FIVE WEEKS in BOLIVIA
AUGUST 19 to SEPTEMBER 24, 2001
Text and Photos Copyright ©2001 Mark E. Halliday
POTOSI - CHUTILLOS FESTIVAL
SUCRE - DINOSAUR TRACKS
SALAR de UYUNI
SAN JOSE de CHIQUITOS
EL FUERTE - SAMAIPATA
LA PAZ - Sunday August 19:
Leaving Miami, the American Airlines pilot gave the La Paz weather report: Snow Flurries.
La Paz has the highest airport in the world.
Airplanes land at twice the normal speed due to thin air at 12,000 feet.
Aircraft must be specially certified for La Paz, with special tires.
A street march that night:
people carrying posters of "disappeared" Bolivians.
Thursday August 23:
The Chutillos festival in Potosi was about to begin.
I flew to Sucre ($70).
I planned to buy a Bolivia Air Pass, but the price went from $180 to $300.
It was cheaper to buy one-way tickets!
The flight crossed the Andes with good views of Mount Illiamni.
Landing in Sucre, I took a collectivo taxi ($5) for the three hour drive to Potosi.
This is one of the few good roads in Bolivia.
It crosses the Rio Pilcomayo, a major route for the early Spaniards.
Two weeks later I would see the Rio Pilcomayo again:
Between Villamontes and Tarija it drops into the eastern Bolivian plains through a dramatic gorge.
The TINGKU is a radical fight event popular in the Bolivian altiplano.
The locals come to town and get really drunk.
They have very bloody fist fights, sometimes to the death.
I didn't see a Tingku, but the event is described in a recent OUTSIDE magazine story.
This poster is unusual:
it promotes Tingku as a Potosi cultural heritage, and reminds citizens to put trash in trashcans, not in the street!
The most famous mountain in Bolivia, seen on Bolivian money and coins.
The richest silver mine in the Spanish empire,
this mountain changed the history of Bolivia.
CHUTILLOS FESTIVAL (Fiesta de San Bartolome') - POTOSI
AUGUST 24-26, 2001
This is three day festival.
First Day: Chutillo.
Second Day: Majtillo.
Third Day: Thapuquillo
I took a collectivo microbus from the Potosi market to "La Puerta", on the road to Oruro.
La Puerta is the mouth of this canyon, the main entrance to Potosi.
We crossed this stream to get to the festival site.
Note the thick gray sediment in the river from
mine tailings around Cerro Rico.
People climb this hill to "La Cueva del Diablo"
They carry Saints up there each year on Chutillo festival day to keep the devil from coming out.
The Saints are brought down to the
La Puerta church in a procession.
Musical groups pass through in a parade
CASA de MONEDA - POTOSI
SATURDAY AUGUST 25:
In the morning I take a tour of the Casa Moneda - the Spanish Royal mint for all the silver produced from Cerro Rico.
Now it contains one of the best museums in Latin America.
Strange mask of BACCHUS
above the first courtyard.
Painting illustrating the history of Potosi.
The Cerro Rico mountain is represented as a madonna.
Detailed figures illustrate the discovery and mining areas of the mountain.
Horse-powered rolling mills were imported from Spain.
A central column drops down from the large wheels to the floor below.
Animals walk in a circle powering the rolling mills which flatten silver strips to the desired thickness.
Guide demonstrates original Strongbox for safeguarding silver pesos.
An elaborate system of levers in the lid closes the box securely.
Dies for stamping of silver pesos.
A religious figure wearing shorts?
After the Casa de Moneda tour,
I have a Llama cutlet for lunch.
Now the Second Day festival was passing through the streets.
Procession from the central plaza
to the San Francisco church.
Decorated cars in the streets.
At the end of the procession,
the costumed dancers go inside the San Francisco church
and receive a blessing from the priest.
Outside the church
they pose for photographs.
SUNDAY AUGUST 26:
After two days, I started to lose interest in the festival. Potosi is freezing cold, so I took a taxi back to Sucre.
Sucre, the capitol of Bolivia, has a pleasant climate and a large student population.
MONDAY AUGUST 27:
I tried to book a flight to Tarija.
Sucre airport was closed for the next three days for repaving !!
I visited the Museo Textil-Ethnogafico. Excellent exhibits describe the history and styles of local textiles.
In the afternoon I visited the.....
WORLD'S MOST AMAZING DINOSAUR TRACKS - SUCRE QUARRY
A few times each day the DINO TRUCK leaves from the Sucre Main Square in front of the Cathedral.
The truck goes to a local limestone quarry where dinosaur tracks were exposed a few years ago after heavy rains.
This site has been examined by experts over the last few years.
It is now considered the premier set of dinosaur tracks in the world !
The tracks lie in a siltstone layer tilted almost vertical. It was exposed once the overlying limestone was stripped away.
A guide at the site illustrates the four types of dinosaurs
that left tracks using plastic models!
A pair of tracks
along what is now almost a vertical wall!
Another view of the dinosaur tracks on the rock face.
Two pair of tracks angle up at the left center,
another single set of tracks goes straight up on the right side.
While on the dino truck, I met Karl and Carrie Grobl from San Diego.
We made plans to go together to Potolo, a village famous for textiles, the next day.
- TUESDAY AUGUST 28: Day trip to Potolo:
We asked the hotel to organize a taxi for the day.
Our departure was delayed by a crowd outside the hotel protesting the closure of a bank. Eventually we were able to start.
Here the taxi rests after overheating.
The road passed a very scenic rugged mountain pass,
and then dropped down into another valley.
Potolo village in the distance.
We turned back to Sucre at this point.
(We were afraid we would get back after dark).
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 29:
Ready to move on, I decided to not wait for the Sucre airport to reopen.
I would go by bus to Uyuni, to see the world's largest salt lake.
From Uyuni I could take the Friday evening train south to the border with Argentina.
This meant a trip BACK to Potosi where I had just come from...(I HATE backtracking).
THURSDAY AUGUST 30:
The bus from Potosi to Uyuni takes six hours.
I bought two seats as I normally can't fit in the small buses !
This was the ONLY bus on my trip with other gringos on board !
This one was 70% foreigners !
I was definitely on THE GRINGO TRAIL !
The ride is very scenic
in a bleak dusty altiplano way.
In the afternoon, as we came over a pass
we could see the distant salt lakes of Uyuni.
SALAR de UYUNI
FRIDAY AUGUST 31:
Above 12,000 feet, Uyuni is another cold and bleak spot.
A constant stream of backpackers now dominates the economy!
Each evening, new arrivals cruise the many tour operators, and select a 1 to 4 day tour.
Next morning, a conga line of 4WD trucks line up along the pedestrian mall.
Loaded with extra gas and water, 5 to 7 gringos throw their packs on top, jump in, and off they go!
First stop is a small village called Colchani, where salt is collected and shipped to other parts of Bolivia.
The small building on the left is an outhouse.
girl went inside, and scurried out yelling
"Gawd, do NOT GO IN THERE!"
As we drove onto the salt flats,
the surface had wet areas we had to drive around.
Further out the surface was drier.
We passed one backpacker bicycling across the flats.
about 60 miles !
The Salt Hotel.
Inside the Salt Hotel
The buildings are made of salt blocks
cut directly from the lake bed.
"Ojo de Sal" or Eye of the Salt.
How unexpected !
I had no idea there were areas with just a layer of salt, and salt water beneath!
These "eyes" get bigger during the rainy season,
when the drivers have to make sure they don't go directly into one!
In some areas the salt forms
The tour groups all arrive on Pescador Island,
where the drivers fix lunch.
Cactus cover Pescador Island
On the return to Uyuni, we had a flat tire!
The driver was very prepared.
His tires are so bald it must happen almost every day!
Nothing visible in any direction, but dry.... white..... salt....,
I wondered where he keeps the second spare?....
UYUNI TRAIN CEMETERY
Back in Uyuni before dusk,
I ask the driver to pass the train cemetery.
Uyuni is a major rail junction;
many old steam engines
have been parked outside town to rust away.
Needed: A mechanic with Experience
Back in town, I retrieve my bags from the hotel, and catch a train to Villazon about 9 PM.
The train was nice in first class, with a video of "Rain Man" dubbed in Spanish.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 1:
The train came to the border about 7 am.
Border crossing: Villazon, Bolivia to La Quiaca, Argentina.
The Argentines call this region the "Tijuana of Argentina",
with a porous border, and Bolivians flood across with contraband.
I was stamped into Argentina, and boarded a bus to San Salvador de Jujuy.
Fifty miles further we came to the real border inspection at Tres Cruces.
Here a long military fenceline and minefields stretch to both horizons across the wide valley. Our bus was waved into a military compound.
We were told to take everything off the bus and go into a building. Men and women went into separate rooms without windows or chairs. We stood silently for 30 minutes. Each person was carefully inspected, taking two hours. For some reason, I kept thinking about how the Argentine military "disappeared" it's enemies in past times.
The bus then passed down the "Quebrada de Humahuaca", the major Spanish Empire route connecting Buenos Aires with its source of wealth in Potosi. We crossed dramatic valleys dropping from the high Andes to the west, all choked with huge boulders and gravel.
As we dropped in elevation, we lost the beautiful clear skies of the altiplano, and entered a drizzly fog.
Suddenly it was a gray cold winter day. It stayed this way to Jujuy, where I took a room near the bus station.
I went out to find an ATM and bought Argentine Pesos. In the rain, Jujuy was depressing, filled with scowling natives of a neglected poverty-stricken region.
I told myself: You're just tired from not sleeping on the overnight train, and the long bus ride.
However, I hadn't taken a single picture all day ! I didn't want to be there.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 2
An overcast morning. Another bus, from Jujuy to Salta. A room overlooking the plaza at the Hotel Colonial.
I had researched Argentina for previous South America trips, and Salta was a top destination. I read about the famous "Train to the Clouds". The train now only goes once a week. Yesterday.
The lady at the tourist office told me how beautiful and sunny it was last week.
Walking around town, everything was neat and orderly, but the people seemed depressed.
The Argentines have been relatively well off in the past, but their currency is about to be devalued. Unemployment is high.
I hadn't realized the poor Bolivians were so sparkly, in comparison!
San Francisco Church, Salta
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 3 (Memorial Day)
I went to the Salta bus station for a noon departure to Oran.
Another bus, filled with schoolchildren heading home, took me to Aguas Blancas, at the border.
Arriving just before dusk, I crossed the river and was stamped back into Bolivia.
Bermejo was a rather dynamic town, and people were smiling again!
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4
I take the 10 AM bus from Bermejo to Tarija
Rio Bermejo is the border
between Argentina and Bolivia
We passed a truck that had gone off the road and flipped.
Everyone on our bus crowded to one side, I thought we would flip over too !
Is anyone dead? everyone was shouting.....
The clouds finally disappear
as we approach Tarija,
famous wine country of Bolivia.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 5:
TARIJA - NATIONAL CENSUS DAY
All of Bolivia is shut down today! No one was permitted to leave their homes for 24 hours!
The central plaza of Tarija had been a crowded bustling place yesterday,
but today only a few military police walked around looking for curfew violators!
Census-takers visited every address and interviewed residents.
After counting each house, they placed "CENSADA" stickers on the door.
I would see these stickers all over Bolivia for the next three weeks.
I could not leave my hotel,
so passed the day watching Cable TV and reading Wired magazines.
In the late afternoon, a knock at my door, and
this girl filled in a census form about me.
So I was officially counted in Bolivia!
TARIJA to SANTA CRUZ
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 6:
BUS TO VILLAMONTES, TRAIN TO SANTA CRUZ
I read that the route from Tarija to Villamontes was spectacular,
but the bus only goes twice a week.
So I cut short my Tarija visit, and was on the bus at 7 AM.
Another overturned truck off the road.
Workers were gathering up bags of grain spilled in the accident.
Rapids on the Rio Pilcomayo
Narrow gorge of the Rio Pilcomayo.
Note the rainy season high water line!
These are the last mountains before Villamontes,
where the river enters the great Chaco plains
and eventually flows to the Paraguay River.
Villamontes Train Station.
I arrived here about 5 PM.
My guidebook said that a Yacuiba-to-Santa Cruz train would pass at 7 PM.
The station master informed me the train normally came the day before. Ouch !
BUT, due to the NATIONAL CENSUS yesterday, the trains had not moved!
The train would indeed be here in two or three hours!
FRIDAY to SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 7-9: Santa Cruz de La Sierra
Santa Cruz is a modern and wealthy town by Bolivian standards. The streets are filled with new SUV's.
The wealth originally came from drug trafficking, but continues due to nearby natural gas fields.
A pipeline to energy-starved Brazil has been completed recently.
Santa Cruz is now Bolivia's largest city.
I arrived at the train station about 10 AM.
I went to the Hotel Viru-Viru,
recommended by a Peace Corps volunteer in La Paz.
The hotel was great:
Pool, breakfast, cable TV
and fan for $15.
In the afternoon I went to the plaza.
A political rally passed below the Irish Pub balcony.
Sunday morning market
on the plaza:
Crafts and food stalls.
THE JESUIT MISSION CIRCUIT
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 10:
This tourist route is a loop to the Northeast of Santa Cruz.
There are a total of seven different Jesuit missions,
You can travel around the loop in either direction in 3 or 4 days using public transport.
I decide to go counter-clockwise, since the train east towards the Brazil border is running today.
We arrived at San Jose de Chiquitos at 10 PM.
The city power was out, a taxi took me to Hotel Raquelita.
I could only stay one night: tomorrow was booked up!
A Car Race will be passing through town! All rooms were taken by the racing group.
No problem, I would take a bus to the next town on the Jesuit Mission circuit, San Rafael or San Ignacio.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11:
I had breakfast at the hotel, and watched in real time as the second plane hit the New York towers.
People filled the small hotel restaurant, watching CNN En Espanol play the scene again and again.
The crowd yelled loudly with each replay, like watching a Bruce Willis movie.
I went for a walk around San Jose. The town has a Brazilian feel.
Vendors shout out "Cafe Brasiliero" as they pass by.
The plaza has this Brazilian style telephone booth.
Bottle trees in the plaza
I walked to the bus station to buy a ticket to San Ignacio.
Today's bus was canceled due to the car race. The police had closed the road for the next three days!
I talked to one of the race organizers. Their route was exactly the same path I planned to travel over the next four days!
I could now see I would be completely blocked for the "Jesuit Mission Circuit".
Statue "Chiquitania Maiden"
I walked around looking for more bus information and a hotel for tonight.
Many places had a satellite dish, and I watched CNN as the story developed.
Then I went to see the Jesuit Mission, the original reason for coming here.
Mission Church and Compound
Mission Church Interior
original construction 1696, rebuilt in 1748
Walkways in Compound
Church exterior walkways.
In the afternoon, the race car drivers arrived!
I had decided to go back to Santa Cruz on the next train.
I was ready to go home,
and would check with American Airlines about a flight.
I moved to hotel San Silvestre near the train station,
and went to sleep about 8 PM.
SAMAIPATA - EL FUERTE
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 12:
Wake up at 2 AM for the 3 AM train back to Santa Cruz !
In Santa Cruz I took a collectivo taxi to Samaipata.
After leaving town, the road climbs along a river and
The Cafe Hamburg.
Olaf and Frank had good information
and tour/transport to El Fuerte.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 13:
El Fuerte Tour
Two Belgian tourists and myself take a half-day tour.
Frank (from Hamburg) suggests
two people ride on top for the view.
El Fuerte is located at the top of this sandstone ridge.
The round circle left front is a carving of a jaguar.
Years of wandering visitors have worn down much of the carving.
The main part of the site is now closed to visitors.
Elevated viewing platforms are under construction.
Niches on the hillside
and "seating area" above
View of the Von Daniken alien launching pad.
I couldn't stop thinking about the U.S. news.
I went back to Santa Cruz
where I could watch CNN at the Hotel Viru-Viru.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 14:
Day walking around Santa Cruz, Third Ring Road, and Equipetrol.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 15:
6 PM: Overnight bus to Trinidad
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 16:
Arrive in Trinidad about 3 AM, moto-taxi to Hotel Trinidad.
It was a surprisingly cold day for the Amazon.
Overcast and windy, the locals said it would pass in 24 hours.
I had lunch with Nici and Barbara, students from Vienna.
They are working at an orphanage in Cochabamba.
The girls were looking for a boat up the river to Puerto Villaroel,
the most inland Amazon port in Bolivia.
We took a microbus to Port Varador for information.
The boat goes every 10 days, and had departed yesterday.
But there was a local rodeo that was fun to watch.
One man climbed a greased pole,
and then a bloodied bullfighter
was hauled away in a pickup truck.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 17:
9 am bus to San Borja.
Luggage is stored on the roof and covered with a tarp.
Crossing Rio Mamore' on barge powered by small boat with outboard engine.
Three river crossings in total.
San Ignacio de Moxos
Chicken Foot for lunch!
Overnight in hotel Casa Blanca in San Borja
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 18:
I went to the bus station early,
but had to wait until noon for a bus to Yucomo, only one hour away.
At lunch in Yucomo,
I learn the next bus north to Rurrenebaque would not be until after dark.
This truck pulled in for lunch, so I asked about a ride.
Ten pesos, ride with the chickens like everybody else!
As I climbed into the back, it looked like a comfortable ride.
Big bags of rice husks (pig food) would be a good seat.
It took me a moment to recognize the constant loud noise
as boxes full of chirping baby chicks in the front!
The ride was VERY dusty; we moved slowly on the bad road.
We reached the family farm,
and unloaded the baby chickens and all.
The truck dropped passengers off in town,
and I stayed at hotel Rurrenebaque ($8).
I washed off at least five pounds of dust.
UP THE RIO BENI - RURRENEBAQUE to GUANAY
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 19:
I wake up early, and drop my laundry bag at the lavanderia.
I start checking on travel up river to Guanay.
The guidebook says this route is beautiful, but boats are not common. To charter a boat could cost about $200.
Walking through town, I pass down to the Rurrenebaque riverbank,
and ask if a boat is going to Guanay.
Two men point to this boat, so I talk with the owner.
He came down the Rio Beni from Guanay yesterday,
on a one-way charter for 4 Israeli backpackers.
Now he was going home, I could go back upriver for just $20.
Well, then he said $30, but finally went back to $20.
He is leaving at 10 am, in less than two hours!
I scramble to change dollars, eat breakfast,
retrieve wet laundry, and buy water/food for the overnight trip.
The Rio Beni passes through Madidi National Park.
There was almost no river traffic,
and we saw NO houses the entire day!
Apparently this region is uninhabited because of insects!
At dusk we reached a major river junction,and stopped on the riverbank near a house. I had no sleeping gear, so the boatman built a shelter with sticks and a blue tarp.
We joined the family here for coffee and bananas and bread.
They make their living from lumber.
Our boatman bought a few hardwood planks for resale upriver.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 20:
We start out shortly after sunrise,
the river is shrouded in fog.
We pass through beautiful canyons
covered with thick jungle and flowering trees.
About two hours upstream we stop at a farm,
and have a nice breakfast for 50 cents.
The family here has pigs, chickens, monkeys, bananas, chocolate,
and much more I probably didn't see..
The boatman bought seven "heads" of banana.
There were many exciting class 2-3 rapids
which the boatman maneuvered with skill.
When the river was shallow,
he would probe the bottom with a pole.
load up two bags of oranges.
Soon we saw evidence of gold-mining,
such as these family run dredges.
We arrived at Guanay at 4 PM,
and I walk to the Hotel Pinos ($8).
GUANAY TO COROICO
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 21:
It had rained furiously through the night,
the rivers were the color of mud.
There was a 7 am bus to Caranavi, where I would find another to Coroico.
Our small bus was stuck in deep gravel twice at stream crossings.
All the passengers moved rocks and pushed until we were through!
A large truck buried himself in this flooded stream.
It took about an hour to clear a path
on the other side of the truck.
Finally arriving in Caranavi, I had lunch,
and took another bus bound for to La Paz.
I left the La Paz bus at Yolosa junction,
and waited for this truck to fill up
for the climb up the hill to Coroico.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 22:
Hostal Kory, a room at the top, with a fine view for $10.
Lying by the pool in the afternoon, I realized
it was the first day in two weeks I was not riding a bus or train.
I found an internet cafe with a fast satellite connection.
A check of stock market prices was shocking.
A favorite backpacker spot
the Hotel Esmeraldas,
with happy hour at sunset.
The Bamboo Club had a special Afro-Bolivian dance show that evening.
Some black slave communities were resettled here after they couldn't survive the Potosi climate.
Also nearby are towns where famous Nazis Eichmann and Barbi found refuge.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 23:
Coroico to La Paz
This is the "Most Dangerous Road in the World"
Groups of mountain bikers come down this road every day.
One of the most popular tours out of La Paz, dropping more than 10,000 feet.
It was very scenic, with excellent dropoffs....
....but impossible to get a photo from inside the bus.
I walk around La Paz in the afternoon, and visit the old train station.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 24:
I try to sleep, but at this altitude, the oxygen-starved brain keeps saying WAKE UP !
At 3 am I check out and taxi to La Paz Airport for the 7 AM flight.
I fly standby to Austin via Miami without any problems.
There were only about 20 passengers in the new 777 from Miami to Dallas.
Text and Photos Copyright ©2001 Mark E. Halliday