29 October 2014
Bolivia is without a doubt the most interesting but at the same time the most challenging, difficult, tough, demanding, testing and downright tiring country we have visited on our trip. It has a lot of ups and downs, literally, figuratively and psychologically and as we drove out of the country dizzy, cold and dirty we gave a sigh of relief. The country seems intent on swallowing you alive or driving you insane: If it’s not the people refusing you fuel or a toilet, then it’s the 80-octane, superexpensive (for foreigners) fuel that is trying suffocating the cruiser and the petrol stove. It is a country with a lot of diverse environments ranging from fuming amazon heat to the icy antiplano climate of its south western corner to everything in between. But this is not what makes Bolivia strange and different, here the indigenous culture still reigns supreme and your shit out of luck if you think they’re going to treat you special because you’re a foreigner. But I guess that gives the small, land-locked country a certain amount of charm.
The border crossing at Copacabana treated us very well, and we were on our way within 20mins of arriving (probably the fastest border crossing to date). Unlike most border towns, Copacabana looked rather enchanting on the shores of the biggest lake in South America, Lake Titicaca. It is a small town filled with all kinds of religious activity going as far back as the Tiwanaka culture, followed by the Inca origins and now Bolivia’s patron saint, the Dark Lady of the Lake. The strangest of all the religious activities is without a doubt the Benedicion de Movilidades (Blessing of the Automobiles) which happens every Saturday and Sunday in front of the Cathedral. The vehicle is adorned with all forms of festive decorations and brought to the priest who sprinkles Holy water as well as a generous quantity of alcohol which all ensures the future safety of the vehicle involved. Afterwards, the alcohol left over from the blessing is consumed and the whole event ends in a party. We’re not sure if the blessing includes the drive home or not…
We had known about this lake since the start of this leg of our trip, and we have to admit that the first sights of it did not take our breath away…what did however, was the cold. At 3800m it’s not supposed to be real beach weather, and we can attest that it really isn’t. For obvious reasons we were therefore not very pleased about the solar heated showers provided at the campsite that we spent first night. It was my birthday the next day, and as part of a whole day of wonderful surprises, Marius treated me to a cosy hotel room with an exceptionally warm shower after an unnecessarily extravagant breakfast on the day. Even that was nothing compared to the amazing steak and gorgeous lake views we had that evening though. Yes, we had finally made it through the meat drought since leaving the US and bought some rather expensive beef before leaving Peru the previous day and boy were we glad. Like many things in Bolivia, Lake Titicaca, has a cloud of mystery and superstitions surrounding it. According to legend, this is the birthplace of the Inca god Viracocha who called forth the sun and the moon to light up the world. Some of their own ancestors are said to have also risen from the lake and various shrines in their honor can be seen on Isla del Sol (Island of the sun) and Isla del Luna (Island of the moon). Since then new age beliefs concerning metaphysical laws have also jumped the bandwagon. These laws explains there are two sources of power on earth namely male and female which represents the two opposing meanings of life. Good vs Bad, Night vs Day etc. (not sure which side males fits..). In the age of Aquarius the source of power have now for the first time moved from a location in the northern hemisphere (previously Tibet, which is male) to the southern hemisphere, Lake Titicaca under the female sign, Pachamama (mother earth). All you really need to know is that from now on the positive energy of the earth will be generated by Lake Titicaca and that is apparently a good thing. For the rest of us, it’s a gigantic mass of H2O at a terrible high altitude discouraging anyone from doing any type of watersport.
We left the frigid shores of Lake Titicaca for the highest administrative capital in the world at 3577m, La Paz. Approaching La Paz from the flat plains of the north, reaching the valley to which it’s buildings cling to, makes La Paz an interesting site. Maybe the most interesting part of La Paz however is the Mercado de Hechiceria (Withches’ market). Here the indigenous Ayamara people gives a glimpse into their mystical beliefs by selling all types of ritual and medicinal items they use for curing almost any ailment you can think of. A little something like the advertisements you get at the traffic light for the sangomas in South Africa. The market’s main customers are brujas/kallaways/yatiris (witches and healers) who use these items in combination with magic to address imbalances in the supernatural world which is thought to be responsible for a specific ailment. Items range from herbal cures for ailments such as stomach pain or arthritis to incense and charms to dried llama fetuses. A combination of these items are often combined into packages called pagos and buried or burned as offerings to the spirits who is thought to rule pretty much every aspect of daily life. In fact, even westernized Bolivianos still bury a llama fetus at one cornerstone of a new building just in case the spirits isn’t pleased. Strange to think that 95% of Bolivianos claim to be Roman Catholic!
Courtesy of Bradt Bolivia 2005
Another strange custom the Ayamara people have happens during the week after the Day of the Dead (1 Nov). In this festival the skulls of loved ones are brought to the cemetery chapel in La Paz to be blessed by the priest. Most skulls are, like the vehicles, decorated with everything festive including coca leaves, sunglasses and here and there even a lit cigarette. As most people own the skulls of loved ones which they believe bring protection, these skulls are brought to the festival, blessed and then return to sit in the corner of the living room to watch over the family.
The Ayamara women, like most indigenous women in South America has a very distinct dress code which is derived from seventeenth century costumes which indigenous women were expected to copy under colonial rule. The most important part of the outfit is the pollera, or layered skirt made from up to 5m of material wrapped and secured around the waist. To further emphasize the size of their hips the wear petticoats under their skirts to give them the voluptuous womanly shape so many of us tries and disguise. On the top she wears a very feminine lacy blouse and covers it with shawl. No outfit would however be complete without the felt bowler hat, their hair braided into two long tails that extend at least up to their lower back. The center parting of the hair turns out to have been a decree by Viceroy Toledo, a big name in the Potosi mining days. Guess he liked it a certain way..
We finally got to the part of our trip where we would head to the Amazon jungle. The jungle had already started in the southeast corner of Colombia, encompassing almost half of Ecuador, at least a third of Peru and, except for the Andes range running from north to south, it comprises most of Bolivia. Although technically possible, it is a time-consuming task to try and get into the Amazon jungle on your own. National Parks like Noel Kempff in the northeast corner of Bolivia is ranked as some of the most pristine Amazon jungle still thriving today, but even there the parts you really want to see is only accessible by plane or boat. In the interest of actually seeing some of the weird and wonderful creatures of the Amazon without doing a full Livingstone expedition, we opted to take an Amazon tour. In this regard, there are two types of jungle tours you could take, a Pampas tour and a jungle tour which to our surprise wasn’t the tour we actually wanted to take. Like the name says, you venture into the jungle with the jungle tour and there you hike with your guide who tells you about all the wonderful plants and their various uses, the small and amazing creatures of the jungle floor and if you’re lucky you may see a jaguar footprint. The Pampa tour on the other hand sounded rather boring and bland until you hear that it is in fact the tour to take if you want to see pink dolphins, piranhas and anacondas…the stuff you think of when you think of the Amazon, right? So off we set to the town of Rurrenbaque which was only a little over 400km from La Paz. No problem we said. As an additional bonus, it was in the direction of the Death road, as they called it, which we also wanted to see.
Previously the only road connecting the town of Coroico to La Paz, the 64km Death Road was built in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners-of-war. Descending over 3600m from start to finish, this road is famous for the numerous fatalities that it has resulted in. Mostly one lane wide, the dirt road cuts into the cliff sides on various occasions leaving two cars approaching in a predicament to try and pass each other. In 1995 the Inter-American Development bank branded the road “the world’s most dangerous road” based on the large number of vehicles lost over the edge. Indeed, one accident in 1983 claimed over 100 fatalities and locals claim that at least one vehicle per week still plunge to the bottom. Testament to these fatalities we saw numerous shrines and crosses along the road with names and candles keeping their memory alive. Although it is probably a dangerous road, we have to say that we have seen other roads, like the one between Chachapoyas and Balsas in Peru, that is way more dangerous than this one. Considering how the Bolivianos drive however, it would explain the high death toll.
After the death road, we finally got to luscious Coroico where it wouldn’t be strange to expect a parrot or monkey diving just above your head. We arrived on a Saturday evening and didn’t exactly find the campspot we expected. It had started raining just as we commenced our death road drive and it hadn’t stopped since, leaving us to camp in a muddy parkinglot. The manager at the place we stayed at asked where we were headed and informed us that we had arrived just in time to catch the road to Rurrenbaque open on the whole of Sunday. All other days, the road open at 16h00 in the afternoon and close again the next morning at 8h00 for roadworks, leaving you to drive through the night. Impressed with being right on time for once, we set out the next morning, as early as we could, around 9h00. To us Rurrenbaque was just another town we had routed the gps to, but we would soon find out that it wasn’t just another 300km stretch of road. It was raining when we left Coroico and it didn’t stop for that entire 12 hour drive. The road went from mudpools to slush to trucks spinning up hillsides as they desperately try to get grip. On the few patches of tarmac which they have managed to secure on the road, we cursed a driver who drove on the wrong side of the road (being the left!), just to find more and more drivers doing the same thing. When we finally found someone parked by the road, we asked on which side we should drive and was told that we should drive on the wrong side. Like it was the most normal thing in the world… For the next 200km we would chop and change between driving on the left and right side of the road, never really being too sure if we interpreted the nearly invisible roadsigns correctly. We eventually gave up trying to make sense of this chop and change and were just happy to turn another corner safely. To our advantage the road was at times more of a mudriver than anything else causing all traffic on the road to come to an almost (and sometimes complete)standstill. It would be the only road to date that the cruiser’s diff was at times dragging through the rocks and mud due to the height of the middleman. It was a slippery slow day and the road seemed to drag on forever getting slightly better at times and then much worse at others. The cherry on the cake was that when we arrived in Rurrenbaque at around 10pm that night, the waypoints of the campground we planned to stay at, left us standing in front of a dilapidated gas station. We eventually managed to find it however and after walking around the place about three times, found someone that was able to tell us where to park. See this link for a video of this road: https://www.dropbox.com/sc/ss2t6jvlnyx6cvn/Fio2vnq2as
The next morning we awoke to the sound of someone hanging a plastic bag full of fresh bread on the cruiser. Nothing like the smell of warm bread to get you out bed, right? From that morning and each morning that we stayed in Rurrenbaque, Jurg, the owner of El Mirador (The Viewpoint) would bring us fresh, warm bread that tasted like the pau’s in Mozambique, made by a French baker in town. The first day Jurg took us into town to find out about the Pampa tours, and we soon found out that although Rurrenbaque seems a hell of a long way from anything, it had everything you could ever need. And if there was something you couldn’t find, then Jurg would sort it out in two days. It was obvious that he had a lot of influence in the town and being a Swiss civil engineer, with a passion for architecture, who had lived in Bolivia for over 15 years, he had made the town exactly what he wanted it to be and profited well from his endeavors. The name he chose for his resort was also no coincidence. Located on a rather steep hill overlooking the town, he had built a beautiful pool area, numerous cabanas and his pride and joy, a round observation tower, around 17m in diameter where he lives with his daughter.
Rurrenbaque’s tourist boom can at least in part be attributed to a man called Yossi Ginsberg. An Isreali by decent, Yossi and two friends decided in 1981 to trek independently from the Andean highlands to Rurrenbaque. Forming one of the most pristine amazon parks, Parque national Madidi, the area he intended to cross is a labyrinth of forests and waterways that nowadays require guides to even get close. Evidently, the trio got lost, ran out of food and eventually split up. Yossi was the only survivor and went on to write a book about the ordeal which became a bestseller in Isreal. Since then, travelling to Rurrenbaque has become something of a pilgrimage to Isreali travelers as an Isreali in our tour group later told us. We agree it should definitely become a must stop town if not for its jungle toures then at least for its supercheap restaurants where you could still get a good steak with sides for R60/US$6!
We decided on the second pampa tour company we got a quote from, who was also the longest established company there was. There would be no frills, only one group of 8 people, driving 4 hours with a landcruiser to a flat bottom canoe boat that would take them another 2.5 hours down a jungle river to a camp where they would get 3 meals a day for 2 days and sleep in one big room sharing two bathrooms and a cold shower. Sounded like a good deal. They don’t promise an anaconda sighting but do include activities like piranha fishing and swimming with the pink dolphins. They do give you a small list of all the things you would need like a torch, bugspray, raincoat or poncho, sunscreen, toiletpaper, longsleeve shirt, long pants and more bugspray. This I mention to be able tell the story of what happened after the tedious, bumpy ride in the landcruiser. Moments away from boading the boat, Marius and I decide to protect ourselves from the sun by covering up with long sleeve shirts and pants. Unfortunately, this would also be the moment that Marius discovers that he has two beige pants, one long and one short….Guess which one he was lucky enough to take. Now I, being ever unable to decide which clothes I would need packed an extra pair of trousers to sleep in…a loosefitting blue cotton thing with black horizontal stripes, something along the line of clothes convicts wore back in the day. Notably pleased with himself, he declines the “gay” pants and settles into the boat bare legs. He fitted in much better than I did as most of the guys on the tour had very little clothes on. Two hours into the boatride we had already seen a few amazon birds, two or three alligators, a turtle or two and shimmering pink pieces of fish flesh which we were told were pink dolphins. The camp was almost exactly what we expected except that you walk , sleep and eat on wooden walkways build 1.5m off the ground for when the river’s water level rise. The mosquitoes were already attacking as we anchored the boat and on numerous occasions I wondered if the mosquito I had just squished would be the one to give me malaria. Fortunately, the bugspray help a lot and when we asked our guide he told us that there weren’t malaria in the area, that it was more to the east. Whether true or not, the placebo effect has always worked favorable in any situation. The food on the first night was a little scant and I wondered if we should have brought extra, but the beds were soft and the showers bearable.
The next morning we had to be up before dawn to witness the sunrise over the pampas . Our guide had given us a specific time to be there and as the oldest and wisest of the group (and because we didn’t have a watch), we were ready to go 10mins before that time. With the rest of the group slowly starting to crawl out of their holes, we went to boat where the guide was already waiting, rather impatiently. After a few calls from his side (which no-one could likely hear in the room) he suddenly started the engine and no amount of convincing him that they really were on their way would deter him from heading out. As soon as he was just far enough from the side that no one could get on, the first of our group arrived looking rather confused. Having a watch, she tried to explain to him that it was still 5 minutes before the time he had given. He would however hear nothing of this “nonsense” and so started to back off the side again, just in time for most of the rest of the group to arrive on the shore. Reluctantly he headed back to get them and almost left the last girl behind as he finally embarked for the last time. Later we heard that one of the group was actually left behind, although most of us thought that he didn’t plan on going.
With the sunrise photographed and forgotten, our next activity was the anaconda hunting. Whatever you imagine anaconda hunting involves, this wasn’t it. They provide you with a pair of rubber boots, of which at least one of the soles were not fully attached to the rest of the shoe and there were almost no way you could get the same size not even speaking about the same color. The long pants we had to bring is required for this “activity”, and this time Marius could either wear my very gay pants or have a possible anaconda rubbing up against his bare legs. The choice was an obvious one. We reached the area for anaconda hunting faster than we had anticipated and after at least four different accounts of why we would likely not see an anaconda, we started out along with at least 5 other 8-person groups. The first few steps were still on dry pampa grass but soon there was water up to our ankles and then up to our knees. If the soles of the shoes had still been attached, the water depth ensured that they would now be wet inside. We walked for a while, getting excited every time someone screamed or pointed, but after about 15 minutes we understood why most visitors leave here without seeing a thing. An anaconda within 50km would have heard us all coming. Just as we were all wondering when we could get out of the heavy shoes, a guide and his group proclaimed to have found something. We all rushed (again) to see and low and behold, the guide had actually caught an anaconda. At a length of 2m (we thought all anacondas were big), the snake was apparently average size for the area and he had beautiful patterns all over his velvety body. The guide had him locked in what looked like a very uncomfortable grip and each willing person was given a chance to pose with the poor, dangerous reptile around their necks. They tell you to wash your hands before you touch him as the sunscreen and bugspray can harm him, but they neglect to wonder what people have put on their necks! We thought it was a little bit of a zoo and declined the neck wrapping. It would have been a little funny if he had tightened his grip around one of their necks though.
With numerous pink dolphin sightings, and one brave and stinky swim with them, we had now seen two out of the three strange creatures we had set out to see in the Amazon. See this link for pink dolphins: https://www.dropbox.com/sc/l155tiaxkqbfd19/Z-nhM-3azq
We had even been lucky enough to see capybaras, a sloth and Pepe, the camp’s resident caiman. The next morning we headed out for piranha fishing which I was rather looking forward to. After a short boatride we stopped at an abandoned tour camp where we were handed so fishing line connected to a block of wood at the one end and a fishhook other and given a piece of fish to use as bait. The first few throws were super-exciting, but after 30 minutes no one had caught anything and the sun felt like it’s trying to puncture a hole through any uncovered skin. It became tedious and unlikely that we would see our third creature. Not far from our boat, a group we had become accustomed to see at each activity, was anchored a few meters away and had caught at least six up to that point! I was jealous and determined, but no amount of either was making any difference half an hour later. After what felt like a lifetime, our guide caught one poor little piranha and we were able to see their tiny sharp teeth. We left soon afterward and got a little taste of the poor fellow at lunch just before we left for Rurrenbaque. Three out of three, ho blessed can you be! A definite must do if you are in any part of South America!
The road back from Rurrenbaque was in much better state than it was when we came as it hadn’t rained in the area for the entire week we were there. Instead of driving all the way back to La Paz to follow the mainroad to Potosi, we drove a smaller road heading south from Coroico. It was beautiful scenery as went up and down the mountains nearly a dozen times a day. We saw plenty of tiny villages, some high on mountain tops, some nestled in cozy valleys, but all with one thing in common…almost every house had a large tarp with coca leaves spread out to dry. It took us three days of nonstop driving to get close to Cochabamba and somewhere in the midst of the endless mountain passes, we got to river that had no bridge. We had seen that the map on our GPS showed a small gap with a stream passing through, but as there was a road on both sides, logic told us there must be a way across. When we got there, we had ample time while descending from about 3000m to see the pillars where the bridge was going to be, but for now there were only a 800m wide riverbed with intermittent 10m wide streams criss-crossing through mud, stones and pebbles. Having had one of those two-day illnesses since we left Coroico, I was just delighted about the prospective of driving through a wet riverbed. Fortunately the mud seemed hard enough as we started through and in no time we were in the middle of the riverbed. Only able to see the road exiting the valley up the mountain, we had to guess where the exit road would. We entered about a 1km north of where we guesstimated the exit and consequently Marius had to get out and walk through the cold streams for hundreds of meters to try and find the best route to get there. Driving in the water proved to be the best strategy as we would find out when we crossed over a patch of mud from one stream to the next. The tires suddenly felt like they had hit sticky toffee and soon we were stuck. Low-range with diff-locks got us out without much trouble but from here on forward we would have stick to the streams. At this point the sun was fading fast and it was getting colder pretty quick. After another long walk through cold water and mud he returned to bring bad news. He had walked to where we thought the exit would be and found no exit point! Just about at the same time a small figure appeared from behind the reeds growing on the side of the riverbed. A small man with yellow cocaleaf-stained teeth, a plastic bag full of coca leaves, a cute dog and a silly grin on his face approached. With a very indigenous dialect and two South Africans seriously lacking in average Spanish, it took some time before we understood that the exit we were looking for was actually upstream, pretty much in line from where we had started crossing. The poor Cruiser probably cursed us all the way upriver but got us safe and sound across. A sigh of relief and a few Bolivianos as thanks to cocaleaf man later we stopped for the night and thought twice since then if there was a gap in the GPS map.
The coca industry is big in Bolivia as we noted the vast numbers of indigenous people that grow these taboo plants. For most Bolivianos though, their sacred plant has nothing to do with the rest of the worlds take on the fine white powder produced from its leaves. Even President Morales, the first indigenous president, held up a coca leaf during his address to the UN in 2006 on the matter to emphasize the difference between the leaf and cocaine. To the Bolivianos, the leaf forms an intricate part of their religion and is part of the offerings made to their gods like Pachamama (Mother earth). Besides the offerings, they can drink it in the forms of a tea or chew it (as the Cocaleaf man above) as a means to aid in altitude sickness and to fight hunger and fatigue. We actually got some as a present from two other overlanders that swear by it for that “pick me up” remedy and although they swore its nothing like the drug, we couldn’t get ourselves to try it. Outside Bolivia, only one company in the US have the right to import cocaleaves which is said to be used for the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals as well as a “cocaine-free derivative” which is added to Coca Cola for the flavor. Strange to think that being caught with only one leaf in your pocket entering any other country would result in a charge of possessing a Class A drug. We’re sure it didn’t take much more than a glass of ice-cold coke though to convince some bigshot in charge of imports that coca leaves was an absolute necessity!
Sucre was a sight for sore eyes when we finally rolled in almost a week after leaving Rurrenbaque. Not so much because of the stunning white architecture the place is known for, but more so because we were a little exhausted from all the driving. In situations like this, it never fails to surprise us how Murphy would add on to an already bad day. The campsite that was supposed to be a sure thing turned out to not be available at the time and now we were stuck in a city which we already had problems navigating. Equally surprising, things sometimes work out after such an event and we were lucky to get a room for dirt cheap, with safe parking and a communal kitchen. We stayed for a few days to recuperate and then headed for Potosi but not before we ate some of Sucre’s famous saltenas (empanadas/vleispasteitjies).
If there was one place in Bolivia that would encompass all that is fascinating and tragic about the country, then Potosi would be it. At 4100m Potosi is the highest city in the world and surely seems the most inhospitable at a glance making you wonder why anyone would want to live there. The answer lies in the mountain known as Cerro Rico (Rich mountain). This mountain was without question, the richest source of silver the world had ever seen. Discovered by the Spanish in the 15th century, a chronicler wrote: “ A singular work of the power of God, unique miracle of nature, perfect and permanent wonder of the world, happiness of mortals, emperor of summits, king of the mountains, prince of all the minerals” The silver from the mine soon made Potosi one of the world’s wealthiest cities during the 17th century, with a healthy population of over 160 000 people, almost the size of London at that time. The wealth came at a price however and many of the indigenous Andeans as well as African slaves, brought in to increase production, died as a result of accidents and pneumonia. Back then, miners sometimes stayed underground for more than a week trying to meet the outrageous quotas required of them. Even outside the mine, processing of the silver involved the use of highly toxic mercury resulting in large numbers of deaths. In 1626 four thousand people died when an artificial lake collapsed and the water swept over the city. It is estimated that out of the ten men that came to work at the Potosi mine, 7 never made it home. Further estimates put the total number of people who died over the three centuries of mining at about 9 million! Although it was said that all the silver in Cerro Rico could build a bridge between Bolivia and Spain, Potosi’s glory days were numbered and by the early 19th century. The mine’s output began to decline and the drop in silver price in the mid-19th century dealt Potosi a blow that it couldn’t recover from.
Nowadays tin has taken over as the main product but little has changed with regards to the conditions the workers must work in. Smaller miner-owned cooperatives now control operations of Cerro Rico using mostly primitive mining tools and working in temperatures ranging between freezing and 46 degC (115deg F) at an altitude of over 4200m. The noxious chemicals these miners are exposed results in silicosis pneumonia (a lung disease caused by exposure to the dust of silica crystals) and they usually die 10 to 15 years after starting their job at the mine. As the mines are miner owned they have to purchase all the tools including explosives and acetylene lamps used to detect carbon monoxide gas. After seven to ten years of working in the mine, silicosis are inevitable and once you have lost 50% of your lung capacity you are eligible for a pension of US$15 a month. Should you die before that time, your family gets no compensation and this result in many of their children and wives taking up their job to try and provide for the family. Although illegal, it is estimated that in 2005 of the 9000 people that work in Cerro Rico about 1000 are children, with numbers that double during school holidays. Child miners have an average life expectancy of between 28 and 33. Women do not routinely work in the mines as they are believed to bring bad luck and that Pachamama (mother earth) would become jealous by the presence of other females. They do however pick up scraps of the minerals on the slopes excavated earth surrounding the mines.
In every mine, just beyond the rays of the sun, there is a nook where an evil –looking red creature with horns, a beard and an erect penis sits with a sinister smile. He is known as El Tio (the uncle) and no doubt owes his existence to Christianity. Yes, you read correctly. Once the discovery of silver was made and the Spaniards had moved in to collect, they saw it as their religious duty (and a means to exert control) to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. In this regard they built numerous beautiful churches of Baroque architecture, all facing south toward Cerro Rico instead of west like they normally do. With time the indigenous people accepted Christianity and hence El Tio was born. Upon hearing the Spanish priest preach about heaven and hell, the Christian indigenous people came to the conclusion that their hot, humid underground job must be the hell these priests were referring to. If so, they were in the devils’ territory and to assure their safety as well as prosperity of their hand’s labour, it would therefore be wise to please him with sacrifices and worships. These worships happen most Friday afternoons in the form of all that is regarded as evil; alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves are generously distributed between El Tio and the workers which eventually proceed to drink themselves unconscious. Occasionally blood sacrifices in the form of llamas are also made to El Tio. As one worker exclaims:”More llama blood means less miner blood”. For all their beauty and good intentions, the churches, so graciously funded by the mine owners, could not have been in bigger contradiction with the harsh, inhospitable working conditions these same owners were responsible for . No wonder it is said that although God ruled in His 34 churches of Potosi, the devil laughed in his 6000 mines.
Courtesy of Bradt Bolivia 2005
If you thought this was enough for one town, think again. Welcome to Bolivian Fight Club. Native to the northern parts of the Potosi department, the Tinku is part of a ritual taking place on 3 May every year involving rather brutal hand-to-hand combat. It can best be described as a ritualized means of discharging tensions between different indigenous communities. Festivities, that typically lasts only two days (for reasons that will become clear soon), usually start with a procession through the streets. From time to time, the group stops and forms two circles, women on the inside and men on the outside. The women proceed to chant and sing while the men run in a circle. The next minute everyone launches into a powerful stomping dance urged on by a leader who has a whip he uses on anyone he perceives not to be stomping like he should. Seems pretty harmless until you add their drink of choice, puro (rubbing alcohol,), intended to make them completely drunk in the shortest time possible. Inevitable, this intoxicating state eventually leads to social disorder and mere cursing and yelling over some quarrel you have with someone in a neighboring community becomes pushing and shoving and soon turns to all out warfare. The fight almost seems like a choreographed dance as men rhythmetically punch each others’ upper body and face with extended arms. If this does not give utterance to your deeply dissatisfied side, you are allowed to pick up rocks and throw them at your opponent, possibly causing him serious injury and sometimes even death. The death is however not the end of everyone’s world and is viewed as a part of the sacrifice made to Pachamama during the festival in hopes of a fertile year ahead. In fact it is rare for a year to go by without someone getting killed during the Tinku. Thanks to our very intricate bodily design silliness of this nature seem to fizzle themselves out within two days and for the rest of the year everybody can get along again. We could think of a few places in the world this type of festival could help relief some tension….
Finally escaping bazaar Potosi, we headed east to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Sitting at over 3600m, this 12 106sq kilometer white expanse look like a dream but can also be your worst nightmare. It consists of a solid salt cap that varies in thickness from tens of centimeters to several meters and below the surface a lake of saturated salt lies at depths of between 2m and 20m. As the centre of salt production and processing, the Salar produces as much as 20 000 tones of salt annually, with at least 18 000 tones of that going toward human consumption. Another treasure the Salar holds is lithium. In fact, 50% of the world’s lithium deposits (about 5.4 million tones) lies waiting in the Salar like a enormous safety deposit box. Although many global auto manufacturers have set their sights on this goldmine and critics claim that Bolivia does not have the technology to extract the lithium, Pres. Morales will not be phased. With lithium batteries already charging phones, cameras and laptops and the hybrid and electric vehicle industry improving technology every day, it may only be a matter of time before Bolivia comes out on top. We drove to the edge of the Salar but as soon as we got close the cruiser started switching to reverse involuntarily (he must have seen the rust on the other vehicles 😉 and so we thought it best not to drive him across the flats. Instead we took a few Salvadorian photos, checked out the train cemetery and headed to the remote southwestern corner of Bolivia.
The Southwestern corner of Bolivia comprises the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa which is about the same size as the name (7100square-kilometres) and range between 4000 and 6000m in altitude. Tormented by constant winds, this desolate, uninhabitable and frankly most difficult place we have travelled through on the entire trip, is as beautiful as it is tough. Glacial lakes, with colors ranging from green to white to red, depending on the microorganisms present and the wind speed, dotted between the vast nothingness of sand, rock and sky makes you realize how small and insignificant human beings actually are in comparison to the Earth and its workings. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular and unfortunately a photo could never do such a landscape justice. Although unfathomable for us to believe that anything could live in this harsh environment, a number of animals call this place home. These include, vicuna which seem almost unbothered by any temperature or altitude, viscachas (rabbit-like creatures), the illusive Andean fox and three different species of flamingos, one of which is a rare species found here in their greatest numbers. Interestingly, they actually get their pink color from the pink algae that they eat.
After paying your entrance fee, you’re pretty much left to your own devices (unless you come with a landcruiser tour group) and you can camp anywhere you like. We knew the area would be cold, but its safe to say that nothing can prepare you for the cold you experience in this part of the world. Within minutes of the sun setting, things start freezing around you. The water used for washing dishes ten minutes ago, have now formed ice crystals along with anything else that was liquid. No amount of clothes (including minus degree down jackets) can keep you warm outside, and after the first night we realized that we had to be inside the tent by the time the sun set. Although we slept warm it was impossible to get out of the tent before the sun rose as you couldn’t do anything with your icy fingers. This resulted in 12 hour nights proving painfully unnecessary at an altitude of over 4000m and an annoying noisy wind that makes it impossible to keep sleeping. If we thought a little coffee would make the world seem right, we had to think again. All the water in the tanks and in the waterbottle is frozen until at least 11am in the morning. No washing your face to welcome the new day, no brushing your teeth, not even washing your hands (not that you really want to because then they feel like they want to fall off for the next 30min). Harsh does not begin to describe this wonderland and with temperatures dropping as low as -15deg C in the summer we got the hell out of there after a mere three days which we reckon is a record if your unable to get inside your vehicle.
It seems that although Bolivia is not really known for its new beginnings, it’s a country where a number of dreams came to an end. Indeed it was here that the infamous, Argentinian born, poster child for South America, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (better known as Che Guevara) revolted against the “evil” US imperialists for the last time. Once part of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, Che set his sights on Bolivia in 1966 hoping to create a guerrilla movement that would spread to the neighboring countries and eventually a socialist revolution throughout the continent. Basing himself in the Santa Cruz area between the proposed oppressed local campesinos (subsistence farmers), he was met only by suspicion instead of them realizing they were in the presence of a legend. He didn’t manage to get a lot of support for his social rebellion and some quick thinking by the then president of Bolivia sealed the deal In October of 1967 Che came to his end after being captured by US-trained Bolivian army rangers. Only in Bolivia you have a chance to get killed even if you’re trying to help.
Two other fallen heroes/villains, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, also met their match in Bolivia. After fleeing from the US to South America at the turn of the 19th century, following a streak of robberies and a manhunt involving UK detectives, Butch and the Sundance kid eventually decided to become farmers in the lowlands of the Santa Cruz area of Bolivia. In an attempt to finance this new dream, they planned one final robbery that would last them a lifetime. They intercepted a convoy transporting the payroll for a mining company located in Tupiza, Bolivia and peacefully relieved the transporter of US$90 000, a figure four times less than what they expected it to be. With half of Bolivia (including angry miners whose pay had been stolen) on their tracks Butch and Sundance tried to flee north to Uyuni and was caught off guard by military patrol while spending the night at a village on the way. A shootout ensued and in the morning both men were dead, Butch having apparently shot his wounded friend before turning the gun on himself. Stories later surfaced that none of this ever happened and that they both returned US and lived happily ever after. In fact, they were buried in an unmarked grave and upon attempting to put the mystery to bed, a forensic team exhumed the bodies but could found only one body confirmed to belong to a German miner named Gustav Zimmer…. Who knows! Good story though..
For one of the smallest countries in South America, I sure managed to write a lot about it. Ironically, it was the country we loathed the most whilst visiting, but we’re sure to look back on it as one of our favorites. If President Morales would rethink his fuel price hike applying to foreigners only (after the whole country came up in arms when it applied to everybody), and if the visa policy would be a little more lenient on the amount of days they give you, more overlanders would love to drive to the remote places in the country of which there is so few left in the world. Throw in a few friendly public toilets (and people) and we might just consider it a tourist destination in its own right! So to conclude our travels through mysterious Bolivia, I leave you with this question: Can Bolivia be the real Atlantis?
In his quest to find Atlantis, the author Dr. James Allen, thinks he may have finally connected all the dots. In order to consider a site as a possibility for the mythical city, the site must conform to at least some aspects of Plato’s geographic description. First he said that Atlantis was the size of Libya and Asia combined and that it lay in the Atlantic Ocean opposite the Pillars of Herculas (better known as the Straits of Gibraltar). For those like me who don’t know the Straits of Gibraltar, it is the small gap of water between Spain and the top of the African continent. So how does that come close to Bolivia? Plato mentioned that Atlantis sank in a day and night following earthquakes and floods. Modern geology tells us that it is impossible for an entire continent to sink in one day, and hence the continent must still be here. The name of this continent lying in the Atlantic ocean across (?) the Straits of Gibraltar is South America. But if the continent is still there, what sank according to Plato’s description?
According to the Dr. the answer is simple: Plato described the capital of Atlantis as a small round volcano, which was in fact the only part of the continent to sink into a large inland sea located at the centre of the continent. His belief is that the large lake just north of Salar de Uyuni called Lake Poopo represents this sea whilst the small island of Cerro Santa Pedros Villca to the south of lake, the island capital. Furthermore, Plato tells that a large plain sits in the centre of this continent, next to the sea. The plain is also in the centre of the longest side of the continent, enclosed by mountains, is high above sea level, perfectly level and has the shape of a quadrangle, rectilinear and elongated. All of which are apparently a perfect description of Bolivia’s antiplano with the ruined volcanic island which has been sunk by earthquakes and covered in sediments since submerged by the sea. The main characteristic of Atlantis according to Plato, was a centre island surrounded by two rings of land and three of water. The author claims that even these can also be seen in the area today. Seems possible, but then again, why bother with the location of Atlantis! All things considered however, it comes as no surprise to us that if something had to be responsible for the Atlantis’s end…Bolivia would be it!