On a Saturday morning, a handful of SB volunteers gathered at the casa principal to hike up to the top of “the Cristo.” They do this hike often, but this time the group is equipped with a supply of trash bags and some rubber gloves. The mini-mission for today is to do something about the litter problem along the stairway up.

Urban monument

Cochabamba is famous for being the home to the world’s largest statue of Jesus. At 34.2 meters in height, the figure beats Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer by 4.1 meters. Cochabamba’s Cristo is even taller than Swiebodzin, Poland’s Christ the King, as long the crown isn’t taken into account. Cristo de la Concordia is a Cochabamba icon and the most important tourist attraction in the city.

To reach the Cristo, which towers from the top of San Pedro Hill, visitors can either ascend 1,399 stairs or take the the cable car. Both receive a steady stream of traffic during the day. At the top, a beautiful panoramic of the city in a valley awaits, and on a clear day you can see the jagged snowcapped Cerro Tunari and its surrounding peaks.

Along a littered path

Some people hike to the top for the view, some people for the exercise, and for some the route is a religious mini-pilgrimage. For everyone taking in the view, the purity of the landscape and the trail of stairs is interrupted by a trash problem. Although trash bins spot the sides of the trail every several hundred meters, they sit full, neglected by maintenance personnel, and unused by many of the site’s visitors.

As in many municipalities in Bolivia where resources are scarce, the waste management system in Cochabamba leaves much behind. Green dumpsters with heavy lids can be found every few blocks within the city. But for pedestrian traffic that doesn’t expect well-maintained public trash bins, food and drink packaging is discarded onto the ground.

A small gesture

Brian Steber, who spearheaded the Cristo clean-up excursion, is volunteering through Sustainable Bolivia as a doctor at Centro de Salud Villa Israel, one of Mano a Mano’s health clinics. This is his second volunteer trip to Cochabamba; he first came in 2010 to volunteer with Centro de Salud Pacata and to find a clinic that could use some longer-term support.

The idea to try to put a dent in the route’s litter problem occurred to Brian on one of his regular hikes up there. He goes frequently for fitness and fresh air. Since he has a network of contacts through SB, the fellow volunteers in his housing with a Bolivian family, and through the clinic where he works, he decided to see how many people wanted to join him to pick up some trash.

“The hike up to El Cristo is a beautiful way to get some exercise and take in spectacular views,” says Brian. “Hopefully, over time, we will be able to clean up the stairway and make it even more enjoyable.”

By the end of the Saturday morning, a handful of volunteers had collected eight full bags of trash. After several hours of effort, snack bags and drink bottles are still scattered along the path. Vendors will continue selling packaged products all along the stairway, and people will continue to buy them. Trash bins will continue to be neglected, and waste disposal will continue to be a systematic problem in Cochabamba, including on site at its most prized attraction.

The volunteers are hopeful that their clean-up project served as a small gesture of conscientiousness. Bystanders reacted in a number of ways to the trash-collecting volunteers. A few gave them a warm “gracias” while others contributed with a handful of trash items themselves. At the end of the excursion, a volunteer put it this way: “If one person decides not to litter on the Cristo path today, then this was worthwhile.”