Stepping back into history, the Museo Hacienda Cayara

At the end of the long and verdant Cayara Valley lies the tiny village of the same name. It looks like any ordinary Bolivian village: red tiles in the Spanish fashion sit atop adobe houses nestled into hillsides; braying donkeys occasionally breach the peace as they’re pursued by old ladies wearing colourful clothes; men and women tend their crops in the surrounding fields; and there is an all pervasive sense of timelessness about the whole place.

For me timelessness has a double meaning in Cayara. When you are there it is as if time has been suspended, as if the world of the valley sits on a different plain of reality, isolating you from the madness of the world outside its borders; and then there is the Museo Hacienda Cayara, a hacienda dating back to the earliest phase of the Spanish conquest of the Bolivian part of the Inca empire.

Entrance, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Entrance, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

The hacienda is tucked away at one end of the village, hidden from sight by the surrounding hills and trees, so that when you approach its gates it is as if something ancient and secret is being revealed for the first time. Founded in 1557 in a region the Spanish had renamed New Toledo, the hacienda literally drips with history, and it has been the home to Spanish nobility and refuge to pioneers of Bolivia’s independence.

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Patio, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Patio, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Today it has been completed renovated and transformed by the current owner into a hotel, which is a description that doesn’t do the hacienda justice. It is a living museum, but there is also a museum in the building with items from colonial times through to the present. There are beautiful gardens and grounds, the hacienda has its own farm, including a dairy farm, providing fresh produce for all meals, and I doubt there is a more welcoming place to stay in the whole of Bolivia.

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Patio, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Patio, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Gardens, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Gardens, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

200 year old fresh water supply, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

200 year old fresh water supply, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Inside, the hacienda is decorated with original paintings, furniture, light fittings and pre- and post-hispanic artworks and artefacts. It is a treasure trove of Bolivian history, there are even two libraries containing books dating back to the 17th Century. It is a privilege to be able to wander through the house.

Sitting room, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Sitting room, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Dining room, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Dining room, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Bedroom, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Bedroom, Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

As well as providing excellent walking opportunities in the valley or to nearby villages, just a short walk behind the hacienda is a beautiful waterfall that also give an indication of why this valley is so green – water is year-round in the valley, appearing from a underground source above the valley and then plunging down its cliffs to the the valley floor. The power of the water has been harnessed to provide hydroelectric power to the entire valley.

Walking alongside a river to the waterfall, Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Walking alongside a river to the waterfall, Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Hairy donkeys en route to the waterfall, Cayara, Bolivia

Hairy donkeys en route to the waterfall, Cayara, Bolivia

Waterfall at the end of the Cayara Valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Waterfall at the end of the Cayara Valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Return to the Secret Valley, Cayara revisited

Finding a road less travelled without heading into the jungles of Borneo, or risking life and limb in the Hindu Kush, is a challenge in these days of mass global travel. Thankfully, in the valley where the Hacienda Cayara lies, just outside the city of Potosi in the Bolivian highlands, you can be assured of getting away from the crowds.

This was our second trip to Cayara. The one day we spent here in December wasn’t enough to satisfy our longing for nature and absolute peace and quiet. We promised ourselves we’d return to absorb more of the unique atmosphere of the valley and of the Hacienda Cayara. Outside of the Amazon the area has to be one of the greenest in Bolivia, there is abundant bird life and there is tremendous walking available, right from the door of the Hacienda

Heading out on a three hour walk down the valley in the early morning was one of the most pleasant walks I’ve done in Bolivia. With the exception of the sound of the river and the ever present chirruping of birds (I must have seen more than twenty different types of bird), the valley was tranquility itself. I hope these photos and videos give some idea of just how special the valley is.

Early morning in the sleepy village of Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Early morning in the sleepy village of Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Donkey, Cayara Village, Potosi, Bolivia

Donkey, Cayara Village, Potosi, Bolivia

View over Cayara Village, Potosi, Bolivia

View over Cayara Village, Potosi, Bolivia

A woman walks down the road, Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

A woman walks down the road, Cayara, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cemetery, Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cemetery, Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cemetery, Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cemetery, Cayara valley, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara village, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara village, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara village, Potosi, Bolivia

Cayara village, Potosi, Bolivia

Casa Nacional de la Moneda de Bolivia

The Casa Nacional de la Moneda de Bolivia in Potosi is an imposing building. From the moment you see the huge wooden doors, complete with large metal studs, you know it is anything but ordinary. The whole building is constructed like a fortress, for this was the mint established by the Spanish to process the silver they were ripping out of the mines in the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain). Silver which made Potosi famous and Spain rich.

Founded in 1759 to replace to the original sixteenth-century mint, the Casa de la Moneda continued to function as a mint until 1951. Today it is an excellent museum telling the story of the mint and, more poignantly, the history of the destructive force of Spanish greed on the peoples of the Andes. Potosi held the largest silver deposits in the known world, and its discovery in the 1540’s was a godsend for the Spanish and an unmitigated disaster for the entire Andean highlands.

The Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia

The Cerro Rico, Potosi, Bolivia

The wealth of the silver mines in Potosi was legendary in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, so much so that the saying ‘to be worth a Potosi’, meaning to be worth a fortune, was in common usage. This was the silver the Spanish shipped across the Atlantic from the equally legendary Spanish Maine, where English privateers (pirates) in the employ of the English Crown preyed upon Spanish silver galleons.

While that part of the history of Potosi is still being glamourised by Hollywood in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, there is a much darker and more terrible history that remains largely untold.

Entrance to the Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Entrance to the Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Detail from the entrance doors in the Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Detail from the entrance doors in the Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

The Spanish Crown, mine owners and religious orders grew rich over the three hundred years which followed the discovery of silver in Potosi, but this came at a terrible price in human suffering. The Spanish authorities pressed millions of indigenous Andean peoples into slavery to work in the mines.

So deadly were the working conditions of the mines the Spanish were forced to ship African slaves to Potosi to supplement the rapidly dwindling workforce. It is estimated that between eight and ten million people died in the appalling conditions in both silver and mercury mines or the processing industries. This genocide is as much the history of the Casa de la Moneda as the fascinating history of the mint itself.

Recreation of the smelting process, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Recreation of the smelting process, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

One of the giant machines used to flatten the silver, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

One of the giant machines used to flatten the silver, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Donkeys were used to power the machines, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Donkeys were used to power the machines, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

If the mines were deadly places to work, the mint itself wasn’t much better. People and animals were worked to death: a donkey had a life expectancy of only three or four months once it arrived in the mint. You can still see the marks in the floor where the donkeys walked endless circles powering the machines.

Today the museum also contains many original and copies of coins minted during colonial and Republican times. There are also numerous artworks and silver items that were created from the wealth of Potosi. The museum also contains this amazing treasure chest which was used to ship silver to Spain. The elaborate locking mechanism was designed to frustrate anyone who stole the chest.

Silver chest, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Silver chest, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Llama made from Potosi silver, Casa de la Moneda, Bolivia

Llama made from Potosi silver, Casa de la Moneda, Bolivia

Crucifix made from Potosi silver, Casa de la Moneda, Bolivia

Crucifix made from Potosi silver, Casa de la Moneda, Bolivia

Armadillo made from Potosi silver, Casa de la Moneda, Bolivia

Armadillo made from Potosi silver, Casa de la Moneda, Bolivia

So important were the silver mines of the Cerro Rico that religious art reflected this by incorporating both Christian symbols and pre-conquest religious imagery into artworks – unmistakable in both of these paintings is the shape of the Cerro Rico.

Religious art incorporating the Cerro Rico, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Religious art incorporating the Cerro Rico, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Religious art incorporating the shape of the Cerro Rico, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Religious art incorporating the shape of the Cerro Rico, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

There is also a section of the museum given over to minerals, including this giant Bolivianite – a semi-precious stone of purple and yellow hues found only in Bolivia.

Bolivianite, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Bolivianite, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

The museum is a must for anyone interested in the history of Bolivia, or wanting to know more about the colonisation of the region and its impact upon the indigenous population of the Andes, as well as the influence Potosi silver had in Europe. The one unexplained feature of the Casa de la Moneda is the odd looking sculpture that greets you on arrival: a giant grinning head surrounded by grapes called El Mascaron. While theories abound, no one other than Eugenio Moulon, the Frenchman who hung it there in 1865, really knows what its true meaning is…answers on a postcard please.

El Mascaron, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

El Mascaron, Casa de la Moneda, Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi’s secret valley

It feels like you’ve entered a forgotten world, something from a science fiction movie when intrepid adventurers stumble upon a hidden valley where dinosaurs still rule and humans are running around in animal furs shaking spears in mute fury.

In truth it may not be this dramatic, but as you turn off the main Potosi – Oruro road you suddenly leave the earthy browns of this high altitude region behind and head into a lush agricultural valley stretching 25km eastwards. More of a surprise is what awaits at the end of the valley in the tiny village of Cayara: a beautiful hacienda sitting in the peaceful valley floor that has been continuously inhabited since 1557 and which has been lovingly restored and opened as a guest house.

 

The Hacienda Cayara (www.hotelmuseocayara.com/english/museum.html) is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places I’ve ever been privileged to stay. But it is much more than that, it literally drips with history – and the history of the hacienda is also the history of Bolivia from the Spanish conquest onwards.

There are libraries containing original Sixteenth Century calf skin bound books; a natural spring that has been running into one of the courtyards for over 200 years and is so pure you can drink it without concern; a magnificent chapel that has been an integral part of the hacienda’s life for centuries; extensive grounds full of crops and flowers; and an inspirational museum that boasts the original armour of one of the first Conquistadors to arrive in Bolivia.

Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

Courtyard, Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

Courtyard, Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

The hacienda is owned by the most charming and helpful man imaginable. How many hotels come with an enthusiastic and illuminating guided tour by the owner? If that wasn’t enough it produces its own milk, cheese, ice cream and fruit and vegetables – all of which you’ll get to sample over dinner and breakfast. The ice cream is absolutely delicious.

View from the grounds, Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

View from the grounds, Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

Flowers in the grounds of Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

Flowers in the grounds of Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

The surrounding village and valley are beautiful places to stroll in the early morning, soaking up the atmosphere as the village springs back to life and people start their day. A short walk from the village is a lovely waterfall, en route you can see dozens of birds of many different species, as well as people working the fields.

The village of Cayara, Bolivia

The village of Cayara, Bolivia

A woman walks her donkeys to the river, the village of Cayara, Bolivia

A woman walks her donkeys to the river, the village of Cayara, Bolivia

Houses in the village of Cayara, Bolivia

Houses in the village of Cayara, Bolivia

Cows in the village of Cayara, Bolivia

Cows in the village of Cayara, Bolivia

A woman working in the fields in the village of Cayara, Bolivia

A woman working in the fields in the village of Cayara, Bolivia

Ancient bridge leading into the village of Cayara, Bolivia

Ancient bridge leading into the village of Cayara, Bolivia

The three wise donkeys, Cayara, Bolivia

The three wise donkeys, Cayara, Bolivia

As night fell over the valley we were treated to a dramatic and beautiful sunset that set the sky and surrounding hills on fire, and with darkness the hacienda was illuminated and looked even more fabulous.

Sunset over Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

Sunset over Hacienda Cayara, Cayara, Bolivia

The Hacienda Cayara at night, Cayara, Bolivia

The Hacienda Cayara at night, Cayara, Bolivia

The Hacienda Cayara at night, Cayara, Bolivia

The Hacienda Cayara at night, Cayara, Bolivia

Even though I’m a fan of Potosi, my advice would be to skip spending the night in the city and make directly for Cayara, it’s only 30 minutes by car. I know we’ll be going back.

Street Life

One of the defining characteristics of life in Bolivia is the way it is lived to a large degree outside. I guess this is a trait of a hot climate and a legacy of Spanish cultural influence that has bequeathed every town in the country with at least one plaza where people congregate to meet friends, promenade or simply people watch.

The outdoor life goes further than this though. There are a multitude of street vendors selling everything from freshly squeezed orange juice, weavings, shoe shines, plastic bags full of drinks or food and repairs of just about every type imaginable; smooching students inhabit street corners and plaza benches; and campesinos wait on the pavement outside churches in the hope of charity.

This being Bolivia one of the more obvious outdoor activities is the regular ‘bloqueos’ or strikes. These occur with a frequency unheard of in any other country in the world as far as I can tell, and they bring thousands of people onto the streets – mainly because transport strikes are quite common.

Coming from a cold, wet, northern country I love the outside lifestyle of Bolivia, it certainly means there is rarely a shortage of things to distract and entertain…

Street vendor repairing shoes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Street vendor repairing shoes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Orange juice vendor takes a nap, Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, Bolivia

Orange juice vendor takes a nap, Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, Bolivia

Pigeon people, La Paz, Bolivia

Pigeon people, La Paz, Bolivia

A young girl selling jellies, Potosi, Bolivia

A young girl selling jellies, Potosi, Bolivia

Fashion shoot in the streets of Sucre, Bolivia

Fashion shoot in the streets of Sucre, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Table removals, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Table removals, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Plaza Central, Cochabamba, Bolivia

Plaza Central, Cochabamba, Bolivia

Chorizo Festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Chorizo Festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Juice stalls in Sucre's Mercardo Central, Bolivia

Juice stalls in Sucre’s Mercardo Central, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Protest march, Sucre, Bolivia

Protest march, Sucre, Bolivia

Media crowd around a strike organiser, Sucre, Bolivia

Media crowd around a strike organiser, Sucre, Bolivia

Toys for sale, Potosi, Bolivia

Toys for sale, Potosi, Bolivia

The many faces of fiesta

Fiesta is a serious business in Bolivia and in the six months we’ve been living here we’ve been lucky enough to take part in several. Some, like the Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos in the Bolivian Amazon, we went out of our way to get to; others, like Sucre’s Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, were right on our doorstep; yet others we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Fiesta is a glorious expression of deeply held traditional and modern beliefs, as well as being an occasion for an outpouring of joyous fun. People take it seriously but at the same time it is about making sure the party goes with a swing – bands play, dancers dance and both participants and onlookers drink heartily.

Every country in Latin America has its own traditions and costumes – think of the outrageous carnival floats in Brazil – and one of the striking features of Bolivian fiestas is the variety of elaborate masks coving everything from pre-Hispanic mythical creatures to Spanish Conquistadores thenmselves. There’s even a museum in Sucre which dedicates a whole floor to masks of the region, a visit to which made me want to share some of the faces of fiesta that we’ve seen.

This first selection comes from the Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe in Sucre.

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Bird Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Potosi’s Ch’utillos Festival, or the Festival of San Bartolomé to give its correct name, is a three day extravaganza held in the highest city in the world. It is home to some unique  costumes and masks, and also to some of the hardest drinking you’ll ever see at a Bolivian fiesta.

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

The Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos in the Bolivian Amazon is one of the highlights of Bolivian festivals, imbued with typically Amazonian themes and taking place in a small village with hardly any tourists in sight. One of the outstanding features are the wooden mask and leather hat wearing Achus who represent the Spanish and cause mayhem wherever they go.

Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Fish Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sheep Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Jaguar Mask, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Finally, walking through La Paz one day we just bumped into a small fiesta in a barrio near the San Pedro prison.

Masks, La Paz, Bolivia

Masks, La Paz, Bolivia

Anyway, we’re off on an overland trip to Chile tonight so hopefully lots to report in coming days…

The hanging effigies of Bolivia

Glimpsed for the first time from the window of a speeding taxi, the mind and body have a visceral reaction to seeing someone hoisted on a lamppost, swinging in the wind, a rope around their neck.

It immediately recalls all those childhood tales of highwaymen in eighteenth century Britain with their “your money or your life” demands, who once caught would be hung on the roadsides as a warning to others.

This is twenty-first century Bolivia and thankfully it was just an unnerving trick of the mind. What looked like a real person turned out to be an effigy, mock-lynched and hung as a warning to would-be criminals. They can be seen all over Bolivia, and are a symptom of a lack of faith in a police force generally considered to be unable to police communities because they are either under-resourced or, worse, corrupt and in league with the criminals.

Effigy of a mock lynching, La Paz, Bolivia

Hanging mock effigies of thieves and other criminals is common throughout many neighbourhoods as a warning of the summary justice that will be dispensed by the community against malefactors. Media reports suggest this type of mob ‘justice’ is alive-and-well in Bolivia, driven by a perception that violent criminality is on the rise and that the legal system is too inefficient or corrupt to provide justice for victims of crime. (See this article from the Bolivia Diary blog Murders in El Alto spark Debate on Bolivian justice system).

Effigy hanging from a lamppost in Potosi, Bolivia

This lack of faith in the State to provide justice is well founded. A friend here in Sucre has been attempting to get justice in the courts for four years, and despite favourable rulings in two lower courts is still engaged in a legal battle that seems never-ending and has cost an unbelievable amount of money and caused untold stress.

Quite often the effigies come with a placard hung around their neck with an explicit and very real warning written on it about the fate of would be criminals at the hands of community vigilantes. These are frequently gruesome, threatening criminals with being burned alive, and are not to be taken lightly.

Effigy hanging from a lamppost, Sucre, Bolivia

As with crime everywhere, in Bolivia the majority of crime is perpetuated within poorer communities. The victims of crime frequently have the least to steal but the most to lose. A street vendor who survives by making just enough to feed their family each-and-every day but who falls victim to a thief essentially becomes incapable of feeding their family. In a hand-to-mouth world, the knock-on effect can be utterly disastrous.

It brings to mind the Ryszard Kapuściński story in his brilliant collection of African short-stories In the Shadow of the Sun; he comes across a woman who is inconsolable, the cooking pot she depended upon to cook food that she would sell on the street has been stolen. For the poorest in society, life is sometimes only one cooking pot away from disaster.

Effigy hanging from a Lamppost in Potosi, Bolivia

Junta Vecinal means neighborhood committee, a sort of violent neighbourhood watch, and shows just how organised communities are in defence of their property and possessions. For a more academic take on the phenomenon of Bolivian lynch-mob justice see this article on the Public Culture website Twenty Hanging Dolls and a Lynching: Defacing Dangerousness and Enacting Citizenship in El Alto, Bolivia

Potosi’s Ch’utillos Festival (Part 2)

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and the Ch’utillos Festival started early with a parade around Potosi at 9am with the statue of San Bartolomé accompanied by the town’s mayor and other dignitaries, cue lots of incense and confetti. Afterwards, the festival really came to life with bands and big groups of dancers taking over the streets, many of them dressed to thrill in spectacular costumes and masks of historical figures or mystical creatures.

One of the groups at the start of the day depicted African slaves, who were brought to Potosi to work in the silver mines – literally millions of Africans died alongside indigenous Andean peoples in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable. This is unique to the Ch’utillos Festival and highlights one of the less well-known aspects of Spanish colonialism in Latin America.

While the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is much better understood in North America and Brazil, the descendents of African slaves still live in Bolivia, mainly in the tropical lowlands. There didn’t appear to be any African descendents in the parade, so, local people ‘black up’ to portray Africans. Seen from a contemporary European perspective, this could make for uncomfortable viewing, but it is good that this aspect of Potosi’s history isn’t forgotten.

Performers depicting African slaves brought to Bolivia to work in Potosi’s mines

Performing as an African at the Ch’utillos Festival

Several thousand people participate in the festival, and thousands more line the streets eating, drinking (lots of drinking) and cheering the performers on. Wave after wave of dancers and bands sweep up and down the streets, but the atmosphere is always fun, informal and relaxed. The performers take several hours to complete the full route, and it must be hard work performing under the harsh Potosi sun, dancing up and down hills at 4000 metres altitude – especially in some of the big, heavy and hot costumes people wear.

A bit like marathon runners, performers need to take a lot fluids on board. Unlike a marathon, most of these fluids seem to be alcoholic – although there is that one marathon in France where you receive a glass of local wine and something delicious to nibble at each mile marker. This was a bit like that.

High energy snacks were everywhere on the route

One of the most impressive aspects of Ch’utillos is the array of extraordinary masks warn by the performers, variously depicting historical figures or terrifying  mythical creatures.

The Devil

The Spanish, also a comic turn

Like the previous day, being Gringo has its price, and once again I was dragged unwillingly into the parade, to dance and provide more hilarious entertainment for the crowds – actually, not that unwillingly. My tormentor…

Tormentress

At least this time I was rewarded with a kiss for providing the comic turn …

Dancing has its rewards

I’m not sure what the origins of some of the costumes are, but typically the costumes worn by women tend to be more revealing than those worn by men – no surprises there, I suppose – although no less dramatic.

Typical costume

Typical costume

Costume with feathers or inny not outy

Although a typical sight in La Paz and on the Altiplano of Bolivia, the bowler hat wearing Aymara women known as Chollas are not typical of the Potosi region. I’d guess this group came from La Paz to perform. Their rattles are in the shape of trucks, and they’re each grasping a can of Potosina beer, in fact they had two people accompanying them with cases of beer – thirsty work this dancing lark.

Chollas storm the streets of Potosi

Truck-rattle toting performers from La Paz

The array of masks at Ch’utillos really was extraordinary – although some came a bit too close to being Gandalf.

Dramatic mask at the Ch’utillos Festival

Dramatic mask at the Ch’utillos Festival

Masked performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

Masked performer at Ch’utillos Festival in Potosi

Masked performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

Masked performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

Feathered performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

A fun weekend was had by all, except that when I returned to Sucre I realised someone had slashed my coat pocket and stolen my phone…es la vida, as some might say. That aside, Potosi’s Chu’utillos festival was great fun, so to sign off I’ll leave you with a big thumbs up from Potosi…

Feathered and masked performer at the Ch’utillos festival in Potosi

Potosi’s Ch’utillos Festival (Part 1)

The Ch’utillos Festival, or the Festival of San Bartolomé, sees Potosi burst into life with a joyous (and drunken) celebration during three days of costumed and colourful parades around the city. While there are elements to the festival that are familiar from other Bolivian festivals, the uniqueness of Potosi’s history makes Ch’utillos special.

The festival is centred around the Iglesia de Jerusalén, the church that houses a statue of San Bartolomé, said to have been used by Jesuit priests to exorcise an evil spirit at a site outside Potosi called La Cueva del Diablo. Unmarried young men, or Ch’utillos, don their finest clothes and, accompanied by dancers and musicians, ride on horseback to the Devil’s Cave, where the festival officially begins.

Back in Potosi, Ch’utillos is a chance for thousands of people to take to the streets dressed in an amazing variety of costumes and masks. The fiesta takes place over the last weekend of August, on Friday the streets fill with local indigenous groups who dance, sing and play music, while Saturday sees everyone else join in, in a brash and beautiful celebration of life.

Ch’utillos Festival band on Friday

A typical dance group doing a traditional dance

Traditional Bolivian costume

Except when being paraded around the city, the statue of San Bartolomé remains at the Iglesia de Jerusalén where all the parades finish, and is the subject of great veneration by festival participants.

Statue of the moment, San Bartolomé, Potosi

We’d arrived from Sucre in the afternoon and only caught the end of Friday’s daytime events, but nightfall brought more parades and entertainment – this being Potosi at over 4000 metres altitude, it also brought plunging temperatures.

A car dressed for the parade

A traditional flute-type instrument

A wooden instrument the likes of which I’ve never seen before

Condor headgear

A group pray and play music to San Bartolomé

Another traditional dance troupe

One of the risks being a Gringo in a crowd of Bolivians is that you’re easily picked out of the throng for ‘special’ treatment…this was not the only occasion I was ‘invited’ to dance (I use the term loosely) and generally humiliate myself for everyone else’s amusement. I can confirm wearing the hat does not make me a better dancer, although it does make me look ridiculous.

Nice hat!

Potosi’s tragic relationship with the Cerro Rico, and its vast silver deposits, is played out in full by miners and their children, who graphically portray their working life in song and dance. This makes Ch’utillos unique and is a reminder of the hardships and dangers of scratching a living from the Cerro Rico in the twenty-first century.

Leading out the first contingent of miners was the Devil or El Tio, a sinister figure who looms large in the lives of Potosi’s miners. El Tio is the king of the underworld, and although obviously influenced by the Christian belief in the Devil, El Tio’s origins pre-date Christianity. El Tio must be placated with alcohol, cigarettes and coca leaves (not unlike some people I know) to ensure the safety of those working in the mines, and as compensation for the minerals and ore removed from ‘His’ domain. There are many statues of El Tio in the mines where daily offerings are made.

El Tio, lord of the underworld

Minor miners in the Ch’utillos festival

The Cerro Rico is riddled with thousands of tunnels, many deep underground, hot, narrow and dangerous. Every so often as the children parade, they throw themselves to the ground and crawl along the street re-enacting life in the tunnels.

Enacting life in the mines

As if one Devil wasn’t enough, another made an appearance, this one perhaps a little inebriated – but what else can you expect of the Devil?

El Tio – drunk as a skunk

A miner holds up a model of dynamite

More miners parade down the street

The night finished well after midnight with a very loud fireworks display, but by then I was tucked up in bed awaiting what Saturday would bring.

Ch’utillos dancer

Potosi: the city of silver and death

Potosi is a must-visit city, yet at best it’s an improbable place. It is both a symbol of Bolivia’s former wealth and, more potently, all the evil that has been heaped upon the peoples of the Andean highlands by centuries of colonialism. Set amidst a bleak, washed-out landscape at over 4000m in altitude (making it the highest city in the world), it’s difficult to imagine that at its height in the early seventeenth-century Potosi had a population as large as London, and was larger than the Spanish capital, Madrid.

The city is literally and metaphorically overshadowed by the Cerro Rico, a mountain that contained so much silver that it bankrolled the Spanish Monarchy for centuries, and eventually undermined the entire European economy by creating hyper-inflation. Potosi’s history is the stuff of legend and gruesome nightmare; blessed and equally cursed by silver and the Spanish Conquistador’s boundless lust for wealth.

Potosi and the Cerro Rico from the roof of one of the city’s many churches

When the Spanish discovered the Cerro Rico in 1544 it was the richest source of silver in the known world. Potosi and Spain grew rich from the proceeds, but this wealth came at an horrendous cost in human lives and suffering. Over the next three hundred years, the Spanish authorities, in collusion with the mine owners and the Catholic Church, pressed millions of indigenous Andean peoples into slavery to work in the mines.

Historians claim that the system of slavery that Spain’s Viceroy Toledo created resulted in a massive depopulation of the Andean highlands. So high were mortality rates in the mines, and so desperate were the Spanish for man-power, millions of African slaves were shipped to work underground in Potosi. It’s estimated that the barbaric conditions in the mines caused the deaths of between eight and ten million indigenous and African slaves. A genocide by any other name.

Potosi’s narrow streets are dominated by the Cerro Rico

Despite centuries of mining, the Cerro Rico is still the workplace for thousands of poor bolivian miners, including many children. Sadly, the conditions that modern-day miners endure are little better than those their forebears suffered. The mines are terrible places to work, full of toxic gases, silica and asbestos dust, and poisonous chemicals such as mercury and arsenic – not to mention tunnel collapses due to overworking and poor maintenance. Yet the promise of scratching a living from lead, tin and other metals (including a tiny amount of silver) is enough to sustain a significant workforce, despite the life expectancy of miners being an astonishing 15 years from when they start working underground.

If you want to know more about the mines, essential watching is The Devil’s Miner (www.thedevilsminer.com).

Many visitors to the city come solely to visit the mines and experience the hellish environment that Bolivian miners endure daily. Although the miners are fiercely proud of their work and generally welcome tourists, I opted not to visit the mines for a whole range of reasons. I know people who have been and found  the experience valuable and deeply moving, but to me it feels like touristic voyeurism…and also I’ve watched the Lord of the Rings and know what happens if you dig too deep.

Potosi street life

Today, Potosi seems to present many different faces to the outside world. At turns it feels proud, vibrant and friendly, yet claustrophobic, tragic and sad.  The silver funded the building of grandiose churches, palaces and mansions, endowing Potosi with some of the finest colonial-era churches in the whole of Latin America – memorials to the complicity of the Church in the suffering of those forced to slave in the mines. It also boasts one of Latin America’s finest museums, the Casa Nacional de Mondera, housed in the former National Mint where the silver was minted into bars and coins before being shipped to Spain.

Potosi is also known for having some of the biggest and most spectacular folkloric and religious festivals in Bolivia (of which, more later). If you can time a visit during one of the main festivals you’ll be rewarded with being part of Potosi’s living history – be warned though, participation is sometimes obligatory.

Entrance to the Casa Nacional de Moneda

One of the machines used to mint silver bars

There are dozens of magnificent churches, monasteries and convents to visit, including several where you can go to the rooftop or bell towers for tremendous views over the city. Most of the interiors are full of intriguing colonial era artworks to complement sumptuous altars – although you have to remind yourself that all of this was built on the bones of millions of dead.

Rooftop of the Convento de San Francisco

Sumptuous interior of Convento de Santa Teresa

Colonial-era religious painting

So important was the Cerro Rico, and so entwined was the Catholic Church with the mines, that all the churches in Potosi point not to the east, but to the mountain, and some of the religious art is shaped to represent the pyramid shape of the mountain. If you want to see some Bolivian silver, there’s plenty on display in Potosi’s churches, but you could equally go to any of the major cathedrals in Spain (and probably Vatican City) to uncover where all that silver went.

An icon shaped as the Cerro Rico

As with Europe, the Catholic Church unleashed the Inquisition on the Spanish colonies, something dramatically depicted in the paining below – typically, it was often women on the receiving end of ingenious methods of torture…where the Spanish went before, the Republican Party are headed now.

The ‘Spanish’ Inquisition came to Potosi, as usual women were on the receiving end