Bolivian landscapes

Living in Bolivia feels, at times, like living in several different countries all at once. I’ve touched on this before, but the diversity of landscapes, cultures and peoples constantly surprises, and it makes Bolivia one of the most interesting countries in the Americas.

It is possible to be in the Amazon rainforest one day at an altitude close to sea level, and in the high Andes at altitudes of over 6500m the next (although this isn’t advisable). In between there is just about every type of landscape, and a mind-boggling degree of biodiversity, imaginable. In fact, the only thing missing from Bolivia’s kaleidoscope of landscapes is a coastline. Bolivia used to have a large chunk of the Pacific coast, but it lost this to Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883). There is little evidence that Chile will be giving it back any time soon.

Moving from the Amazon to the Cordillera Real, this is a selection of some of my favourite Bolivian landscape shots…

Bolivian Amazon, Trinidad, Bolivia

Early morning in the Bolivian Amazon, Trinidad, Bolivia

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Bolivian Amazon

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Bolivian Amazon

Rolling wooded hills and deep valleys, Samaipata, Bolivia

Rolling wooded hills and deep valleys, Samaipata, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

View of La Paz from Chacaltaya, Bolivia

View of La Paz from Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Lake in the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Lake in the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Vulcans Pomarape and Parinacota, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Vulcans Pomarape and Parinacota, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

The Cordillera de los Frailles, Sucre, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over a lake, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset over a lake, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real looms over Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real looms over Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real en route to La Paz, Bolivia

The Cordillera Real en route to La Paz, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The Siloli Desert, Bolivia

The Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Flamingos in the Bolivian South West, Bolivia

Flamingos in the Bolivian South West, Bolivia

Bolivian Sunset

It might be my love of the sundowner that makes me an aficionado of the sunset, but the stunning extremes of colour that sunsets provide is something I’ll never tire of watching – especially if it comes with a vodka and tonic. I can’t say I have the same feelings towards sunrise, I’ve seen a few but it’s not my favourite time of day.

Sunset is a magical time, especially for a keen amateur photographer like myself. I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed some beautiful sunsets in some extraordinary places around the world – the sunset in the desert north of Timbuktu will live long in the memory. Bolivia’s diverse landscapes – from the high Andes to the Amazon Basin – have provided sunsets to match any I’ve seen before.

The hills of the Corillera de los Failles that form the backdrop to our home in Sucre have been the setting for many a pleasant sundowner while watching the sky explode with colour. It is an ever changing palette and now the rains have come the scattering of cloud has made sunset even more impressive.

Sunset over Sucre, Bolivia

This photo was taken as the sun set and a tremendous storm ranged across the mountains, there was thunder, lightening and heavy rain – but none of the rain landed on Sucre itself.

Sunset and a storm over Sucre, Bolivia

Sunset and street lights over Sucre, Bolivia

Although Sucre’s backdrop of mountains is impressive, you’d have to go a long way to find a backdrop to match that of La Paz at sunset.

La Paz sunset with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Travels around the country have also witnessed some stunning sunsets. These are from the high altiplano in Sajama National Park, the first was taken just as an adult and baby llama crossed in front of me.

Sunset and llamas, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

The next shots come from the Amazon basin, first in the small village of San Ignacio de Moxos where the entire village seemed to gather at the nearby lake Isiboro to cool off, most people left as the sun went down but a few people stayed in the water until darkness descended.

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Walking back from the lake to the village of San Ignacio several vehicles kicked-up enough dust to get this pattern in the sky and the haziness in the trees.

Sunset in San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

I love the way water and sky combine at sunset, there was no better example than when we sailed up the Rio Mamore in the Bolivian Amazon.

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Amazon Basin, Bolivia

Sticking with the water theme, I’ll finish this montage of sunsets with two from Lago Titicaca.

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Slow boat into the Amazon

After four glorious days of fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos, we took a Truffi (a shared taxi) back to Trinidad, a hotel with air conditioning and a solid nights sleep without the fear of being woken by fireworks and church bells. Trinidad is one of the main gateways to the Bolivian Amazon and we’d arranged a relaxing four day slow boat up the Rio Ibare and Rio Mamore to recover from our exertions during fiesta – go far enough north-east on the Rio Mamore and you’ll eventually find yourself in Brazil, but before you reach the border there are thousands of kilometres of Amazonian river to explore.

Fully refreshed, we went early in the morning to a small port on the Rio Ibare where the Reina de Enin (www.andes-amazonia.com) was moored. Known as the Flotel, the Reina de Enin is probably the most comfortable way to travel into the Amazon, but at first sight it looks a bit like two boats squeezed on top of a catamaran, which is what it turns out to be.

The Reina de Enin on the Rio Ibare

The boat is comfortable and a very relaxing way of chugging slowly down the river spotting wildlife and watching some of the most spectacular sunsets you’re likely to see. With three decks, including the top deck with loungers and hammocks, a fantastic restaurant and daily excursions into the forest, up small rivers to inland lagoons, horse riding and fishing trips to choose from, it is almost impossible not to relax.

Reina de Enin at its mooring

This part of the Bolivian Amazon is relatively populated, and as you travel down the river it is quite common to see a dugout canoe tied to the bank and a small track leading into the forest. Sometimes it’s possible to spot a thatched house amidst the trees belonging to small scale farmers who have planted sugarcane, papaya and other crops. Of course this is at the expense of the original prime forest, but that is the reality in a part of the Amazon that is reasonably accessible. The life isn’t easy for the farmers though – no electricity, no running water, little access to health and other services and an isolation that most people wouldn’t welcome, plus your nearest neighbours are about a billion mosquitoes.

A typical ‘home’ in the forest along the banks of the Rio Ibare

One of the joys of travelling slowly down the lazy river is spotting lots of wildlife, from river dolphins to butterflies, as you travel through beautiful surroundings. First though, a quick swim in, what we were promised was, a ‘safe’ part of the river. Safe that is from piranhas and anacondas – although it wasn’t clear if anyone had informed the piranhas and anacondas.

Swimming in the Rio Ibare

After splashing around in the water for half an hour we jumped back in the small boat and headed back to the Reina, but not before coming across a fisherman a short distance from where we’d been swimming who’d caught this…

These are piranha infested waters

After that wake-up call, and a mental note never to set foot in the water again, we set off down the Rio Ibare heading towards the larger Rio Mamore and passing some beautiful wildlife en route, which, coupled with the beauty of the scenery, makes for an amazing wildlife encounter.

The river banks provided rich wildlife spotting

A king fisher with a small fish in its beak

Two river dolphins

Heron

Very large water rat?

Another fisher

Sunset over the Rio Ibare

After mooring on the banks of the Rio Ibare for the night and listening to the deafening sound of millions of cicadas, the following day we set off towards the Rio Mamore where, in the afternoon, we took a trip into a lagoon where there was even more wildlife to spot.

The lazy river

Turtles soaking up the sun

Not a flamingo, more duck-like but pink

Another stork-type bird

A different type of fisher

Big stork-thing in flight

Just out-and-out odd looking

One of many hawks we saw

This frog hopped on board and hitched a lift with us

The day’s adventure came to a dramatic end with one of the more sublime sunsets anyone is likely to see…although it was impossible to stay outside the screened areas of the boat for long after sunset due to the sheer number of mosquitoes, who weren’t just hunting in packs but swarming everywhere.

Sunset over the Rio Mamore

Sunset over the Rio Mamore

The next day we went on a walk through the forest in the hope of spotting monkeys, we didn’t, but there was lots of other wonderful wildlife out there, including a large sloth.

Amazing blue butterfly

Pink ‘Dragonfly’

Another amazing butterfly

And perhaps the most amazing sight of all, a sloth…

Sloth!!!

After a hot and sticky walk through the forest, our reward was a journey back to the Reina as the sun set over the Rio Mamore while drinking a cold beer, the perfect end to the day.

Pacena es cerveza…especially in the Amazon

Returning to Trinidad after four days we took the night bus to Bolivia’s second city, Santa Cruz, and, after soaking up a big city atmosphere for a couple of days, headed to the sleepy village of Samaipata for further encounters with wildlife and ancient civilisations.

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos (Part 4): The End of Festivities

Waking at 8am on 31st July to the sound of the ever more incessant bells of the Jesuit Mission, I immediately realised something was wrong. It wasn’t the mud on my clothes, the burn holes, the 18 mosquito bites on my right arm or even that I’d gone to sleep wearing a head torch. No, it was the unnecessary pounding in my head, which at first I put down to the incessant bell ringing, but which upon further inspection was confirmed to be the result of an unfortunate mix of Pacena, Cuba Libre and hours of intense Amazonian sun. After tentatively testing the water by standing up, it was apparent I would live.

It transpires that the day after a large fiesta in a small village in the middle of nowhere it’s quite difficult to find breakfast or coffee. All the people who may have been able to provide these things are also feeling the effects of Cuba Libre. This meant a visit to the village market, where it was possible to find two life-saving deep fried cheese empanadas, and the worst cup of coffee I’ve ever had, while watching a woman hacking some indescribable part of a cow to pieces. At least I think it was a cow.

Fortunately, we also bumped into our Australian and Dutch friends from the previous evening, also seeking the life-giving qualities of the cheese empanadas. Refreshed, we walked back towards the plaza, where it quickly became apparent that Bolivians don’t need sleep – a parade around the plaza was already underway. This was a more sombre affair involving many of the district’s most prominent citizens.

This proved to be a sedate start to what would turn into another big day of drinking and fun, this time involving large bulls.

It takes stamina to be in this festival

Will they be allowed into the Mission this time?

As the procession made its way to the Mission, the big question on everyone’s lips was, “Will they let the Macheteros into the bloody church, and, if they do, can we all go back to bed?” This man has been walking around the village for 3 days, he deserves to be allowed into the Mission…

Let him in!

So close, and yet so far?

Perhaps what this needs is an intervention from an Achus?

Even in daylight it’s quite scary

One mighty explosion later it finally happened, the Macheteros were allowed into the Mission.

It was a cliff hanger, but they got there in the end

No one was more relieved by this turn of events than me. This terrible injustice finally resolved, we could now decamp from the plaza and head towards the Plaza de Toros, where the day’s main event would take place.

Bull teasing or bull tormenting?

I’ve never been to a bull ‘fight’ and never will go to one, but bull ‘teasing’, as this was described, seemed a bit more benign. After all, what could be fairer than having a large bull face off against a group of highly inebriated people without guns, swords or common sense?

The day passed without much incident, no bulls died, a couple of people got gored and/or tossed into the air on the tip of a bull’s horns, and much Pacena was consumed.

Spirited

Too close for comfort, even with a fence between us

Of course there are inevitable casualties, although during fiesta these are not all bull related…

A Pacena related incident

I have to admit that my support was all with the bulls, which is why I’ve included these photos:

Going…

…going…

…almost gone…

…gone, and forgotten.

Of course, there is a darker side to all this frivolity…where an innocent Gringo bystander, stood on the bull ring fence believing it to be safe, is sent flying by a herd of bulls who just want to go home…

…first, a very unhappy heard of bulls, barely being controlled by their ‘handlers’, are being ‘herded’ back to their home for the night, and a Gringo stood on the bull ring fence.

Who thought this was a good idea?

What happened next is open to speculation, but I believe the course of events went thus: one of the bulls made a run for it into the street, causing one of the cowboys to give chase – no one wants 2 tonnes of bull careering down a street full of drunk people on their way home from the bull teasing.

This left just one cowboy to control the other 6 or 7 bulls. Needless to say, they stampeded, taking with them a large chunk of fence and one Gringo stood on said fence. Mercifully, some Bolivians pulled me to safety before I got trampled to death. By the time I got to my feet the bulls were out of sight. Lesson learned.

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos (Part 3)

As the sun set on San Ignacio de Moxos on 30th July, the fiesta got into high gear and the party started. Having spent the afternoon carousing we were in good condition to take part in the night-time festivities – the whole evening is a bit of a blur, which I blame on the Cuba Libre, and despite the burn holes I now have in most of my clothes it was a night that will live long in the memory. Bolivians enjoy a good party, something I’ve experienced before during fiesta in Sucre, but San Ignacio was special even by Bolivian standards, with festivities winding down only around 3am.

As soon as it was dark the fireworks started, the Cuba Libre flowed and more and more people, whether part of the parades or spectators, poured into the plaza in front of the Mission. The fireworks went on for a good 40 minutes and it was clear that everyone was in celebratory mood. I’d have to rate the health and safety of the firework display as 1 out of 10, but when Cuba Libre has been taken that doesn’t seem too big an issue.

The fireworks start and the Cuba Libre flows

A firework goes off overhead

Once the fireworks ended it was time for more high jinks from the Achus, running through the packed crowds with fireworks attached to their hats – as they run phosphorous sparks that are still burning fly off the fireworks and, consequently, continue to burn when they land on you. Obviously, locals know this, while naive Gringos who may have had a few too many drinks take a while to catch on. This is why I have lots of holes in my clothes.

Regardless, it is an amazing communal experience, with a sort of joyful hysteria spreading through the crowd as more and more people run around with fireworks going off on their heads. It’s advisable to not to be in the vicinity when the fireworks come to an abrupt and explosive end, which can be quite scary.

At the start, the only people running through the crowd with fireworks are the masked Achus, technically the professionals in this situation, but as things develop, and more alcohol is consumed, anyone and everyone seems to have a go. Apparently, Bolivia has yet to make the link between alcohol and firework safety.

A woman runs through the crowd with a live firework

More hat related nonsense

People scatter as yet another lunatic runs through the crowd

Wonderful!

And then, suddenly, kaboom!

Please stand clear of the explosives

And finally, to complete this night of bizarrreness, a small photo montage:

Another firework hat-wearer sets off

She has definitely had Cuba Libre

Like the Devil’s horns, perhaps?

I cannot stress enough that you should not be around when the fireworks finally come to their explosive end…

Run, run for your lives

This being Bolivia, the end of the night was still far away, and mercifully I was incapable of focusing the camera beyond this point…time for a Cuba Libre, perhaps?

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos (Part 2)

An alternative title to this post could be: “48 hours of cerveza, Cuba Libre and fireworks in the company of three Australians, two Dutch people and a couple of thousand Bolivians resulting in a severe hangover, third degree burns and a close call with a group of angry bulls”. But that would be jumping ahead, first…

…after the 4am start to the fiesta we got a couple of hours sleep and rejoined the party around 10am, soon finding ourselves entrenched outside a bar with a large table of locals who had brought their own bottles of whisky. Someone at the next table hired a band for the day so we had on-tap music played at a deafening level right next to us. A round of beers for the band got you any request you wanted and made sure the band was pretty drunk by the end of the afternoon.

As the fiesta unfolded with ever larger, more colourful and elaborate parades, music and dancing, the cerveza flowed, and things got more and more exciting and crazy until finally peaking with a huge fireworks display and much drunken behaviour from the gathered throng.

10am and all’s well in the beer halls of San Ignacio

As at 4am, things started at the Mission around 11am when the Macheteros returned to play their pipes, sing and dance before being turned away again from entering the Mission.

Macheteros outside the Mission

Turned away to wander the streets of San Ignacio de Moxos

Next a large group of masked Achus appeared pulling in their wake the great comic turn of the fiesta: an Achus riding a fake horse that was out of control and brought chaos and destruction in its wake. The Achus look like representations of the Spanish and are there to cause trouble, something they do very well. They did a tour of the main plaza, setting off fireworks and ‘attacking’ any unwary person with their ‘horse’.

Masked Achus

Masked Achus

Masked Achus

The theatre behind the Achus’ ‘horse’ is that it is bad-tempered and gets out of control, crashing into spectators and anyone else foolish enough to get in the way. In reality, the rider is always on the lookout for an opportunity to create trouble and veers wildly into the crowd to bash into people – from experience I know that the ‘horse’ can give you a real whack on the shins. I saw several unwary people upended to the great delight of the crowd, particularly the children who are constantly daring the horse to charge them.

The great comic turn of the fiesta, with rider and handlers

After the Achus have created enough mayhem, things calm down a little and a huge parade starts from the main plaza and tours around the village for a couple of hours before making a final triumphant return to the plaza and the Mission. The parade is wonderful, with many more performers than previously and  mixes more solemn religious elements with a party atmosphere.

The head of the parade

Achus with female doll

There are many animals represented in the fiesta, I’d guess that these go back to pre-Hispanic beliefs since animals and the natural landscape were central elements of those beliefs. These performers represent the Jaguar, while there are still some original Jaguar hides on display, conservation efforts mean that these days most costumes aren’t real.

Jagur people make an appearance

Fish are also popular, and they represent an old legend about the formation of Laguna Isirere, a short walk from the village. Myth insists that the lake was formed when a local boy, Isidoro, was paddling in a small pool of water only to be swallowed up by a water spirit as a human sacrifice needed to create a bigger lake…which is why only children are dressed as fish.

Fish person, perhaps a non-native tuna?

Fish person

Despite not being allowed into the Mission, the Macheteros have the task of carrying the statue of San Ignacio around the streets, frequently stopping and bowing to the statue and continuing to play music, sing and dance.

Leading San Ignacio around the streets

Leading San Ignacio

After much parading under a very hot sun, everyone makes their way back into the plaza before finally finishing in front of the mission and getting a well deserved cerveza. Here’s a selection of pictures from the parades…

Arrival in the plaza

Bright clothes and even brighter smiles

Sheep people make their entrance

The sun made an appearance in human form

Spectacular headdresses were the order of the day…

…a bead and feather headdress

The region is famous for its music, and especially these brilliant pipes

Dancers performing traditional dances

Deer people make a dramatic entrance

Deer person

The Pide Piper of San Ignacio de Moxos

A bit like the Maypole dances, and quite intricate to get right

Everything starts to get a bit crowded as the parades come to an end

Another beautiful headdress

A less beautiful headdress

Mingling outside the Jesuit Mission

After the parades finished there was a church service and everyone dispersed, presumably for a well deserved lie down. That wasn’t to be the end of the day’s festivities though; once the sun set a whole new party started, with more fireworks and more drinking…but that’s for next time.

Fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos (Part 1)

The Fiesta del Santo Patrono de Moxos must rank as one of Bolivia’s finest, most spectacular and fun festivals, and, after having lived through it, would alone be reason enough for me to come to Bolivia. Hosted in the normally sleepy village of San Ignacio de Moxos, the fiesta brings the village to life, literally with a bang, as people ignite fireworks and thousands of Bolivians and a handful of Gringos pour into the village to party and celebrate one of the great cultural events of the Bolivian Amazon.

Ask around, even at the tourist office in the regional capital, Trinidad, and people will tell you the festival starts on July 25th, July 28th or July 30th. Some will tell you the big day is July 31st. Even the guidebooks don’t really know when it starts. Our experience was that it gets going on July 29th, the big day is July 30th, but don’t leave on the 31st, because then you’d miss the bull teasing!

At first sight, San Ignacio is a little underwhelming and it’s difficult to imagine the transformation when the festival kicks-off in earnest. It does have a beautiful old Jesuit Mission overlooking a large and shady plaza, which would be the focus of the festival, and would make for an interesting visit if you found yourself passing through en route to Trinidad or San Borja.

Jesuit Mission in San Ignacio de Moxos

The Mission interior decked-out with balloons

One of the icons that are paraded regularly throughout the fiesta.

There aren’t many places to stay in the village, and even fewer beds at this time of year, so we were lucky to have a room in the Residencial Don Joaquin on the corner of the plaza nearest the Mission. You’d struggle to describe the accommodations as anything other than ‘basic’, but it had a ceiling fan for the hot and sticky Amazonian nights, its location at the heart of the fiesta action can’t be beat and it has a restaurant and bar.

One of the more unusual things in the Mission was a collection of statues of San Ignacio that are brought from the homes of local residents and left there for the duration of the fiesta. Other than that, the Mission was decorated with some lovely naive paintings and a beautifully painted nave.

A collection of statues of San Ignacio

After a few preliminary events on July 29th, including the first appearance of costumed festival goers, the main event started on the dot at 4am (yes, in the morning) on July 30th, with a deafening round of firework explosions and the incessant ringing of the Mission bells – one downside of being so close to the action. Dragging ourselves wearily from our slumbers we joined the throng in time to see one of the saints being liberated from the church and taken on a procession around the town.

An early start on 30th July

Once the icon is on his way, the Mission is visited for the first time by Macheteros, dressed in beautiful radial headdresses, traditionally made from Macaw feathers but today, after conservation efforts, often made with synthetic feathers. The Macheteros arrive at the church, playing pipe music, chanting and dancing. In their ‘pagan’ condition they aren’t allowed into the church – for that they’ll have to wait two whole days.

More people arrive carrying a large lantern and playing huge reed pipes, traditional to the region. In turn they are joined by Achus, wearing wooden masks and leather hats on the top of which are fireworks. These are set off at intervals and the Achus run through the crowds, heads ablaze, terrifying people. Much of the symbolism was difficult to understand, but you can’t help getting caught up in both the emotion and fun of the whole celebration.

Macheteros arrive at the Mission doors, playing music, chanting and dancing

Playing wooden pipes and chanting in front of the Mission doors

Lantern bearers leaving the Mission

Large reed pipe players exiting the Mission

To the wild excitement of just about everyone, a group of Achus appeared next, heads ablaze with fireworks a little like Catherine Wheels but far more basic and dangerous. As the fireworks whiz and bang the whole throng of people begin a two or three hour parade around the village – no one gets a good nights’ sleep tonight. After joining in for the first hour, we decided we’d need our strength for the rest of the day and headed back to get a couple of hours sleep – as it turned out, a very wise decision.

The fireworks start and the health and safety ends

Remember, this is 4.30am

That’s a lot of sulphur!

Then off on a tour of the village, singing, dancing and playing music – not forgetting the fireworks.

The deer people do the deer dance

Masked men of the night

The first of many circuits of the village