Bolivia continued: Potosí and Sucre

10 Things I learned in Bolivia:
1. Do not assume that the little line on the map marking your travel route is a paved road.
2. Do not fuck around with altitude. For real.
3. Llama meat is tasty.
4. Coca is not a drug. It is actually quite helpful.
5. It will be cold in Bolivia, even in the summer.
6. High altitude sun burns.
7. Always have coins in your pocket; bathrooms are NOT free.
8. My 8’s multiplication tables.
9. Substistence farming at 4000 meters is not an easy life.
10. You can ride in a taxi in La Paz and NOT be kidnapped, tortured, and/or die.

If I could steal a highway sign with my beloved llama crossing without fear of the Bolivian police deporting me before my journey was over, I would. We spent a lot of time on Bolivia’s roads, and when I say “roads” this is definitely a broad and liberal definition. It took us only a day in Bolivia to see a llama, but mysteriously a week and a half to see a paved road. I guess I’ll take llamas over paved roads, but best of all is the luxury of having both at once.

We departed Uyuni the day after our tour was over, this time by bus. By “bus” I mean a motorized vehicle that seats more than 10 with wheels and an engine. Gone were the safe baggage compartments of our Argentine busses: all bags are tossed on top and lashed down with a flimsy plastic tarp. Also gone were the shocks of our vehicle. Years of traversing over-used dirt roads turned the suspension of the vehicle into rigid popsicle sticks bouncing on bald tires. Mmm, sounds like a comfortable ride, no? I suppose I was predisposed to dislike the journey from Uyuni to Potosí from the beginning, as I thought it was going to take three hours. Little did I know that expectation (not even the reality) was six. Somewhere around hour 2, sitting in a broken seat whose reclining mechanism wouldn’t lock, I noticed that I had ceased to slide back and forth like a NordicTrack machine; my seat was straight upright and the scenery was still. Hmm. As I looked about me, I saw no rest stop, no small town that might have been some other passenger’s destination, and no signs of human life. We were in the middle of the desert, and we were not on the road. The bus, in all its rugged glory, was mired in a pit of sand.

At first I thought this must be just a small delay; surely the driver would not have taken such a large risk as to strand us in the desert. Oh no, I was wrong. The primary road, the texture of a gigantic washboard, was about 30 yards away. Our bus was somewhere in the sand, apparently following a secondary or tertiary route. It became clear after about 10 minutes of sitting in the heat that the bus wasn’t going anywhere without a whole lot of help. Subsequently all of the male passengers from 15 to 65 disembarked from the vehicle and began to help, directed by the driver and the bus company assistant. NB: It also became clear that this happens with some degree of frequency, or the bus companies wouln’t need a assistant to unload goods, do impromptu repairs, and manage all the other non-driving aspects of the trip. D got off the bus as well to help, and joined about 11 other people gathering stones, pulling up brush, and doing whatever they could think of to get some traction for the tires.

One hour later, yes, that’s sixty minutes of spinning wheels in sand, our bus limped its way back to the main road, and we bumped along for another four hours to Potosí. I was not in a fantastic mood when we arrived, not helped by the fact that the hostel where we planned to stay did not have any private rooms, so we were stuck in a 12 bed dormitory. I was on the bottom bunk, which had a large metal bar in the center, located exactly where my head always seemed to want to go.


Pros: ATMs, hot chocolate a la española, interesting architecture, wool products
Cons: Altitude, poverty, oppressive scenery, coldness, mine, Spanish dominion/rape of culture

We were sick in Potosí, so perhaps it got a little short changed. We spent most of our time lying in bed, sipping ginger ale and eating crackers very, very slowly. That said, it was an interesting introduction to Bolivian culture. I learned a good deal about the history of the Spanish conquest, but with each new lecture, reading, or conversation it got more depressing.

The Spaniards stripped Potosí of its mineral wealth through the mine at Cerro Rico, which looms in the background of almost every narrow cobbled street of the city. From here, over 45,000 tons on silver poured out of South America into Europe during two centuries. The immensity of this wealth is hard to imagine, even by modern standards; it is almost impossible to comprehend it in Renaissance terms. That silver financed the famous Armada, built palaces in Toledo, Madrid, and Seville, and let the Spanish Empire spend itself into oblivion, thinking that the riches of the Americas were limitless.

One of the most interesting things that we did in Potosí was visit the Casa de la Moneda, the Mint. In the beginning of the Spanish occupation, all of Bolivia belonged to the territory of Alto Peru, whose capital was Cusco. Potosí served as the financial center of the province, providing currency for most of South America. We toured the huge two-block square complex to see the smelting rooms (some of which were still crusted with carbon) the laminating rooms where pure silver ingots were rolled flat into sheets, and the coining rooms. As the only anglos on a tour of about 25 people, we were selected to participate in a demonstration of one of the Spanish lock boxes used to transport the finished coins to other regions, or back to Spain. Bronze ornaments on the front slid side to side or up and down in various patterns to reveal hidden keyholes meant to dissuade pirates or highway robbers. If you didn’t know how to move the metal knobs, it was impossible to access the 3rd and secret keyhole. It was quite fun handling the old leather and steel case, and I felt at little like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, only with less insects and life-threatening situations. Yet for all the richness in Cerro Rico, it is hard to feel luxury or decadence in Potosí. The altitude, combined with horrible working conditions in the mines and mint killed millions of workers, and continues to do so today. In the 1700’s, mercury was commonly used to refine silver, so the indigenous people working the smelting rooms didn’t live too long. The Spanish used animals for the laminating presses, after African slaves and indigenous ones died too quickly; mules came up to Potosí by the thousands. While the Casa de Moneda churned out coins, it also went through animals: a mule’s lifespan once it reached the mint’s winding presses was anywhere from two days to two months, rarely more. Like most of the historical places in Potosí, it was fascinating…until you realized the suffering and abuse that took place to create it. Death on a large scale is never far from one’s mind in Potosí, making it a less than ideal tourist destination.

Cerro Rico is still an operational mine, available for tours seven days a week. The miners have no health insurance, still work closely with toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic, and there are few modern safety features in the tunnels. A miner today may be lucky if he lives to be 40. We opted not to take the tour, finding it somewhat strange that European and American travellers descend for an hour to smile, take pictures, and marvel at the dynamite while hundreds of Bolivians toil away at less than minimum wage. Instead, I read an extraordinary photo book about miners’ wives and widows. Sounds like a pretty rough life, and they don’t need specators.

We left Potosí slightly healed but a little down in spirits. Not even the authentic Spanish-style chocolate at the local yuppie coffee shop could cheer me up at 4060 meters above sea level. It was time to come back down to earth.


A cab took us down the peaks and through the fertile altiplano down to Sucre; every kilometer of the 2 hour ride, I thanked the Bolivian government for providing us with a paved road, our first since entering the country. While slightly lower than the towering Potosí, Sucre, the judicial capital of Bolivia, is still up in the mountains.

Our first hotel was smack in the center of town, a block from the Plaza de Armas, the center of every Bolivian town. We were just getting over our Potosí digestive illness, so spirits were on the mend, but we were eating conservatively.

Sucre was wonderful. There were restaurants that served vegetables other than potatoes, real museums, and lots of history to be learned. South America’s revolutions began in Bolivia; it was the first country to declare independence from Spain, but ironically the last to actually win it. It was in Sucre, specifically in the Casa de la Libertad, an old Jesuit cathedral, that the famed liberator Simón Bolívar announced his plans for a united South America, and here that the other fracticious diplomats and generals voted it down (the congress decided to name the country after him as a sort of conciliatory gesture). We learned about famous Bolivian war heroes, and the concatenation of tragedies that form Bolivia’s political history: their alliance with Peru during the Guerra del Pacífico (War of the Pacific 1879-1883) followed by Peru’s betrayal and Bolivia’s loss of the coast, as well as other military mishaps and land concessions that left Bolivia without access to the sea, and bereft of several mineral-rich territories in the lowlands. Sucre also got screwed in a similar fashion when La Paz usurped its role as the country’s capital. Only the judicial branch of government and the Supreme Court remain in the “White City” of whitewashed and granite walls; all the rest of the administration, including the President, the charismatic champion of indigenous rights, Evo Morales.

Another big hit was the Museo de Arte Indígena (ASur) , a textile museum. We had been seeing tons of wall hangings, tapestries, and other assorted textiles since we left Salta, but knew little about the process involved, the regional differences, or how to tell a quality piece of work from shoddy craftsmanship. The process was fascinating, especially given my interest in wool products. Weaving in many Bolivian rural communities was a dying art practiced only by old women, until in the 1990’s an anthropological study increased awareness and cultural pride. Some white guy decided that it would be a great idea if he could get all the old ladies together, share their knowledge, and teach the next generation.

Surprisingly, it worked. Many native Bolivians jumped on the bandwagon, and the result is a self-sustaining museum and store run by middle or upper class educated Bolivians who distribute the income from textile sales back to the rural communities where the weavers live. Not only did the project save ancient traditions from extinction, but it also inspired men to take up weaving as well, a practice which ended nearly a century ago. Traditionally, women wove on looms with warp and woof, while the process of tapestry making (using a needle to loop thread around a vertical structure of threads) was men’s domain. In the late 1990’s, two men in Tarabuco decided to learn the art of tapestry making; now, there are several dozen male weavers, some of whom exhibit their work in the ASur. The entire system is a real-life example of sustainable tourism; the organization gives about 60% of each weaving’s cost to the weaver, then uses the other percentage for museum maintenance and other administrative costs. It is a place that respects rural life while acknowledging the difficulties of subsistence living in a globalized society. Women with large families living in poverty are able to recieve adequate compensation for their hard work and artistry; with prices ranging from USD 50 to 250, it means that weavers can sustain themselves with a living wage, instead of hawking their wares at random street markets for whatever they can bargain. Collectively, their bargaining power is stronger, and the museum, having contracted with the most talented weavers in the surrounding areas of Tarabuco and Jalq’a assures that the buyer recieves a high quality product that merits the extra expense.

Speaking of the quality of weavings, I was astounded at the intricacy and craftsmanship of the works. There were two styles of textiles on exhibit, both from different municipalities close to Sucre. As we began traveling, I realized that the textiles vary quite a bit as you move north through the Andes. Instead of there being a typical “Andean” weaving, each community has its own style. Once upon a time during the Inka Empire, this was very important for maintaining cultural distinctions within the structure of the Empire. The language may have been homogenized and their may have been a strong political allegiance to the Inca (the title means “all powerful” in Quechua), but communities were allowed to maintain traditions which distinguished them from other cultures. This cultural pride is what Bolivia holds on to fiercely in the highlands, in the face of an increasingly Westernized global society.

The Tarabuco weavings follow a relatively linear narrative; the fabric is divided into vertical sections (between 3 and 9), with zigzags filling two of the sections to signify the “path of life” as one weaver said. Being from flat land, this made little sense to me…then I climbed a mountain. To my surprise, from the opposite face of the mountain, our path really did zig up switchbacks exactly as it appeared on the textiles. The other sections tell a story: the harvest, how to weave cloth, a wedding, etc. The subject matter is daily life, the kay pacha in Quechua, or the earthly world where we life. Each story seems printed on the pages of a book: the cotton background is papery white, the images stand out as letters on a page. The figures are either bright oranges, reds, and greens, or more subdued colors: purples, blues, and blacks (when the weaver goes through a period of mourning for someone). . The one I eventually purchased is in mourning colors: a fable about a fox stealingn bread and some very duck-like birds which I was assured are “condors.” The jury is still out.

The textiles from Jalq’a visualize the uku pacha, or underworld, a place of dreams and death, the unknown. Hanan Pacha, the heavenly world of the gods and condors, I suppose is too holy to represent in textile form. Jal’qa weavings are all bi-color with a deep red or orange and black or blue. The designs are a crazy mix of animal and human forms, distorted as if in a dream or nightmare. Condors morph into llamas, who have curled up humans inside their bellies, six legs, or scary fangs. It’s a little disorienting to try and find patterns and images within the cloth, but they are there if you stare long enough. Beautiful, but a bit freaky for day to day use.

We liked Sucre.

Spending the winter holidays away from family was a little strange; instead of having presents, we watched a line form for five blocks as little Bolivian girls waited for hours, hoping that the truck full of blonde, skinny Barbies still had a free gift for them. Christmas dinner was a bust at a crappy restaurant on the plaza, but other food finds made up for the anticlimactic holiday fare, specifically bubbling vegetarian lasagna NOT microwaved, but homemade in its own terra cotta dish.

Our Christmas present to each other was splurging for one night in a really nice hotel. The Parador Santa Maria used to a be a wealthy landowner’s mansion, but someone had the idea to convert it into lodging, like the Spanish government’s parador system. Totally refurbished and equipped for modern life, the building was beautiful. We only walked in to take refuge from a thunderstorm, and since half the rooms were empty and the owner was bored, he gave us the grand tour, including the glass-enclosed terrace mirador and the old catacombs in the basement. In colonial times, the entire city of Sucre was connected through a network of underground tunnels. Then, since he was clearly in a generous mood, the owner proceeded to give us a deep discount on a small room on the third floor, so we decided what the heck, we deserve a bit of luxury. Feather pillows and hot showers awaited us on December 26th, just a bit late for the holiday.

Eventually, it was time to leave Sucre and head to our final Bolivian destination, Lake Titicaca, another story for another day.


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