Finding the Garden of Eden in Bolivia

Finding the Garden of Eden in Bolivia

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You can’t buy a return ticket to the Garden of Eden, but if you could, your final destination would almost certainly be the Middle East. Colonial Spain begged to differ; according to Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, one contemporary account located the biblical garden in the heart of the Amazon basin. It’s the conquistadors who were nearer the mark, though, finding their own Eden further west in Sorata, Bolivia. Here, after an endless and desolate plain, the Altiplano jigsaws down into the kind of valley routinely trumped up in fairy tale and myth. That it’s seemingly hidden from the world goes without saying, but it’s the topography that dazzles, a cosmic wedge of terraces falling into mist, so ravishingly green after the whey-brown Altiplano they seem like, well, the hallowed allotments of Eden, if not quite the garden itself.

At the heart of it all, below the lottery of bijou maize plots and heaven-scented eucalyptus, sits Sorata, a beginning-of-the-world outpost populated by diggers, dreamers, eccentrics and entrepreneurs, its colonial piles crumbling contentedly under the gaze of almighty Illampu. At over 6300m tall, this ice-crowned mountain deity shadows every cobbled corner of town, its glacial heights all the more fantastical amid the bucolic setting, and one reason why the place remains popular among climbers and trekkers.

Yet Eden or no, once upon a time Sorata was itself a gateway to the heart of Amazonian darkness; Victorian explorer Colonel Fawcett, who inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, passed this way more than once on his journey to oblivion, while the town’s predominantly German merchants made a killing on quinine and rubber hauled up from the jungle. These days the adventurous can still head east down the old trails, assuming they can tear themselves away from Sorata’s sequestered cafés and glorious climate, an eternal spring with blissfully warm days and cool, quiet nights, themselves spent in a peerlessly eccentric choice of psychedelic cabin, time-warped colonial chamber or haunted art-deco hotel. You might not find Eden but you will find a cure for modernity, one that might just make your return ticket redundant.

Sorata is served by buses from La Paz (4hr). In June–Aug, climbers arrive en masse and it’s worth booking ahead.

 

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