I had one afternoon and evening in Cochabamba in the Bolivian Andes, flying in from Sao Paulo over some breath-taking mountains – probably the Chapare range which I would bus through again the next day. My last memory of it from late 2002 was that it was a small, dusty city, and I transited through the bustling bus station on my way to Villa Tunari. I remember staring in horror at a jam-packed cage of live guinea-pigs by my feet, which is an Andean dish (hopefully a tradition that is on its way out as I haven't seen any this trip but avoid 'cuy' on any menu in South America), and wondering whether to set them all free. I would have probably been arrested and the poor animals would no doubt have scurried under the wheels of buses only to be squished to death, so common sense did win out – but at the time I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Not so now – fast forward to 2015 and the city is transformed into a modern, buzzing hub. Surrounded by the Tunari range of mountains meaning there are jaw-dropping views no matter where you look, it is high and dusty. It has plenty of modern shops and restaurants although an alarming amount of fast food stores, and traditional Bolivian dress is on the way out, replaced by tank tops and daisy-duke cut off shorts. In fact, considering how conservative Bolivia was when I was last here 13 years ago, the transformation in fashion is remarkable. Linked no doubt to the digital and mobile age swinging in with force – everyone here is addicted to their phone just like everywhere else on the planet – modesty has been thrown to the wind and the shops are full of teeny tiny outfits and Chinese tack. Someone told me the Bolivian government has sold out and is in negotiations with the Chinese worth billions for lithium deposits as well as all the goods coming in. No doubt the Chinese are taking plenty of live wild animals back with them too for the pet trade.
I stayed at Hotel Aranjuez, a gorgeous hotel with tinkling fountains and tiled, leafy verandahs. It was originally a mansion home and it’s full of old furniture and artworks. The staff are friendly and wonderful. The room could have done with a fan and the breakfast was mediocre including strong cold coffee you could have stood a spoon up in, but it’s in a good location and safe to walk around the area.
Just down from the hotel is La Muela Del Diablo restaurant (meaning tooth of the devil), set inside a pretty courtyard and with a decent menu. Opposite is the palace and I do wish I’d been there when it was open as the grounds looked really pretty and very European. There’s actually a ton of decent restaurants in Cochabamba now – many around the Recoleta (through the arch), but it’s not the food that’s worth going for – it’s the sunsets. As I strolled through town down to the Cathedral the sky looked like someone had got buckets of pure gold, red and midnight blue paint and splashed them across the canvas of the sky. The mountains all around gleamed tones of ochre, and Cochambamba’s own Jesu was silhouetted against a sky that was on fire.
There’s quite a lot to see in Cochabamba. The main Plaza is buzzing with locals, dogs, tourists and a few drug dealers, and gearing up for Xmas.
Parts of the city still have that colonial feel, particularly around Calle Espana which has a few interesting looking bars, and towards the Cathedral. You still see indigenous dress, particularly around the market (which is dodgy so I didn't linger), but I thought Cochabamba is a perfect blend of old and modern Bolivia, and a city I wished I’d had more time in.
As I strolled back to my hotel, I was lucky enough to come across some Caporales dancers. This is a happy dance which originated (apparently) in La Paz in 1969. Dancers wear brightly coloured costumes, with bells and hats. Again it’s incongruous with Bolivian conservatism because the women’s costumes are made up of panties, short mini-skirts, shiny tan tights and high-heeled shoes meaning plenty of bum and leg is showing, but it’s lovely to watch and reminiscent of carnival in Rio as the dancers are in sections, and move slowly down the street, accompanied by live music and plenty of drums. The origins of the dance are interesting, apparently inspired by the Caporal who was usually a mixed race overseer of African slaves, and wore a hat and boots and held a whip. The dance apparently is an important part of the cultural identity of Afro-Bolivian ethnic people. It also has religious connotations as the dance is for the Virgin of Socavon (patroness of miners) with the dancer promising the Virgin that they will dance for 3 years of their life.