What’s with all the unfinished buildings in Peru and Bolivia?

Imagine Bolivia and Peru. Do it now – close your eyes (this works better if you read the next paragraph first…).

Here’s the scene: you’re in a bus (local or fully cama – I’ll leave that up to your own taste/budget) travelling from La Paz across the Bolivia-Peru border to Puno. The route takes you through the Bolivian altiplano, following the shores of Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake; the road is surprisingly smooth.

What can you see? Bluest of blue sky? Snow-capped mountains and puna grass? Well-tended fields of alfalfa?

Now bring your eyes to the foreground. A rotund woman wearing a brightly striped shawl, an unflattering drawstring-waisted skirt and pert bowler hat. Alpaca. Rebar

Rebar. It’s everywhere. Sticking out ungraciously from the tops and sides of unfinished buildings across Peru and Bolivia. Even Cusco, that gringo paradise of stucco, adobe and intact Inca walls, hasn’t escaped the rebar curse. The suburbs are rife with it.

The incompleteness doesn’t stop there. In Copacabana, a popular base for exploring Bolivian Lake Titicaca, some hotels were finished as if they were on a film set; grand from the front, but to the side the brickwork was exposed, plastering abandoned.

Puno, on the Peruvian side of the lake, was one of the worst offenders. Unfinished building followed unfinished building. It was as if the builders got bored with one project before starting another. Or made a mistake and just started again next door. Families clearly lived on the ground floor whilst the wind and the rain inhabited the first, second, third or more floors. In places, cardboard stood in for windows.

It’s thoroughly depressing to see as a tourist. Where buildings were once built with pride, using adobe and local grass for the roof, there is now a flux of cheap, flimsy red brick with corrugated tin placed on top (that must rattle in the rain…). The landscape behind all this amateur architecture is jaw-droppingly beautiful and these careless structures are cack-handed scars. I can’t imagine it’s any better for the permanent inhabitants, but experience tells me there’s always a reason behind the most apparently illogical and upsetting occurrences.

In Peru, for example, there is no property tax to pay until the building is complete. That’s quite a loop hole and, in such a poor country, it’s unsurprising that so many people take advantage of it. Should the Peruvian government change this law, the view from the bus window may well be improved for the tourists passing through, but the extra costs would throw millions of Peruvians further into poverty and debt.

In Bolivia, the reasoning goes a little deeper. There, nerve-wrackingly unsteady storeys cower on top of each other in a manner that would put a three-year old Lego enthusiast to shame. But, it’s not about aesthetics here, I’ve learnt. It’s about staking a claim. Bolivia, like Peru, is a country on the up, and whilst this generation can’t afford to live as comfortably as they’d like, they can help their kids to do so. Big houses are a symbol of potential status, particularly in El Alto, the self-built shanty town surrounding La Paz. Families there will go without proper fixtures and fittings in order to build bigger homes with the intention of, like their country, slowly but steadily modernising in the future. So, while they may not have a bathroom, they do have a lot of land to build one on when they can afford it.

With this little-by-little attitude, living standards will gradually improve, and so, hopefully, will the view.

See related features and images on www.overlandtraveller.com
Bolivia: The world’s most dangerous road, by bike and bus
Images: Bolivia – Southwest
Images: Bolvia – Northwest
Images: Peru – Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

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