In Bolivia, a Village With Real Staying Power
Sunday, June 3, 2007
Above the colonial rooftops of the Bolivian village of Samaipata crouches a jaguar-shaped temple. At 820 feet by 164 feet, the Incas' easternmost fortress is the largest carved structure anywhere in the former South American empire.
Every June 21, on the Southern Hemisphere's winter solstice, hundreds of Bolivians gather here for Aymara New Year -- this year they'll ring in 5515 -- and do what they've always done: Dance all night and then welcome daybreak with arms outstretched, their palms accepting the year's first light.
Recently, new hands stretch beside those of the Aymaras, the area's original people, and the Quechuas, the descendants of the Incas: Germans, Dutch, French and Americans have come to celebrate. And a fair share of these -- pardon me -- gringos are not traveling through. They live here, under the jaguar temple, in quaint Samaipata.
Samaipata (Incan for "Rest in the Highlands"), where the eastern lowlands rise toward the western Andes, probably has more expatriate residents per capita than anywhere else in Bolivia, 100 or so in a town of 3,000.
One of them is Pieter de Raad, the blue-eyed founder of a hotel called La Vispera ("The Dawn"). He and his wife, Marga, are both psychologists in their 60s who traded in promising careers in Holland three decades ago for . . . Bolivia?
Hold on, but did you say Oblivia? Because that's how obscure this place seems to most Westerners. Or at least it did before all hell broke loose five years ago and CNN began headlining thousands of women in bowler hats blockading the country's highway system for months on end, as citizens called for the end of the corrupt clique of European descendants who had lorded over them for five centuries.
After that, Bolivia graduated in the world's imagination from plain old obscure to obscure and possibly dangerous.
But something surprising came out of the turmoil. The protests ousted two unpopular presidents and led to the election of socialist coca farmer Evo Morales a year ago as the country's first Indian president. And despite Morales's anti-imperialist rhetoric since taking office -- such as his call for a possible new visa requirement for U.S. citizens -- visitors I've talked to here feel overwhelmingly welcome in their travels through the country.
"Everyone should visit Bolivia, especially Samaipata," de Raad told me after he finished up a Chopin tune on his baby grand piano. A warm breeze from Amboro National Park blew across his organic acres. "It's paradise."
A good place to begin exploring Samaipata is the Latina Cafe, a few blocks from the central square.
I arrived in the Latina to a blazing fireplace, the smell of grilling chorizo, the rhythms of the Parisian jazz group St. Germain and, along the long wooden bar, a half-dozen friends, Bolivians and expats alike.
Lots of backslapping, cheek-kissing and hugging. Nope, I was not new here. I first arrived 3 1/2 years ago as, of all things, a writer-in-residence. A Bolivian arts foundation had liked a book of mine and suited me up with an all-expense-paid four months in a house and studio. I was so charmed by Samaipata that I have returned for several rejuvenating visits.