Back in Bolivia…strange goings-on in Copacabana

Copacabana is a quiet town, stuck on a peninsular between glorious Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border. It has become a centre for travellers transiting between the two countries and a jumping off point for the exquisite Isla del Sol, home of the Inca creation myth. Its a sleepy place that normally has a low-key traveller vibe, but on weekends it comes alive with a very Bolivian mix of fun and faith.

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

Weekend at the beach, Copacabana, Bolivia

When I say faith, I mean that peculiar Bolivian blend of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic beliefs that have been merged to create a religion that celebrates the old and the new(ish). First, there is the true oddity that is the blessing of the cars that takes place outside the cathedral. Getting your vehicle blessed, and decorated, brings good luck and promises safe conduct for those inside the vehicle.

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Judging by the number of roadside shrines, this isn’t a fool-proof way of getting from A to B in one piece. Personally I’d prefer it if Bolivian drivers drove more carefully: you know, at least one hand on the wheel at all times, not chatting on mobile phones, trying not to eat and drink while overtaking a truck on a hairpin bend on a mountain pass. That sort of thing.

Failing that, it would be good if fewer people got behind the wheel after a skinful of chicha or singani – particularly bus drivers. During our last month in Sucre there were two bus crashes on the road south, one, very serious, with multiple deaths and injuries. Both were the result of drunk driving. Getting your bus blessed won’t help if you’re pissed.

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

Blessing of the cars outside Copacabana cathedral, Bolivia

A friend in Sucre once told me how the bus she was travelling in was stuck behind a truck moving at a snail’s pace. The bus driver was honking his horn, but couldn’t get the truck to pull over so the bus could overtake. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the driver-side door of the truck opened and the very, very drunk driver simply fell out of his cab while the truck veered off the road. Bless that if you can.

The second oddity is the very public performance of traditional beliefs right under the watchful eye of a statue of Christ and the stations of the cross leading up Cerro Calvario. I walked to the top of this 3966 metre mountain to take the view, at the base of the hill there were a number of traditional priests performing indigenous rites for people. I’ve seen these same rites performed all over Bolivia.

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Start of the stations of the cross, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional priest, Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Even at the top of the hill, alongside the Catholic shrine, people are using traditional rites to honour the dead, ask for health, wealth and success. Its a strange sight, but one I think is entirely appropriate for a country that had a very strong belief system, accompanied by a very successful culture, before the Spanish introduced Catholicism at the point of a sword.

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Shrine on the top of Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Traditional shrine on the hill opposite Cerro Calvario, Copacabana, Bolivia

Although a restful place, we had to move on from Lake Titicaca. We were headed for Coroico in the truly awe inspiring Yungas region of Bolivia. Despite the altitude, we managed to do a nice walk around the lake shore and observe some the traditional life on the lake before we left.

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

The lake shore of Lake Titicaca near Copacabana, Bolivia

Wild, wet and foamy, Carneval in Tarija

Carneval is exhausting, a lot of fun, but exhausting fun. I don’t know about the performers, who have to dance and sing their way around town while being soaked with water and foam, but a few more days of this and I’ll need a holiday.

Sunday saw the big carneval parade in Tarija: the stands along the parade route were packed, the water guns loaded and cans of foam spray were selling faster than hotcakes. First though, the gathered thousands had to endure a torrential downpour, but since everyone expected to get wet (and covered in foam) at some point during the festivities, summer rain was greeted like an old friend.

Like most fiestas I’ve been to in Bolivia, carneval had its elements of chaos, but that makes it all the more human. I’ve not been to Rio or Salvador for carneval, but I imagine they are more managed. The parade route in Tarija was constantly being plied by a host of people selling everything you’d ever need for several hours of sitting in the stands: food, drink, waterproof clothing, foam spray, masks.

The endless processing of sellers mingled with the performers and spectators alike. Small children ran a-mock amongst the stands and performers. Foam and water were constantly being sprayed at just about everyone who passed by and, every now-and-then, a section of the stands would suddenly erupt into a mass foam fight.

Part of the stand erupts with a foam fight, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Part of the stand erupts with a foam fight, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Our section of the stand did this regularly, seemingly with the sole intention of covering me in foam. I was nearly drowned in the stuff – this photo is after the nice woman behind me had lent me her child’s blanket to wipe most of the foam off.

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A lot of the carneval is non-traditional, with people dressed in a variety of strange costumes, others as mythical creatures, Egyptians, mummies, etc. One unexpected element though is the number of young men who cross-dress for the day, the antics of whom made the crowd hysterical. There is a very strong element of transitory transvestitism in the whole parade.

Anyway, here are some photos from when I was still able to have the camera out without fear of getting it soaked in water or foam.

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval Queen and her princesses, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval Queen and her princesses, Tarija, Bolivia

First and second 'princesses' of the carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

First and second ‘princesses’ of the carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

King Kong float, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

King Kong float, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Candy floss seller at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Candy floss seller at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Jello and cream seller at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Jello and cream seller at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in the campo, fiesta in San Lorenzo

If you want to know Bolivia, go to the campo, or the countryside as its known. If you want to see tradition during carneval in the countryside around Tarija head for the small country town of San Lorenzo, where ‘tradition’ is built into the fabric of the town and its people.

I hadn’t expected to witness 20 or 30 horses charging down a street crowded with people, most of whom had been imbibing heavily, but in San Lorenzo the health and safety officers seemed to have taken the day off. I’m grateful that they did, because this turned out to be a fabulous day in the company of people who know how to have fun.

 


The other great thing about being in the country is the opportunity to try ‘artisanal’ wines – made the traditional way with the grapes being crushed by feet. I was assured they used plastic boots these days rather than bare feet, but judging by the taste of some of the wine I’m not convinced. Below is a photo of my recommended carneval outfit, complete with a pint of homemade wine.

Popular carneval outfit with artisanal wine, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Popular carneval outfit with artisanal wine, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Wearing a plastic poncho is a necessity to protect you from occasional torrential downpours during the rainy season, and, much more importantly, from gangs of people spraying you with foam and water. As we strolled into San Lorenzo I heard the the shout, “Gringo, gringo”, and before I could react was viciously attacked with foam. My attackers stayed long enough to ask where I was from, to wish me a good carneval and to pose for a photo. They were charming, but I was still covered in foam.

Carneval assassins, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval assassins, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

After a couple more foamings and a lot of water spraying I decided to invest in some protection – a large can of carneval foam with a range of about 10 meters.  It is a lot of fun to get your own back. One thing is for sure, they start them young on foam around here.

Child with foam, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Child with foam, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

The start of proceedings had been delayed by an hour or so due to a huge cloudburst, but once the rain stopped and the sun came out again the carneval
got underway properly with traditional dances, music, horse riding and lots and lots of water and foam.


The music, using a horn and small drum, often played while riding a horse, is unique to this part of Bolivia and while lively is also quite mournful.

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

 


A little like the Brazilian carneval there are some floats in the parades, but these are largely for small children to ride on and have the occasional tableau relating the the countryside.

A young girl on a float, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

A young girl on a float, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

No Bolivian fiesta would be complete without a large amount of traditional food being served. All around San Lorenzo the smell of cooking, especially the barbecuing of meat, was in the air. A typical dish is pig barbecued ‘a la cruz’, a sight that welcomed us to the main street of the town.

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in Tarija, Dia del Ninos

With only a few hours sleep under our belts following the comadres festival, which marked the start of four days of festivities for carneval, we found ourselves back at the scene of the previous night’s crime for the children’s parade.

After ten months in Bolivia I should have known things wouldn’t start on time. Billed to start at 9.30am, the parade finally got off to a somewhat shambolic start around 11.00am. Not that anyone was sat under a relentless sun for over an hour waiting, oh no. Still, once it got going it was fun, despite the ever present danger of being splattered by water bombs, blasted by high powered water guns, or sprayed relentlessly with canned foam.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue that carneval is predominately about getting wet and foamy for three or four days before the authorities step in and make everyone go back to school/work. Huge fun for the kids and quite a lot of fun for adults.

Children's float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Children’s float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A sugary float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A sugary float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Everywhere you go unscrupulous people are selling cans of foam to anyone with the money to buy, regardless of age and whether the foam will be used ethically and only for defence. After being foamed several times I started to view these people as ‘arms dealers’ or ‘dealers in foamy death’. Although to be fair to them, I did use there services from time-to-time.

Arms dealers selling spray foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Arms dealers selling spray foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

You've been foamed, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

You’ve been foamed, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

More foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

More foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Note the sheer joy on the face of this child assassin…

Gangland killing carneval-style, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Gangland killing carneval-style, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Meanwhile, back at the parade, the children’s event is something of a curtain-raiser for the real thing on the Sunday of carnvel, and although not that well attended everyone involved seemed to have fun.

Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

An alcohol-aware zebra, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

An alcohol-aware zebra, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Clown, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Clown, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Armed and dangerous, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Armed and dangerous, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

The world’s biggest hen party, Tarija’s Comadres festival

“There are no wives or girlfriends today, only singles.” Was how one Chapacos (the name given to residents of Tarija) explained the comadres fiesta to me.

“The women start gathering in the square in the morning, there is much drinking. In the afternoon the men come and hang around the square waiting for the women.” Was another attempt to explain an event that was taking on an increasingly sinister vision in my mind.

Comadres is traditionally held the Thursday before carneval and seems to mingle elements of a school disco, a giant hen night and a female drinking Armageddon. During the day the action is centred on Tarija’s beautiful Plaza Louis de Fuentes y Vargas, a plaza that wouldn’t be out of place in a provincial Spanish town. For comadres however, it more resembles Liverpool city centre on a Friday night.

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

The plaza slowly filled with women, and some men, throughout the day and there was indeed an indecent amount of drinking and drunkenness, but, unlike Liverpool on  Friday night, not a hint of trouble. One side of the plaza featured a huge disco that seemed to have the volume set at a level intended to communicate with outer space. On the opposite side of the plaza things were more sedate, with an older crowd, a traditional band and much dancing.

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

There is a real purpose to comadres, I’m not sure what it is, but it involves friends giving large baskets of fruit, vegetables and other goodies to each other. Although not before they have danced the night away with the basket. The baskets often feature a largish cucumber as a not-so-subtle sexual reference…it really is a hen night.

Everyone seems to be carrying one of the baskets, decorated with flags and balloons. The one below even came with a bottle of whisky.

Basket of traditional items, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Basket of traditional items, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

As the curtain closed on the festivities in the plaza, and the sun started to set, the focus of attention turned to the Avenida de las Americas. All the comadres who could still stand joined a parade and danced up and down the street in a more-or-less organised way. Festivities go on long into the night and a lot of the dancers carried grapes – the symbol of this wine producing region.

The women also wear a rose over one ear. A rose over the right ear indicates that she is married, over the left ear that she is single. Although it may be the other way around, the person who explained this to me had drunk her own body weight in booze. As I said, a hen night.

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Nearing the finish line, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Nearing the finish line, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Men do get to participate in the comadres parade, but their role is limited to that of musicians or to carrying cans of beer for the ladies.

Musician, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Musician, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

The White City, the streets of Sucre II

One of the pleasures of living in a town like Sucre is to be able to stroll around, camera in hand, and snap random daily happenings, interesting architecture, street art and odd street life.

The city is starting to spring back to life after the university holidays, and currently the streets are filled with students who have been sitting their entrance exams for university places. Unfortunately, there are nearly three times as many prospective students than there are places.

This coming together of young people also coincides with the run-up to carneval. Thanks to the water bomb throwing antics that accompany carneval the streets are a dangerous place for a gringo – any foreigner is seen as a prime target for a soaking, whether from water balloons or from high-powered water guns, sales of which have gone through the roof. Drive-by water bombings are a regular occurrence, the car speeding off before the victim(s) can react or gather their wits. As I walked around yesterday I was lucky to escape without a drenching.

Stall selling water guns for Carneval, Sucre, Bolivia

Stall selling water guns for Carneval, Sucre, Bolivia

Food, Sucre, Bolivia

Food, Sucre, Bolivia

Bootleg DVDs for sale, Sucre, Bolivia

Bootleg DVDs for sale, Sucre, Bolivia

Street signs, Sucre, Bolivia

Street signs, Sucre, Bolivia

Book seller on the street, Sucre, Bolivia

Book seller on the street, Sucre, Bolivia

Doorway, Sucre, Bolivia

Doorway, Sucre, Bolivia

Mannequin with heart, Sucre, Bolivia

Mannequin with heart, Sucre, Bolivia

Political street art, Sucre, Bolivia

Political street art, Sucre, Bolivia

Cars for hire, Parque Bolivar, Sucre, Bolivia

Cars for hire, Parque Bolivar, Sucre, Bolivia

Cuba Libre advert, Sucre, Bolivia

Cuba Libre advert, Sucre, Bolivia

Motorbike art, heaven and hell, Sucre, Bolivia

Motorbike art, heaven and hell, Sucre, Bolivia

Window with plants, Sucre, Bolivia

Window with plants, Sucre, Bolivia

Fantasy artwork on a garage door, Sucre, Bolivia

Fantasy artwork on a garage door, Sucre, Bolivia

Street light, Sucre, Bolivia

Street light, Sucre, Bolivia

Doorway, Sucre Bolivia

Doorway, Sucre Bolivia

Young girl sits on lion, Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, Bolivia

Young girl sits on lion, Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, Bolivia

Political street art mimicking the famous painting of Potosi's Cerro Rico, Sucre, Bolivia

Political street art mimicking the famous painting of Potosi’s Cerro Rico, Sucre, Bolivia

Detail of a church door, Sucre, Bolivia

Detail of a church door, Sucre, Bolivia

Pig and trash, outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia

Pig and trash, outskirts of Sucre, Bolivia

Pacena advert, Sucre, Bolivia

Pacena advert, Sucre, 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.

Sucre’s Cementerio General

Sucre’s Cementerio General may lack the grandeur of La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires (and it can’t boast as famous an inhabitant as Eva Peron), but it is still a remarkably tranquil and beautiful place that is full of history. It is also a place where life is celebrated as much as death commemorated.

Visit the cementerio on a Sunday and there is almost a festival feel as dozens of families come to pay their respects to their dead relatives. The thing that is most striking is the lack of formality: the whole family visits together, children play amongst the graves, people take photographs of each other in front of statues, friends greet each other warmly and people bring picnics to eat in the lovely shady grounds.

Cementerio General, Sucre, Bolivia

Cementerio General, Sucre, Bolivia

Visiting the cemetery is to witness an extension of the Bolivian psyche surrounding death, where dead loved ones are assumed to be present and their lives are celebrated in their presence. It is a refreshingly different approach to death than the one with which I’m familiar.

Memorial to Sucre's dead, cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia

Memorial to Sucre’s dead, cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia

The streets outside the cemetery walls are filled with people selling flowers, which makes for a colourful walk to the entrance. Once inside you’re likely to be approached by young children offering their services as guides; they are very knowledgeable about the cemetery because they work there putting flowers and mementoes in the graves – guiding for gringos is just a sideline.

Flower sellers outside Sucre's cemetery, Bolivia

Flower sellers outside Sucre’s cemetery, Bolivia

The cemetery is mainly comprised of terraces five or six graves high, each with a glass or open front that doubles as a shrine filled with mementoes of the deceased: photos, foodstuffs, drinks or, in the case of children, toys. Children are buried in a separate section, each tomb front is filled with favourite toys and photographs which are both poignant and sad.

As well as being the final resting place for past Bolivian presidents, the cemetery is also home to a woman called Margarita who was brutally murdered by her husband and decapitated. It’s claimed that she has performed miracles from beyond the grave and many people go to her tomb to ask for her help. There is also a memorial to three students who were killed in fighting that erupted in 2007 when the Morales government decided to change the constitution. Friends here claim thugs were bused into Sucre to attack the student protesters, while the police released criminals from prison to do the same.

Flowers and graves in Sucre's cemetery, Bolivia

Flowers and graves in Sucre’s cemetery, Bolivia

Flowers and graves, cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia

Flowers and graves, cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia

Graves in Sucre's cemetery, Bolivia

Graves in Sucre’s cemetery, Bolivia

Tombs in Sucre's cemetery, Bolivia

Tombs in Sucre’s cemetery, Bolivia

Child's tomb with toys, Cemetario, Sucre, Bolivia

Child’s tomb with toys, Cemetario, Sucre, Bolivia

Graves, Cemetario, Sucre, Bolivia

Graves, Cemetario, Sucre, Bolivia

Grave, Cemetario, Sucre, Bolivia

Grave, Cemetario, Sucre, Bolivia

Tomb, cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia

Tomb, cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia

An unusual feature of the cemetery is communal tombs. These are often work or union related, such as teachers, bus drivers or miners, all buried together in large vaults. There is also a vault to the dead from the War of the Chaco (1932 – 35), a particularly brutal war fought between Bolivia and Paraguay in which thousands died not from combat but the hellish conditions of the Chaco region.

Tomb for those who died in the War of the Chaco, Sucre, Bolivia

Tomb for those who died in the War of the Chaco, Sucre, Bolivia

Statue to war dead in Sucre's cemetery, Bolivia

Statue to war dead in Sucre’s cemetery, Bolivia

There are also some very grand family tombs of the rich and powerful, offering a stark contrast to the more humble graves of ‘ordinary’ citizens.

Grand family tomb, cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia

Grand family tomb, cemetery, Sucre, Bolivia

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