We crossed into Bolivia, following the shore of Lake Titicaca by bus. Reed-yellow landscapes, angular vilages and scrubby hilltops interspersed views of the blue lake.
At Tiquina, the bus pulled up next to the lakeside and we were ushered out. Here, the main route to La Paz crosses the Tiquna Strait, a narrow section of Lake Titicaca. We followed the other passengers in buying passenger tickets across the strait, watching in wonder as other buses were driven across planks onto wooden flatbed boats which were poled away from the shore.
At the other side in San Pablo, the waterfront was a buzz of activity – buses and lorries lined up awaiting their ferry in the other direction; half a dozen of the scow-shaped flatbeds lay moored bow on to rock-and-wood ramps on the shore, some being poled, pushed, pulled or driven by a meagre single outboard motor, rigged through a fourareen-style ‘well’, into position.
The fact that we had to cross by different means than our bus made me wonder how many lorries and buses lie at the bottom of the Tiquina Strait! Today, however, these expert boat-handlers, masters at achieving much with little, got our bus and the other vehicles safely into position and across the strait with skill, laughs and good-natured shouts.
Back aboard and after several hours driving across the flat altiplano, we reached El Alto – (which translates directly to ‘Da Heights’ in Shetland). From this bustling, busy city of almost a million, perched right by the chasm that drops off towards the ‘skyscrapers’ of La Paz, we saw the famous flagship Teleferico – the cable-car public transport system that apparently moves over 240,000 people per day across the plateau of El Alto and the vertical city of La Paz.
La Paz is bustling, steep and vibrant. A taxi took us to our hostel in the heart of the area known as the ‘Mercado de las Brujas’ or ‘witches’ market’, on a steep street that leads down to the basilica of San Francisco; the flat-capped driver nodding his own impressions of Scotland en-route – a love of freedom, music and whisky, kilt-wearing and brave… at least the stereotypes are positive ones!
From here it took little more than an hour to sling our way across town and up to the Villa Fátima district by cable-car. Here, outside the office of the Trans Totai company, the roof of a battered and muddy bus was being loaded high with bags of cargo and tarpaulins, bound for the jungle within two or three hours. With seats secured aboard the following day’s bus, Ash and I made our way back to our end of town, where we bought some rock talismans from a Graciela, the shelves of her shop crammed high with herbal teas, remedies, charms, carvings and colourful objects, each imbued with its own meaning.
The bus pulled out and chugged up the hill amid the tooting traffic; we were settled in for the long haul, with trave time estimated at between twelve and eighteen hours, depending on the weather and the condition of the roads. Had we taken this trip sixteen years ago, it would have wound up the Yungas Road from La Paz. Now, a new road has replaced this stretch that was once known as the ‘Death Road’, once one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Clouds filled the valleys and mountain peaks rose starkly against the sinking sun.
Once clear of the city we still climbed and switchbacked our way up and down the side of mountains, death road or no death road, stopping regularly for long minutes as we allowed traffic to pass in the other direction or negotiated crumbling road surfaces, before moving off again with a twisting motion that continued after dark and into the night. In the early hours, the temperature began to rise and the movement finally settled as we descended the east slopes of the Andes.
We were lucky – a little over twelve hours after leaving La Paz, our bus pulled into the terminal in Rurrenabaque. It was 5am, and pitch dark – the sounds of jungle birds mixed with barking dogs surrounded us as we walked through the growing dawn, and growing heat, into town.
Rurrenabaque, a small town of a few thousand inhabitants, is a gateway to many of the densest jungle areas of Bolivia. The Beni river winds north through the town, towards regions where tribes live with little contact with the outside world, flowing into Brazil and eventually finding its way to the Amazon east of Manaus. To the west is the Madidi ecological reserve, one of Bolivia’s richest areas of wildlife and untouched forest. But it was on a different river, the Yucama, that we learned the most about this region.
Elvis was twelve years old when he learned there was another Elvis, a musician from overseas. His family is from a tribal village far from any roads or communication with the outside world, barring the river, which could bring a boat to the bright lights of Rurranabaque within three or four days travel. He grew up hunting monkeys with bow and arrow, or piranhas with spear, unaware of his famous namesake. Now he carries tourists on boat trips on the river Yucama.
Elvis shows off a brace of Piranhas
These boats, long enough for about 10 people to sit two abreast, have a lower part dug out of a single large tree; bulwarks are attached to give freeboard, stiffened by wedge-shaped ribs, and sealed with pitch tar. An outboard motor on the stern is ubiquitous.
We motored through the opaque coffee-brown water, shocked at first to see alligators, and their larger, meaner cousins the cayman, taking the shade under trees by the river banks. Small turtles swam along with their heads held high – or stacked themselves like tiddlywinks on semi-submerged branches. Vultures waited by the river banks; Herons stood sentinel – herons like I’ve never seen, at least four different species of them, ranging in colour from white to a vivid blue. Families of Capibara browsed or wallowed; capuchin monkeys swarmed through the trees watching us go by. The next morning I was woken at dawn by the sound of the jungle coming to life around us – howler monkeys marking their territory with a blood-curdling roars, birds waking, cicadas hissing. I stood for half an hour recording this incredible chorus.
Elvis’s tribe still lives a very traditional life downriver, he told me. It was a great place to grow up, he says – perfectly safe, despite the jaguars that prowl the jungle around, despite the caymans and other wild creatures. They fish there – not with hooks, he told me, but with meat-laden bones that can be pulled out of the water, dozens of avid piranhas still attached by the teeth. Hunting is forbidden in Bolivia but is allowed for tribes living a traditional life; children grow up with bow and arrow, but go to school in Rurrenabaque when they reach age twelve, which is very hard – their families can come and visit but it’s not easy, generally only once or twice a year. Most children return to the village once they finish their schooling.
He does not think the Beni river dam project, championed by President Evo Morales and still under consideration by the current government, will go ahead. “It would cover this whole valley”, he told me. “All the tourism would be gone; Rurrenabaque itself would be finished. The pink dolphins would go extinct. Six tribes would lose their entire historic lands. There’s much opposition.” I hope he’s right.
Our next stop in Bolivia was Cochabamba; the journey was going well, until the moment when it wasn’t.
Our comfortable bus wound through eight hours of flat roads across the altiplano; then, as we started to descend, about two hours from our destination, the driver pulled over. “The air compressor has failed”, he told the forty or so passengers. “No air means no brakes; so we have to stop here; you all have to get off the bus. Maybe another fleet will be able to take you to Cochabamba”.
Some passengers were furious; one man seemed on the verge of punching the driver. We lugged our packs across the road to join another group of passengers who were already starting to hitch. A lorry pulled over and the driver opened the tail door just in time; it was starting to rain.
Soon Ash and I were seated in the lower level of a stock trailer with ten Bolivian passengers. Some of them looked cold; rain started to blow through the slatted sides of the trailer. We dug through our packs and dished out anything we could find – a rain jacket for the old man to my left; a ground mat to cover the backs of three people seated on the other side; another ground mat for a lady to sit on. Rain dripped through the gaps between the boards above, and we laughed with our fellow passengers at the absurdity of our transport. But once we reached our hostel at Cochabamba that night, I spent three hours scrubbing our packs, ground sheets, rain coats, guitar case; and threw away my hat, all permeated with the smell of the sheep that had trickled down with the rain from above.
From Cochabamba we travelled to Sucre, the constitutional capital, most memorable to us for its incredible Christmas-lit Plaza de Armas (main square) with Christmas dinosaurs, crowds of people, food vendors, Spanish rap-battles and traditional music groups; then onwards (and upwards) to the town of Potosí, at the head-spinning altitude of 4,100 metres.
In Potosí we fell asleep to crashing thunder and the sound of rain lashing out of the darkness against the single-glazed windows of our chilly colonial-era tower room. A few hours later, at dawn, we awoke to the sound of dynamite echoing through the hills.
The famed Atlantic treasure fleets; the ‘Manila Galleons’ in the Pacific; the world’s first global currency; and one of the earliest examples of European brutality in the New World all stemmed from this place. Named the ‘Cerro Rico’ (Rich Hill) by the Spanish, and the ‘Mountain that Eats Men’ by the native population, over 40 megatonnes of silver were taken from the mines here between 1545 and 1800. Some estimates suggest that the number of indigenous forced or enslaved labourers who died at the mines during the same period number into the millions.
The silver brought out was forged into coins at the Potosí mint, each with a value of eight Spanish reales – the famous ‘Pieces of Eight’ that were familiar to every Chinese silk trader, Dutch or British privateer, and even to Long John Silver’s parrot; that went down with Armada ships on the Scottish coast, that purchased spices in Indonesia, ivory in India and elevated the rulers of Spain to possibly the most powerful in the world.
We had arranged a visit to the mines, although I was suffering with a headache from the altitude. Sol, our guide, introduced herself; about five-foot zero tall, she smiled when we first arrived but a very direct manner took over as she kitted out Ash, me and the Peruvian couple who were also coming along with welly boots, waterproof trousers and jacket, helmet and miner’s lamp.
In the miners’ market, she bartered in Quechua with stall holders, buying (on our behalf) gifts of coca leaves and soft drinks to grease the wheels with the miners. Then we made for the mountain.
Sol and Ash at the mine entrance
Pausing to allow a couple of mine carts to rush by, Sol led us through the mine entrance and into the mountain. Soon the only light came from the lamps worn by the five of us. We followed branching rail lines deeper and deeper; occasionally a rumbling sound would indicate the approach of another cart and we stepped aside to let it pass. Sol was clearly a match for any miner here – she explained to us the process of buying a claim (the miners here are all self-employed, working for a co-operative); of finding a seam, digging it out, bringing it to the surface. She strode through the mud, greeted miners and joked with them, passed packets of coca leaves or bottles of coke where appropriate (most miners clearly had a cheek full of coca leaves), and sat down and chatted with favourites Miguel and Jorge. She showed us shafts and chutes and answered all my questions with a clear pride and respect for the miners.
“Now I will take you to the ‘tío’, the guard of the mine,” she said. ‘Tío’ is Spanish for uncle, and I wondered what she meant; but she soon explained. When the mine was first dug, the Spanish forbade the indigenous population from worshipping any god but the Christian god. “Named díos”, she said; “But the language here has no sound of ‘d’, so the name of the god changed to ‘tíos’, then ‘tío’.
“The first miners here were enslaved”, she went on; “often they were not allowed to leave the mine for months at a time. Many died. So they built the tío, to keep them safe. And here he is.” The tío sat at the end of the chamber, a grotesque idol with runny-egg face of red, blue and black, apparently in a crouching position, with enormous protruding penis; almost covered in offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes and bottles of the 90-percent alcohol spirit sold at the miners’ market. The face is original, she told me, dating incredibly back to the early days of the mine; the body has been rebuilt.
Sol laid down some coca leaves; tidied up some plastic bottles around the feet of the tío; then opened a small bottle of the alcohol, pouring some over the body of the idol before taking a small swig herself. She offered some to me – it burned in a very cheering sort of way.
Back in the daylight, and in the town, my battle with altitude didn’t feel so bad. We went out, met some Potosians drinking aguardiente and coke. Soon we would move on to the remote southern corner of Bolivia, exploring mountains and salt plains, headed towards the Chilean border; tonight we celebrated life, music and conversation in good if slightly drunken company!