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.