immigrant groups in Bolivia that may come as a surprise is Los Menonos, or the Mennonite community. In 1927, this Anabaptist religious sect began emigrating from western Europe to South America, and to Bolivia approximately 50 years ago. Residing in separatist ‘colonies’, they elect not to integrate into Bolivian society for religious as well as cultural reasons, in a lifestyle of subsistence farming, self-sufficiency — and typically, off-grid.


Bolivia is typically traditional when it comes to gender roles, and as ‘machismo’ as its regional counterparts. Maternal mortality and female illiteracy rates are among the highest in the world, particularly in rural areas and clearly linked to poverty. However, the country is now experiencing one of the swiftest advancements in gender parity; women make up nearly half of the congress and more than 50% of municipal assemblies, and laws have been implemented to support women — though not without backlash, particularly in the form of increased gender-based violence.


Bolivians are also pushing for political reform, in a country where corruption is believed to be at all levels — including judiciary and police force. Eva Morales has been the nation’s president since 2006, in successive 5-year terms with no limit. He is the country’s first indigenous president, from the Aymara ethnic group in the Andean region, and from an impoverished background; he was also a longtime ‘cocalero activist’, fighting for the rights of coca farmers against the US ‘war on drugs’. (Coca leaves are legally used in the country for various purposes.) He is popular though controversial, and will stand for re(re)(re)election in October of this year.


Bolivia has long struggled with the issue of cocaine and drug cartels — and a large and ready market in the US. The country is now the world’s 3rd-largest producer of coca, the sale of which is widely thought to be fueled by political, judiciary, and law enforcement corruption — and poverty, which forces farmers to sell illegally. President Morales expelled US Drug Enforcement officers from his country in 2008, and while the 10-year government report released on 26 May details efforts to control, former government officials question its veracity — and say narcotrafficking is on the rise.


Daily life in Bolivia carries on despite the country’s economic and political woes, and one of the ways that the society’s needs — both economic and gastronomic — are met is the neighborhood markets and their food counters. A cheap and nutritious meal topped off with the traditional ‘chicha’, a fermented corn drunk consumed from a small bowl, the socialisation at the markets is deafening — and crucial for the elderly population in particular.


Life is one of simple pleasures in urban areas of Bolivia, relaxing in the local park at midday high among them. This pastime crosses the economic and class — and even generational — barriers, and a wide spectrum of society can be seen together. In rural areas, life is considerably more difficult, though sport — in particular soccer — is an interest widely shared.