Cochabamba, the city of the eternal spring, is not a common destination for travellers in Bolivia. The valley is the main agricultural heart of the country for its climate, while Chapare, in the northern part of the Cochabamba district, is the illegal hub of coca plants cultivation – this practice is only allowed in certain areas in Bolivia.
The city is sadly known around the world for the water war that took place between December 1999 and April 2000, when the water rights in Cochabamba were given over to Aguas del Tunari a private company, subsidiary of American multinational corporation Bechtel, which raised the prices significantly. Thousands of people took to streets, hundreds were injured after clashes with the police, and one person lost his life.
After the conflict the privatisation was reversed. If interested in the topic, the movie “Even the rain” gives a great insight on the Cochabamba Water Crisis.
After coming here with no expectations at all – except for the good weather! -, Cochabamba ended up being a lovely surprise!
I just wanted to stop here for a few days during Easter Break to visit Susan, an old Bolivian friend of mine who I hadn’t seen for over a decade. Susan was working in Jesi, Italy – where I lived for eight years – as a housekeeper when we met the first time. The family where she was working had two dogs and we started having long chats in the park. Susan taught me my first words in Spanish and she was like an older sister to me. Susan played a big role in my life, as she was my first encounter with South America and one of the reasons why I became fascinated about this incredible region of the world. Now, 10 years later, I am in Quillacollo, in north of Cochabamba with Susan and all of her big family!
After a yummy traditional breakfast with api, a hot drink made from purple corn, we left the house with all the family to spend the day in the nearby countryside eating local specialities. We started with a salad of tomato, onion and quesillo, fresh cow cheese made with non pasteurised milk and salt, accompanied by white corn on the hob and guarapo, an alcoholic drink. Every South American country has its guarapo, normally made from sugar cane juice, but in Cochabamba it’s made from must. I thought that was the end of the day – but no! We drove to another place – a very simple courtyard, full of people, in front of a building that was still under construction -, where they served tons of chicharrón, seasoned pork ribs cooked in fat and chicha (if you don’t know what chicha is, hold on a second), with plantain and boiled corn. Portions were huge, and no cutlery was to be seen.
Going back to chicha, in Cochabamba you can find the country’s best version of this alcoholic drink! Ordered in buckets that sit in the middle of the table, this drink made from fermented corn, is drank out of the shell of a tutuma (a coco-like fruit). Similarly to the act of sharing a joint, every time someone drinks the chicha out of the cup, they pass it to the person sitting next to them. Before taking the first sip of every new bucket, some of the drink is spilt on the ground in honour of the Pachamama, Mother Earth.
Not too far from Quillacollo are the Liriuni Hot springs (5 BOB). Don’t expect to find the Icelandic Blue Lagoon, but for less than a dollar you can have a nice day out in a warm swimming pool, surrounded by cheerful Bolivian families – and the road to get there is quite spectacular!
Leaving Quillacollo and heading to downtown Cochabamba, Couchsurfing brought me to one of the sweetest and welcoming person I have ever met, Rafaela. She is a widow and the love of her life is her daughter, who after having graduated in Political Science, is now in Nepal volunteering for rebuilding houses destroyed by the violent earthquake which hit the country in 2015. Rafaela was convinced by her daughter to open a Couchsurfing account to help travellers from all around the world. I had a really great time with her, especially at her mother’s birthday party where I had super tasty food and interesting conversations with all her family about Bolivian culture, and was treated as a member of the family – although they had just met me! Rafaela, belonging to a higher social class compared to my friend’s, showed me another face of Bolivia, and both sides were extremely welcoming and interesting, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the experiences they offered me.
In Cochabamba you can visit Palacio Portales, a real gateway to European architecture and art. It was built by Simón Iturri Patiño, the Andean Rockefeller, who became one of the richest men of the world at the time thanks to tin mining, and played a huge role in Bolivia’s development. Patiño suffered from heart problems which forced him to leave the country due to the altitude, but wished to spend his last years of life in this building which he commissioned from Europe. At a time where Cochabamba had no electricity and running water, this building had all of these commodities. However, Patiño only managed to see this house through pictures – he died in Buenos Aires, never being able to return to his beloved country.
The entrance costs 20 BOB, and while your tour guide might be as boring and unenthusiastic as ours, the palace and its gardens are definitely worth a visit.
The city centre is quite pretty, and from Plaza Colón to the main square Plaza 14 de Septiembre you’ll find lots of interesting streets and nice places to eat. Along Calle España there is Gopal, a very nice and cheap vegetarian restaurant, which I highly appreciated for their 20 BOB daily lunch menu.
However, what struck me most, was the fact that in less than 24 hours spent in the city centre I saw three big protests. The city never felt unsafe, but there sure was lots of activity going on, with demands coming from several directions. The picture below shows employers of Harzone, asking for “no more Chinese in Bolivia“.
During my stay in Cochabamba I became a loyal customer of two caseritas, ladies selling food and drinks, of Market 25 de Mayo, where everyday I had breakfast with bread and avocado and delicious juices for less than 1,5 USD. I highly recommend visiting this market if you get the chance.
To do some grocery shopping you could try going to the crazy market of La Cancha, a gigantic conglomeration of tents and streets which on Wednesdays and Saturdays is complete madness!
Leaving Cochabamba, I have my brain filled with wonderful memories and a better understanding of this fascinating country and amazed by the generosity of its people.