Set on the bleak southern Altiplano 212km southwest of Potosí, the town of UYUNI has little to recommend except its usefulness as a jumping-off point for journeys into the beautiful and remote landscapes of the surrounding region. Founded in 1889 at the junction of the railways that enter Bolivia from Chile and Argentina, in its heyday Uyuni was Bolivia’s main gateway to the outside world, a symbol of modernity and industrial progress. Today, by contrast, its streets are lined with a collection of shabby houses and semi-abandoned railway yards.
At 3668m above sea level and with no shelter from the wind, Uyuni is a bitterly cold town that has little to distract you for more than an hour or two. The effective centre of town is the nineteenth-century clocktower at the intersection of Arce and Potosí. On Avenida Ferroviaria in front of the station are several monuments to the golden age of steam: keep an eye out for the statue of a railway worker, spanner in hand, and the well-maintained steam locomotive, made in West Yorkshire in the early twentieth century.
Given the decline in the fortunes of Bolivia’s railways, it is surprising Uyuni hasn’t become a ghost town like many of the mining settlements whose ore exports once passed through it. That it hasn’t is due to the ever-growing number of travellers who come here to visit the spectacular scenery of the Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.Read More
Tinku: ritual combat in the Andes
Tinku: ritual combat in the Andes
The Tinku is a form of ritual hand-to-hand combat that still takes place on certain feast days in some small rural towns in the northern areas of Potosí department. During the Tinku, young men from two rival communities (ayllus) take turns to engage in bloody one-on-one fist fights in the midst of a drunken and raucous fiesta. The young fighters wear leather helmets modelled on those worn by the Spanish conquistadors, and leather breastplates for protection. They bind their fists with woven belts, sometimes adding a stone in the palm of their hand to add extra force to their blows.
The two-or three-day fiestas start with the arrival of the young men from their home villages, marching and playing long panpipes known as suqusu. The clashes take place in a charged atmosphere of music, dancing and drunkenness. Local people and sometimes the police oversee proceedings, but as the fiesta goes on things often escalate beyond their control, with pitched battles between rival ayllus, and it’s rare for a year to go by without someone being killed. That said, bloodshed is perhaps the most important part of the ritual: as well as serving as a warlike rite of passage for young men, the Tinku acts as a fertility rite during which blood must be shed on both sides to satisfy the earth goddess, Pachamama, and ensure a bountiful harvest. The Tinku is also an important way of reaffirming indigenous cultural identity, and can help defuse all too real conflicts between communities that can otherwise erupt into more serious violence. Unmarried young women also sometimes fight in the Tinku, though their aim is usually to pull hair and rip clothes rather than draw blood.
The best-known Tinku takes place in the community of Macha, 120km north of Potosí, in the first week of May, but there are several others in small villages in the region at other times of the year – including Torotoro. Several tour companies in Potosí take groups along each year. Be warned, though, that these violent and alcoholic spectacles often get out of hand and it’s easy for an outsider to unwittingly provoke trouble. If you do visit, go with a Bolivian guide who knows the area, stay clear of the crowds, don’t take photographs without permission and generally exercise maximum cultural sensitivity.