Category Archives: Bolivia

This least friendly country thing is bollocks

It wasn’t inspiring when, not only could we not find a decent guidebook for Pakistan, the first hit on the Rough Guide website when searching “Pakistan” was a claim that it was the third least friendly country in the world for tourists. It’s a claim that has also been repeated by the Huffington Post and CNN.

The list that they site comes from the World Economic Forum as part of its work on Travel and Tourism Competitiveness. The top two ‘least friendly countries’  area apparently Venezuela and Bolivia where we’ve been. Reading this I call bollocks. The people in Venezuela were lovely, despite the fact that their country was falling apart around them. And the people in Bolivia were also super friendly, except perhaps for the witches. Other countries in the top ten don’t stack up either: Trinidad and Tobago, Latvia, Slovakia? Really? How about Iraq or Syria? How about frickin’ North Korea? Surely letting foreign visitors into your country is a prerequisite for friendliness.

So I dug into this a bit more. I can’t get to the raw WEF data without a log in you need to pay for, but best as I can tell, what they call “Affinity for Travel and Tourism” the mainstream media had reported as friendliness. Which is more, the WEF’s ranking relies heavily on their survey of global executives. This has a couple of big problems. First off, not everyone who travels is an executive looking for the things an executive is looking for. I completely accept that neither Bolivia nor Venezuela would be a great place to do business right now. Their governments are unpredictable and their attitude towards foreign investors punitive. That will colour an executive’s experience, but not a backpacker or other holiday maker. Second, my suspicion is that countries were executives tend not to travel much (ahem, Sub-Sharan Africa and the war town Middle East) just don’t get rated.

You really want to test the friendliness of a country, you need a much larger cross section of travelers than those who sit around boardroom tables.

What we’ve spent in South America

As a public service to anyone who might be thinking about following in our footsteps in South America, and to satisfy the curiosity of others, we thought we’d share a little about what our day to day spending is while traveling in various countries.

We do this as we leave South America and we’ll repeat a similar exercise for Asia later.

We’re providing an average daily spend in New Zealand dollars, and our estimate of how many times cheaper the countries we travel in are than New Zealand. This data is taken from our ongoing spending tracking which we update every week (I affectionately describe this as our WEEBU or weekly budget update) and from our general recollections of the prices we have observed.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 10.20.11 PMDisclaimers

I’d have learned nothing as a consultant if I didn’t offer some disclaimers over this and indeed, a couple of caveats are in order:

  • This is on the ground costs. It excludes international flights and other pre-trip costs like visas and vaccinations.
  • This represents our travel. That means it reflects the specific experiences we chose to have, rather than what costs will be like for everyone. You could travel and spend more, or less and you might differ from us in where you chose to splash out or do it cheap.
  • Our costs are for a couple. You could reasonably assume two thirds for a lone traveler.
  • In a long period of travel there are inevitably some ‘lumpy’ costs like buying a new backpack or sending a package home. Where it’s easy to do so we’ve taken these out, but some will remain.

Some observations

  • Argentina is pleasingly cheap given the quality of food, accommodation etc. we’ve enjoyed is as good, if not better, than what you’d expect at home. Taking advantage of the black market exchange rate it’s like an awesomely cheap version of Europe.
  • Peru is probably cheaper than it looks. Costs are pumped up by expensive entries to places like Machu Picchu. We also chose to spend more to enjoy more of Peru’s excellent cuisine. We don’t regret that for a second, but you could spend less.
  • If you’ve got US dollars then Venezuela is silly cheap and the quality of food and accommodation is surprisingly high. But even given that, traveling there at the moment isn’t worth it. It’s just too dangerous to be enjoyable.
  • Colombia is a great destination and well worth the extra few dollars above the price of travel in Ecuador and Peru. Spending a long time there, to volunteer like we did, is very worthwhile.

So long South America – some parting observations

The sunset at the beginning of the world; day's end at Isla del Sol.
The sunset at the beginning of the world; day’s end at Isla del Sol.

We’re really sad to be leaving South America. It’s been an amazing five months and, if it weren’t for Asian travels on the horizon we’d probably be pretty down about our departure.

Truth be told, South America was never my first priority. When our timing for Asia didn’t match with the climate we needed to do what we wanted we had to reshuffle and I wasn’t sure how it would work out. But our time here has been challenging and rewarding and the places we have been and people we’ve met have been incredible. Significantly exceeded expectations.

As we leave, here are a range of parting observations. They try, but fail, to capture what we’ve seen and what we’ve thought in broad sweeping themes:

  1. There’s a lot of European history here, more than I had understood. Around the same time that Maori were losing their independence to British colonisers, Colombians were getting their independence from Spanish conquistadores. So things look and feel quite European even if they also feel different.
  2. There’s an upper middle class in the Andes whose life experience is probably not so different from ours at home. And that’s true for the whole middle class in Argentina. At the same time there are poorer groups whose living standards are dramatically different.
  3. A little Spanish goes a long way. A little more goes a long way too. There’s surely no other language that is so accessible to English speakers that allows you to speak with such a diversity of people. And the ability to cut through the hand signals and ask about family or work or aspirations really enriches a travel experience. I’m glad I learned some and grateful that Fiona knew lots.
  4. South American societies are colonial, like at home, but the mixing of ethnicities, be they African, European or indigenous, has been much greater. At its most mixy, skin colour doesn’t even denote ethnicity anymore. This is fundamentally different to New Zealand.
  5. It’s not realistic to call South America ‘catholic’. Not when there’s devil worship, hallucinogenic/spiritual drugs and witches. There’s catholic traditions for sure, but there’s a parallel spiritual belief system which sets South America apart, too. They still manage to be pretty prohibitive about abortion, however.
  6. Sloths are amazing.
  7. With notable exceptions, South American food isn’t much to write home about. There are a lot of carbs and a lot of fried things. Peru and Argentina stand out as the pick of the bunch in terms of cuisine.
  8. There’s a strong left wing political tradition in lots of South American countries. The best face of this is innovative policy and a concern for the poor. The worst is disastrous policies piled one upon another to sustain a doctrine that is clearly unrealistic.
  9. It’s not that dangerous, and danger isn’t always where you’d expect. The massive police presence in Colombia made us feel safer there than in the tourist hub of Ecuador.
  10. The people are great. Colombians and Argentinians are the most openly friendly we’ve come across; Bolivians and Peruvians tend to be a little more reserved. But we’ve experienced kindness everywhere we’ve been.

A blockade culture in Bolivia – why don’t have one at home?

How to start a blockade. It's easy, just get some rocks.
How to start a blockade. It’s easy, just get some rocks.

We’re still reverberating a little from the blockade and protest we witnessed in Cochabamba. We got pretty close to what was going on, but, actually, protests and blockades aren’t an unusual part of the Bolivian travel experience:

  • One traveler we spoke to was sat on a stopped bus for twenty four hours because the road was blocked by grumpy villagers whose disquiet seemed to be caused by something about vegetables
  • Another was taking the much longer way from Sucre to La Paz because the direct route was apparently blocked
  • We’ve heard lots of tales of El Alto throwing about its strategic muscle by blocking the main route out of La Paz

And they’re just run of the mill blockades. In Cochabamba there was also the water war of 2000. In 2007, shortly before Fiona’s younger sister arrived for a year  with a host family, a blockade turned into a violent confrontation and a friend of one of her host brothers was hanged.

Why don’t we have blockades at home?

I can’t think of a protest in modern New Zealand where the intention was to generally disrupt people’s lives to make a point. The 1981 Springbok tour protests were about stopping games (and the tour). Land occupations, like at Motua gardens, were specifically about a piece of land. And the Foreshore and Seabed hikoi, by far and away the largest in my lifetime, certainly had the numbers to make a massive amount of mischief, but didn’t.

What explains this protest culture difference? I don’t think Bolivians are more aggressive or violent by nature. Instead, I’m prepared to moot the following range of hypotheses:

  • New Zealanders have more faith in democratic processes as a means for change. Bolivia’s history is littered with military dictatorships and corrupt politicians. It’s not that New Zealand doesn’t have some of the latter, but the longevity of our democracy, and the preservation of the rule of law, probably blunt the need for civil disobedience of the rioting kind. the faith in democracy also limits the sympathy the population might have if there was a blockade.
  • Maybe the democratic process means we don’t end up with any many egregious policies or massive unfairnesses that make people feel they need to take to the streets violently. There are exceptions of course, see foreshore and seabed above, but still.
  • A lot of Bolivian blockades seem to be strike related and a lot of the strikes seem to be because government workers don’t get paid. With the exception of our teachers in recent times, we do tend to pay people, and that keeps them off the streets.
  • There’s a path dependency issue, which is hard to overcome. Even though Bolivia’s democracy seems to be more stable now, there’s a pattern that what you don when you get pissed off is take to the streets. This is a hard habit  to kick.

What would happen if we did?

I’ve also been left wondering what would happen if there was a blockade. Say a bunch of activists managed to block Ngauranga Gorge or the Auckland Harbour Bridge, as unfathomable as that is. I’ve asked the police whether we have tear gas, and in what circumstances they would use it. In practice I imagine a range of legal and political considerations would frame any response and it’s hard to deal with in the hypothetical.

Cochabamba versus privatisation: the water war of 2000

Cochabamba's central plaza is pretty nice. Fourteen years ago it was occupied by protestors.
Cochabamba’s central plaza is pretty nice. Fourteen years ago it was occupied by protestors.

We’re in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third city. It was here in April 2000 that:

  • Victor Hugo Daza, a seventeen year old student on his way home from work was shot and killed but the Bolivian military
  • Executives of International Water Limited fled in a helicopter when the police said they could no longer guarantee their safety
  • The city’s experiment with water privatisation came to an abrupt end

The “water war” of Cochabamba is claimed by anti-privatisation advocates around the world as a great victory. There’s something in that. Privatisation was essentially protested out of Cochabamba. But, like most things, the story is complex. It’s also a tale of good intentions gone awry, a deeply flawed implementation of a not unreasonable idea and of violence and tragedy that didn’t ultimately ‘fix’ Cochabamba’s water problem. It’s also a good enough story to have been the inspiration for the James Bond film Quantum of Solace.

Continue reading Cochabamba versus privatisation: the water war of 2000

Fast food development: Bolivia killed McDonald’s

Regular readers will know of our project to track and categorise fast food development in the countries we visit as a proxy for overall development. Bolivia presents a challenging case.

McDonald’s has gone

Until 2002 Bolivia had McDonald’s – the very clarion of fast food development – and now it doesn’t. There’s three competing narratives about why the chain closed its eight franchises:

  1. Bolivians felt McDonald’s was unhealthy and shunned it. This is plainly implausible. Bolivia has some of the least healthy food we’ve seen. Anywhere. Witness not only the street stall hamburgers but the ubiquitous fried chicken, the egregious placement of icing sugar in unexpected places, and the general lack of fruit and vegetables.
  2. Bolivians just didn’t have a taste for McDonald’s. They like their hamburgers but they like them prepared lovingly by cholitas on the street. ‘Fast’ is an anathema to the way they think food should be produced. This might be closer to the mark. Just as in La Paz there are a lot more markets than supermarkets, it’s believable that people would choose their local seller over the big plastic American version.
  3. There was a dispute between local franchises and golden arches HQ. This isn’t much talked about. But you can imagine that might well have been the real catalyst for withdrawal. There’s also a lot of evidence that the government was pretty keen on promoting the other narratives, and that might have involved them making it hard for McD’s to operate. Current President Evo Morales had a rant about Western fast food at the UN. He’s also called coke the black blood of capitalism.

Interestingly, no one really talks about price. We had cause to visit Burger King once or twice when a rough bout of food poisoning has us suspicious of any food that wasn’t at least half plastic. It was super expensive, comparatively. A combo was about the cost of a whole meal in a nice restaurant. Oh, and Burger King you say? Yea, that kind of undermines the case that Bolivians don’t like fast food chains. Maybe they just think the burger are better at BK.

Bolivia almost defies categorisation

But where does all that leave us in terms of the all important categorisation? Morales would like us to say Bolivia is part of the mythical stage 5 – the country that has evolved beyond Western fast food. But Burger King’s presence defies that, as does our suspicion that if Bolivians were richer there’d be more choice in Western franchises.

It’d be easy to say that Bolivia is a stage two – like Peru, Ecuador and Colombia – that Western fast food is available in big cities but prohibitively expensive for all but the richest (and the stomach sick tourist). But that doesn’t reflect that, compared to its neighbours, Bolivia has less fast food, McDonald’s couldn’t make the market work, and it’s relatively more expensive.

So we’re going to break the mold a little here and call Bolivia a stage 1.5. It’s only got the scarcest representation of Western fast food brands. It might have been a 2 when McD’s was in town. But now, in terms of fast food development, it’s gone a little backwards.

Three things I wish we had at home

There’s three things in particular that I have enjoyed in Bolivia (and other parts of South America). They’re probably all facilitated by the low wage economy. That’s not one of the things I want to bring home. But anyway…


  1. Citrus juice (orange and crucially grapefruit) squeezed fresh while you wait at a roadside stall. Sold in small plastic cups for between 30-70c New Zealand. They actually fill your cup, wait for you to drink some, and then fill it up again. Not sure why, but they’ve determined the standard dose is that your cup runneth over.
  2. Shoe shine people. They’re everywhere in South America (and Pawnee) and shoes are all the shinier for it. Anyone who has worked with me and cares enough to look at my shoes would know I would find this economical service of great use.
  3. Barbers that will shave you for next to nothing. With a cut throat razor, or a machine, to your specifications, and for less than a dollar. It is widely agreed that shaving sucks, but this process rules.

The smell of tear gas in the morning

As I write there’s tear gas on the air. There’s an intermittent noise, somewhere between a gun shot and a thunder clap, that’s probably the source of the tear gas. On the street corner outside our hotel window there’s a collection of students, maybe fifty. They’re part of a group that’s set up blockades and lit fires. Every once in a while a defiant chant goes up: “we’re not scared, we’re not scared”. But plainly they are.

They’re running now, scattering in all directions. And here come the police, decked out in riot gear and vastly surpassing the organisation of those they’re pursuing. The group has dissipated now and while there’s probably still another blocked intersection to clear, it looks like this protest might be ending. You can watch the video of the final throes below.

Stumbling on a protest

We first stumbled upon the protest this morning while walking to visit Cochabamba’s most famous landmark, a statue of Christ in the style of Rio de Jenero’s, but six feet taller. I say stumbled  because the easy gate of pedestrians around us heading towards or past the blockade being assembled didn’t signal anything unusual. It took the cracks of a contraption somewhere between a fire cracker and a flare launched into the air to make us notice something was up.

The protestors had set up at a few adjacent intersections in the central city. They had lit fires and brought in rocks to stop traffic. They had the kind of wild look that comes from a combination of adrenalin and political conviction. The bandanas and masks they sported showed that they were expecting the police and the tear gas they would bring to try and disperse them.

DSC01022 DSC01033

Left: a protestor recovers from tear gas while fanned by his peers. Right: there is no possible reason to own a ski mask in this climate other than to participate in protests.

They were at once brave and jittery. They were courting a confrontation, but their ultimate goal wasn’t readily apparent. They get some points for organisation. There were, after all, some hundreds of protestors putting themselves on the line. But their on the ground organisation was lacking. Cries to get into a group or to go this way or that only went half answered.

It was the early stages of the protest so we could talk to some protestors and ask some questions. They were university students. Their demands fell slightly on the more specific side of Occupy Wall Street’s. Their teachers had been on strike for two weeks and they were frustrated by the lack of classes. But more generally they seemed to claim they weren’t being sufficiently resourced, a complaint apparently documented in thirty eight unanswered petitions. Some peers were on a hunger strike, some were taking to the streets.


Continue reading The smell of tear gas in the morning

A holiday from travel

The stunning view from our kitchen window.
The stunning view from our kitchen window.

When leaving home people would ask about our “big holiday”. I’d gently correct them. “It’s not so much a holiday as travel,” I’d say. Part of my reaction was to limit the implication of self-indulgence. Who goes on holiday for a year? But part of it reflects our view that what we’re doing is more about learning than relaxing and that relaxing is undermined by the kind of roughing it we’re inclined towards.

But right now, we’re on holiday. We’re taking a long weekend in Sucre. We’re staying at a nice bed and breakfastish place which costs about $30NZD/night. Though insanely chepa by New Zealand standards itcounts as splashing out for us.

A particular treat is access to a kitchen with a beautiful view across the city and sunshine pouring through the windows. We haven’t been able to cook for ourselves since Santa Marta. Now eggs have been poached. Spaghetti has been bolognesed. Local spicy peppers have been experimented with. Wine and beer has been drunken at leisure. Grapefruit have been juiced.

Tomorrow we’re back to the travel thing – a day trip to a famous market and an overnight bus to Cochabamba. But today we’re not even sure we’ll make it to the museum.

A new meaning to zebra crossings


Apparently they’re all over Bolivia, but here in Sucre is the first time we’ve seen them. Energetic locals dressed in zebra suits ensuring people obey the road rules and that pedestrians can cross safely. They bound into the middle of the road and wave people over, exaggerate stop signals to oncoming traffic and generally go about spreading cheer.

I know you get two years in jail for squishing a vicuña. I bet one or two Bolivan drivers have contemplated how many years you get for smacking a zebra.