We travel to Bolivia every year to visit our suppliers and select the new season’s line of sweaters, capes and accessories. It’s difficult to do business in Bolivia for more than one reason – the political economy is always changing and impacting prices and products. After all, this is a country that has had 51 presidents since World War 2.
Despite the uncertainty, the rich alpaca fiber and pima cotton are certainly worth the trip. Alpaca has been a trade item here for thousands of years, once exchanged for spondylous shells, cotton, coca and other goods from lower altitudes. Now Bolivian knits are renowned for their painstaking hand-work and their world-class design.
Many of the hand-wovenpatterns are inspired by the beautiful Andean landscape that surrounds Bolivia. Landlocked high in the South American Andes, 66% of the country lies on the shimmering high plains (altiplano) at altitudes of 13,000 feet and above. It’s a world of brilliant sunlight and anxious thunderclouds, where subsistence farmers in remote villages grow potatoes, oca, quinua and other high altitude crops beneath massive snow-covered peaks. Its capital, La Paz, drops abruptly from the chilly gasp-inducing altiplano into a deep canyon. People occasionally faint on arriving at the airport, and the wealthy live down in the warmer, oxygen-rich air at the bottom of the city.
Bolivia's people are as unusual as its geography. Their hidden culture inspires unique artisan design. Two thirds of the country is indigenous, including the dominant Aymara Indians and the Quechuas who came as Inca colonists 800 years ago. In the highlands, Indians dominate, but the political and economic power has traditionally been held by a tiny clique of European and mestizo oligarchs for hundreds of years. More recently, the election of the first Aymara president, Evo Morales, has shaken things up.
As volatile, or, let's face it, just plain crazy as the politics may get, for the traveler in this amazing country, incredible sights are around every bend. In La Paz, Indians who could have lived in the sixteenth century brush elbows with modern businessmen who vacation in Europe and New York. Bowler-hatted merchant-women in layered skirts talk on their cell phones in Aymara as they swaddle babies and negotiate the price of magical amulets in the famous Witch’s Market.