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Published: June 22nd 2012
Bolivia is South America’s most indigenous country. It is also it’s poorest. For us, these factors make it arguably the most interesting to travel.
First stop, Uyuni. We were greeted by women in traditional dress; shin-length skirts puffed out above many layers of netting and underneath them woollen socks pulled high to cover the knee, fixed in place with string. Feet cramped into tiny, cumbersome shoes; they look a little like hooves. A cardigan and shawl wrapped tightly around the upper half; the high altitude across Bolivia makes for frigid temperatures. Then the iconic hat, perched on top, balanced precariously, fixed curiously. It’s called a “bombin” and was introduced by the British railway workers back in the 1920s. And beneath every bombin hangs two long, black braids, many streaked with grey from old age and hard lives. Often times the brightly woven cloth fixed to her back, a symbol of Bolivia itself, surprises you as a young infant emerges long after you had assumed it stuffed full of “pan”...
A very early and very cold bus took us to our next destination of Tupiza, cowboy country close to the border with Argentina, the land of
the infamous Butch and Sundance. But would we, unlike them, make it out alive?! Well, it was touch and go for a while, as our bus came worryingly close to falling head first off the cliff-side due to notoriously bad roads. Of course we were a little concerned, particularly when the local passengers began to grab their many children and attempt to jump off the bus with them (from the front- which was the end sliding off the road, moving the majority of the weight with them... smart!) But in honesty it wasn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds, and some clever clutch and brake work had us back on the road (and thankfully the locals back in their seats) in no time.
The scenery surrounding Tupiza is stunning, and like nothing we had seen before; canyons, cactus, arid red rocks, sheer stone cliffs. We couldn’t wait to get out and explore it and to do so we had a handful of options including foot, bike, jeep and horse. We decided that our feet wouldn’t get us so far and that a bike would be hard to navigate off road, what with the sand and rocks. A
jeep would keep us confined, separate from the natural beauty of our surroundings. All things considered a horse (or as they say in Spanish “caballo”) would do just fine. So Chris signed us up for seven hours worth. Yes, seven hours, and the boy had never so much as rode a donkey on Blackpool beach! I myself could only reap the benefit of a few lessons given to me as a birthday present when I was six from my dad, a fanatic “white lie teller” who at the time told me we were going bungee jumping... I still remember being quite confused as to why that required an apple.
Morning found us approaching a small hacienda where we were introduced to our steeds. With a little experience being better than none at all I was presented with a too-big horse with a stubborn temperament. It was not a love connection. Not only was I quite uncomfortable, but my milder demeanour couldn’t compete with the dominating presence of that horse who would turn and butt me every time I instructed her to do something she disagreed with. As such, Chris was asked to swap, and you’ll soon learn
how that transpired...
Off we trotted, into the cool canyons and through rivers and streams. Up and down hills and past small villages. Blue skies contrasted with orange sands and the landscape was blanketed with cactus and other dry shrubs. We sat in our saddles and soaked it all up. As the day progressed the sun became too hot and we were forced to wear the ridiculous cowboy hats we had kindly been provided with. Respite soon came as we stopped for lunch by a river. By this time we were already suffering various aches and pains and the hero from our story (yes, I do mean Chris) had been “cupping” for some time already.
Ever onwards, we set off once more. Somehow, on this day I was gifted the magical powers of Spanish conversational skills and was able to make small talk with our guide for quite a while but our chatting was brought to a halt as we approached a deep river which we had to cross. “Peligro” he said, dangerous. So we turned to try another section of the river where the water wasn’t quite so strong. Local workmen
on the bank opposite warned us not to cross here. We had no choice but to have a go in the place where the guide had just told us was impassable. He went first and scraped through by the skin of his teeth, which didn’t fill Chris and I with confidence of our likely success. Nor were our horses best pleased, digging in their heels and refusing to move. The men on the far side encouraged us, telling us to give the horses a good kick to gee them up. Eventually they stepped into the water and we had to really push them on. Beneath me I could feel my smaller horse struggling against the current and I had to will myself, let alone the horse, to the other side.
Just as I thought we would get across without incident Chris’ horse, the stubborn mare that had been tripping throughout the day, lost her footing and fell throwing him from her into the river, kicking frantically. Amazingly, and with such grace I have never seen him practise in all these years, Chris jumped from the horse unharmed thanks to the current dragging his own legs away
as the horse lashed out. He also managed to save the camera in the process. What a man?! Needless to say I was quite shook up watching this unfold and I’m sure neither of us was overly keen for the remaining two hour ride back to the farm.
That final stretch was a real test; wet, sore ankles, aching knees, raw hides and chaffing in all kinds of places. To make matters worse we were harassed countless times with aggressive pups yapping at our heels. But despite the discomfort it had all been worth it for the spectacular views!
The following day we were confided to our bed, too stiff to even watch the parade that we could hear in the nearby square. We did however rent a (poor quality) copy of the famous western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” as it was here in the hills surrounding Tupiza, in a small town not far away, that the twosome met their ultimate, bloody demise. We joked that I would have made good acquaintances with the thieving pair as a few years ago a great aunt discovered that my great, great, great grandfather was
a “highway man” himself, thus naturally we would have much in common. (Chris just loves to use this one against me whenever the opportunity arises.)
It was an interesting conclusion to an eventful stay...
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