The Cordillera de los Frailles, the mountain range that forms Sucre’s backdrop, is also home to the predominately Quechua-speaking Jalq’a people who have inhabited the hidden valleys amongst the serrated mountain peaks for millennia.
These are poor communities, with few facilities, although Bolivia’s push to connect all it’s villages with running water and electricity has brought huge benefits to many communities.
Traditionally, the Jalq’a are farmers, cultivating potatoes, wheat and corn, as well as farming goats and sheep. But today, they are best know for their beautiful and elaborate weavings of mythical, demon-like figures solely in black and red wool – black for evil and red for good. A weaving no bigger than a double-page newspaper spread can take three or four months to complete.
Having met the ‘owner’, an Australian called Randall, I went on a four day trek in the Cordillera de los Frailles with Condor Trekkers. A not-for-profit organisation that works with the Jalq’a communities, providing funds for schools in the region’s villages, and staying in community ‘hostals’ where all the money goes back to the community. You can visit their website here: www.condortrekkers.org/
So, feeling very socially conscious, you load up your backpack with everything you need for four days in the mountains, and, at the un-Godly hour of 5am, you join your fellow trekkers, two fellow Brits and a guy from France living (idyllically) in the Caribbean, and your Quechua-speaking guide, David, and head for the hills.
The early start soon fades as the views, and the altitude, leaving you gasping.
Our first day’s route took us to two sets of pre-Hispanic, some say pre-Inca, cave paintings at Pumamachay and Incamachay, travelling through yet more beautiful scenery en route.
The cave paintings themselves are very powerful in their simplicity, perhaps because of their simplicity. This painting depicts a woman giving birth, complete with hair pulling anguish.
Descending into the valley floor and heading towards Chaunaca village the landscape begins to change, with more fields of crops and animals evident, although very few people were to be seen other than a few people glimpsed from afar working in the fields.
After a refreshing night sleeping on a school floor – one of the schools Condor Trekkers supports, but a floor all the same – we headed off towards the magical and bizarre Maragua Crater at the centre of which is a beautiful village surrounded by corn and wheat fields. Our route followed the river through a beautiful valley.
The valley floor was followed by a steep climb through dramatic scenery…
…before descending again to the Maragua Crater.
Maragua’s beautiful geography, and it’s signature circular hills, is the result of tectonic plate upheaval and erosion from water. The village is famed for its weaving and a huge indigenous festival every January.
After a night in a hostal – and a bed – run by the Maragua community, we headed off up and over the crater rim with the village of Potolo as our final destination. Passing through yet more dramatic landscapes, we broke for lunch at the site of 350 million-year-old dinosaur footprints.
Another three hours walking with the Cordillera as a backdrop finally brought us to Potolo and journey’s end – a wonderful experience and a thousand memories, most particular of which must be finding a Tienda with a fridge and cold beer.