June 2010: Visiting indigenous cultures has always been one of my top goals in travel and there is no better country in South America for this than Bolivia. Approx. 70 percent of the population is indigenous mostly related to the Incans. The two largest tribes are Aymara and Quechua. In addition to culture, Bolivia is brimming with adventure. There are mountains, rainforests and the dry tropical forests of El Chaco. Bolivia is one of those countries that I have a feeling I will be visiting more than once in my lifetime. On this trip I had one week, and I planned to visit Solar de Uyuni and the bizarre otherworldly landscapes of the Altiplano Mountains. So, I cashed in my American miles and flew to la Paz, Bolivia where I began my trip.

 

 

My Bolivia route in yellow

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America with the largest population of impoverished people. As a result of the large disparity between rich and poor, socialism has taken root giving rise to the socialist leaders like Evo Morales. Communist revolutionary, Che is also a common sight in socialist leaning Bolivia. It was in Bolivia where the CIA eventually caught up to him and executed him.

President Morales is the first indigenous president of Bolivia and a former coca farmer and union leader, and he is also a close friend and ally of Hugo Chavez. It is no wonder that Morales is distrustful of the USA and because of his close association with coca, he has banned the presence of American drug enforcement agents tasked with eradicating it.

Evo Morales billboard commom in la Paz

Landing in La Paz at an elevation of 12,000′, you immediately begin to feel the effects of altitude and freshly brewed coca tea awaits tourists at every hotel. Coca leaves are consumed by the indigenous people of the Andes as a stimulant. It is also aides the acclimatization process. Most Bolivians chew the leaves with a lime; however, altitude sick tourists prefer to drink the leaves with hot water.

La Paz is an old colonia era city dating back to the 1500’s built on the steep mountain slopes. Colonial buildings and churches are abundant. Cathedral San Francisco was built in 1549 and is commonly used to hold weddings by indigenous people. The area of the church is a lot of fun to explore because the cobblestone streets are narrow passing through colonial architecture and there is no shortage of people watching opportunities.

La Paz Streets

I really liked this area of la Paz. There were many great restaurants and stores along the way.  In every odd intersection or so, you might find a few zebras directing traffic to assist pedestrians across intersection walking lanes. These zebras are orphans hired by the government as part of a government campaign to help bring order to the streets of La Paz and create awareness of pedestrian safety. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked all that well and I was informed that even a zebra or two has been killed by the traffic.

Normally I dont visit museums when traveling but the museum of Coca was not to be missed. it is a fascinating museum about the history of the coca plant and its importance to the indigenous people and how it is made into cocaine and fuels the current drug wars. One bit of information I found interesting was that initially the Spanish conquistadors found the coca leave, with its stimulant characteristics, unholy and deemed it satanic. The indigenous people were banned from its use, however after the indigenous people were enslaved and forced to work in the mines and it was discovered that the consumption of coca leaves resulted in longer hours worked and more material mined, the Spaniards quickly changed their stance on the plant and the Spanish church blessed its use.

 

This fruit and vegetable market in La Paz was dying down for the day because it was afternoon and a steady rain had set in.

This woman above is called a Chola Pacena because she was likely born in La Paz and wears the distinctive dress of the full skirt. The majority of these women also wear a derby hat. The long shawl hasn’t changed much in shape since the 16th century and it keeps with the tradition of the Inca princess Nustas, who also wore a similar dress.

I had a real hard time photographing these women. I normally prefer to ask people for their photo and photograph them up close and personal but in the case of most of these women they were adamantly opposed to having their photos taken even when I bought something from them or sparked up a conversation with them. Part of the reason why they are opposed to photos is the traditional belief that a photo can capture a piece of their and also because they are sensitive to their traditions, and they may also think that a foreigner might use their photos to mock them. In my case I am just trying to capture their traditions and not their souls with my photos and for the most part I was forced to sneak photos of the people with my zoom lens without them seeing me.

Parade

For about 8 hours thousands flooded the streets to watch people dress in traditional clothes and dance and sing to pan flute music. This was a pretty huge event for the local people. Local people brought chairs and boards to set up sitting areas for a fee and then they hung tarps behind the sitting areas so those who didn’t pay to sit couldn’t see the parade and would be forced to pay for a seat. I sat in a seated area sandwiched in between a group of Quechua ladies. 

Parade spectator

These guards standing in attention before the presidential palace and dressed in ancient looking garbs were ordered to stand next to me along with the police man and pose for a photo by the undercover agent in the suit. I was then ordered to smile for the photo. The presidential palace has seen many turbulent years in its history as countless government coups have left bullet holes behind in the palace walls.

The local people here really found it entertaining to surround their children with bird food, and then back off and let the birds mob the poor kids while they photograph the whole event. This place was insane, in some cases pigeons were perched 4-5 on top of heads and shoulders. It was absolute madness.

The witch’s market was located not too far from my hotel, and there as well as almost everywhere else in la Paz and in Bolivia the sight of Indigenous people, mostly women wearing colorful dresses and unique hats, are a common sight. I learned that indigenous women, depending on what area of the country they come from, wear distinct clothing and hats unique to that area. The woman below, I was told, was from the Potosi area because of this colorful hat she wore. I really liked the hat.

Lady from Petosi

Dried Llama Fetuses used by the indigenous people to ward off evil.

Just outside of La Paz is a valley of bizarre landscapes of rock spires, canyons and dark twisting crevices and caves. This guy above showed me the way through the maze.

Moon Valley

I spent 6 hours on this train from Oruro to Uyuni. I love riding on trains and the scenery was amazing. Wild Vicunas and obese rabbit llama like rabbit creatures scampered off from the tracks as the train approached. I prefer a train any day to airplane or bus travel.

Uyuni Train

Once in Uyuni, it was time to explore. Outside of Uyuni is a train cemetery where the skeletons of old trains some steam driven trains from the 1800s have been lied to rest.

Old train graveyard

Uyuni Salt Lake

Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Bolivia for a reason, it is amazing. I was lucky to be there when there were a few inches of water on the pan giving it the reflective characteristics that made it more beautiful. I joined a small group of tourists to share the cost and we hired a local driver with a vehicle to take us across the salt flat and on a multiple day overland trip across the altiplano visiting its desolate, wild, and bizarre landscapes.

My vehicle in Solar de Uyuni

Solar de Uyuni

Me at Solar de Uyuni

Salt mining is also a big industry on the salt pan. I saw mounds of salt shoveled into piles to be loaded into the back of trucks. With the white reflective waters mirroring the blue skies and clouds it was an amazing experience walking out amongst the Salt Lake which was only a few inches deep on average.

Salt mounds at Solar de Uyuni

On the edge of the salt beds is the tiny salt mining village of Colchani. It looks forgotten in time with old 50’s era trucks loaded up with salt in the back, rundown buildings and only a person or two walking about streets.

Many old trucks like this one were a common sight in Colchani. They are used to haul the salt out of the salt beds and into the village where it is ground and iodized before being shipped out of the village.

village of Colchani.

Altiplano

What I enjoyed the most was driving across the lonely altiplano where few other cars were observed, and guanacos are more common than humans.

Road into Altoplano

Villages were small and very traditional. Most women wore traditional clothing. I purchased snacks from this lady’s shop to develop a friendship with her before taking a photo. 

Indigenous woman wearing a derby hat; its origin much of a mystery.

At the park headquarters of Reserva De Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa where I stayed during this night the kids were bored senseless and just stared at us while pushing a poor kitten up against the window.

The hight and strong sun takes a strong toll on the faces of the children as you can see from the rosy cheeks. I’ve seen this at high locations (Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan).

Many of the indigenous women in Uyuni wore this unique dress with the sunhat, and a colorful sac almost always found draped around their shoulders with a baby inside.

Our vehicle pulled over after hours of grueling roads and we went for a dip in the hot springs. The air was a little chilly, so it was no easy task to get out. The water temp was perfect and scenery stunning. No fences, ropes, signs just geysers, boiling mud pots and you allowed to walk amongst them at your own discretion.

Hot springs

Geysers of Sol De Manana

Laguna Chiar Khota

Colorado Lake

Colorado Lake

Colorado Lake

James Flamingos in the Colorado lake

Lago Verde-At the foot of active Likankabur Volcano. The winds were cold and howling here.

Wild chinchila in the rocks

Altoplano

vicunas/guanacos

It was fairly common to spot group of these llama-like creatures off the side of the road. They are protected now because of overhunting. They are prized for their thick and soft fur. My driver described these wild vicunas as machos because one of these males was attempting to steal the females of the other male and these two macho males were having a face off over who gets to keep the women vicunas.

 

vicunas

My driver described these wild vicunas as machos because one of these males was attempting to steal the females of the other male and these two macho males were having a face off over who gets to keep the women vicunas.

After a few days exploring the altiplano, I returned to Uyuni where I caught a bus all the way back to La Paz because there were no trains running on that day. I sat next to another tourist from South Korea, an 80-year-old man who spoke very limited English and had been born in North Korea and was on a multiyear across the world trip which he said was his last hoorah.

The bus ride was pure hell. It was hot, windows couldn’t open, and it was bone jarring bumpy. Many other passengers including myself took their shirts off because it was too hot. The irony was it was freezing outside. A passenger was finally able to open a rooftop emergency hatch to let cool air in.

San Pedro Prison

San Pedro prison

On my last day in Bolivia, I tried to visit a working prison-the San Pedro prison which I don’t have a photo of unfortunately. The San Pedro prison is famed by back packers as one of the most intriguing tourist destinations in all of Bolivia if you can get in.

The prison is old and falling apart. it looks like a colonial era fort and its walls are literally starting to crumble apart. The roof is a patch work of plastic tarps, cardboard, and metal sheets to keep the rain out of the cells. The prison is overcrowded and underfunded. The guards have resigned themselves to only patrolling the prison walls while leaving the inmates to their own device inside. The guards never go inside, and the prisoners have created a miniature city within the prison walls with its own mini economy and have even elected inmates to positions of authority. Inmates live with their wives and children and inmates range from paupers to the extremely rich. Prison cells, food and even water to bath in must all be paid for the inmate. Some inmates make thousands in black market activities allowed by the corrupt prison guards and even cocaine is made and sold from with the prison. The inmates make and sell much of their own food. The rest is usually brought in by their families. Almost everything inside the prison is run like a miniature city, the only limitation being that the inmates cannot leave.

In the past it was easy for backpackers to pay off the guards to be allowed inside the prison and then to hire an inmate to serve as a guide for a tour of the inside of the prison. At the end of the tour cocaine was commonly bought and smuggled out of the prison for incredibly cheap prices. Ever since this practice found publicity, the govt has attempted to crack down on this and it is now forbidden to tour the prison. Still the tours have not ended 100%. When I was in la Paz, I heard of a few backpackers who in the months prior to my visit managed to get in and were then robbed of everything including their shoes by the inmates. Another group managed to get in and immediately after departing was grabbed by the national police and deported.

With this in mind, I decided to try to get in anyways. I heard that a riot broke out in the prison a few days before my visit, and I knew that this was going to be problematic for me. I set off from my hotel without any valuables and I circled the prison a few times to assess the situation. The prison is surrounded by makeshift food stalls and armed guards patrol its perimeter. I was expecting someone to approach me and offer to help me get in for a fee which is the usual way of gaining entrance however no one did. After a while I decided, I was just going to go for it and ask a guard to let me in. I approached the entrance, gate, where a line of indigenous women with bundles of food in their arms were lined up and I asked a guard in Spanish if I could visit the prison. I stood right in the gate peering into the prison, and I could see the throbs of people inside with food stands going about their business, children running around. and what looked to be crowded and filthy inside. Sadly, the guard informed me that the visiting hours had ended and that I needed to return tomorrow (the day of my departure back home to San Diego) and then enter. It was getting late anyways, and I was alone so in a way I was sort of relieved that I didn’t get in. A little relieved but I must admit I would have entered if they would have let me.

 

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