Three days deep campo does funny things to a man: the altitude, the lack of oxygen and all those cold showers in the nearest river. Then, of course, there are the llamas—all fluttering eyelashes and cheeky over-the-shoulder glances. Out in the campo there’s nothing but mountains and llama dung to focus on and it gets real cold at night. Sooner or later a man’s mind starts wandering.
Still, we’re not here to interfere with Mother Nature’s delicate equilibrium. Hell no. We’re here for an old-skool road trip; foot to the floor, stereo cranked to warp speed and the open highway stretching out teasingly before us. It’s all about getting back to nature, tuning into man’s primeval frequency and feeling at one with the universe.
Or, in this particular case, a man called Isaac, a battle-scarred jeep and a 16-hour round-trip away from the urban sprawl of La Paz. Like any Bolivian road trip, it all starts with a ‘cha’lla’, an offering to Pachamama to bring good fortune on the journey ahead.
Isaac, my driver, guide and co-pilot for the next few days slams on the brakes and bends over a roadside pyre of streamers and confetti, and liberally sprinkles industrial-strength alcohol. Clearly feeling suitably confident that good fortune is now with us, he gets back in, floors the jeep and launches us deep into the unknown.
“There are no speed limits on these roads,” he grins as the aroma of burnt gasoline hangs in the air like a bad case of wind at a mother’s union meeting. “And the Police, well, they’re all too busy sleeping.”
Our destination? The Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia’s oldest national park and, at 8100 km sq one of the largest and most desolate open spaces in the country. It’s also home to the Nevado Sajama, Bolivia’s highest volcano at 6,542m. That, and of course, more llamas than you can ever even conceive of.
Before we can enter the wilds of the park proper, we first need to stop for supplies. The only outpost of near-civilisation around these remote parts is Tambo Quemado, a dusty one-strip drag 280 km from La Paz, which squats at around 5,000m on the Bolivian/Chilean border.
Border towns the world over are traditionally the domain of whores, hoodlums and fugitives. Tambo Quemado doesn’t disappoint. Think stocky border guards manning a rough, stone gate and an assortment of shady characters infesting the local snakepits with the kind of thousand-yard stare that only a cocktail of high altitude and copious amounts of hard liquor can induce.
Wizened old crones with toothless grins and grubby aprons congregate around the border gate, selling bags of llama meat and roasted corn. The thoroughfare to the Chilean beach resort of Arica lies beyond but they’re not going anywhere. Tambo Quemado feels like the kind of place that is all too easy to find but strangely hard to leave.
It comes as quite a relief, therefore, when Isaac, having stocked up on gasoline, bottled water and chocolate, floors the beast once more. Bumping along dirt track roads, he takes us two hours cross-country into the heart of the national park. The twin volcanoes of Parinacota and Pomerape, straddling the rough border region, loom over us as we make our late afternoon ascent to our new home, the tiny pueblo of Rio Blanco.
A border community of around 100 Aymara mountain-dwellers, it also forms a community centre for Alma de Los Andes, a La Paz co-ordinated NGO, which pumps funds back into the area in exchange for the expertly knitted jumpers produced by the local women.
By 7pm the night is creeping around us like a terminal disease. There’s no option but to hit the sleeping bags and try to keep warm. “By the way,” says Isaac, as I go to blow out the candle, “watch out for the spooks in the graveyard opposite. They go walking at night.”
The fact that we’re staying in a shack that looks like the Blair Witch house, and that the graveyard is less than 500m from my bedroom window in the pitch black, is not boding well for a night of gentle slumbers.
“Sleep well then,” he says cheerily, and leaves me to my dreams.
The next morning I’m awoken to a strange sound: the unmistakable cacophony of a full brass band tuning up. ‘Deporte’, the local tuba-thumpers, it transpires, have been together nearly 20 years and apart from regular stints at the Oruro Carnival, are the local lungs for hire when it comes to providing a rousing musical accompaniment. Especially at 8am. In
the middle of nowhere.
“I love to play to see people dancing and having fun,” says drummer Victor Apaz.
Hmm. That may be, but what about finding the puff to play at 5,000m?
“We’ve got big lungs,” says trumpeter Pablo Apaza. “Besides, we’ve also got a supply of beer. That’ll keep us going.”
The reason ‘Deporte’ has been coaxed out into a place where alpacas fear to tread is simple. Every year, on January 30th, Rio Blanco plays host to the ‘Encuentro Anual de Futbol’, a 14-team competition where local men’s and women’s football teams compete against each other in order to win the pride of their pueblo. The rivalry is so intense it makes the World Cup final look like a kick-around down the youth club.
Hotly tipped for glory this year is Alma de los Andes, the all-female team of cholitas who normally spend their time knitting sweaters for the eponymous NGO.
“We’re not a macho team like the boys,” insists team captain and goalkeeper, Norbeta Pillco de Cabellero, pulling on a pair of tracksuit pants under her flowing polera. “We play for fun and exercise but when we beat the boys they’re always pretty surprised.”
By mid-afternoon the band are already half-cut and Andean temperatures are plummeting across the mountains. Meanwhile, back on the pitch, it’s been a game of two halves. Both of them frankly scrappy.
A combination of on-pitch histrionics, flying shoes and complete ignorance of the offside rule makes for a disappointing display of footballing prowess. Indeed, the only highlight comes when Puente Quino’s star striker, Rebecca—Alma’s bitter nemesis—develops a nosebleed during a gruesome bitch fight of a tackle. She plays the second half with a Kleenex stuffed up each nostril. If it’s a beautiful game, then this match is turning pretty ugly.
Alma de los Andes finally pull back an equaliser late in the second half, thanks to a lucky off-post reflection, slotted home by striker, Marlene Caballero Manani, Alma’s answer to Maradona. Clearly though, neither side is satisfied with the draw.
“We played like girls,” says defender Idema Verna, desolate after the match. “Not like women.”
As dusk sets across mountains and the spooks start to stir for another night’s sleepwalking, Isaac looks wistful. “See that mountain over there,” he says. “It looks just like a woman’s breast.”
It was definitely time to leave. Another full day and he’d be lighting cigarettes for the llamas or trying to get them tipsy on Bacardi and coke.
It had been a journey both deep into the countryside and deep into man’s own psyche. Amazing scenery, great characters and a messy goal mouth scramble as the ref called for a free kick just short of injury time.
Like I said, three days of deep campo does funny things to a man.