Luribay – Track? What track?
It is surprisingly difficult to deviate from the well-worn tourist trail. This is primarily because 1) the guidebooks present a huge diversity of things to see and do; 2) opportunities to venture off the beaten track do not readily present themselves; and 3) when they do, there may an insurmountable language barrier. Hence, when I was invited to join a group of locals from Oruro on a weekend trip to Luribay, a tiny village between La Paz and Cochabamba, I jumped at the chance. Spending three days in the company of twenty or so Bolivian ramblers led by an old Jesuit priest would prove to be an unforgettable experience.
The seasoned tourist will find that a Bolivian holiday offers less than the usual comforts in two main areas: the journey there and back and the facilities on site. We were dropped off the bus from Oruro to La Paz at a lonely junction recognisable only by its grimy petrol station and the dilapidated remnants of a village. We had been told there would be would be regular transport passing by here to take us to Luribay. Almost three hours later, we greeted the sight of a large truck with cries of joy.
Then began a journey the likes of which I had never experienced before. It started as an exciting adventure sitting in the open air on top of a 2m thick load of baskets, bags of sugar, crates of beer and other essential supplies for the villages en route. Squatted amongst chattering locals, I indulged in the view, the sun (a blessing after the freezing cold of Oruro) and the exciting feeling of disappearing into the wilderness.
As the hours rolled by however, it began to be not quite so much fun anymore. Everything, from baskets and bags to hair and clothes, was covered in a thick layer of dust, the sun burned, and it became a struggle to maintain a seat amid bouncing baskets and low-hanging branches. A woman sat beside me casually mentioned that we were lucky not be sharing our truck with sheep or llamas. Still, we did not suffer from the usually inevitable pincha (flat tyre), which chose to afflict us on the way back instead.
When, after what seemed at eternity, we did finally arrive in the idyllic village of Luribay, I was struck by its serene beauty. An almost tropical oasis of lush green vegetation, set in a wide valley on the banks of a large river, encircled by towering red mountains glowing in the late afternoon sun. The contrast with the harsh Altiplano only a few hours earlier was incredible. I knew too that I would never have discovered this magnificent spot with a regular tour agency.
However, the lack of tourist facilities in Luribay became painfully clear all too soon after our arrival. Insufficient beds in the local parish meant that some of us would be sleeping on the hard wooden floor. There were no showers and the only running water was a precious trickle from a huge storage tank in the back garden. Flushing the sole toilet required considerable physical strength to lift a gigantic plastic bucket of muddy rainwater.
But undoubtedly the greatest frustration of all was the apparent lack of food. There was nothing to eat when we arrived, no lunch the following day – despite us having confirmed lunch with a local café that very morning – and no dinner either. Well, except for an egg sandwich that quickly became a local celebrity. Ask for a café con leche and the response was “no hay vacas”. On the odd occasion when food did appear, it was largely inedible.
However, it was here, in the face of considerable adversity, that I came to admire more and more the optimism and resilience of the Bolivian people. The words “no hay cena” were met not with frustration or anger, but with a simple shrug and “vamos a tomar una cerveza?”. Throughout the weekend, there were no complaints. My able companions took things as they came, were they over sixty or under ten and whether it was stripping down to cross a river or skipping yet another meal.
In addition to becoming acquainted with the easygoing nature of Bolivians, I learned many other things. For example, we saw exotic fruits such as pacay, figs, tunas (prickly pears) and sugar growing in their natural habitat. I also had the opportunity to squash a cochinilla; these small parasites live in the cacti that produce tunas and are used by the indigenous people to make the bright red dye they use in their weavings. A visit to an age-old hacienda demonstrated a historical agricultural practice still in use today.
So I would say that despite the harrowing journey and lack of facilities, my trip to Luribay was a great one not only because I encountered beautiful landscapes, but especially because I began to understand more about the Bolivian character and way of life. What can compare to standing on a bus learning to say “good morning” in Aymara while Bonnie Tyler sings “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and the majestic Altiplano smoulders in the sunset? Only perhaps finding yourself back in your own soft bed in La Paz, having had a hot shower and a good meal.
Sonja van Renssen