Malia Obama's Secret Trip to Bolivia and Peru
By ERNESTO LONDOÑO
The Bolivian guides were convinced it was the blonde. It had to be the blonde. American Embassy officials in November had told three brothers who led guided hikes across Bolivia's majestic Cordillera Real mountain range that they would soon be hosting an important American dignitary. When a group of teenagers and a small band of American bodyguards showed up on Nov. 24, it wasn't apparent to the guides that it was the president's elder daughter, Malia Obama, and not a blond companion, who warranted the extraordinary security measures.
"There was a blond girl and we assumed she was the important one," Gregorio Mamani, one of the guides, said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Only in recent days, after Bolivian journalists broke the story of Ms. Obama's trip to Bolivia and Peru late last year, did the guides realize who had been in their care during a five-day trek. "She was very humble, chatty, spoke Spanish very well," Mr. Mamani said. "She was mesmerized by the Bolivian landscape."
Ms. Obama was afforded no special treatment during the arduous trek, and performed chores, including cooking, along with her fellow travelers, Mr. Mamani said.
The Bolivian news media reported that Ms. Obama, 18, who delayed starting at Harvard for a year, lived with a family in Tiquipaya, a tiny town in central Bolivia. Her trip was organized by Where There Be Dragons, a Colorado company that runs educational trips, a representative confirmed. The 83-day journey is advertised as a means for students to "examine current political trends, social movements and environmental conservation efforts in the mountains and jungles of Bolivia and Peru."
The Bolivian media reported that President Obama called President Evo Morales to request his government's cooperation in ensuring discretion and security for his daughter's trip. White House officials declined to comment and would not confirm that the two leaders had spoken. Mr. Morales often rails about what he calls American conspiracies to undermine leftist governments, including his own. The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2008.
Mr. Morales, an indigenous leader who gained prominence organizing coca leaf growers, expressed hope that Mr. Obama's election would pave the way for more constructive relations between Washington and Latin American populist leaders. He repeatedly expressed interest in a meeting with Mr. Obama, but was rebuffed. Still, Mr. Morales seems to have welcomed the president's daughter.
"In spite of significant political differences with the Obama administration, he accepted the visit, understood the significance of the learning experience and respected Malia's privacy," Kathryn Ledebur, a Bolivia expert who is based in Cochabamba, said in an email. "It's really an important precedent."