– visited January 2014 –

My timing is good. Soon after crossing the Brazilian-Bolivian border, I catch one of the six weekly trains leaving from Puerto Quijarro. The train rumbles over the rails, swinging from side to side as I have never experienced it anywhere else before. The carriage has a TV and it is showing films one after the other. The timing for my arrival in San Jose de Chiquitos is less fortunate, the train arrives at 1:41 in the morning. The hotels are prepared though for late arrivals.

For many people Bolivia is associated with high altitude. Lake Titicaca (3,812 m), the Salar de Uyuni (3,656 m at its lowest point), Potosí (4,090 m) or the capital city of La Paz, that stretches from an altitude of 3200 m to 4100 m, making it the highest seat of any government in the world. But in fact, nearly two thirds of Bolivia’s territory is below 400 metres and most of that is covered by rainforest. I arrived to these lowlands from the Brazilian Pantanal.

My Route through Bolivia.

The main attraction of San José de Chiquitos is its former Jesuit mission, one of six such missions that have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. The style of the churches is unique, combining elements of native and European architecture. The missions were self-sufficient, with thriving economies, and virtually autonomous from the Spanish crown. They have been described variously as experiments in “socialist theocracy” or a rare example of “benign colonialism”. The indigenous people in the reductions (as they were also known), under the guidance of the Jesuits, would remain autonomous and isolated from Spanish colonists and Spanish rule, giving them protection from enslavement and the forced labour of the Spanish encomiendas. On the other hand, the Jesuits enforced a rigid, severe and meticulous regimentation on the native population. But there is no denying that back in their days the missions were successful and it was certainly better to live in a mission than at the mercy of Spanish colonialists. The experiment came to an end with the expulsion of the Jesuit order from Spanish territories in 1767.

I move on to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. There is not much to see, in colonial days it was a backwater. Nowadays, it is one of the biggest and economically most important cities of Bolivia. Rarely visited by travellers, it has only one hostel, and it is more of the party variant. The pool, and the bar next to it, is the centre of the whole affair. Prices are low by European and American standards but outrageous by Bolivian standards. Most backpackers don’t care and spend most of their time in the hostel. 

Time to talk about the colonization of (Spanish) South America. How could Spain, with little manpower, take control of such a vast territory, especially a territory that contained powers like the Aztec and the Inca Empires? The short answer would be diseases, technological advantages, total disregard for the indigenous population and the successful exploitation of divide and conquer tactics.

Columbus reached the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola (the home of the Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1492. As the Spanish Conquistadores (conquerors) set foot on the South American Continent in earnest two decades later Old-world diseases like smallpox and measles had already arrived and the local population died from them in great numbers. It is estimated that the native population of the Americas plummeted by 80% in the 150 years after Columbus arrival with diseases being the major factor. This means that the Conquistadores arrived to a continent already in turmoil, how would you react if a wave of disease kills scores of people around you? The Europeans were themselves susceptible to tropical diseases but none of those were as deadly or unfamiliar than the diseases the Europeans spread.

The Spanish also had strong technological advantages. South America did not have any animal that could be used for riding or for pulling carts, transporting goods often was the task of carriers. Horses allowed the invaders to move a lot quicker than the natives and gave them an advantage on the battlefield where foot-soldiers were confronted by cavalry. The Spanish had state-of-the-art steel swords and were wearing body armour. The native fighters were equipped with rudimentary stone axes or wooden swords like the macuahuitl with jagged obsidian shards set in the sides. Surely a lethal weapon but no match against a sharp steel sword. Native armour was often very colourful and beautiful, generally intended to intimidate as much as protect. A well-equipped Spanish foot soldier could cut down dozens of natives within minutes. Firearms were not widely used in the early conquest but the Spanish had harquebuses, a sort of early musket. They struck terror in the native population as it appeared as the enemy could create thunder. The psychological aspect of all that is not to be underestimated. South America surprised the Spanish conquerors with nothing, all they would see might be different than at home but would generally fall into their realm of experience. The indigenous population would instead, as in science-fiction, encounter things that were alien to their world and hard to comprehend like the thunder that could kill. The story is legendary that an Inka fighter managed to kill a horse just to be slain by the horseman. He had perceived them as one being and began to celebrate his victory as the horse was going down not paying attention to the well-armed rider sitting on top of it.

The Spanish made good use of the rifts in south American society. The native population was not uniform and many groups had quarrels with other groups. Especially powerful entities like the Incas had made plenty of enemies, subjugating other peoples and treating them harshly. These peoples were ready to collaborate with the Spanish against their enemies. Voluntary vassalage would yield comparative safety, continued resistance would result in more deaths and destruction. Of course, the conquerors could always turn against their vassals later on. They were absolutely ruthless, drawn by the lust for gold searching for the mythical El Dorado and quick ways to get rich. They regarded the native population as inferior and had no problem to break agreements if it suited their interest. The Inca leader Atahualpa was captured as he followed an invitation to visit Hernando Pizarro and his unarmed followers were ruthlessly attacked and killed without warning in a massacre leaving 2,000 dead. An Inca life was worthless to most of the invaders…  

At least the native population was spared the fate of being enslaved. Pope Alexander VI had requested the evangelization of the people in exchange for granting the lands to the Kingdom of Spain. Slavery was prohibited between Christians and in 1537, a papal bull definitely established that Native Americans possessed souls (!). Instead the encomienda system was established in which conquistadors and officials were rewarded for their service by being granted total control over a certain territory, including the population. For many observers, this system was worse than slavery and it was formally abolished in 1542. The influence of the Spanish crown though was limited far away from home and informal labour coercion and enslavement persisted for most of the Spanish colonial period.

Whereas settlers in North America mostly arrived with the idea to work the land with their own hands the conquistadores arrived mostly with the idea to have others work their land and to live off the proceeds. The mythical El Dorado was never found but plenty of other riches. Before Independence the town of Sucre, Bolivia’s capital (not its seat of government, that is La Paz) was known as La Plata (Silver) because it was the administrative centre for the nearby silver mines at Potósi.

The aforementioned Sucre is my next destination. Situated at 2,800 m it has a temperate climate and is a classical colonial city (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) with a plan like a chessboard. It has beautiful parks and is full of churches. I stay for two days to acclimatize to the altitude; I will go even higher soon. The hostel is full for a meeting of young Germans, who are working in social projects all over Bolivia in a government-sponsored program ( I still regret not having taken the time to do a proper Spanish language course in Sucre. Bolivians are famed all over South America for their beautiful pronunciation. La Plata secured its place in history by being the first town to demand independence from Spain on May 25, 1809. That independence was won 16 years later and the city was renamed Sucre in honour of the revolutionary leader Antonio José de Sucre.

Cerro Rico, the “Rich Mountain” is a beautifully shaped, 4,824 m high pyramid towering above Potosí. It has a reddish-brown gossan cap (upper and exposed part of an ore deposit) of iron-oxides and quartz. The city itself lies at the foot of the mountain at a nominal altitude of 4,090 metres above sea level. The mountain is the world’s largest silver deposit and an estimated eighty-five percent of the silver produced in the central Andes during the Spanish Colonial period came from Cerro Rico. Potosí, despite its altitude, was at that time one of the largest cities in the New World. 

Nowadays, the situation is a bit less glorious. The mountain still contains silver but the state mine closed in the 1980s (because everybody got paid by the mine but no one worked in it as our guide claims) and today a multitude of small cooperatives is working in the mountain. You can visit the mines. Some guidebooks, notably the Lonely Planet, strongly discourage doing so. According to them, it is dangerous and the mines are a modern-day hell where workers toil until their certain death a few years later. The picture they paint is so negative, that you wonder why anyone in their right mind is suicidal enough to work there. Let’s have a look.

To visit the mines, I chose a company that credibly claimed of being run by ex-miners. They assure me that never ever anything happened to a tourist in the mines. First stop of the tour is the miner’s market. We were told to buy presents for the miners like soft drinks, cigarettes, coca leaves or dynamite. Yes, you can buy dynamite just like that on this market. Next, we receive rubber boots, an overcoat, a helmet with a headlamp and a mask. After visiting a processing plant, where big machines crush the ore and traces of silver are extracted from it with the help of chemicals, we are ready to enter the mines. At first, we are in bigger tunnels that stem from the days of the state mining company. They are fitted with rails that were once used with small electrical engines, nowadays it is all done by hand. We encounter some miners pushing a heavy load, we have to press ourselves against the walls to get out of the way. On the guidance of our guide we disperse the present and, yes, deep inside the mountain a bottle of some soft drink is a nice thing to have. Nearly all the workers, as well as our guide, have the characteristic single puffed up cheek full of coca leaves. We have entered an area with smaller tunnels, in some parts we have to crouch, this is definitely not a place to be claustrophobic, the rails are gone and workers push wheelbarrows. They are heavy, I push one for a few metres. An American in our group tries his hand as well and nearly falls over with his wheelbarrow. I’m sure he is still going around the world, telling everybody how impossible it is moving these wheelbarrows. This is the way how stories are made.

We are lucky, the miners have just finished drilling a hole and we are ready for an explosion. We move a bit away and await the blast. All the tourists protect their ears but the other miners just sit there, totally unfazed. They have seen it, done it before. It is not loud, but a tremor goes through the mountain and smoke rises out of the tunnel where the explosion happened. We visit the statue of El Tio (the uncle) with his massive phallus. The miners pay respect to him and ask for protection and good yields. Our guide has brought some vodka that we drink while sitting around El Tio. It tastes absolutely disgusting, even I refuse to take a second round. We pass an area with beautiful green minerals and then we have made it, we successfully crossed the mountain, inside. We are standing in a waste-land of discarded material.

I would recommend everyone to visit the mines; it is a real-life experience. It is certainly not a nice place to work, it is dangerous and not beneficial to one’s health but for many people in Potosí it presents the option of a well-paying job as mining has for centuries all over the world. You are not making the life of the miners any worse by visiting and only economic progress for all of Bolivia could improve their lives. We should work towards that goal.

Coming back from the mines, some of the other travellers are relieved to hear that the road to the airport has been opened again. Bolivia has a sizeable indigenous population that has always felt disadvantaged by the population of Spanish ancestry. In 2005, Evo Morales, an indigenous and long-time leader of various social movements became president taking a turn to the left in Bolivian politics. Despite of that, or maybe encouraged by that, various social movements tend to block roads all across Bolivia to press their demands. The last days, it was the road leading from Potosí to La Paz that had been blocked.

The Salar de Uyuni made me change my travel plans, instead of heading south from Brazil along the coast, I headed west into Bolivia to experience the Salar while it is still covered by water at the end of the rainy season. I didn’t even know about the Salar before coming close to Bolivia but for many people it is a dream landscape they want to see in their life. The largest salt flat in the world at 10,582 square kilometres it is the remnant of the giant prehistoric Lake Minchin. As the lake dried out, all the salt was concentrated and finally deposited in the Salar, its lowest point. In some areas the salt is several metres thick. Because of its flatness, it is used to calibrate satellites measuring our earth. In the rainy season, the Salar fills with water that evaporates later in the year. While filled with water, I was promised a giant mirror 129 kilometres in diameter, where I would not be able to discern the ground from the sky. That made me want to visit.

The tours are three or four days and for the most part they do not visit the Salar but the far southwestern corner of Bolivia close to the Argentinian and Chilean border (with the possibility to cross to San Pedro de Atacama). The Salar at 3,656 m is the lowest point of the tour. There is hardly anyone living in these harsh lands of great beauty. Tours are conducted by jeep on dirt roads, at one point (if coming from Tupiza) climbing higher than 5,000 m. You pass volcanoes like the 6,008 m high Uturuncu or the beautiful Licancabur (5,960 m), swim in hot springs, observe the masses of flamingoes feeding in the lakes of various different colours and admire the Desierto de Salvador Dalí with its weird rock formations. Occasionally, you pass a small settlement with some Llamas and if you are me, you hope to see as many of the beautiful Vicuñas (the wild cousins of Alpacas) as possible. We are two jeeps from the same company and we are good company. The nights are cold and even the days at this altitude can be unpleasant. At the Laguna Colorada (Coloured Lake, 4,270 m) the wind is blowing strong and everybody puts on layers of extra clothing despite of the sun.

The Salar itself is beautiful but the mirror effect is a disappointment. Yes, it is there but it is still easy to keep your orientation and to differentiate the sky from the ground. And because of the water, we can only drive as far as the Palacio de Sal, a hotel which walls are made out of salt and not cross the Salar as in the dry season. That means, that I am missing out on the Isla de Pescado with its beautiful cacti. A reason to go back one day.

The group disperses in Uyuni, but people are trapped because the road out of town is blocked by a social movement demanding the legalisation of their houses erected without permits. The only road open is the way back to Tupiza which I take. Heavy rain starts and we have to wait nearly two hours for the waters to recede before being able to ford the river.

It was never meant that this would be my whole journey to Bolivia, I wanted to head South now to Argentina to stay within the season in Patagonia but heading north along South Americas western coast I was always slated to return and to visit La Paz, Bolivia’s highland centre. It would not happen that way. If you want to know why, have a look at my report from Ecuador.