Perched in the fertile valleys between the arid altiplano and the tropical eastern plains, Cochabamba enjoys a year-round springlike climate and a unique cultural mix of the highlands and lowlands. Thereâ€™s also a distinct mix of old and new: the streets of the colonial town center retain a small town feel, while in the north youâ€™ll find glass buildings and a multiplex cinema. It is the capital of the department of the same name and is Boliviaâ€™s third biggest city.
Cochabamba was founded by the Spanish in 1574, mainly as a grain producing centre for PotosÃ, but there had already been settlements in the area for many years. The Incas recognized the importance of the productive lands, in what are now the Cochabamba valleys, and made the area a priority, using it to grow maize to feed their armies across the empire. Before the Incas, other indigenous groups inhabited the valleys, including the Tiwanaku, and it is believed that there have been people living in the area for over a thousand years.
The city was established by the order of Viceroy Francisco Toledo, and was named La Villa de Oropeza, in honor of the viceroyâ€™s father, the Count of Oropesa. It enjoyed many years of prosperity throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, thriving from the silver boom of PotosÃ. Once the mining dried up however, so did much of Cochabambaâ€™s trade. The city recovered by the mid 19th century, regaining its position as the â€˜granaryâ€™ of Bolivia, with the area producing milk, wheat, maize, potatoes, coffee, sugarcane and fruit.
Since the late 18th century the city has played an important role in the social politics of the country - troops were sent from the city to defeat the indigenous uprising in Oruro in 1781, earning it the name the Loyal and Valiant Villa of Cochabamba (from the Quechua words qucha and pampa, which mean lake and plains). The theme has continued more recently with the farmers of the Chapare region, who have emerged as strong voices in the national coca growing debate and in the indigenous political movement, most notably President Evo Moralesâ€™s MAS party, who have strong support in the Chapare.
At the turn of the century, in 2000, it was the site of a massive social battle against water privatization. Prices were increased by two-fold or more, and the cityâ€™s residents took to the streets in protest. In 2007 the city was again at the centre of huge clashes and protest, this time over regional autonomy.
The main characteristics of modern Cochabamba however, are of a safe and welcoming city, with the community feel of a town smaller than its 600,000 inhabitants. It is said to have the best climate in the whole of Bolivia and has several nicknames due to its idyllic weather and fertile soils â€“ including the city of eternal spring and the garden city. There are plenty of good restaurants and bars around the city, with Calle EspaÃ±a, the top student hang-out; Avenida Jose Ballivian, or El Prado as it is more commonly known; and El Boulevar de la Recoleta being the main hot spots. There are some world class hotels, most of which are found along the Prado or in the Recoleta district of the city, and some excellent budget and mid-range options, mainly in the central district.
Cochabamba is perfectly positioned to visit the surrounding countryside. Torotoro National Park, with its dinosaur footprints, caves and impressive rock formations, is 138 kilometers from the city, Carrasco National Park and its rare oilbirds are close by, as is the tropical region of Chapare. Parque Nacional Tunari is just minutesâ€™ drive from the city, offering an easy escape from the city buzz. There are also a number of pre-Columbian ruins within easy reach of Cochabamba. In the city itself, the gigantic Christ statue, El Cristo de la Concordia, is an iconic landmark and has wonderful views of the city from its base.
To really soak up the vibe of Cochabamba however, just take a stroll around one of the many plazas or parks, or explore one of the cityâ€™s bustling markets, where youâ€™ll get a real feel of the cochabambino psyche and their unique make-up.