Founded in January 1574 by Sebastián Barba de Padilla, Cochabamba was originally named Villa de Oropeza in honor of the Count and Countess of Oropeza, parents of Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who promoted its settlement.
During the height of Potosí’s silver boom, the Cochabamba Valley developed into the primary source of food for the miners in agriculturally unproductive Potosí. Thanks to its maize and wheat production, Cochabamba became known as the 'breadbasket of Bolivia.' As Potosí’s importance declined during the early 18th century, so did Cochabamba’s and grain production in the Chuquisaca (Sucre) area, much closer to Potosí, became sufficient to supply the decreasing demand.
By the mid-19th century, however, the city had reassumed its position as the nation’s granary. Elite landowners in the valley grew wealthy and began investing in highland mining ventures. Before long, the altiplano mines were attracting international capital, and the focus of Bolivian mining shifted from Potosí to southwestern Bolivia. Cochabamba again thrived and its European–mestizo population gained a reputation for affluence and prosperity.
In 2000 the eyes of the world turned to Cochabamba when its citizens took to the barricades to protest against increases in water rates. The World Bank had forced the Bolivian government to sell off its water company to US giant Bechtel in order to provide financing for a tunnel that would bring water from the other side of the mountains. The resultant rate hikes brought hundreds of thousands of citizens out in protest, sparking uprisings elsewhere in the country and eventually driving Bechtel out. Dubbed 'the Water War,' it helped usher Evo Morales and his party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) to power. However, as of 2017 a large percentage of Cochabamba residents were still without regular piped water services, many in newer parts of the rapidly expanding city. Hundreds of community wells have been dug as a better solution than accessing water from mobile trucks.
Politically, Cochabamba is suspended somewhere between the pro-Morales altiplano and the pro-autonomy lowlands.