Latin America…14 months in 14 photographs

Its almost impossible to sum up our experiences in fourteen photographs, but these represent some of our favourite places and events from our time in Latin America.

Bolivia’s most colourful and unusual fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio is a small town, little more than a village really, in the Bolivian Amazon. Today it is a sleepy place, largely inaccessible during the rains, which acts as a hub for cattle ranches in the surrounding countryside. Its Amazonian history plays an important part in the fiesta, and combines traditional Amazonian beliefs and dress with Catholic beliefs. One of the more extraordinary elements of the fiesta are characters known as Achus who bring mayhem to the village during the fiesta. One trick they play is to attach fireworks to their hats and then run wildly through the crowds. This photo is of an Achus doing just that.

The Bolivian South West

Its almost impossible to imagine the raw beauty of this region in the south west corner of Bolivia. High mountains streaked with colour are reflected in lakes, that themselves range from turquoise to blood red, where flamingos make their home and Andean foxes roam. Set at altitudes that rarely drop below 4000 metres, it is a region that leaves you breathless. In the north lies the vast salt flats of Uyuni, and in the south, Laguna Verde, tinged blue-green by chemical reaction. In-between lie hundreds of kilometres of the most dazzling landscape. It has to be seen to be believed.

Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia

Bolivia’s oldest national park is home to herds of llama, alpaca and vicuna, which roam this barren region and have provided a livelihood for generations of people living here. The park is also home to several volcanoes, including the highest mountain in Bolivia, Vulcan Sajama, which can be climbed during the dry season. It is also home to some amazing colonial-era adobe churches and numerous chulpas, pre-hispanic funerary towers that are fascinating in their own right.

The Virgen de Guadalupe festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Three days and nights of dancing, singing, music and costumed parades…not to mention delicious street food and drinking with wild abandon. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of Bolivia’s most important. It winds its way around the streets of Sucre from early morning to late night. Performers spend several hours dancing their way towards the city centre before the dance troupe routines come to a climax in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The culmination of festivities is at the cathedral where the statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, resplendent in silver and semi-precious stones, awaits the tired performers.

Trekking in the Corillera Real, Bolivia

A multi-day trek through this vast Andean wilderness, passing glacier fed lakes and tiny llama farming villages, all the time overshadowed by giant, snow-capped mountains, is an extraordinary experience. At the end of a hard day’s walking, wrapping up warm and watching the galaxies appear in a night sky untouched by neon makes all the effort worth it. You’re more likely to see llamas than other human beings, but that’s what wilderness trekking is all about.

Watching the sun rise from the summit of Huyana Potosi, Bolivia

At 6088 metres in altitude, Huyana Potosi is considered to be one of the easiest 6000m mountains in the world to climb. ‘Easy’ is a relative word when it comes to mountains, and reaching the summit of Huyana Potosi was an endurance test like none I’ve experienced before, particularly since the last 300m of the climb is along a narrow ice ledge with sheer drops off both sides. The exhausting climb and freezing temperatures were rewarded with absolutely stunning views over the Cordillera Real as the sun rose to illuminate a world wreathed in snow and mist.

Driving through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile

Without really understanding the immensity of the Atacama Desert, we decided to hire a car and drive ourselves around this amazing region. The photograph is of the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture that suddenly appears in the midst of the sun-bleached desert like a beacon of hope to weary drivers. The Atacama is the driest place on earth, some areas haven’t received rain in thousands of years, yet humans have also eked out an existence in this region for millennia. Today that tradition continues with miners working in some of the most inhospitable conditions known to humankind.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, yet dotted throughout it are desert oases, abandoned nitrate towns, cosmopolitan ocean-side cities and pristine beaches formed along the mighty Pacific Ocean. Head away from the ocean and you suddenly find yourself climbing into a high altitude world where mountains and lakes are brightly coloured by chemicals in the soil. It is here you’ll find the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, a place of exceptional beauty, and the chances are that you’ll have it to yourselves – hardly anyone makes the journey to reach this remote area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps the best known archeological site in the world, I was worried Machu Picchu would be something of a disappointment. I needn’t have feared. Set high on a plateau and overlooked by towering mountains, this lost city of the Inca is a magical place. The photo below is taken from the Sun Gate which forms part of the Inca Trail. Even if you can’t do the trail itself, its worth walking to the Sun Gate to get the view most Incas would have had as they approached the city.

Nazca cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Nazca is known for its monumental pre-Hispanic lines in the desert, yet they form only one (albeit stunning) remnant of the former civilisation that lived in this inhospitable region for thousands of years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire. Drive south of Nazca into the desert and you will come to a huge site where the Nazca culture buried their dead. What makes the cemetery so poignant and moving, is that the remains of the dead are so well preserved and yet surrounded by nothing but desolate desert.

The San Blas Islands, Panama

Picture perfect islands floating in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There has been little development on the islands because they are controlled and governed by the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. Don’t expect luxury hotels and all-inclusive spa packages, do expect peace and quiet, good seafood, white sand beaches without anyone else and bathwater warm sea in which to swim and snorkel. A small slice of paradise.

Cartagena des Indias, Colombia

It is difficult to describe just how lovely Cartagena des Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is, but after a few hours of strolling around the city it had captured our hearts. Cartagena is an extraordinarily well preserved colonial city, with a history as long as Europeans have been involved in the Americas. It has been the scene of pirate attacks, terrible torture under the Spanish Inquisition and suffered at the hands of colonial Spain for declaring its independence long before the rest of Colombia. Walk its beautiful streets, day and night, and absorb the atmosphere and history as you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

We fell in love with Nicaragua, and if we could spend a year abroad again I suspect Nicaragua would be very high on the list of places we wanted to go. We visited the delightful colonial city of Granada, perched on Lago Nicaragua; time stopped and so did we in Pearl Lagoon; El Castillo and the Reserva Biologico Indio-Maiz were wonderful places to spend time. In the end though, Little Corn Island was paradise itself – delicious fresh seafood, incredible beaches, relaxed locals and, best of all, not a single motor vehicle anywhere.

The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

I agonised over having another photo from Nicaragua, but in the end you can’t leave out one of the natural wonders of the world. The Uyuni salt flats are simply amazing. A vast salt pan burned white under the intense Andean sun, it scorches your eyes just to look at it. It is impossible to truly imagine what the salt flats look like unless you’ve been there, an endless alien landscape that is like nothing else on earth.

Viva La Paz, countdown to departure

La Paz is a city like no other. Snow-capped mountains form a surreal backdrop to the city, while gravity-defying houses tumble down the side of the crater in a way that is both beautiful and terrifying. In the bottom of the crater the city sprawls north and south down roads clogged with fume-belching, horn-blaring buses and taxis, the drivers of which have absolutely no respect for pedestrians or other vehicles. Its a miracle there aren’t more fatalities.

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

The streets are filled with bowler hatted chollas, their huge skirts swishing as they walk; coca leaf-chewing campesinos rub shoulders with suited businesspeople; tattooed and pierced young people fill restaurants to eat traditional food; shoeshine boys inquire about polishing your Habanas; and the street markets sell everything from a hundred types of potato to dried llama fetuses and magical powders that make people fall in love with you.

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

All of this frenetic activity takes place at the breathless altitude of 3600m. In winter it is bitterly cold once the sun disappears, in summer it rains so hard that almost every year houses and roads are washed away – often with the loss of life. There is great poverty, especially in El Alto, and extravagant wealth on display almost everywhere you look. My first few days in the city left me feeling disoriented.

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

The more time I’ve spent here though, the more I have grown to love the city and its people. It is a place that slowly gains your affection, and although we chose to live in more genteel Sucre, it is La Paz that, to me, encompasses and defines all of Bolivia. It is also a city where you don’t have to look far for a photo opportunity. I spent a couple of days just wandering the streets in-between packing our bags in preparation for our return to London.

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon's "Let it beer", La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon’s “Let it beer”, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

The other great thing about La Paz is that you can walk around and suddenly find yourself embroiled in a local fiesta. Several times we came across bands and costumed performers playing and parading just in their own barrios. These events are frequently accompanied by heavy drinking; there was one man in the fiesta below who, despite the best efforts of his family to sober him up, was so drunk he could barely walk.

They like to party in La Paz…viva Bolivia.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

The drunkest man in the parade…moments after this he just collapsed and the parade went on without him.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Argentinian North West: the Ruta 40 to Cafayate

Jumping back into the car after breakfast in Molinos, we got back on the Ruta 40 and headed south to Cafayate and its fabled high altitude vineyards. I’d been looking forward to this part of our journey because the road passes through the surreal landscapes of the Quebrada de las Flechas, including bizarre and impressively huge rock formations.

The Ruta 40 is legendary in Argentina, it stretches for virtually the entire length of the country. La Cuarenta runs for more than 5200km north to south, and vast stretches of it remain unpaved. It makes for a magnificent journey through some of the most beautiful landscapes Argentina has to offer. If I’m being honest, our Volkswagen Gol, even with its raised suspension, was a little under-powered for the rugged Ruta 40 but we persevered…

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Washing drying on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Washing drying on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Our Volkswagen Gol on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Our Volkswagen Gol on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Church on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Church on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

We managed to time our arrival in Cafayate to perfection, not only were we staying in another vineyard but there was a fiesta taking place in the town as well, with religious processions heading from the church around the town.

Religious procession leaving the Catedral de Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession leaving the Catedral de Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

After a long drive and the excitement of getting caught up in a fiesta we headed a few kilometres out of town to the Vinas de Cafayate Wine Resort where we were able to relax with a delicious glass of chilled Torrontes and watch the sun set over Cafayate and the surounding valley.

Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Balcony outside our room, Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Balcony outside our room, Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Sunset over Cafayate from Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Sunset over Cafayate from Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

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

Fruit and fiesta in the desert, the lemon-infused oasis of Pica

The blaze of green cutting across the landscape is a sight for sore eyes but still comes as a shock after several days driving through the uniform browns of the Atacama Desert. At first it seems unreal, another heat haze-induced vision amidst the wind-blasted, sun-bleached landscapes of northern Chile.

After all, water is needed for life and this is the driest place on the planet, some areas of which have never received rain and where, scientific research suggests, some river beds have been dry for more than one hundred and twenty thousand years. This poses the question, “When does a river bed stop being a river bed and become desert like everything else around it?”

A green paradise in the desert, Pica, Chile

A green paradise in the desert, Pica, Chile

Thankfully this was no optical illusion, this was Pica, an oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert that is renowned for its fruit, particularly the Limon de Pica, a small, tart lemon that is famous throughout Chile. Pica’s lush greenery and thriving agriculture is all thanks to underground water sources surfacing in the middle of the desert. The town also sports a hot spring where it is possible to take the waters.

Pica has developed a thriving (for northern Chile and mainly for Chileans) tourist industry based around the hot springs and the consumption of fruit juices. Not that the town seeks to exploit this in a tacky way, no not at all…

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

I’m clearly susceptible to not very subtle subliminal advertising, minutes after seeing this fruit display I was found at a fruit juice stall ordering a large mango and lemon drink. Delicious.

Thanks to its water supply Pica has been inhabited for millennia, and it was a vital point on the Inca road system south from Peru. Its also where conquistador Diego de Almagro came on his way to conquer Chile for the Spanish, and still retains some lovely colonial era buildings.

We hadn’t planned it but our arrival in the town coincided with the start of a big fiesta centred around the San Andres (St. Andrew) church and the lovely main plaza. After days in the Atacama Desert the sudden riot of colour and music was fabulous and the atmosphere was all fun. At times the whole town seemed to have joined in the celebrations and the streets were full of people dancing.

Although uniquely Chilean, the shared history and culture between northern Chile and Bolivia was clear from some of the costumes worn during fiesta…

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

As with most fiestas in Bolivia the local saints are paraded around the streets accompanied by performers and bands, and much of the action ends at the church.

St. Andrew, fiesta in Pica, Chile

St. Andrew, fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers pray in the church during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers pray in the church during fiesta in Pica, Chile

As night descended things stepped up a gear and the whole of Pica seemed to pour out onto the streets and, accompanied by bands, danced and drank their way around the town. While outside the church other performers danced for hours, some with exciting illuminated masks. It was a a fun night.

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

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…