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.

The ‘everything must go sale’, Bolivia style

Bolivian houses rarely come with furniture when you rent. After furnishing a house several times larger than the flat in London we had a lot of ‘stuff’ to dispose of when we moved. When we arrived our landlady gave us some chairs and small tables, but beyond that we had to buy everything else.

I mean everything: cooker, fridge, beds, mattresses, bed sheets, pillows, duvets, blankets, plates, pans, cutlery, glasses, cups, coat hangers, sofas, comfy chairs, bean-bags, rugs, outdoor furniture, mops, buckets, brooms, clothes pegs, towels and, of course, shot glasses. While we donated clothes and various things to orphanges and gave books and foodstuffs to friends, we still had a lot of ‘stuff’ to sell to help finance our travels.

Thankfully, our friend Roxanna, who was in the process of renting a house for her and her son, decided to take everything off our hands to furnish her new home. Bring on Bolivian removals…first, take the entire contents of a four bedroom house; second, pile everything into the back of a small truck; finally, keep two people in the back to hold on to everything.

House removals, Bolivian style, Sucre

House removals, Bolivian style, Sucre

House removals, Bolivian style, Sucre

House removals, Bolivian style, Sucre

So its “despedida” to Sucre and “hola” to the open road…apparently everything reached the other end in one piece, which meant I lost a bet.

Leaving Bolivia…a plan comes together

So, after ten months living in this fascinating country, we’ve decided to hit the road and head north. The plan, such as it is, has an outline and very little content – but not really knowing where you want to explore is part of the fun.

Leave only footprints...the joy of travel

Leave only footprints…the joy of travel

What we do know is, when we leave our home in Sucre, we’ll travel overland to Lima, Peru, from where we’ll take a flight to Colombia and then work our way north with the goal of Nicaragua as our final destination. I’m desperate to visit the Corn Islands and Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, so it is Nicaragua or bust for me.

Map of South and Central America

Map of South and Central America

We have three months, more or less, before we need to return to Bolivia (our residency visas run out on June 1st). We will hopefully be able to spend a little more time exploring Bolivia before returning to London, an uncertain future and an even more uncertain job market (a big thank you to George Osborne for arranging that).

Sucre is a small town that has found a big place in our hearts, it will be a wrench to leave it and all our new friends behind. The pull of a new adventure is very strong though, and our time in Bolivia has only whetted our appetite to see more of this amazing continent. All that remains to be done is to sell all the belongings we furnished our new home with, pack our bags and have a huge farewell party (possibly two, maybe three) to say “thank you” to all our friends.

Sucre from the roof of Convento de San Felipe Neri, Bolivia

Sucre from the roof of Convento de San Felipe Neri, Bolivia

With a sad heart but rising excitement of the road ahead it is hasta luego to Sucre and buen viaje y buen suerte to us.

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

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

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

Tarabuco, a real Christmas market

‘Twas the Sunday before Xmas and there was only one place to go when in need of some last minute Xmas gifts or a fascinating insight into life in rural Bolivia: Tarabuco.

The market in Tarabuco is legendary in Bolivia for its superb weavings produced by the predominately Quechua speaking indigenous population. We have several beautiful Tarabuco weavings in the house, but it is possible to find many more wondrous items to fill those Xmas stockings.

Tarabuco is a small village nestling amongst a beautiful mountainous landscape some 65km from Sucre. This alone would be reason to visit, but it is also the epicentre of the region’s famous weavings, all still done by hand on wooden looms with skills and unique designs passed down from generation-to-generation.

Tarabuco and the surrounding region is home to a unique Bolivian culture, and one that fought fiercely to retain its identity, first against the Inca empire and again against the colonising Spanish. Both empires sought to subjugate the local Chiriguano tribes, and both struggled to quash the fierce resistance of the Chiriguano. The main plaza has a gruesome statue commemorating a famous victory (one of the few) over the Spanish – complete with a heart freshly ripped from the body of a Spanish soldier.

Statue commemorating a famous victory over the Spanish, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Statue commemorating a famous victory over the Spanish, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Once you’ve recovered from the shock of that, it is time for some serious shopping…don’t forget to negotiate.

Weavings, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Weavings, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Handmade dolls in traditional costumes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Handmade dolls in traditional costumes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Gourds with nativity scene, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Gourds with nativity scene, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Strings of coloured sweets, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Strings of coloured sweets, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Xmas hats? Tarabuco, Bolivia

Xmas hats? Tarabuco, Bolivia

Piggy bank and animal gourds, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Piggy bank and animal gourds, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Handmade dolls wearing traditional costumes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Handmade dolls wearing traditional costumes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Sandals made from recycled tyres, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Sandals made from recycled tyres, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Traditional fiesta masks, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Traditional fiesta masks, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Jewellery, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Jewellery, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Weavings, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Weavings, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Llama wool, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Llama wool, Tarabuco, Bolivia