Freshwater Armada


Defeated but still proud, the Bolivian Navy exercises in the land-locked waters of Lake Titicaca, waiting for the day that the country’s sailors will once again patrol the seas.

Brimming with young men in blue uniforms and army coats, Bolivia’s sailors are a constant source of raised eyebrows: is it even possible to train a navy without a sea?

It is.

Every year, hundreds of eager teenagers enlist to serve in las Fuerzas Armadas Bolivianas. Like any other marine recruits, they are taught inland. They learn to fight, the basics of sailing and the importance of defending their country's sovereignty. The problem, though, is the lack of a battlefield: since 1879, long before the 1963 founding of the Bolivian Navy, the country has been completely landlocked.

In an initial twist of irony, Bolivia’s maritime troubles began when in 1879 they declared war against Chile over contested nitrate exploitation along Bolivia's shores. Fast forward five years and the Bolivians came out of the war with a border 125 kilometers (77 miles) inland from the coast, an unfortunate result some historians  attribute to Bolivia’s lack of a navy to defend itself.

These landlocked borders are now taken for granted internationally, but for Bolivians the issue of the sea remains a boiling matter. Articles titled "1836 Belgium Treaty proves Bolivia had sea" or "Returning to the sea" can be found regularly in major local papers, and although political attempts to endear the Chileans into a realignment of borders have proven fruitless, Bolivian President Evo Morales has ensured that the national right to sea access is written into the country’s constitution.

The sea belongs to us by right, to take it back is our duty.
Edwin Quispe Aruni, 18, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

With Lake Titicaca as their main port at 3,600 meters above sea level, the Navy’s daily routine involves patrolling Bolivia's navigable rivers, monitoring for drug traffic activity, delivering humanitarian assistance to the country’s poorer regions and controlling access to the Hidrovia, an industrial shipping canal that connects them to the Atlantic Ocean. While the country sits only 125 kilometers (77 miles) away from the Pacific, Bolivian goods travel 1300 kilometers (800 miles) before hitting a seaport in the Atlantic.

Without the opportunity to sink ships or brave the storms, the most glorious moment for these recruits is the Day of the Sea. Every year, on March 23, Bolivians gather together in public squares for a five minute salute to the 19th century officers who fell in defense of their nation’s coast as loudspeakers blast the sounds of the ocean (foreigners usually find it difficult not to laugh as Bolivian families stand still, listening to recorded seagulls squawking). Dressed in their most honorable garb and surrounded by their families, young men stand proud, dreaming of the day they will fulfill the promise embodied in the Navy’s slogan: ‘The sea belongs to us by right, to take it back is our duty'.