Macha the week before the 3rd of May
Pocoata May 4th
A Trip in Norte Potosí
Off the beaten track in Bolivia
Soaring high above the mountains surrounding the River Caine, a vulture circles and dives against the azure blue skies. A careful eye can spot hares leaping through the scrub and tiny birds like quails that hide in the undergrowth.
The North of Potosí area has some of the most breathtaking scenery in Bolivia and is possibly best kept secret. Some of the villages nestled in the hillsides have never seen a tourist in their lives, although many offer basic but comfortable accommodation and small “comedors” which serve whatever they happen to have in that day.
A conglomeration of companies, including a rural community development agency, the town halls of the communities of the Norte de Potosí area and GTZ, (the German technical co-operation agency) are charged with developing projects in the area. They have put together a guide to two tourism circuits in the area – an ecotourism and an ethnic tourism route. The routes will take the visitor through countryside that boasts caves, canyons, waterfalls, tiny hamlets and farming and mining communities that are light years away from the larger globalised cities.
Without private transport, each route needs a good two weeks to follow properly as buses do not link many of the towns and landmarks together directly. It often means returning to a busier transport hub like Cochabamba, Oruro, Sucre, Llallagua or Potosí or persuading the friendly driver of a passing jeep to take you to your next destination. It has to be said that the journey we took was not the one promoted in the leaflet, though doubtless it shared many of the same qualities.
We began at the beautiful national park of Torotoro which is overlooked by many tourists but is well worth the bus journey from Cochabamba. In Torotoro we came across some representatives from the development organisation CIPCA (Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado) which is dedicated to helping indigenous communities put strategies in place to develop and make the most of their natural resources. This includes measures such as irrigation of the land and preservation of water. Their destination was Acasio, via a number of other towns and we went along for a captivating ride.
First stop was Yambata, a small town hidden in the hills above the River Caine. The journey there was stunning in itself. Driving on narrow roads that hugged the mountainside with sheer drops to one side, we climbed higher and higher across rugged sierras with brick red soils and lush, green vegetation. We pulled up in the small dusty square of Yambata, which was surrounded by quaint but run down houses and paused for a drink. One of ironies of these places is that even Coca Cola reaches them while drinking water is much harder to come by.
The villagers were so curious, excited and proud to have foreign visitors that we soon embarked on an impromptu guided tour with two local women, Inocencia and Rosario. The sights included the medical centre, the school, the cemetery and the church which is only opened once year for a fiesta in August. Not your typical tourist attractions but a fascinating insight into rural Bolivian life.
The medical centre has one resident doctor who looks after all of the villages in a radius of thirty miles. He has a motorbike on which to conduct his visits and a radio to communicate with some of the larger communities. If an emergency befalls anyone in a smaller community without radio access, the villager simply has to make their way on foot to the nearest town that does, which could be miles away over hills and valleys.
The school, which boasted about three classrooms and a rather bedraggled and dried-out football pitch, rather evoked memories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The tiny wooden chairs and tables, the chalk boards, rhymes, pictures, times-tables decorating the walls and the old school bell hanging next to the doorway were a far cry from the state of the art computers, internet access and abundant text books available in most Western schools.
Our next destination and overnight stop was Acasio where we found a small hostel, La Explanada, with comfortable rooms and warm(ish) water for only Bs 10 a night. To get there we had to drive through the river bed, impossible in the rainy season from November – March. We drove through the water ten times from side to side following in the barely visible tracks of vehicles that had gone before us. En route we sucked the sweet juices out of sugar cane stalks and munched on a fruit I’ve never seen before or since with more seeds than a passion fruit and a sharp flavour not dissimilar to raspberries.
As our jeep drove through the town, we passed the Alcaldía (Town Hall) where a delivery of white sacks of grain emblazoned with the words “USA Wheat” in red and blue writing sat outside. “They are sending us their rubbish” was one passing comment.
In true Bolivian style, the evening did not end until we had consumed a lot of beer and attempted some traditional Tinku dancing. The bar and hostel overlooked the main square which had a 400 year old tree spanning its entire width. “If the tree could talk” said Niko, one of our companions, “the stories it would come out with…”
The next day took us to even more remote communities where we were a little lost with limited Quechua, which stretched to “Imaynallan kashanki” (Hello, how’s it going?). The journey continued to amaze and although we did not pass a single vehicle, we frequently drove past villagers ranging from seven to seventy years old accompanying their herds of goats, cattle, sheep and donkeys on the hillsides. All were wearing beautifully colourful hats and coats. Each village had its own charm. It almost sounds too idyllic, even cheesy but in Churicata the only sounds we could hear were the wind in the trees a charango playing in the distance and the sound of cattle and pigs in the fields.
These are places we never could have found without transport and gracious Quechua-speaking hosts to take us. Far away from the tourist trail and not in any of the guidebooks, it is hard to advise how to visit these villages but with a little luck and a willingness to explore they are well within reach. They should definitely be sought out for the opportunity to experience the rural Bolivia as it really is for many of the ‘campesinos’ that live here. The guide to the Norte de Potosí is a great start.
For more information, contact COMITUR in Llallagua Tel: 2-582 03 00
or the local GTZ office at: PROAGRO-CNP (Programa de Desarrollo Agropecuario - Componente Norte de Potosí), Llallagua, Tel: 2-582 15 77