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In Bolivia's highlands, breathtaking scenery overlooks a society in transition

"Where's your husband? And your children? How old are you?" Any woman over the age of about 16 who's travelling in Bolivia should have a reply ready; everybody wants to know, confronted with the strange sight of an unaccom­panied female who evidently isn't local. My pidgin Spanish didn't run to any more than "No husband, no children". Surprise, sympathy or frank perplexity are the reactions to such a ­startling confession, in a country where most women start their families while they're still in their teens.

I'd fallen in with Sarah, Nicola, Rebecca and Naomi, a group of recent business studies grad­uates from Leeds University, all aged 20 or 21. Rosia, the young girl who took our bookings for a Jeep tour of the mountains, lakes and salt pans of Bolivia's altiplanos (high plains), was amazed that they were swanning around the world for no apparent reason, rather than staying at home with their husbands and children. "No babies, chicas [girls]? But why?" The friend who dropped me off in Tupiza, where the trip started, had only one child, and he was over 40; this provoked a flurry of giggles and raised eyebrows from Rosia. Her own father, she said, had been one of 14 children; she was one of four herself and that was considered a surprisingly restrained set of siblings.

If you are heading out into the altiplanos, you need to take everything with you. There are no shops or filling stations and when the accommodation is described as "basic", that pretty much sums it up: a bothy with intermittent electricity is where you'll be spending some very cold nights (down to -15°C in the Bolivian winter). So the Jeeps that take travellers into this austere, chilly but stunning wild land have to be self-­sufficient, with enough petrol and rations to last, a driver/mechanic, and a cook who is expected to perform miracles on a portable gas stove.

Viviana, our cook, did just that. She rustled up breakfast, lunch and a three-course dinner every elling hours: up every day before dawn and washing up in a bucket last thing at night. Any offers of help were smilingly refused. "The first day is tiring but then it's OK," she said. This actually passes for a pretty good job in this part of the world, where the average income is around $1,000 (£715) a year, the lowest in South America. I think Viviana was probably rather a brave person. She was 35 years old and had decided not to follow the path that most Bolivians would consider normal. Like me, she was "no spouse, no children" in a country where that's considered sad and strange. Froilan, our driver, was only 20 and already had two children, much to the surprise of the chicas from Leeds Uni ("two babies and he's younger than we are!").

Viviana, however, had other thoughts: some surprisingly feminist. She had money, she said, rubbing thumb and forefinger together, and winking and smiling. "Kids, expensive!" She also said that she loved meeting people from other countries. Europeans, she said, were her favourites; they were varied and they liked chatting and listening to music in the car. "Israelis are boring, they don't want music and they don't talk much," she added. Maybe the Israelis have a point about the music. Among Viviana's CDs, there was a strange Spanish version of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and, of course, plenty of pan pipes, including the ubiquitous "El Condor Pasa". We didn't see a single condor, but we heard the tune a lot.

That piece of music, clichéd though it may be, now evokes some stunning memories for me. Our dusty Jeep coped bravely with the hairpin bends on dirt roads, and there was only one sticky moment where an oncoming lorry simply wouldn't give way. The highlight was driving across the Salar de Uyuni, the highest salt pan in the world; mile upon mile of snowy whiteness that crunched underfoot, the remains of a long-defunct prehistoric lake. On our final morning, Viviana woke us before six to see the sunrise over the salt flats; a kaleidoscope of pinks and blues. She sent us off to walk round a rocky, cactus-laden island rising out of this strange sea of whiteness and by the time we got back she had breakfast ready - freshly baked cake and cups of hot chocolate, on which we warmed our frozen fingers very gratefully.

On the way back from the Salar de Uyuni, we ran out of petrol. Thankfully, this didn't happen until we were clear of the salt flats, but the petrol station where Froilan had been counting on buying some fuel was dry. There had been a referendum a couple of days before and the resulting confusion had disrupted everything, including petrol deliveries. We ground to a halt on a desert road; the first few other vehicles we flagged down weren't interested in helping, probably because they were worried about running short themselves. Eventually, a sympathetic driver allowed us a litre, just enough to limp into the unprepossessing town of Uyuni, where we joined a disorganised queue of lorries, cars, Jeeps and people carrying all kinds of containers at a petrol station where a delivery was expected.

Since it became independent in 1825, Bolivia has seen more coups than any other country - 193. "Presidents are no good," said Viviana. "Santa Cruz [Bolivia's largest city] doesn't want to share with the provinces." She does, however, think the current incumbent, Juan Evo Morales Ayma, is an improvement. "Es indigenous," she observed ­approvingly. Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous Indian president, was elected in 2006. The referendum that stopped the petrol getting through was to ratify his bold reform policies, which include an attempt to redistribute land to the poor. The president, a former llama herder who is particularly popular in rural areas, received a decisive vote of confidence. However, his opponents were not giving way without a struggle, and following the referendum, there were violent scenes and a number of deaths as pro and anti-Morales factions battled it out.

His inaugural presidential address maybe mirrored for many of the Bolivian people the same sense of hope and renewal as a certain other, more recent one. He promised "500 years of indigenous rule", after nearly 500 years of struggle against colonialism. The Bolivians have just voted in a constitutional referendum and have endorsed a new constitution, which will radically empower the indigenous population. I can guess which way Viviana voted. I’ll probably never see her again, but I hope she’s OK.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling