At the geographical centre of Bolivia, midway between the Altiplano and the eastern lowlands, COCHABAMBA is the commercial hub of the country’s richest agricultural region, the Cochabamba Valley. With a population of more than six hundred thousand, it’s a modern, unpretentious and outward-looking commercial city. Named the “City of Eternal Spring”, it enjoys a year-round sunny climate that is matched by the warmth and openness of its population. Although most travellers who visit are just passing through, those who spend time here find Cochabamba to be Bolivia’s most welcoming city. It is also a good base for exploring the attractions of the surrounding valley – chief among these, in the eyes of the locals at least, is chicha, a thick, lightly alcoholic maize beer.
For all its charm, Cochabamba has few conventional tourist attractions, and little remains of the original colonial city centre. The Museo Archeológico is worth a visit, as is the Cristo de la Concordia, the Christ statue that overlooks Cochabamba from the east. Otherwise, the most interesting areas are the massive, rambling street markets that stretch to the south of the centre, the commercial heart of this market city.
The Incas were quick to spot the region’s agricultural potential when they conquered it in the mid-fifteenth century, moving Quechua-speakers here to cultivate maize. Inca control of the area was ended by the Spanish, who founded the city of Cochabamba on January 1, 1574, originally naming it La Villa de Oropeza in honour of the Conde de Oropeza, father of the Viceroy Francisco Toledo, who ordered its settlement. Locals soon reverted to calling it by the indigenous place name Cochabamba, a combination of the Quechua words for lake and plain, though all but one of the shallow, swampy lakes that once stood here have now been filled in.
The Spanish established haciendas to produce grain for Potosí’s silver mines, and so important was their agricultural work to the colonial economy that the valley’s indigenous population was exempted from having to work in the mines under the mita system. When the mines went into decline towards the end of the colonial period and the early republican era, much of the hacienda land was rented out, and the region saw the emergence of a class of small but independent Quechua-speaking peasant farmers, very different in culture and outlook from the rather closed Aymara ayllus of the Altiplano. These peasant farmers played a central role in the emergence of Bolivia’s radical peasant political organizations in the 1950s and 1960s and, as migrants to the Chapare, have assumed a key role in the coca-growers’ movement of recent years.Read More
In the south of the city, an entire block between calles Tarata and Pulucayo on the east side of Avenida San Martín, is occupied by the massive covered street market known as La Cancha (“walled enclosure” in Quechua), where campesinos and merchants from throughout the region come to buy and sell their produce. Wandering through the market’s sprawling labyrinth of stalls is the best way to get a feel for the vibrant commercial culture of the city and the surrounding area: the buzz of Quechua fills the air and the traditional costumes of different campesino groups are very much in evidence, in particular the straw sombreros and bright-coloured pollera skirts of the women of the Cochabamba Valley. This is effectively one massive clearing house for agricultural produce, and the range of foodstuffs on sale reflects the full diversity of Bolivia’s different ecological zones. You’ll also find pretty much anything else poor Bolivians might need: sacks, rope, ironmongery, medicinal herbs, ritual items for making offerings to Pachamama and the mountain gods, and cheap manufactured goods. La Cancha has overflowed its original bounds, and now spreads across Avenida San Martìn onto the disused railway, and northwest to occupy another entire block between Tarata and Punata, an area now known as the Mercado Inca Llajta (“Inca Town” in Quechua).
Cochabamba and the Water War
Cochabamba and the Water War
Referred to by its inhabitants as “La Llacta”, the Quechua equivalent of the Spanish word pueblo, meaning at once city and people or nation, Cochabamba is the centre of a vigorous regional identity, and throughout Bolivian history has enjoyed a reputation for political independence and rebelliousness, a tradition that continues to this day. In 2000 the city’s water system was privatized and sold to a consortium of international companies which immediately doubled or even tripled water rates. In response, Cochabamba erupted in a series of spontaneous protests that became known as La Guerra del Agua – “the Water War”. Thousands of citizens from all social classes took to the streets to demand rates be lowered, blocking roads in and out of the city. The Banzer government responded in familiar fashion: a state of siege was declared, protest organizers were arrested, armed troops were sent in and plainclothes snipers opened fire on protesters, killing one and injuring many others. Despite this oppression, the demonstrations continued, and the water consortium eventually backed down – a popular victory that was welcomed by anti-globalization campaigners around the world. The excellent 2010 film Tambien la lluvia (“Even the Rain”), starring Gael Garcia Bernal, is set during the Water War.