Stuck in the middle

While in Bolivia working out how to proceed with the rest of this journey, I thought it might be worth having a bit of a look around the place.

As mentioned in the last post, after Uyuni I headed for Potosi – or Villa Imperial de Potosi, as it was formally (and formerly) known. It is a very old place, founded in 1545, and also one of the highest cities in the world at about 4000m.

Potosi is a mining town and derives its reason for being from the Cerro Rico de Potosi, a large mountain visible from just about anywhere in town and which is crammed full of silver. They have been pulling that precious metal out of the cerro for more than 500 years. The silver that came from Potosi helped make the Spanish Empire very wealthy for a few centuries.

Not suprisingly due to its age, there are plenty of historic buildings in Potosi – particularly in the old town centre, which is where I stayed for a couple of nights.

The outskirts of the city are more traditional modern Bolivian, with most buildings constructed from the extruded red bricks that are ubiquitous here.

To make walls, they generally lay the bricks within formed concrete uprights on a concrete slab. These panels are then topped with another concrete slab and more uprights if the building is going to have more than one storey, or a roof if not. It is very common to see buildings of four or more levels constructed in this way.

It is also common to see buildings with the ground and maybe first floor complete and in use, with a slab for another floor laid on top and some uprights with steel reinforcing poking out the top, to be finished at some later stage. I’ve been told that they leave them this way to avoid paying building tax, as the structure is technically unfinished.

In the old centre of Potosi though, the colonial architecture is everywhere and some of it is quite beautiful. The old town is reasonably compact and a nice place for a wander, although it is very hilly and the altitude had me huffing and puffing more than usual. I quickly learned to slow my pace to a meander, which made the going a lot easier.

I checked out the Casa de la Moneda (or National Mint of Bolivia), where coins for the Spanish Empire were minted from the silver mined in Cerro Rico. After Bolivia became a republic in the early 1800s, its coinage was produced here as well until the place shut down in the early 20th century and later converted into a museum.

They have done a good job with the exhibits, which touch on not just the history of the mint but also of Potosi and silver mining more generally. I split my time tagging along with a tour group (the commentary was Spanish only) and going it alone. No photos allowed inside the museum part unless you coughed up an additional fee of 20Bs on top of the extranjero 50Bs entry price, but I got some snaps of the building’s courtyard.

Not sure what the occasions were, but on both days I was in Potosi there were parades complete with marching band, dancers and fireworks around the main plaza. They love fireworks in Bolivia. It seems no public event is complete without them.

They’re less the colourful, spectacular kind of fireworks that I am used to at home (think cracker night if you’re old enough to remember that, or maybe NYE) and more the noisy explosive type. The crack-crack-crack is quite similar to gunshots, which tends to get your attention.

Seeking variety for the run to Sucre, I mapped out what I thought might be an interesting route along some backroads. I wasn’t disappointed.

All up, the roughly 200km journey took me close to seven hours with 90 per cent of it on narrow, bumpy dirt roads that hairpinned their way up and down mountains, traversed ridges with nothing but sheer drops on one side and wound through tiny pueblos and red-rocked river gorges. I met llamas and friendly locals, cows and dogs, both cranky and chilled. From go to whoa, it was absolutely breathtaking (and not just because of the altitude…).

Sucre is a complete contrast to Potosi. For one, it’s not as high and the countryside around is a lot more forested and green, The city itself is prettier with the historic centre being all whitewashed buildings in the old Spanish colonial style.

Sucre was the original capital of Bolivia and is still apparently the legal capital being home to the supreme court, while the much bigger La Paz has the main government functions. Sucre is significantly more pleasant than La Paz too, in location, surroundings and atmosphere.

I checked out the House of Freedom, which is where the Bolivian Republic was founded. The country’s Declaration of Independence is proudly on show in a glass and brass case in the main hall.

I also went to the Metropolitan Cathedral, which to my mind was an appalling testament to the excesses of the Catholic Church. It is is quite a magnificent building, in a gaudy kind of way, with room upon room of church vestments and artworks and various religious knick-knackery that paint a disturbing contrast between the wealth of the church and the poverty of those in its pastoral care.

The rest of my time in Sucre was spent doing life admin stuff – getting a haircut, buying some new sparkplugs for the WR250R, searching for (and finding) a decent coffee shop – and generally poking around. I even bought my first T-shirt of the trip, to replace one I lost back in Argentina.

From Sucre, I struck out for Samaipata. It was a bit too far to go in one hit so I made an overnight stop in the little town of Aiquile. What a great little place. I didn’t think a whole lot of it at first glance, but after parking the bike at the hotel and going for my usual orientation stroll around town, it really came to life.

Looking for some dinner, I saw several groups of teenage girls dancing to recorded music in the street. I didn’t make too much of this initially, apart from thinking it definitely wasn’t something I would see in Australia. Later, though, when I returned to the main plaza – which by that stage was full of people also preparing to dance – the picture became clearer.

There was a cosy little cafe across the plaza from my hotel, and the lovely owner supplied me with an excellent pot of tea and an explanation for the dance practice. An annual festival was coming to Aiquile on Feb 1 and one of the main attractions was a traditional Quechua dance, which was what the crew in the plaza were getting ready for.

It is high stakes stuff for Aiquile and surrounding communities, with huge kudos and much cred going to the group that puts on the best show. As we spoke, the plaza crew – probably two-thirds younger men, youth and boys and one-third women and girls – lined up along the street and got going under the direction of an older guy on guitar with a few other older guys on charangos (small guitars) smashing back-up on the side.

Up and down the street they went, first one way then back again in lines from oldest to youngest. The singing was a kind of call and repeat, with the men leading and a few of the women responding.

The old leader was a tough taskmaster and put the crew through their paces for at least an hour, while I sat there sipping tea and chatting to parents and passers-by as they came to watch the progress.

I’m obviously no judge of Quechua traditional dancing, but I reckon they were brilliant. The enthusiasm and passion was clear, and I really hope they got the chocolates at the main event.


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