Puno, Lake Titicaca, Copacabana, Isla del Sol, La Paz, Corioco, Oruro, Uyuni, Salar de Uyuni, Potosi, Sucre, Puerto Suarez
OUR FAVORITE SOUTH AMERICAN COUNTRY
Bolivia doesn't have a world-famous attraction such as Ecuador's Galapagos Islands or Peru's Machu Picchu, but this country was our favorite of the seven we visited in South America. The people are 70% indigenous, the highest percentage of the countries we visited, so their colorful traditions and handicrafts were more apparent here than elsewhere. The scenery in southwestern Bolivia was surreal - with stark salt flats, geysers and fantastic mountains. Potosi's marvelous museums, handsome architecture and the Cerro Rico silver mine provided a vivid microcosm of the history of South America as a whole - the conquistadores and church, Spanish aristocracy and poor Amerindian peons, wealthy mine owners and African slaves, and the head-long exploitation of natural resources. Our visit to an indigenous home in Sucre showed us one of the results of this history, and gave us a poignant glimpse into the family values and poverty of the Andes. It was one of the highlights of our entire trip.
Dried llama fetuses
stuck out of jars in shops on either side of our hotel in the Mercado de
Hechiceria (Witches' Market) in
HIGH IN THE ANDES
At 12,000 feet, La Paz is the
highest city of its size the world; it fills a huge, bowl-shaped valley in the
Andes and spills over the rim onto the plains above. Although
poorly organized, chaotic and filled with blocky structures from the 1950s,
FOUR DAYS IN A JEEP
We bumped back into the desert
The trip itself was up and down - literally and figuratively. We bounced 600 miles on a rutted, dirt track - mostly on roughly the same schedule as 30 other Toyota Land Cruisers, each holding a) an indigenous male driver, b) an indigenous female cook, c) six backpackers of assorted nationalities and genders, mostly under 35. The colors of the landscape were worth all the jouncing - a superb palette of lavender, mustard, cinnamon and blue-gray - with a red lake and a green lake thrown in for good measure. Each jeep traveled in a separate cloud of dust through a vast open space of salt flats, past weird rock formations, pink flamingos, short-eared/long-tailed vizcachas (rabbits) and quizzical llamas. The geometry of the salt flats was amazing. (Below, the floor, walls and furniture of a salt hotel we visited are made of rock-hard salt!)
Our three nights on the tour were spent in primitive lodgings. We arrived at an adobe village and entered a compound where two jeep-loads of travelers would spend the first night. Joan told the woman who welcomed us that we'd like a double. Hah! She led us to a room with nine beds and a small adjoining bathroom with no lock on the door. The woman quickly assured us, however, that "only" the six travelers from our jeep would be in this room! So there we were: a young French woman with her Peruvian boyfriend, a young Spanish woman, a 20-year-old German guy and the two of us - and all our backpacks!! The lights and hot water came on at six-thirty p.m. and went off at nine p.m. No electricity in the morning, so we dressed and packed by flashlight. This was the best accommodation of our three nights. Below is Dominic, the German pre-med student, pretending to be Gary Cooper in "High Noon" - in a Bolivian village!
The second night the hotel looked like a cement block concentration camp and our room was a quarter the size of the first. To reach the unisex bathroom, we had to stumble along a below-freezing hallway in the black of night. To flush the toilet, we scooped a bucket of water from the five-gallon drum outside. Our room had four two-tier metal bunk beds. The slightest movement sent the bunks to squeaking. We squeaked all night - especially Lou, who climbed noisily back into his upper bunk about 3 a.m. and made so much noise that Joan in the bunk below thought he was rowing a metal boat. Lots of muffled laughter on his part. He later said that he "couldn't find the beginning" - as our then-six-year-old daughter Shanna wailed one night during a camping trip when she couldn't figure out how to get back into her sleeping bag.
The next morning our jeep climbed the stark mountains in a light snow to 15,000 feet, where suddenly we came upon billowing geysers. We lolled about in a warm thermal pool (well, a dammed-up spot in the creek that was maybe a foot deep), then made a frantic dash to get dressed again in the frigid air.
That day we traveled among volcanoes - some still considered active - in a moonscape of rock formations and strange vegetation. Joan sat on a big green "blob" that we later learned is yareta - an endangered plant that grows only 1 mm per year. The blob was about 1200 years old. Yikes! Fortunately, it was rock hard and she probably rubbed off only about six months' growth. In one dusty town we encountered an orphaned vicuna being raised by villagers, who was afraid of the rest of us but decided Lou was his papa and nuzzled happily in his bushy beard.
Overall, this jeep trip was great. The landscape was surreal, the colors gorgeous and the experiences interesting. It was well worth the discomfort....really!
DESCENT INTO HELL
(LOU'S STORY): Crawling commando-style through a
dark, stifling, 18-inch high tunnel on the deepest level of
the Cerro Rico mines of
Men labor in the Potosi silver mines under hellish working conditions. And for what? A new miner can expect to earn about 20 cents an hour during an eleven-hour day. After five years, he might make 30 cents an hour. Like playing the lottery, there's always the long shot that he might strike a big seam of silver. Two brothers who had recently sacrificed human fetuses hit a rich vein worth $30,000 per week. Apparently El Tio, the devil who owns the mines according to Quechua tradition, prefers human to llama fetuses.
But for most
miners this is not a place of sudden riches but of lingering death - they normally die of silicosis pneumonia within ten years of entering
the mines. The mines themselves are a disaster waiting to happen.
There are no safety regulations and no ventilation. Dynamite is exploded in this Swiss cheese mountain whenever and wherever without warning. The miners, who have staked out tenuous private property rights, sometimes have ownership disputes. Twice in the last six years, personal conflicts have escalated into dynamite-throwing underground wars. There's little wooden framework to support the tunnels; it's only a matter of time
before the next cave-in entombs some hapless miners - or tourists. As bad as
conditions are, before 1825 they were worse, - when the Spanish controlled the
mines. As the saying goes "The Spanish came holding a cross
in front of them and a whip behind their back." They forced Indians and
African slaves into the
I went into the mines with a small group and a guide. We walked into the mountain through a horizontal tunnel for perhaps 500 meters, occasionally stepping aside for struggling men pushing trolleys heaped with tons of rock. Near the end of this level, we lost the first member of our group to claustrophobia. We crawled on hands and knees through several tight passages down to the second level, where the air was incredibly bad. Descending to the third level required more commando-style crawling - once for about 150 feet. Although the air quality improved, the next long passage required severe crouching and another member of our group left. We were down to five.
The reward for reaching the end of this passage was a party in honor of El Tio (above, right.) Seven miners sat with us in a tiny space too tight for standing. Our group had brought them gifts: dynamite, coca leaves, cigarettes, soft drinks and 96-proof alcohol. One of the miners filled a bottle cap with alcohol, spilled a tad on the ground twice - for El Tio and for Pachamama (the Earth Mother) - and chugged the remainder. Then each of us - miners and visitors alike - participated in the ritual for several rounds. Meanwhile, our group talked with the miners in halting Spanish. The miner next to me was 15-year-old Luis, who is likely to be dead before he's 30.
The party was suddenly interrupted when yelling men rushed in from either side of us. Noxious fumes filled the air. Two miners broke through the center of our party pulling a heavy-duty vacuum hose and knocking us every which way. Our guide Pedro invoked the Dave Barry command: "Remain calm" - and then "Vamos!" and we were outta there. I didn't duck-walk this time, I duck-RAN through the 200 meters of tunnel. I was so gaspingly out of breath this time, I thought I just might possibly die.
Afterward, we came to a dark vertical shaft leading down to the fourth and final level, where a few miners were exploring for new veins. Two more people dropped out of our group. I went first down a vertical shaft, followed by two 20-year-olds and our 25-year-old guide. The first ten feet I had to find hand and toe holds in the rock face. At the top of the 20-foot ladder, my muddy hands and rubber boots provided no grip on the well-worn rungs. This was scary because it was a 25-foot fall from here to the rocky bottom. But I hung on and swung from the bottom rung six feet to the floor. From there it was another 120 feet of commando-crawling into a cavern where we watched a man hammering a chisel into the wall, preparing a place to plant dynamite for the next blast. As we left him there, I thought about how he would finish his 11-hour workday and be back at 6 a.m. the next day to chisel away at his dungeon wall. But I won't be back. Ever.
(In the photo below, I'm holding dynamite with a six-second fuse. One second after the photo was taken, I hurriedly gave the dynamite to our guide who threw it over the edge of the hill.)
Note from Joan: Although he staggered back to our hotel room dirty, dazed and exhausted, this adventure apparently hasn't quite cured Lou of his need to challenge himself. Getting cheers as he emerged from the mine from the rest of the group (all of them 40 or 50 years younger) certainly didn't dampen his enthusiasm. But he did go face down for a long nap afterward!
UNESCO website on
the plight of
We really liked Potosi - a fascinating city with two of the best museums we saw in South America, including the beautiful old mint. We enjoyed looking at the colorful buildings as we walked along the streets, and climbed to the top of a church (below, right) to see its handsome roof tile. Eventually, the high altitude of Potosi (13,300 feet) got to Joan - who had trouble sleeping, walking or even eating. After six days of her misery, we took a bus down to Sucre - "only" 9,500 feet high. This seemed like sea level to Joan, who was able to almost run up the hills again!
A family of four came into the cafe wearing brightly striped ponchos and feathered hats. They strummed a charango (10-stringed Peruvian guitar), beat drums, blew panpipes, shook rattles, sang, and danced their traditional Quechua music, passed a hat for donations and left. Because Joan had given them a "big" tip of ten bolivianos ($1.25), the father returned in a few minutes, came to our table and asked us to visit the family home in a nearby pueblo. Although his motive was clearly monetary, he was so sweet and the opportunity to visit an indigenous home so rare that we accepted.
A few days later,
we took a bus to the small pueblo (village) just outside
EIGHT children and their two parents live in this one room! (There are actually ten children in the family, ages 24 to 2, but the two oldest have moved out.) We met Jesus, Mercedes, Daniela, Pedro, Carmen, Sarah, Nieves and little Diego. The mother, Señora Nieves, had almost no teeth; the father, Señor Pedro, was missing one large tooth in front, plus a few more. The entire family was raggedy and rather dirty. The three smallest girls (below) shared a single naked Barbie-type doll.... whose legs were missing.
While the father and three oldest children went outside to get into their traditional costumes, the mother lit a small campfire in the yard where she fried two eggs in oil and made them into sandwiches with cheap bread. She served these along with a Bolivian imitation "Coke" to us honored guests. We shared our soda with the children; six-year-old Pedro took charge of carefully doling it out to the others. The smallest children cuddled up to us - holding our hands, leaning against us and examining our hair, hands, shoes, clothing and Lou's alarm watch. The four musicians in the family got into their traditional costumes and put on an hour-long concert of Quechua music just for us. Lou took lots of digital photos of everyone. (It shocked us to realize that they have only two or three family photographs - and none of the younger children. Later we mailed prints to them.) Don Pedro taught Lou a couple of chords on his charango. We gave him a 100 Boliviano note ($12) "for the family" which he immediately gave to his wife. (They probably lived off this small amount for the next two weeks.)Then they walked us down the dirt road to catch a bus back to town, kissed us and waved energetic goodbyes. Quite a morning!
Afterward, we had a
delayed reaction. Had we seen "family values" at their best - or at
While we were there, the five youngest kids squatted on the cement floor like so many hungry puppies and ate hunks of bread moistened by egg-oil drippings from the frying pan. The children's teeth were rotting; they probably had never seen a toothbrush. Why would "loving" parents have more and more children when they can't adequately feed, house, clothe or educate them? The problem isn't lack of love or concern on the part of these parents - we could see and feel their love for their well-behaved children. The real problem is a tangled web of conflicting values and needs that exists throughout the Andes:
is the poorest country in South America
- 70% of the
population lives in poverty
- 70% of the population is indigenous (largely over-lapping the above)
- 40% of the population is under 15 (imagine when each of the girls has 10 kids!)
- the country is deeply in debt and has few good jobs to offer unemployed adults - let alone the coming tidal wave of the next generation
- the Bolivian government does not allow sex education, birth control or abortions (even if the mother's life is in danger) partly because it isn't powerful enough to resist the dictates of the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, this is NOT just a picture of Bolivia - it is a picture of much of Latin America. It's hard to see what will stem this on-rushing tidal wave of human beings except the usual poverty-illiteracy-disease-famine-pollution-war cycle that over-population inevitably brings.
A few weeks later in Buenos Aires, we had dinner with a woman who had just returned from a feminist conference of 10,000 Argentinean women. We asked her about the various topics, and she replied that it was mainly ONE topic: the in-ability of women to protect and control their own bodies due to the power of the church. Sex education in much of Latin America is almost non-existent and it's difficult to obtain condoms. (HIV-AIDS is on the rise as a result.) There are many unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, and many deaths from botched illegal abortions. Rape is considered a "private matter" between two individuals, rather than a social problem, and rape is not accepted as a justifiable condition for abortion. Fortunately, we Americans have Constitutional separation of church and state, protection for women and sex education. Our population is under control. Religious fundamentalists often talk about "family values", but population control is an important way to value the family.
On a brighter note, South America is full of colorful pagentry. While we were in Sucre we watched a parade of wildly decorated cars clog the streets on the way to their annual blessing at the cathedral. This decoration included gold jewelry, stuffed animals, silver bowls, woven ponchos, lace tablecloths, fake $100 bills, fruit and vegetables, plastic cars, framed pictures of the Virgin Mary and vases of flowers. In another parade that lasted all day and half the night, outrageously decorated dancers wore fantastic costumes and masks, and some pranced and clanked by us on belled boots.
The internationally-renowned La Diablada parades and ceremonies are held in Oruro on the Saturday-Monday before Ash Wednesday. Since we were there in August, we had to content ourselves with buying two diablo masks (the larger one is shown below, left.) We were delighted to buy them from the man who made them - a third-generation mask maker. We saw the mask on the right in a Sucre parade.
VENUS OF THE SHATTERED GLASS
It started at 5:30 a.m., when the two English guys who lived in bedrooms just across the hall came in barracho (plastered.) We lived in very close proximity to these 25-somethings with 13-year-old brains, and had been arising quietly every morning, whispering and opening and closing our door softly so they could sleep off their nightly hangovers. (You can see that this was a perfect set-up for the display of self-righteous indignation to come!) The two drunks came into the guesthouse talking loudly, laughing and banging doors more boisterously than usual. They soon went to sleep, but Joan lay wide-awake and FUMED for the next two hours! Suddenly, Lou was half-awakened by the uncharacteristic slamming of our bedroom door. Hmmmm. Joan must have gone to the bathroom. SLAM! That must be the bathroom door. He dozed off.
Joan enjoyed slamming those two doors. Very much. Why should the drunks sleep if she couldn't? Just for good measure, when she returned to our room (forgetting that behind the black paper covering the door was a large glass pane) she wound up and slammed the door so hard that glass shattered into the hall, the two bathrooms, an anteroom and under the dining room table 20 feet down the hall! She concluded her performance by running out into the hall bare-ass naked to assess the damage. It's a wonder the two guys didn't come out, too. Joan says she wouldn't have cared if they had.
Two people did come, however. Alarmed by the loud crash, Vicky (the guesthouse owner) and Patti (the sweet housekeeper) arrived just as Joan sallied forth in all her glory - the "Venus of the Broken Glass." (They told us later they thought we were having a world-class marital fight!) Joan took awhile to calm down so she could remember enough Spanish to explain, and then everyone was very understanding. We all pitched in and cleaned up the mess - as noisily as possible. Vicky invited us across the courtyard to the family quarters for breakfast. We spent our last two nights there in one of the family bedrooms. Vicky assured us "Mi casa es tu casa." Since Vicky has a good sense of humor, Joan looked around at her windows and glass doors and asked slyly, "Y tus vidrios son mis vidrios?"
IN SELF DEFENSE
(JOAN): O.K. So I probably over-reacted. Maybe being homeless for more than five years and on the road for three of them, and without much quiet or privacy for three weeks before this outburst made me more than a little loco. It was the proverbial last straw. But I'm fine, now, thank you. I'm fine...I'm fine...really and truly fine....really.....fi... (The photo below shows how prickly I'd become by this point!)
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOKS: South America Handbook (Footprints); Bolivia (Lonely Planet); South America on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet)
BACKGROUND READING: Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano; In Bolivia, Eric Lawlor
FILM: Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid
LA PAZ: Hotel Majestic is in the Witches' Market at 359 Santa Cruz near corner of Linares. Clean, comfortable doubles with private bath $25/night. Ignore the bland (included) breakfast and head for Alexander Café a few blocks away, which serves outstanding coffee and pastries – rare in the Andes. Other La Paz hotels: www.boliviacontact.com/hoteles/lapaz/
Angelo Colonial Restaurant: 922 Linares. Very good candlelight dinners in romantic rooms filled with rustic antiques.
Museo de la Coca: 906 Linares This fascinating small museum traces the history of coca: traditional, medicinal and soft drink uses, present-day attempts by the U.S. to eradicate this crop from which cocaine is made.
ORURO: A four-block area on Avenue La Paz (between Leon and Belzu) holds numerous mask and costume shops where local people create and rent out fantastic garb for festivals.
UYUNI: Tonito Hotel: Pleasant, comfortable doubles with private bath $30/night. Downstairs is the best pizzeria in South America - owned by an ex-pat from New Hampshire! www.bolivianexpeditions.com/hotel.htm
SALAR DE UYUNI: Tonito Tours (reserve in advance from La Paz for the same price as in Uyuni $85 per person for the four-day, three-night tour, which includes jeep, driver, cook, three meals a day and very basic lodging. www.bolivianexpeditions.com/
POTOSI: Hotel Jerusalen 143 Oruro Comfortable doubles with private bath and breakfast $25/night. firstname.lastname@example.org
Cerro Rico silver mine: Koala Tours www.koalatoursbolivia.com/ $10 per person
SUCRE: Museo Textil-Etnografico has excellent displays of regional weavings with imaginative pre-Columbian motifs; good museum shop www.bolivianet.com/asur/museoin.htm
Dinosaur Tracks Tour: Huge dinosaur tracks near Sucre have been scientifically verified and will soon be a UNESCO World Heritage site. Catch a Dino Truck tour in front of cathedral in the main plaza ($3.50) Joan's hand (below) is next to a dinosaur footprint!
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com