The Mummies of Volcan Thunupa


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Published: May 1st 2016
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Following the Dakar Rally Part 2...The Mummies of Volcan Thunupa.

We are traveling the highest altitude plateau areas on Earth other than Tibet. Like Tibet the people here are tough...wild dark eyes...smiles of an inner knowledge...landscapes with a wow factor like an oil painting punctured with mountain peaks. While in Tibet the mountains can be sharp and lance the sky...in Bolivia there are volcanoes...and we are going to climb one. Its name is Thunupa...the Amaya god of lightning and volcanoes.

I dream of Anak Krakatoa, the island volcano in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra that we reached in monstrous seas and torrential rain...the sun opening the clouds as we approached ...smoke from the cone puffing a welcome or was it a warning? My boots sinking in deep cinder sand every step as we climbed its precipitous slope...two steps up...slide down one...two steps up...slide down one...it's noxious fumes greeting us at the top as if venturing closer could be our last.

The only similarity with Volcan Thunupa and Anak Krakatoa is I am wearing the same yak skin boots...and of course they are both volcanoes!

Anak Krakatoa is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth, perfect cone in dark grey, puffing sulphur smoke when not exploding.

Thunupa on the other hand rests like a gentle giant whose time is spent...'cause it's dormant. Probably blew it's head off eons ago. But I prefer to call it sleeping 'cause once active, awakening can occur.

Thunupa rests like a resplendent dragon...gotta be the planet's prettiest volcano...scales of orange with slashes of snow...spine up its back in grey shards of stone...cloaked with stitched rock walls on a green checkered down...angry grey clouds spitting lightning from its jaws...then opening its eyes to wink as dusk falls.

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The Legend of Thunupa

We are not the only ones captivated by it's charms.

The Mythology Dictionary describes Thunupa thus:

"An Inca hero with magical powers. Thunupa was said to have appeared from the north with five disciples. He was able to raise mountains and was said to have brought the sun, moon and stars out of Lake Titicaca and worked other such miracles before disappearing into the sea."

Boliviabella.com describes the Legend of the Thunupa volcano thus:

"In ancient times, volcanoes could walk and talk, all of them were male, except for one called Thunupa, who was female. This volcano got pregnant and gave birth to a little volcano whose father was unknown. The male volcanoes got into a terrible fight over who was the father, as all of them had had a relationship with the female volcano, so they snatched the young volcano from her and hid him in a far plain called Colchani. Furious because of this, the gods decided volcanoes would no longer walk or talk, they would stay still like stone. Hearing she could no longer move nor go in search of her child, Thunupa began to cry white milky tears that flooded the plain and formed the Uyuni salt plains when they dried. Her child, the tiny Colchani volcano, is strikingly similar to her, and also laments not being able to go see his mother."



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We are the only guests in the Hotel of Salt near the village of Tahua on the northern shore of the Salar de Uyuni...that massive flooded salt flat that stretches forever. No other tourists around at all. No one else prepared to take the long way around the Salar...no one else prepared to take the off-the-track shortcuts of the Dakar that Valerio takes.

Overlooking is the dragon of Thunupa...5,446 metres or 17,457 ft above sea level...hope there's oxygen to breath up there.

The dragon is laughing as we awake at 7 a.m...laughing so hard its tears are falling as rain...lightning flashing around us...our ascent of Thunupa looking particularly bleak.

But at 8 a.m the rain stops and Geneth with a grin says grab our wet weather gear...the climb is now on. Into the Landcruiser to the village of Coquesa for permits I guess..then up a road of jumbled sharp loose boulders at a snail's pace to a vacant parking lot at 3,982m. Could not possibly be a rougher road but Valerio not fazed at all.

2.2 kms to Mirador 1 (first lookout)...4 more kms to Mirador 2...3.5 kms more to the crater...less than 10 kms...walk in the park.

Who said this wouldn't be easy?

But we didn't appreciate that the distances seem so much, much longer when it's up, up, up.

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Chullpa's Cemetery

This is when I feel sorry for drivers...staying with the vehicle when we may be gone all day...just Valerio with the Landcruiser as his only companion...no one else around...gotta feel sorry for drivers...but it's their lot.

Geneth stretching and rearing to go...over a high dry rock wall...along a rocky path by a small gorge...a ridge with an overhang...a steel padlocked door. Producing a key and beckoning us in.

I still say "Wow" when recalling this moment.

Stooping as we enter...eyes adjusting to low natural light...Geneth with a torch.

We are in a cave big enough to stand in...big enough to gawk in awe.

There is a skeleton sitting in a corner with its legs pulled into its chest...mouth wide open as if screaming or laughing...frayed hession cloth draped to protect from the cold...pottery urns around it as if camp stories told.

Another lies nearby...it's two teeth in its lower jaw and one in the upper jaw and mouth wide open indicating it may have died laughing. At least it's warm as it is wrapped and looks comfy on its bed.

But there are more...and they do not look like they died laughing.

One with a full set of teeth looks as if it is shivering and scratching it's neck.

Another crouched on a rock platform leaning on the cave wall as if it is sleeping.

Another propped up with its hands as if playing a woodwind instrument...maybe a lullaby to die by.

Another sitting in an enclosure of piled stones on a fraying heshion blanket...nil cloth over it...half its face missing...probably off its face enjoying the music.

There are seven mummies in the cave, but the seventh is not laughing.

Two teeth on either jaw...mouth wide open...look of terror on its skeleton face. This one is in pain. It's gotta be screaming.

We stand there in silence. We are not in a concrete, steel and glass museum. We are not in a metropolis surrounded by cabinets or behind glass.

We are in a cave on a mountain...on the side of a volcano...with seven mummies keeping us company.

Chullpa's Cemetery it is called...but who are they? Maybe mummies of priests of Thunupa...it's anyone's guess...or as one speculates...mummies of the Lords of Lipez.

Whoever they are, how lucky to be left as they were found...allowed to rest in peace.

My mouth is open as I type this...contemplating how they died there...screaming...laughing...waiting for death...licking their dry lips.

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The ascent

There is a path up the mountain...tall rock piled walls on both sides. No cinder ash sides for the boots to sink into. No dirt track. No, No, No. Miles and miles of loose stones to clamber over...to test the ankles...to test the rigidity of the boots...to test one's resolve to climb this beast. I think of the locals collecting stones over the eons so they can clear the land to grow crops...gotta put the stones and boulders somewhere...gotta be determined as its rock upon rock.

This volcano vomited rocks eons ago...millions of them...cried tears of salt...millions of them...spits lightning bolts...even now.

Kinda glad its dormant. Kinda hard not to curse as we clamber over these rocks...forget about the altitude...gotta keep going...just concentrating on these miles of damned rocks...one foot after the other...climbing up, up, up!

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It took about two hours to get to Mirador 1.

Denise had altitude issues in Tibet so we acclimatised in Peru and it has paid off. Now in Bolivia...her smile says it all...she made it. But it was not easy.

We rest at the stone cairn...the flooded salt flats below playing with our eyes. Where is the horizon?

The volcano with clouds swishing like a dancer lifting her skirt...showing a bit of leg...then coyly lowering it again.

So we raise our hands...swing them down...swivel...time for Tai Chi...Denise smooth and controlled...me a bit un-co...who cares? Time to let go!

And the mountain smiles...flashes its leg...stockings of snow...a bit of thigh...a bit more leg.

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The view was magical. The rest stop exquisite. The resolve to go on was there but the need was not. Four and a half to six more hours to the crater...and then we have to get down!!! Nah. The resolve to go on is there but the need is not. So we take it all in then clamber over rock upon rock...chatting to donkeys and llamas as we descend at a trot. Kinda think Valerio will be pleased he doesn't have to wait all day in that empty parking lot.

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Watching a leaf floating...and where it falls to rest

Our decision to descend early paid off in spades.

We not only had time for a siesta but visited the home of one of the planet's most eccentric historians. He has collected artefacts from this area and put them on display in his home by the salt flats. Ancient earthenware pots, grinding stones, arrowheads, tools, stuffed pumas, llamas, vicunas, foxes, bolivian cat, skunk, rabbit, armadillos... even a guitar with an armadillo shell for it's sound box. He had a garden of giant cacti and piles of stones...shaped into elephants, llamas, skulls on rock columns...depicting all the animals that comes into his head.

Thunupa smiles down on us in all its glory...reckon it wouldn't have done that if we'd stayed up there...no clouds now in sight.



And in someone's backyard...a rock overhang...a padlocked steel door...and inside something that filled us with awe.

A skeleton crouching against a tiny cave wall (my opening photo)...legs pulled into its chest...head to one side...another in a corner less preserved but there never-the-less.

Two more Mummies of Volcan Thunupa in someone's backyard...undisturbed in their home...forever at rest.





Relax & Enjoy Part 2

Dancing Dave


Additional photos below
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Chullpa's CemeteryChullpa's Cemetery
Chullpa's Cemetery

Seven mummies resting


1st May 2016

Wow! Finding mummies in a cave undisturbed...
and I love that backyard museum...what a collection...and a perfect location...with the volcano high above. The donkeys are cute. Great blog!
1st May 2016

Wow! Finding mummies in a cave undisturbed...
Sort of says something about attitudes and values in Bolivia, Bob. Anywhere else they'd be in a museum. Seven mummies in a cave on the side of the volcano was serendipitous...but to find another two in a cave in someone's backyard was insane!
2nd May 2016

Thunupa and Chlupa mummies
Another great thought provoking article Dave! Any idea where the mummies came from? Was it a sudden volcanic eruption? Then what these people were doing there in such a desolate place? Intrigues my mind! I like the myth surrounding Thunupa's cry, milky tear, the salt plain and their child volcano Colchani. There are always some stories like that which I love to hear. Recently, I heard one in the Dragon mountain in Sapa. It reflects a lot about the local folks where these stories do evolve in bits and pieces over many years! As always, great panoramic shots, Dave.
2nd May 2016

Thunupa and Chullpa's mummies
Thanks for the feedback Tab. I was delighted to find detail of some of the folklore of Thunupa but still researching the origin of the mummies. Seems their origin maybe lost to myth or legends as well! With a volcano as beautiful as Thunupa I am not surprised it is the stuff of legends...its tears the source of the Uyuni salt flats no less! I think I need to return to find Colchani...maybe host a volcanic reunion!
2nd May 2016
Guardian of the volcano

wow...
Volcan Thunupa is certainly something to behold Arif. This guys been transfixed for some time!
2nd May 2016
Chullpa's mummies

so scary...
2nd May 2016
Chullpa's mummies

Portrait of mummies!
2nd May 2016
Chullpa's mummies

Portrait of mummies!
And this one with its full set of teeth seemed close to alive
2nd May 2016
Chullpa's mummies

good shot!
2nd May 2016
Chullpa's mummies

Seems, it's in a meditative state
2nd May 2016
Guardian of the volcano

Yes I can feel that. Already put this place in my bucket list :)
4th May 2016

WOW Mummies!
Another one for the bucketlist..volcanos and mummies!
5th May 2016

WOW Mummies!
I can tell you I said more than that Cindy. Geneth gave no warning at all as we entered the cave...then we were surrounded by them! One of those times I wished my lens had not packed in in Peru. Lucky we had Denise's little camera and her iphone!!!
7th May 2016

Volcan Thunupa vs Anak Krakatoa
It is wonderful when a new adventure transports you back to a pleasant memory, experience, adventure from the past. Very cool mummies. Love these legends. What a fantastic hike. Glad the altitude was not a factor. Thank goodness for Denise and her camera.
7th May 2016

Volcan Thunupa vs Anak Krakatoa
Ditto all your comments MJ. And to be the only ones in these extraordinary landscapes adds a stillness and silence that only traveling off-season can provide.
7th May 2016
Volcan Thunupa

Amazing scenery
The perfect shot. I love this one.
7th May 2016
Volcan Thunupa

Amazing scenery
I agree. Definitely one of my favourites.
7th May 2016
Awakening the dragon

Up,up, and away
Good for you
7th May 2016
Awakening the dragon

Volcano
Put the spell on it.
7th May 2016

Bolivia
Very cool
7th May 2016

Bolivia Very cool
Bolivia was a late inclusion to our trip but now it is up there with our top destinations. Photos cannot adequately capture how spectacular the landscapes actually are. Should be on everyone's bucket list in our book!
8th May 2016

Screaming Mummies are things of nightmares!
It's amazing how well preserved they are. Living near a beautiful volcano would be amazing but I don't think I could have a mummy in my backyard :o/
8th May 2016

Screaming Mummies are things of nightmares!
One day I hope to learn their stories Anita. Some better preserved than others, some with full sets of teeth, some with only the 4 extremity teeth, some with fractured skulls, some looking restful, some not. Why are they there and not others? Wonderful they are not in a museum. Fascinating!

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