BootsnAll Travel Network

Leaving the Gringo Trail

As far as our South American destinations go, Bolivia was out in the backwoods, well off the usual itinerary of most tourists. But as illustrated already, its a haven for budget backpackers on the Gringo Trail, and they very much have
their own “standard route” through the country. So far all of our destinations had been firmly on this route but, partly according to plan, partly not, we were taking a diversion way off the usual tourist path.

The part that was NOT according to plan was our visit to the town of Oruru. The fact that we’d stopped there at all was due to a transport strike, which had closed the roads both through and in the town. We arrived late in the afternoon and, given that we needed to change buses out on the road, decided to spend the evening in Oruru rather than take our chances standing on the side of the highway in the middle of the night.

This guy got on our bus as it was preparing to leave Potosi. He played his small stringed instrument (kind of like a cross between a ukelele and a mandolin) and then (as expected) made a plea for some money from the passengers. I was kind of annoyed by his guilt-tripping his captive audience like that, but looking back on it I don’t mind so much and am happy to have contributed something.

The altiplano on the way to Oruru was mostly flat and dry, but was punctuated by ornate mountains and canyons. Though it doesn’t rain much up there, when it does there’s not much vegetation to hold it in place and it sculpts the land impressively.

We went out for a walk and were a bit bemused by what we saw. The streets were completely empty of cars. An occasional motorcycle found its way in and around the transport strike barricades, but other than these the streets were almost eerily devoid of traffic. You could walk right up the centre of the main boulevard which, if the examples of Sucre and Potosi were anything to go by, shouldn’t have been remotely close to possible in the late afternoon.

The first area of city we walked through was a touch rough around the edges, even by the relatively low standards set by some of the other Bolivian cities we’d seen so far. But after about fifteen minutes we’d covered the ground between the bus station and the mercado central and were in a very busy shopping area. So busy that the streets had been turned into a giant night market, something we’d not really seen yet in South America. I’m still unclear if this was a regular occurrence of if itinerant merchants were just taking advantage of the strike. Either way, this market was perhaps my favourite we’d yet seen in SA. After a good lot of just wandering around, we stopped and I had a huge plate of some unidentifiable meat-offal combination with spicy sauce, rice, salad and beans. Everyone at the street-centre kitchen, not least the chef, seemed very entertained to see a gringo eating amongst them as this was digging quite far down towards the bottom of the low budget eatery barrel.

On our way towards the market we came across a wholesale candy shop where Sarah was delighted to buy a box of (Turkish made?!) gummy centipedes.

Me munching away on my street meal of rice and offal (with lots of delicious spicy sauce!)

We returned to our hotel and had a good long sleep, waking up around 09:00 and heading straight to the bus station to see about heading out of town. No dice. The last bus for the morning had departed about half an hour previously and the transport blockades were back up for the rest of the day. Ah. Well. I guess we have another day to take a look around Oruru.

Fortunately it was actually a modestly interesting town and we easily filled it just walking around. As everywhere in Latin America, the plaza principal (main square) was a pleasant place to sit, in this case in the shade of trees that shielded us from the fierce, high altitude (it’s not QUITE as high as Potosi, but Oruru is still over 4000m ASL) sun. And while there we got to take a look at the “headquarters” of the transit strikers.

A altiplano pueblito (village-ette) on the way to PotosiTransport strike/airport name protest headquarters. Complete with picture of Juan Mendoza, Bolivia’s pioneer aviator. As explained in the previous entry, the transport strike was due to the national government’s decision to renege on their plans to name the new airport after local boy Juan and name it after the current president instead. “Respect the dignity and unity of our Oruru, respect the values of the history of Oruru” reads one sign. I feel for the protesters, but can’t imagine the issue being important enough to get so worked up over. Or, indeed, important enough for the government not to immediately relent over when they saw how upset people were getting over it.

Not that they were hard to find elsewhere in the city. On average every third intersection was blocked off with big piles of rocks, cars parked in the middle of the street, or even furniture (often used by the strike co-ordinators for lounging on under sun umbrellas.)

We walked through the busy commercial streets near the central square. They reminded me of one of the less modern cities in Iran with their new signs on old buildings, the soft serve ice cream machines in the fronts of random shops and the food carts dotted along the streets. From there we went up the slopes of the residential streets that surrounded the city centre. At a plateau of one we found the parade ground where the annual carnival parade had been reviewed and judged a few weeks before. The ground on the square was filled with wonderfully detailed murals. Inside the church above the square was another great mural, this one showing the pyramid of existence, ranging from the demons down in the bottom, through the local animals, humans, prominent local figures then Jesus and God up at the top.

The centre of the carnival grounds. Check out the big concrete slides below the cross on the right of the photo!

Also impressive was this huge statue of the virgin and child at the top of a loooong, brand new series of concrete stairs that crossed one residential street after another. The stars on the virgin’s cloak are windows into the interior of the statue (which was closed when we were there.)

Though the sculpture wasn’t open for visitors, the park and mirador (viewpoint) nearby was plenty busy (not much else to do unless you’re one of the strikers I suppose.) We were joined at the top by plenty of families, couples, and even a group filming a music video for what looked to be a K-Pop inspired Bolivian boy-band.

The street market occupying a (normally busy I presume… only the busiest in Bolivian cities had traffic signals) intersection in Oruru.

We wandered around all day, stopping and having a delicious roasted chicken sandwich and a smoothie at the impromptu street market (which had continued on into the day) on our way back to the hotel and bus station. We learned that the next bus headed north/west wouldn’t be leaving for another three hours. We sat in the cool of the station before the station staff finally came to the conclusion (after having been open for five hours already that day) that there wasn’t much point in their sticking around and shut the station. As we were getting ready to leave, a crowd built around a bus whose operators claimed it would be leaving for La Paz (and would pass by our turn-off) in about ten minutes. Sweet!

Or not so much. The bus started out as scheduled, but got no more than about 100m before the police stopped it, presumably to ensure that it wouldn’t start trouble or even violence with the strikers. Most of the passengers disembarked, many claiming refunds on their tickets, but we decided just to wait it out and see when we got going. As it turned out our bus left just when the rest of them did, so we’d not really gained anything, but we were happy to be on our way all the same.

We arrived at the small junction town of Conani around 19:00, giving us just enough daylight to arrange a collective taxi ride to our final destination, the town of Quime. As we rode, the sun dropped from the sky in typically fast tropical fashion, but it turned the grassy, dusty altiplano gold as it did so. Our trip through the dark took us up and over a mountain pass, through a few small villages where passengers came and went, and even had us making a brief stop at an army checkpoint. We arrived in Quime after a seemingly endless series of switchbacks and climbed out into the town’s main square. Our first breath of air in Quime came as something of a surprise. After several weeks in the altiplano, the descent down into the valley (and towards the Amazon basin) had brought us to a much warmer, more humid area. The atmosphere here seemed rich with damp, earthy smells and seemed almost dank after the thin, high altitude desert atmosphere of places like Potosi or Tupiza.

Surprise number two came when we were greeted by a friendly English-speaking Peruvian when we disembarked at the main square. This was unexpected, because Quime was supposed to be really in the middle of nowhere tourism-wise. It sits in one of the deep valley that drains the altiplano, though is still over 3000m ASL, and until fairly recently could only be accessed by a loooooong trip on terrible roads. The road we’d taken to get there was a recent development because of the re-opening of a mine near Quime. With the help of Eduardo we found a taxi that would take us up to our accommodation in Quime.

And what kind of accommodation could this possibly be, you ask, given how untouristed the Quime is? The remarkably comfortable kind. It was the self-built home of Marco, an American who’s lived in Bolivia for the past 35 years (though it’s questionable whether he still counts as American at all… He’s certainly no fan of many parts of his former home, and when we told an older town resident that we were staying at “casa de Marco el Gringo” he said “Marco no es gringo! Es Bolviano!” (Marco’s not a foreigner! He’s Bolivian!)

The front porch of the Rancho Colibri (hummingbird ranch.) Not your typical hotel. Not your typical hostel even. But very comfy, homey and with beautiful views out over the town.

The view in question!

We spent five nights and four days in Quime. A lot of this time was spent talking with Marco. He’s an interesting, many would say slightly odd, character. Though almost entirely in good ways. The man loves to talk. And his knowledge of Bolvian culture, fauna and (especially, as he was trained and first came to Bolivia as a botanist) flora was exceptional. He’s also fascinated by dolls, digital film editing and children. And all sorts of other odd and eclectic stuff. Given the wide range of his interests and his voluble nature, it’s important to either ask questions about things you’re interested in or be prepared to listen patiently about things you may not be.

One of the best things to ask Marco about was walking trails in the Quime area. I spent two days hiking in the side valleys and hills nearby. These places weren’t precisely WILD. People grazed their animals there, worked in the mines, or in one instance occasionally lived there during the corn growing season. But they certainly felt very REMOTE. With the exception of when I visited the mine I think I saw less than ten people on my nine hours and 30+km of walking, every one of which was involved in either woodcutting or taking llamas to or from high pastures.

Llamas! More Llamas! Sarah particularly likes the one in the top right of the frame that seems to be prancing off in its own direction.

The walking trails first passed through eucalyptus plantations, the smell of the trees pleasant as I climbed up and up. At times they passed by the ruins of old mines, timber plantations, or even pre-Columbian settlements. This wasn’t surprising, as many of the paths in the area, whether through alpine grassland or thick jungle were hundreds of years old or more.

The valley beside and above Quime where my first day’s walk started

An eerily empty summer farming village I passed. There was but a single soul there, but plenty of corn and quinoa that was well on its way to full size

The one place on my walks that I DID see more than a tiny handful of people was toward the end of the first day’s walk when I reached the mine far, far above the city (perhaps 1000m higher, perched on the side of the valley.) At first I just heard a large diesel generator. Then saw a parked motorbike. Then finally came across a couple of parked trucks and a crowd of men just finishing up work for the day. They were interested, though seemingly not surprised, to see me there. We talked for a bit before it was time for them to head back to town. This was done by climbing into the back of one of the aforementioned trucks, then shutting the board “door,” enclosing the lot of us in the large wooden roofless box of the truck. We picked up more passengers as we chugged down the mountain, some climbing up and over the walls of the box, some others having the door opened for them. As we headed down we talked a little (the miners and other passengers were particularly entertained when they noticed that I was wearing an unmatched pair of socks) but most everyone (me included) drifted off into rest or even sleep as we bumped out way back to the city. The road was faaaar longer than the footpath I’d taken up, and I suspect I could have walked back to town in less time than it took the truck to make the journey. But then taking a “camino” (truck) ride with the “Campesinos” (peasants, country people) is one of the most truly Bolivian experiences you can have. Then again, walking would have saved me the terrible embarassment of getting to the bottom and realizing I didn’t have the 5 Boliviano (about $0.75) fare for the truck journey! I’d left all my Bolivian money back at Marco’s. I tried my best to explain, and attempted to give the drivers 2 Bs and 2000 Chilean pesos, but understandably, they weren’t particularly interested and just sent me on my way. I sprinted uphill (still not easy at 3100m ASL, despite our having been at altitude for some weeks now,) grabbed some money out of my pants in our room, ran back down the hill, asked someone where the truck had gone and just managed to catch it as the drivers were climbing out, journey finished for the day. Entirely puffed I headed back up to our room for rest and food. Whew!

In the back of the Camino

Other than my walks in the hills, we spent a bit of time looking around the town as well. It was an intriguing place. Formerly something of a ghost town, it had been given a new lease on life and grown rapidly due to the re-opening of the mine. The buildings were a mixture of very old colonial style and much newer concrete and corrugated metal jobs. As with the miners, people in town seemed interested and pleased, though not entirely surprised to see us. About what one might expect, I suppose, given the five or so tourists per month that usually pop in for a visit.

The plaza principal of Quime. Quite pretty really. Apparently the local government WAS trying to improve tourism in the area though they (in my opinion at least) made a mistake by devoting most of their budget to renovating this square. Yes, it was very nice, but the money would have been better spent drawing attention to areas where Quime really shone in comparison to the rest of the country: easily accessed wild, beautiful and un-touched countryside and mountains.

Sunday was market day in Quime, and two of the main streets as well as most of the central square were taken up by people who’d brought their wares in to sell. There were plenty of shops open (for a few hours at least) on other days, but this was clearly the big shopping day in Quime

Not just any Sunday. Palm Sunday. In such a Catholic country everything surrounding Easter was a big deal, as evidenced by this procession, which we just caught the end of. (Note also the very full passenger truck getting ready to depart. Thank goodness the one I’d taken the day before wasn’t so packed!)

We’d planned to head from Quime to Bolivia’s capital after four days there, but our departure was delayed by a day when Sarah was struck with a stomach illness the night before we’d planned to leave. It went from unpleasant to very unpleasant and, despite the fact that she hadn’t had it for long I headed into town the next morning. Unfortunately the pharmacy in town was closed when I arrived (charmingly shops in Quime were indicated as being “closed” by the owners laying a broom across the otherwise completely open entrances.) Thankfully the hospital was open and after a discussion in my rudimentary Spanish (and much pointing at a travel health pamphlet I’d brought along) the friendly guys at the dispensary sold me some antibiotics. These did the trick and after one more night of rest we were ready to depart.

The journey up and out of the valley was splendidly pretty, climbing up and out of the bright green valley, cresting the grey, barren heights of the mountain pass then heading back down to revisit the golden brown hues of the semi-arid altiplano. (Though as pretty as it was, I must admit that not having been able to see the twisting, narrow, cliff-lined road on the way down hadn’t been an entirely bad thing…)

A road out of Quime (though not the main route out… this was actually one of my walking paths)

Areas of seemingly inhospitable land were often completely packed with signs of long human use and habitation. Vast areas like this were sectioned off into (surprisingly small) individual fields by ancient-looking rough stone walls

A couple of hours after leaving Quime we arrived back in Conani. By a combination of following our instincts and following other passengers we positioned ourselves in the proper spot on the main highway and within about fifteen minutes had secured two seats on a big, comfy bus on its way to La Paz, Bolivia’s largest city and the highest national capital in the world.

Bags of coca and bottles (up to 10L sized jugs too!) of the 96% pure “alcohol potable” (drinking alcohol) that was popular with many of the campesinos all over Bolivia.

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