Newcomers to Bolivia may wonder why many streets, squares and buildings are named using dates.
Here is a brief rundown on the top 5 most important dates in Bolivia.
6 de Agosto Although Bolivia was one of the first South American nations to begin fighting for independence, it was one of the last to be successful. On August 6, 1824 Simon Bolívar’s army was victorious in the Battle of Junin, and within five months the Spanish were finally defeated by Antonio José de Sucre at the Battle of Ayacucho. On the first anniversary of the victory at Junin, de Sucre called for a constituent assembly to meet in Chuquisaca to decide the fate of Upper Peru (Bolivia was joined with Peru prior to its independence).
The assembly was almost unanimous in its decision to declare independence, rejecting proposals to join with Argentina or Peru. The new country was named Bolivia after its successful military leader. Today Independence Day is recognised with street parties in many of the major cities (the largest celebration being in Copacabana). In La Paz it is also commemorated by the street running south-east after the Prado splits below Plaza del Estudiante, and in Santa Cruz by the street leading into the scenic Parque El Arenal.
16 de Julio
If you are in La Paz on July 16, make your way to the Plaza San Francisco for some free entertainment and lots of drinking in the street. Every year the city celebrates the start of the revolution on this day in 1809, when Pedro Domingo Murillo lead local creoles and mestizos (people of mixed Andean and European ancestry) to declare an Independent State in the name of Ferdinand VII, the deposed King of Spain. Fighting in Europe between Napoleon’s France and Spain had a direct effect on the South American countries’ hopes for freedom. When Napoleon placed his brother Josephe on the Spanish throne, it provided the local authorities in Upper Peru with a problem: should they remain loyal to their country or to the new king? Seizing upon this division Murillo was able to declare La Paz separate from Spain, an event celebrated every year by the citizens of La Paz.
25 de Mayo
Pedro Domingo Murillo’s push for independence in La Paz was not the first uprising by the Latin American people against the Spanish. That honour belongs to the city of Sucre, where on May 25 1809 locals used the pretext of outrage at Spain’s power struggle to take to the streets. Although this popular uprising was quickly stopped by the authorities, it is recognised as the “first cry of Independence in the Americas”. It is widely regarded to be the catalyst for the series of wars of independence that followed: in the next twenty years much of South America would be returned to local rule. The main square in Sucre is named after this event (Plaza 25 de Mayo), and there is a local holiday every year on this date. Tourists interested in this small revolution may wish to visit the Iglesia de San Francisco (one block north-east of the Plaza, open 7-9am and 4-7pm daily) which houses the Campana de la Libertad: Bolivia’s Liberty Bell which called the citizens to arms in 1809.
24 de Septiembre
On September 24 1561, Spaniard Ñuflo de Chavez founded Santa Cruz de la Sierra. After over forty years of attacks from local tribes the city was moved 200 km west to its current location at the base of the Cordillera Oriental foothills. Originally intended to provide produce to the rest of the colony, the usefulness of Santa Cruz diminished when cheaper trade routes opened through Peru in the late 1800s. However since the 1950s the population has exploded and today Santa Cruz proudly celebrates its birthday as Bolivia’s second biggest city and hub of trade and transport. As with other cities, this day is marked by a public holiday, which inevitably means drinking and fiestas throughout the city. Named after the date of foundation, Plaza 24 de Septiembre is in the centre of the city and an excellent place to relax and watch the city pass you by. Every Sunday the four streets surrounding the square are used for a market where its possible to buy local artesan goods for excellent prices.
20 de Octubre
Running parallel to La Paz’s main street the Prado, is Avenida 20 de Octubre, named after the founding date of the city. In 1548 Captain Alonzo de Mendoza started a settlement which he named La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz: The City of Our Lady of Peace. La Paz was soon relocated (the old settlement was near the current city of Laja, on the road to Tiahuanaco) to its present location, where it has grown into Bolivia’s largest city and unofficial capital. Peculiarly enough this date is not celebrated to anywhere near the extent of July 16th, perhaps out of nationalistic pride at the independent nature of the July revolution. Another reason may be that it provokes memories of another date: October 20th 1883, when the Treaty of Ancon was signed to end the War of the Pacific (between Peru, Chile and Bolivia). Under the terms of this treaty Bolivia lost its land rights to the Pacific Coast- a loss it still harbours resentment about today.