This has become my all time favourite photo- especially when I did not see this coming. Like all travellers we love taking photos to keep as memories but some cultures view our snappy habit as threatening. Many of the older generation of Bolivian women still believe that when you take their picture you steal a part of their soul. It is also interesting to note that others are happy to pose as long as you buy something from their stall. Does this mean that the superstition is slowly giving way to – dare I say – common sense?
I have always been intrigued about the bowler hats that are synonymous with Bolivian women. As soon as we set out from our hotel I spot my first ‘hat’ and it set in that we are finally in Bolivia, a land of intrigue and colourful stories. Fortunately our guide was quick to explain about the Cholitas ( women) and the fascination with both the rainbow coloured shawls that they use to carry items on their back and the felt bowler hat. The iconic hats only became part of the Cholitas attire when the british became such an integral part of Bolivian life. Dating back to 1879, the disastrous ‘War of the Pacific’ saw the joint forces of Chile and Britian reduce Bolivia to the poorest nation in South America. Chile was at every step of the way backed and armed by the British Empire as English industrialists took control of the vast natural resources of the Bolivian coastal region. At that time the bowler hat became synonomous with power – or at least that is how the Bolivian women saw it. If by chance you see a hat set on the back of the head- it is said that the relationship is ‘complicated’. Although their are no offical figures, it is estimated that around 75% of marriages end in divorce and many in the first 2 years.
Once the adaptation of their cultural dress took hold making the top of the hat taller than those of the British gents, one can assume this was about standing tall over their men and taking charge. In the fields the bowler is impractical so cloth hats are more prevalent.
Today there are still many superstitions surrounding life in Bolivia. The wearing of the full skirts or Pollera with many petticoats ( centros) is indicative of women having good child bearing hips. The Quechua clothing has not always been the way it is today and was influenced primarily by the Spanish. Many more are now embracing the comfort of more western style attire as seen in this picture above. One such ‘superstition’ can be a little confronting. At the Witches Market hanging from the doorways you will see dried Llama foetuses in both brown and white and an array of herbs to cure all ills. Many still believe that if you wish for good fortune in life – everything from planting new crops to selling a house or even building a new one- the foetus is the first purchase you must make for a blessing on the endeavour. Due to the extreme cold experienced in Bolivia, it is said that many of the newborn are aborted or die soon after birth, thus providing a substantial number of offerings back to mother earth. Pre Christain culture remains strong in Bolivia with the indigenous majority staying true to old traditions.
Arriving into El Alto airport you are immediately greeted by the first hint of altitude. As the highest International airport in the world at 4061 metres, it can hit you hard if you are not prepared. There are four airports higher but all are internal flights – three in Bolivia with the record held by Daocheng Yoding in Sichuan China at 4411 metres.
The drive to the capital La Paz is a short one ‘downhill’. A drop of around 200 metres is mentally welcome but realistically doesn’t make a great deal of difference. It is a good way to acclimatise for the onward journey. Stopping at a view point to look down upon the valley we can see first hand how the city has dealt with the mountainous and rocky terrain. Gondolas now grace the skyline transporting people to four regions of the city.
Perched on the edge of the Andes Mountains, La Paz offers so many wonderful experiences not to mention the shopping and photographic opportunities. We hear the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid – the notorious outlaws who fled to Bolivia only to be gunned down in a shoot out in 1908. However according to the discovery of a biography, it appears that Robert Leroy Parker – aka Butch Cassidy, may have made it out, had plastic surgery in France and simply died of old age in Washington State. Lets not tell the romantics.
Characters such as the shoe shine lady have adapted to change. With the advent of the sneakers, their business has waned, so what better way to supplement your income than as a tour guide.
A traditional Bolivian Cholita will cut her hair only once in their lifetime. When white wool is wrapped around their plaits is signifies that they are single, black a widow and other colours- married. I think the lady in our photo below is a little unsure of what she wants from a man. With the hat though she will be boss no matter what.
I could spend more time writing about La Paz, but with so much to do in this vast country it is time to move on to Lake Titicaca and Sun Island. With the lake bordering both Bolivia and Peru in the Andes Mountains, you can enter from either country. Departing La Paz at 5 am seemed like a feat for someone is not an early riser but as the sun began to rise over the mountains with a golden shower of light poking through the first signs of blue, it was worth the early rise. It is said that Titicaca is the birthplace of the Incas. The anticipation of hearing stories passed down through the generations on Incan history is running through my mind. Our learned guide Andres it seems is as eager to tell as we are to listen. Rounding hill after hill we finally emerge to the famous beachside town of Copacabana. Andres is quick to point out that this ‘Copacabana’ was the first. An explorer came across the cove and marvelled at it’s beauty. Upon his return to Brazil, he decided that the name fitted their great stretch of beach. The rest is history -as it is said.
As a base for exploring Isla del Sol- Island of the Sun- Copacabana has many religious festivals. In the summertime it is difficult to find accommodation as many radiate here to enjoy the beach and clear waters. The main Basilica or Catedralde la Virgen de la Candelaria is surrounded by flowers and Bolivian women in traditional dress. The street leading to the main port is lined with restaurants offering both local and western food but be aware – whatever you order there will be plenty of it.
Our journey to the Eco Lodge la Estancia on Sun island is where the history lessons begin. As we board the small boat which now becomes our transport, Lake Titicaca surrounded by the majestic Andes Mountains stretches out like a never ending mural. The Pilkokaina Incan Temple is our first introduction to an ancient civilisation and our first up close and personal with both Llama and Alpaca.
The further we head into the rural areas and Lake Titicaca with Sun and Moon Islands, it is evident very little has changed. Ladies sit on the earth and hand split coloured yarns ready to weave another set of place mats with matching tablecloth. Some may have mobile phones but for the women, tradition is their life blood. As the sun continues to rise, older women lug sacks of potatoes to the pier to greet those arriving from the mainland in the hope of making enough money to feed their family. Not all are happy as they are still very wary of foreigners.
In Andian culture it is believed that Titicaca is the birthplace of the sun and the moon. Watching the sunset as we settle into Eco Lodge La Estancia it could almost be true. The lodge was built with ecolgical ideals and is living up to that. The most amazing systems have been put into place for water and temperature control in the units and the local produce served in their exquisite restaurant is organic and all grown on the island. An afternoon stroll through the village unleashes incredible sites of donkeys and llama with locals returning from a day on the terraces tending a planting of potatoes and corn. No one is exempt from tilling the soil with what can only be described as ‘old methods.’
The Eco Lodge La Estancia is the perfect place to be.
Time moves too fast when you want to stay longer to soak up the magnificence. But move it does as we board the small boat once again for Moon Island- Isla de la Luna -and the Inak Uyu Temple. Said to be the home of Incan women and girls known as Viracocha- their training at the nunnery taught them to command the rising of the moon. We learned from our esteemed colleague Andres why the Incan race died out. The Spanish were excellent at manipulating the Incan Emperors. Two brothers fought for supremacy at a time when the Incans were failing to control their people. It was not hard for the Spanish to pit one against the other and then double cross the remaining ruler. In 1532 Spanish conquerors began to break up the empire.
In many ways we are sorry to be leaving Titicaca. When you have a moment of solitude to gaze upon the distant Andes Mountians still holding snow on their peaks, and ponder the aproaching storm as it rumbles and circles the lake, it is easy to fall into a sense of awe at mother nature. Just one more day – maybe next time.
I can hear La Paz calling yet again. One more night to take in the sites before our flight to Uyuni and the famous salt flats and the Palacio de la Sal – the first salt hotel.
I will miss my little friends but with more of Bolivia on order, I am sure we are likely to see these interesting chaps again. Arriving into Uyuni late evening has the team excited about bed. Driving through the sparce landscape we can only imagine what will greet us on sunrise. The Palacio de la Sal was the first hotel made of salt in Uyuni. Stunning seems so cliche’ but words like ‘unusual’ really don’t portray how magnificent this hotel is. Chairs walls tables and ceilings are made of salt with timber walkways surrounded by a whiteness that holds a sense of simpleness and beauty creating a story of its own.
A good nights rest and a sumptuous breakfast makes all the difference to ones demeanour, I certainly feel like tackling the world today. Pictures cannot prepare you for the Salt Lake – or flats. We are told of temporary blindness due to ignorance and it doesn’t take long before we see why. Our first short stop is in the small town of Colchani to discover how the locals eke out a living from mining the salt. The car loads of tourists buying souveniers supplement their income. Located in the southwest of Bolivia- the salt flats of Uyuni are the largest in the world. A prehistoric lake that went dry leaving nearly 11,000 square kilometres of salt flats, has also left islands such as Isla Incahuasi and Isla del Pescado covered in cacti- some as old as 100 years or more. It is very rare to see wildlife here even though you will find llama and vicuna on the far periphery and flamingoes will graze on the outer reaches on the algae.
The world famous Dakar rally begins here and while it might be tempting to see yourself as a racing driver, it is easy to see why you must do this with a guide. The drivers are highly trained and have navigated the flats for many years. Holes appear from time to time and there are literally no markers telling you where to go. The sun reflects off the salt increasing your chances of sunburn so full face cover is recommended. The world’s largest lithium deposit is beneath with the lake measuring 120 meters in depth in most parts. It is stark and yet somehow it manages to become one of the most awe inspiring things you will see. It is extraordinary and one can only try to imagine what it would have been like when the Incans farmed the land and maybe even fished the lake. Remains of buriel grounds sit alongside Quinoa fields as llamas graze the edges in what seems like a very dry and inhospitable environment. Our new guide is very quick to tell us that quinoa originated in Bolivia.
Our long journey continues as we start the bumpy trek to Laguna Colorada- home to the famous pink flamingo. It is said that there are around 30,000 flamingoes in this region. The red algae is responsible for the intense reds and pinks of the long legged bird. Strolling majestically as they feed and click and clak at each other, a few moments here does not seem enough but the journey must continue. We have the green and white lakes to visit before the days end.
The white and green lakes seem take their colours from snow melt and also salt which sadly is consuming more and more . The thought that Uyuni was once a large body of water does not seemto bode well for what is left. Everywhere we turn we see evidence of salt on the edges, slowly creeping like an unseen monster to engulf the entire lake. Our journey takes us through a remote and desolate landscape. Inactive volcanoes are scattered across the hills while rock formations jut out of the sand dunes to remind us of how fragile the earth is. Rock Valley will eventually disappear in the wind and storms that come and go with the seasons. We pose for photos today but in the future the land will be undulating with no giants to make their mark.
We make one last overnight stop in the remote and wild San Juan. Our hostel is welcome amongst the dust and wind. The sun is setting over the Andes- yet again providing a reflective moment of the journey so far. Like something out of the wild west with dirt roads and low brick buildings, San Juan is true Bolivia, the country and the people as authentic as anyone could wish for. The only thing missing is the tumble weeds. Hostal La Magia is the only white building- a one of a kind in town. There is no mistaking it, stark white against the red and brown hues of the desert. Sunrise like sunset provides the most amazing photography. A few people emerge from doors hidden within courtyards and hurry along to their destination. The lone corner store opens its doors ready for trading as we wait for the arrival of our drivers and guide. I am happy for them to be delayed- it allows me a few more moments to soak up the town and imagine how difficult life might be.
As our Bolivian expedition draws to a close I have a far better understanding of the life of the people in this amazing country. Our last glimpse of the imposing Andes Mountain Range from the Bolivian side is tinged with sadness and excitement. The journey is about the change course as we say goodbye to Hostal La Magia de San Juan and hello to the Chilean border and our new guide for the Atacama Desert- Michael. At this point we cross at 4480 metres before we descend into the Atacama Desert. My thanks to Chimu Adventures for what can only be described as a phenominal experience. You have provided us with an adventure that has taught us how precious our planet is.
© Deanne Scanlan Destination Designer
Photographs are originals from the author and can be used only with permission with credit given to the owner.
** Photo of the Bolivian woman in plaits with no wool is courtesy of Kylie Brady.