Bowled over by Bolivia

Undated Handout Photo of Incawasi or Inca Wasi or Incahuasi or Cactus Island Uyuni salt flats or Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) in Potosi Bolivia. See PA Feature TRAVEL Bolivia. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Renato Granieri. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Bolivia.

Undated Handout Photo of Incawasi or Inca Wasi or Incahuasi or Cactus Island Uyuni salt flats or Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) in Potosi Bolivia. See PA Feature TRAVEL Bolivia. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Renato Granieri. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Bolivia.

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Mumbling enthusiastically in Spanish, Santos Quispe Cayo, a 68-year-old quinoa farmer, directs me to a collection of large pre-Colombian clay pots lined up in the corner of his parched, sun-beaten garden.

The simple pieces of earthenware, which could be anywhere between 800 and 1,200 years old, form part of a bizarre collection of historical oddities dug up by self-made archaeologist Santos, from fields at the foothills of Bolivia’s Mount Tanupa.

His star exhibit though, lies at the bottom of a macabre sculpture garden, where lama bones and volcanic rocks have been used to assemble crude pieces of art. In a small cave sits a crouched skeleton, with a few rags still clinging to its bones. It’s most probably an indigenous Aymara who walked on this soil eight centuries previously, he casually tells me, just one of “many mummies you can find here”.

Were it not for a faded and curled certificate vouching for the museum’s authenticity, I’d be in complete disbelief. But in a country where the government appears to show little interest in restoring the past for future gain, it’s all very plausible.

Hindered by ongoing industrial disputes and a controversial socialist administration, Bolivia has always been the poor child of South America, rich in natural resources but failing to attract the tourist numbers of neighbouring Peru. Yet its overwhelmingly diverse scenery and largely unexplored archaeological sites evoke a sense of real discovery for anyone who visits.

I’d arrived in Bolivia several days earlier, crossing the border from Chile at Hijo Canjon, with a local knowledgeable driver. Turning onto a bumpy dirt track, I waved goodbye to paved tarmac and road signs for the next seven days, embarking on a journey that would take me through the Andes and Bolivia’s Altiplano, climbing to head-thumping heights of 5,000m.

Our resting place is the area’s only decent hotel, Tayka del Desierto, powered by a simple generator and exposed to a raging wind responsible for sculpting a Daliesque landscape of rocks hewn into petrified trees and other surreal shapes.

Undoubtedly Bolivia’s greatest tourist attraction is the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, pulled taut like a blinding white blank canvas across a 12,000sqkm frame.

Formed from prehistoric lakes, the honeycomb patchwork of crystallized crust is also a cause of concern for environmentalists, as a rich source of lithium lies beneath its surface, a prospect too tempting for the government to ignore.

During high season (May to October), dozens of vehicles converge in the salt flats, but as we leave the Museo de Chantani and continue our journey through the Altiplano, we barely see a soul.

There are only 11 million people living in Bolivia, a country the size of California and Texas combined, but with a sixth of the population. In the last five years, conditions have improved greatly for working classes in the countryside, mainly as a result of a growing market value for grain of the Gods’ quinoa.

Many of the country’s hotels are also community run - to varying degrees of success - as a result of President Evo Morales’ reluctance to allow foreign investment in tourism. One flourishing business is the Tomarapi Ecolodge in the Sajama National Park, where guests stay in simple lodges and homemade food is cooked in an outdoor clay oven.

The park’s main attraction is the 6,542m Sajama volcano, the second highest peak in South America, but we choose to tackle less arduous walking trails during our stay.

Five communities still live inside the national park, and we encounter families using volcanic stones to build barbecues, and cholitas (indigenous women in traditional dress) boiling eggs in the hot springs of geyser fields.

But even in big cities such as La Paz, it’s possible to find cholitas wearing bowler hats and a millefeuille of petticoats, as we discover when we visit.

Cradled in the Cordillera mountain range at an elevation of 3,650m, Bolivia’s administrative capital straddles worlds past and present.

As we ride in a new government-funded cable car above the city, I look down and see a guitar-strumming minstrel singing to tombs in the city’s main cemetery, an extremely moving practice that’s been undertaken for years. Although of great benefit to the local community, I do wonder if the large amount of money spent on the Teleferico project could have been better invested elsewhere - namely in excavating some of the country’s largely unexplored archaeological sites.

The most famous to date is Tiwanaku, just outside La Paz, a pre-Colombian city thought to be twice the size of Machu Picchu and thousands of years older. Despite being exposed to the sun and wind, the sunken floor of a grand temple is remarkably well preserved, featuring a series of unnerving sandstone faces, which some scholars theorize were created to reflect the different cultures passing through the community at that time.

During my visit, I count just four people excavating the still largely uncovered site, and I wonder, at this rate, how many years it will take for Bolivia to discover it’s truly inexhaustible resource.

Until the correct funding is in place, perhaps it’s safer it remains underground.