The southern Altiplano Travel Guide
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South of La Paz, the southern Altiplano – the high plateau between the eastern and western chains of the Andes – stretches 800km to the Chilean and Argentine borders. It was formed millions of years ago by sediments washed down from the mountains into the deep valley between the cordilleras Oriental and Occidental as they were pushed up from the sea bed. Set at an average altitude of around 3700m, this starkly beautiful, barren landscape has arid steppes stretching to the horizon, where snowcapped mountains shimmer under deep-blue skies. With scant rainfall and infertile soils it supports only a sparse rural population. Since the Spanish conquest, the Altiplano’s prime importance has lain in its rich mineral deposits; its silver deposits have largely run out but tin and lithium deposits remain.
The unavoidable transport nexus of the region is the rather grim tin-mining city of
The whole region is bitterly cold at night, particularly from May to July. Even during the day temperatures can fall sharply, though you’ll also need to protect yourself from the fierce, high-altitude sunshine.
Top image © Pavel Svoboda Photography/Shutterstock
There are a handful of worthwhile excursions around Oruro. If you’re in need of some relaxation, head to the thermal baths at Obrajes, 25km away. Lago Uru Uru, meanwhile, is home to hundreds of flamingos during the rainy season. South of Oruro is Lago Poopó, Bolivia’s second largest lake, while to the southwest is a road leading to the Chilean border.
About 180km southwest of Oruro, the remote village of Chipaya is home to the Chipayas, an ethnic group culturally and linguistically distinct from both the Aymara and Quechua. Now confined to a small territory in this desolate region, the Chipayas are thought to have descended from the Urus. Driven into the unforgiving environment of this remote corner of the Altiplano over several centuries under population pressure from the Aymara, the Chipayas eke out a marginal living by growing quinoa, fishing and catching aquatic birds. Despite their desperate poverty, the Chipayas have maintained their unique language, culture and religious beliefs, and many of the village’s buildings are still distinctive circular huts with doors made from cactus and roofs thatched with aquatic reeds.
There are several worthwhile excursions from Potosí, most notably to the mines of Cerro Rico. Immediately southeast of the city, the Cordillera Kari Kari is a good place for hiking amidst the lakes that provided water for the silver-processing ingenios (smelters). To the northwest, the natural hot springs at Tarapaya are a calming place to relax.
Immediately south of Potosí the near-perfect cone of Cerro Rico (Sumaj Orko in Quechua) rises above the city, its slopes stained startling hues of red and yellow by centuries of mining waste, and pockmarked with the entrances to thousands of mines. For many travellers a visit to one of the mines is a highlight of their trip to Potosí, an amazing and disturbing journey into the bowels of the earth. No less fascinating are the customs, rituals and beliefs that sustain the Quechua-speaking miners.
Most of the miners are reworking old silver mines for tin, lead and other less valuable metals, so the entrances to the shafts tend to be lined with stone facing dating back to the colonial era. As you descend deeper, though, the passageways become narrower and less well made. The miners work in shift teams who divide the profits of what they extract on an equal basis, though some of those working in the mines – particularly the children – are paid a fixed daily wage as employees. The miners are generally proud of their work, and are usually happy to talk about their lives with visitors. Many of the miners previously worked in large state-run mines; others are campesinos who come to work in the mines for short periods on a seasonal basis. Few earn more than a marginal living, though the dream of striking lucky sustains many in their labour. Life expectancy in the mines is about fifteen years, with most miners falling victim to the deadly lung disease silicosis. Cave-ins and other accidents claim the lives of many others.
Few miners eat when they are underground, relying for sustenance instead on coca leaves, harsh black-tobacco cigarettes and the occasional swig of neat cane alcohol. Today, as in the colonial era, coca is considered an essential requirement without which work in the mines would be impossible. Miners spend a good hour chewing coca before entering the shaft to begin work, and all agree that it helps them endure the heat, exhaustion and backbreaking labour. Coca, tobacco and alcohol are also taken in as offerings to El Tío – the supernatural being who is believed to own the mine’s silver and other metals (see Cerro Rico).
In every mine, usually in an alcove just beyond the point from which the last ray of sunlight can be seen, you’ll find a statue of a sinister horned and bearded figure complete with erect phallus and leering smile. Known as El Tío (the Uncle) this demonic character is considered to be the king of the underworld, to whom sacrifices must be made and homage paid if miners are to stay safe and find rich deposits. El Tío is given regular libations of alcohol and offerings of coca and lit cigarettes, particularly on Fridays. At certain times of the year, blood sacrifices are also made to El Tío, with llamas being slaughtered outside the mine entrance to assuage a thirst for blood that might otherwise be satisfied only by the death of a miner. Though El Tío is clearly related to pre-Columbian mountain deities and is never referred to as the Devil by name, there’s little doubt that he owes much to Christian belief. When the first mitayos heard Spanish priests describe heaven and hell, they can only have concluded that the mines were hell itself. If that was so, then they were working in the Devil’s domain, and it was to him that they had to look for succour. To this day most miners are Christians when above ground, taking part in fiestas and worshipping Christ and the Virgin. But once inside the mines, it is to the owner of the minerals and the king of the underworld that they pray.
There are some worthwhile excursions in the warm and fertile Tarija valley, which is notable for its sleepy villages, easy pace of life and beautiful countryside. Just outside Tarija itself are rich fossil deposits that attract palaeontologists from all over the world, while further afield you can visit the bodegas and vineyards of the world’s highest wine-producing region; the spring (Jan–April) is a great time to visit the latter, as this is when the vineyards come to fruit. Above the Tarija valley to the west, the Reserva Biológica Cordillera del Sama has striking high Andean scenery and an Inca trail that makes an excellent hike.
The first vines in the region were planted by Franciscan monks, who found the soil and climate of the Tarija valley ideal for producing wine. During the colonial era Tarija produced much of the wine consumed in Potosí, as well as large quantities of singani, a fierce, roughly 40° proof, white-grape brandy that is extremely popular throughout Bolivia. Today, Tarija’s expanding wine industry produces well over two million litres of wine a year. Wine consumption within Bolivia is growing, and production techniques in the main bodegas have been modernized, with quality improving all the time. The main obstacle to further increases in production is the influx of contraband wine from Chile and Argentina, which is much cheaper than Bolivian wine, as no duty is paid on it.
Around Tupiza stretches the harsh but beautiful CORDILLERA DE CHICAS, a striking landscape of cactus-strewn badlands, deep gulches and canyons, and strangely shaped rock formations and pinnacles. The easiest way to see the cordillera is to take a jeep excursion with one of Tupiza’s tour companies, but travelling on foot, bike or horseback offers a much more relaxed way to explore the eerie desert landscapes and enjoy the tranquillity and ever-changing colours of the mountains, as well as giving you the chance to indulge any Wild West outlaw fantasies you may harbour. Bring plenty of water with you, particularly if travelling on foot, as the sun can be very intense and water is scarce. There are plenty of good spots to camp in the cordillera’s secluded valleys, but avoid pitching your tent on river beds in case of flash floods after rain.
The wilds of Bolivia have always attracted their fair share of renegades and desperadoes, but few have received as much posthumous attention as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Made famous by the 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, they belonged to a band of outlaws who robbed banks, trains and mines in the Rocky Mountains in the United States. In 1901, with the golden age of Wild West gunslingers coming to an end, a price on their heads and the ruthless Pinkerton Detective Agency (the predecessor of the FBI) hot on their trail, Butch and Sundance fled by ship to South America.
They settled in Argentina under assumed names, living on a ranch in the Cholilla Valley in Patagonia. But the Pinkerton Agency had not given up the hunt, and in 1905 the two outlaws went on the run after their names were linked with a bank robbery in Río Gallegos, in the far south of Argentina. They fled to Chile, apparently returning to Argentina to rob another bank, before showing up in Bolivia in 1906, where they found work at the Concordia Tin Mine – their duties, ironically, included guarding the payroll. A year later they made a trip to Santa Cruz, and Butch returned determined to start life again as a rancher in the Eastern Lowlands. Perhaps in need of capital to finance their retirement, in 1908 they quit their jobs and returned to their old ways, heading to Tupiza, where the wealth of the Aramayo mining company offered a tempting prize. Put off from robbing the town bank by the presence of Bolivian troops, on November 3 Butch and Sundance intercepted a convoy of mules carrying a mine payroll at Huaca Huañusca, a mountain pass north of Tupiza. Finding only $90,000 rather than the half million they had expected, the outlaws fled south with the loot. With military patrols and posses of angry miners (whose pay had been stolen) scouring the countryside, and the Argentine and Chilean border guards alerted, the bandits stopped at the home of an English friend, mining engineer A. G. Francis.
Warned the authorities were on their trail, Butch and Sundance turned north, heading towards Uyuni. On November 6 they stopped for the night in San Vicente, a remote mining village about 100km northwest of Tupiza. Unknown to them, however, a four-man military patrol was also spending the night in the village. Informed of the outlaws’ presence, they attacked the room where Butch and Sundance were staying. After a brief shoot-out, all went quiet. In the morning, the two bandits were found dead, Butch having apparently shot his wounded partner before turning his gun on himself. The bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery.
Or were they? In subsequent decades rumours suggested the two dead men were not Butch and Sundance. The two outlaws were reported to have returned to the US or Argentina having assumed new identities; one report even had them finally gunned down in Paris. In 1991 forensic anthropologists exhumed a body from the San Vicente cemetery, but were unable to settle the mystery surrounding the outlaws’ fate.
Huddled on the bleak Altiplano some 230km south of La Paz, ORURO was Bolivia’s economic powerhouse for much of the twentieth century, centre of the country’s richest tin-mining region. Mines established in the nearby mountains in the late nineteenth century turned Oruro into a thriving industrial city. After the fall of world tin prices in 1985, however, Oruro’s fortunes plummeted, and though it’s still the biggest city in the Altiplano after La Paz and El Alto, years of economic decline have turned it into a shadow of its former self.
Situated 3709m above sea level and swept by bitter Altiplano winds, Oruro is a cold and rather sombre place. This dour demeanour is deceptive, however, as every year Oruro explodes into life when it celebrates its Carnaval. At other times, however, there’s little reason to stop here, though given its importance as a transport hub you’re almost certain to pass through at some stage.
Although a few buildings dating from Oruro’s heyday still survive, the city is dominated by the unappealing, functional architecture you’d expect to find in a mining town at the wrong end of half a century of decline. Architecture aside, the Museo Antropológico Eduardo López Rivas is one of Bolivia’s better provincial museums. The Santuario del Socavón, focus of the Carnaval, which sits on top of an abandoned mineshaft now occupied by the Museo Etnográfico Minero, is also worth checking out.
Originally named the Villa Imperial de Don Felipe de Austria in honour of the reigning Spanish king, Felipe III, Oruro was founded on November 1, 1606, a decade after the discovery of rich silver deposits in the nearby Cerro Pie de Gallo. Though its mines never rivalled Potosí’s, Oruro grew quickly, and by the 1670s was the second biggest city in Alto Peru, with a population of about eighty thousand.
It was the biggest Spanish city to be captured during the Great Rebellion of 1780–81, when the city’s mestizos and criollos joined the indigenous uprising led by Tupac Amaru, massacring the Spanish-born population. This multi-class alliance did not last long: the rebel army raised from the ayllus of the surrounding Altiplano soon turned on the criollo instigators of the uprising, looting and burning their houses and killing their leader, Sebastián Pagador, before meeting the same fate themselves at the hands of the royalist army when it eventually retook the city.
Oruro changed hands several times during the Independence War (1809–24), and its economy was severely disrupted. The city gradually recovered as silver production grew again, aided by foreign capital, improved industrial technology and the completion of a railway linking Oruro with the Pacific coast in 1892. The railway meant Oruro was perfectly placed to exploit the growing world demand for tin, which was found in great abundance in the surrounding mountains.
The three Bolivian mining entrepreneurs who controlled most of the mines of Oruro – Aramayo, Hochschild and Patiño – soon came to dominate the national political scene, but their treatment of the miners sowed the seeds of their downfall. The radical FSTMB mineworkers’ union that emerged from Oruro’s mining camps played a key role in the 1952 revolution that led to the nationalization of the mines. However, when the price of tin crashed in 1985, the mining industry collapsed; with it went the power of the miners’ union and Oruro’s economic fortunes. Most of the mines were closed and thousands lost their jobs; although some (gold and tin) mines have opened since, Oruro has never really recovered.
A moveable feast celebrated in late February or early March, the Oruro Carnaval is Bolivia’s most spectacular fiesta. During the week-long party thousands of costumed dancers parade through Oruro in a vibrant and bizarre celebration of the sacred and profane that combines Christian beliefs with Andean folklore – as well as heavy drinking and chaotic water-fighting.
On the first Sunday of November the Santuario del Socavón church hosts a special Mass, and rehearsals are then held every subsequent Sunday until Carnaval itself. The Carnaval’s main event is the Entrada on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, a massive procession of costumed dancers accompanied by brass bands. The parade is led by floats festooned with offerings for the Virgen del Socavón, in whose honour the Carnaval is held. Behind them comes the Carnaval’s central feature, the Diablada (Dance of the Devils), led by two dancers representing Lucifer and St Michael, followed by hundreds of devil dan`cers, and massed brass bands.
On one hand, the Diablada is a morality play in which the Archangel Michael triumphs over the Devil of Christian belief. But the dance is also a celebration of the devil as an incarnation of Huari, the pre-Columbian god of the underworld – closely related to El Tío ––who owns the mineral wealth of the mines and is a jealous patron of the miners dancing in his honour.
Behind the Diablada follows a bewildering variety of other costumed dance troupes, each with its own folk history and mythology. The procession continues well into Sunday morning, and dancing and drinking takes place for much of the following week. On Ash Wednesday, townsfolk visit a series of rocks on the outskirts of Oruro to make offerings to what are claimed to be the petrified remains of the fearsome beasts defeated by the Virgin to save the town. Finally, on Thursday, the troupes conduct their despedida fiestas, saying their farewells until the following year.
Few individuals played a greater role in shaping modern Bolivia than tin baron Simón Patiño, who rose from humble mestizo origins to become one of the world’s richest men, popularly known as the “Rockefeller of the Andes” and the “King of Tin”. Born in 1860 to a poor family in the Cochabamba valley, Patiño moved to Oruro in 1894 to work in a mining supply store. A year later he bought his first share in the nearby La Salvadora mine, and in 1897 bought out his partner to control what turned out to be one of the biggest deposits of high-grade tin in the world. Legend has it that at first he and his wife Albina dug out the precious ore with their own hands, carried it downhill in wheelbarrows and then across country by llama train. But in 1900 Patiño struck one of the richest veins of ore ever found in Bolivia, which was to make his fortune.
By 1905, La Salvadora was the country’s most productive mine, operated by foreign technicians with high-tech equipment. Patiño used the wealth it generated to buy up the surrounding mines and link them to the main railway line to the coast. Within fifteen years he controlled about half of Bolivia’s tin output, was the country’s most important private banker, and enjoyed an income far greater than the government, which he effectively controlled. This wealth came at the expense of the thousands of miners he employed. However, these miners suffered low pay, appalling working conditions and severe oppression.
Patiño also expanded his empire internationally, buying up mining interests and foundries in Asia, Africa, Germany, the USA and Britain. This corporation controlled the entire production process for about a quarter of the world’s tin and played an important role in setting international prices. Rumoured to have Nazi sympathies, he was said to have helped finance Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. By the early 1920s his fortune was estimated at $100 million, making him one of the five richest men in the world. Despite this, Patiño never really overcame the prejudices of Bolivia’s white elite, and from 1924 onwards lived permanently abroad. In 1925 he moved his corporate base to the USA, but spent most of his time in London, Paris and the French Riviera. He died in Buenos Aires in 1947 and thus never lived to see the nationalization of his Bolivian mine holdings.
Southwest of La Paz, the road to Chile passes through some of the Altiplano’s starkest scenery, a desert plain virtually devoid of vegetation presided over by the perfect snowcapped cone of Volcán Sajama. At 6542m, Sajama is Bolivia’s highest mountain, and the first in a chain of icebound volcanic peaks known as the Cordillera Occidental that straddle the Chilean border and mark the edge of the Altiplano – although Sajama stands alone, separated from the rest of the range. Sajama is also the centre of Bolivia’s oldest national park, the PARQUE NACIONAL SAJAMA, established in 1939 to protect the local population of vicuñas, a wild relative of the llama that had been hunted to the verge of extinction for its wool. The animals have since made a dramatic recovery, and large herds can be found grazing 25km or so north of the village at the area known as Patoca.
The park covers roughly one thousand square kilometres, encompassing the entire mountain and a large area of the surrounding desert, where pumas, Andean deer and rheas are also found – though rarely seen. Sajama’s slopes also support the world’s highest forest, a patch of queñua trees that survive up to 5200m. The records don’t stop there: in 2001 the highest football match in the world was played in the crater at the top of Sajama.
Most visitors are climbers, drawn by the chance to ascend a peak of over 6000m that requires relatively little technical expertise. However, the mountain’s lower slopes make for excellent hiking, and there are bubbling geysers and hot springs to be explored in the plain below. West of the park on the Chilean border, the two volcanic peaks of Parinacota (6132m) and Pomerata (6222m) provide a stunning backdrop. Known as the payachatas (“twins”), and considered the female consorts of Sajama, these mountains can also be scaled.
On a desolate, windswept plain amid barren mountains at almost 4100m above sea level, POTOSÍ is the highest city in the world, and at once the most fascinating and tragic place in Bolivia. It owes its existence to Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain), which rises imperiously above the city to the south. Cerro Rico was the richest source of silver the world had ever seen: its mines turned Potosí into the richest jewel in the Spanish emperors’ crown, and one of the world’s wealthiest and largest cities. In the early seventeenth century its population was 160,000, far bigger than contemporary Madrid, and equal in size to London. The expression “eso vale un Potosí” (“this is worth a Potosí”) was used in colloquial Spanish to describe anything priceless. However, this wealth was achieved at the expense of the lives of millions of indigenous forced labourers and African slaves.
Today, Potosí, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a treasure-trove of colonial art and architecture; it has more than two thousand colonial buildings, many of which have been restored. Hundreds of town houses and mansions remain, complete with red-tiled roofs and decorative balconies. Even more striking are the 25 or so churches: the most exuberant of these is San Lorenzo de Carangas. The city’s most outstanding monument, however, is the Casa Real de la Moneda, the colonial royal mint, which has some stunning pieces of colonial religious art. Potosí’s tragic history weighs heavily though, and is evident in the sense of sadness that seems to haunt its narrow streets and the appalling conditions still endured by miners at Cerro Rico.
Legend has it the Incas were on the point of mining Cerro Rico in 1462 when a supernatural voice warned them that the gods were saving the silver for others who would come from afar. Inca Huayna Capac subsequently declared the mountain sacrosanct, naming it Ppotojsi (Quechua for “thunder” or “burst”). The silver was apparently rediscovered in 1545 by llama herder Diego Huallpa. Caught out after dark on Cerro Rico, he started a fire to keep warm, only to see a trickle of molten silver run out from the blaze. News of this reached the Spaniards, and a silver rush was soon under way. Over the next twenty years Potosí became the richest single source of silver in the world.
This growth was based on the extraction of surface deposits with high ore contents, which were easily processed. As these ran out and shaft mining developed, the purity of the ore declined and production costs rose. Labour also became increasingly scarce, thanks to the appalling conditions in the mines. This crisis was overcome by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who arrived in Potosí in 1572 and orchestrated the construction of a massive system of dams, artificial lakes and aqueducts to power the water wheels that crushed the ore for processing. Toledo also introduced the newly discovered amalgam process for refining silver using mercury, established the first royal mint and regulated property rights. Most importantly, he tackled the labour shortage by adapting the Inca system of mandatory labour service, the mita. This provided an annual workforce of about 13,500 mitayos at almost no cost to the mine owners.
These reforms greatly boosted silver production, and Potosí boomed for almost a century. By the beginning of the seventeenth century Potosí’s population was 160,000 and the city boasted dozens of magnificent churches, as well as theatres, gambling-houses, brothels and dancehalls. The silver also had a global impact, funding Spain’s wars and fuelling economic growth throughout Europe.
For the indigenous workers and imported African slaves who produced this wealth, however, the consequences were catastrophic. Staying deep underground for up to a week at a time and forced to meet ever more outrageous quotas, they died at a terrible rate; outside, the highly toxic mercury used in processing the silver posed an equal threat to workers in the large foundries. One sixteenth-century writer described the mines as a ravening beast that swallowed men alive. Estimates of the total number who died over three centuries of colonial mining in Potosí run as high as nine million, making the mines a central factor in the demographic collapse that swept the Andes under Spanish rule.
From about 1650, silver production – and Potosí – entered a century-long decline, though the city remained rich enough to be hotly disputed during the Independence War. However, by the time independence was won in 1825, Potosí’s population was just nine thousand. From the end of the nineteenth century the city came to increasingly rely on tin mining – another metal found in abundance in Cerro Rico, but previously ignored. However, when the price of tin collapsed in 1985, the state-owned mines closed down or were privatized. Though cooperative miners continue to scrape a living by working Cerro Rico’s tired old veins for tin and other metals, Potosí never recovered from the decline of silver production, much less the tin crash.
The unmissable Casa Real de la Moneda (Royal Mint) is one of South America’s most outstanding examples of colonial civil architecture and home to Bolivia’s best museum. The vast, eclectic collection includes the original machinery used in the minting process; some of Bolivia’s finest colonial religious art; militaria; archeological artefacts; and a huge collection of coins. Visits are by guided tour only: these start soon after the morning and afternoon opening times and are conducted in Spanish, English or French depending on demand. It can be very cold inside the complex, so wear something warm.
Constructed between 1759 and 1773 for over a million pesos de oro to replace the earlier royal mint, La Moneda is a formidable construction, built as part of a concerted effort by the Spanish crown to reform the economic and financial machinery of the empire in order to increase its revenues. Along with Lima and Mexico City, Potosí was one of only three cities in Spanish America authorized to produce coins. Occupying an entire city block, La Moneda is enclosed by 1m-thick stone walls with only a few barred windows, giving it the appearance of a fortress. Inside is a two-storey complex of about two hundred rooms off five internal courtyards. As well as housing all the heavy machinery needed to produce coins La Moneda also housed troops, workers, slaves and senior royal officials, who were responsible for ensuring that the Spanish crown received its ten-percent cut of all silver produced in Cerro Rico’s mines. A vital nerve centre of Spanish imperial power, it also served as a prison, treasury, and stronghold in times of strife.
With beautifully carved porticos and interiors dripping with gold leaf, Potosí’s churches are amongst the finest examples of the mestizo-Baroque style, in which Christian European and pre-Christian Andean symbolism are combined. The churches were built partly as a straightforward expression of religious faith, but gratitude for the wealth of Potosí also played a role: whereas Catholic churches almost always face west, those of Potosí look south towards Cerro Rico. They were also part of a determined effort to convert the indigenous population: with hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from different ethnic groups spending time in the city as workers under the mita system, Potosí offered a perfect opportunity for inculcating the Catholic faith. As well as the many churches and convents built for their own use, the Spaniards built fourteen parish churches for exclusive use by the indigenous mitayos.
In time, Christianity gained widespread acceptance amongst the indigenous population, at least on the surface. But as responsibility for building and decorating Potosí’s churches passed to indigenous and mestizo craftsmen and artists, a very distinct religious vision began to emerge. From the second half of the sixteenth century the religious art and architecture of Potosí began to incorporate more and more indigenous religious motifs in a style that became known as mestizo-Baroque. The sun, moon and stars – central objects in traditional Andean religion – appear alongside images of Christ and the saints, with the Virgin Mary represented in triangular form like a mountain, clearly conflated with the Andean earth goddess Pachamama.
These developments did not pass unnoticed by the Spanish authorities, but allowing a little Andean religious imagery into the decoration of churches may have seemed a small price to pay for getting the indigenous population to accept Christianity, albeit superficially.
Despite their beauty, however, these churches were the product of slave labour, and they could scarcely conceal the contradiction between the avowed Christian beliefs of the Spanish mine owners who funded them and the brutal reality of the mining regime these same men controlled. It was said that though God ruled in Potosí’s 34 churches, the Devil laughed in his six thousand mines.
In the far south of the country, hemmed in by the high Altiplano to the west and the cactus-choked hills that drop down into the impenetrable forests of the Chaco to the east, isolated TARIJA feels a world away from the rest of Bolivia. Indeed, the country’s two biggest cities, La Paz and Santa Cruz, are both 24 hours away by road. Set in a broad, fertile valley at an altitude of 1924m, Tarija lies at the centre of a rich agricultural region known as the Andalucia of Bolivia on account of its sunny climate, vineyard-filled valley and the arid mountain scenery that surrounds it. Indeed, so striking are the similarities with southern Spain that Luis de Fuentes, the conquistador who founded the city, named the river on whose banks it sits the Guadalquivir, after the river that flows past Seville.
Laid out in a classic grid pattern, Tarija has few obvious sightseeing attractions – its appeal lies more in the easy charm of its citizens and the warm, balmy climate. Although the population has mushroomed to over one hundred thousand, the city remains provincial in the best sense of the word: small enough to get around on foot and culturally self-contained, but open to foreign influences and welcoming to outsiders. Moreover, Tarija’s Carnaval is one of Bolivia’s most enjoyable fiestas.
Tarija was founded on July 4, 1574 as a Spanish frontier outpost on the far southeast edge of Alto Peru to guard against incursions by the indomitable Chiriguano tribes of the Chaco. The settlement thrived, exporting wine, cattle and grain to the mines of the Altiplano, but despite its prosperity, Tarija remained on the front line of missionary and military expeditions against the Chiriguanos – only after the final Chiriguano uprising was crushed in 1892 were outlying settlements finally freed from the threat of tribal raiders. The greatest moment in Tarija’s history came during the Independence War on April 15, 1817, when a combined force of Argentine troops and Chapaco guerrilla riders led by a one-armed rebel named Eustaquio “Moto” Mendez defeated a Spanish army outside the city at the battle of La Tablada. After this victory Tarija enjoyed eight years of de facto independence before voting to join the newly proclaimed Republic of Bolivia rather than Argentina in 1825.
Tarija is famous for its wine production, and the valley’s rich soils and fecund climate attracted many Andalucian farmers during the colonial period. The peasant culture they brought with them is still evident in the traditional costumes, folkloric dances, religious fiestas, love of food and wine, and languid, sing-song accents of the Tarijeños. Known as Chapacos, Tarijeños take considerable pride in their distinct cultural identity; closer culturally to northern Argentina, they think of themselves as a people apart from the rest of Bolivia, and though the region has provided two presidents in recent decades, it otherwise managed to avoid much of the upheaval of the past century.
Tarijeños are known throughout Bolivia for their love of music, dance and a good party. Though not as strongly influenced by pre-Christian beliefs as the festivals elsewhere in the Bolivian Andes, fiestas in Tarija are still deeply rooted in the agricultural cycle, as well as the calendar of Catholic saints’ days. The distinctive Chapaco folk music features strongly at all the fiestas, played on unusual woodwind instruments like the erque and quenilla. This music is accompanied by poetic and often comic folk songs known as coplas – usually sung as duets. The best known of the region’s folkloric dances is the chuncho, in which dancers wear brightly coloured robes, feathered headdresses and masks in ritual portrayal of the Chiriguano tribes of the Chaco.
Tarija’s Carnaval celebrations in February or March are among the most colourful in Bolivia. On the Thursday before Carnaval, the Dia de Comadres is marked by an exchange of cakes and gifts, and a parade of all the women in the city. Carnaval itself is celebrated with a mass parade of folkloric dances and campesinos in elaborate traditional costumes, and several days of water-fighting, dancing, singing, drinking and eating. The fiesta ends with the ritual burial of the devil. The end of Carnaval coincides with the Fiesta de la Uva (Grape Festival) in La Concepción, 35km south of Tarija, where grape-growers show off their wares amid further celebrations.
On August 15 Tarijeños celebrate the fiesta of the Virgen de la Asunción with a mass pilgrimage to the village of Chaguaya, 70km south of the city. Tarija’s patron saint is San Roque, whose fiesta is celebrated on the first weekend of September with a religious procession accompanied by troupes of chuncho dancers.
Covering some nine thousand square kilometres of the Altiplano west of Uyuni, the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s biggest salt lake, and one of Bolivia’s most extraordinary attractions. Equally dramatic is the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a 7147-square-kilometre wildlife reserve covering the most southwestern corner of Bolivia and ranging between 4000m and 6000m in altitude. South of the Salar de Uyuni, en route to the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, you also pass Ollagüe, Bolivia’s only active volcano, followed by a series of ancient lava fields, several lakes populated by flamingos, and some surreal rocky outcrops.
Even compared to the rest of the Altiplano, the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa and, especially, the Salar de Uyuni can get extremely cold. Though by day the sun can take temperatures as high as 30°C, the high altitude and reflective surface of the Salar mean that little heat is retained, so night temperatures can drop below -25°C, and as far as -40°C when the wind-chill factor is included – one of the widest day-night temperature fluctuations anywhere in the world. Take a good sleeping bag to supplement the blankets that are usually available in the refuges, a warm hat, gloves, a windproof jacket and several layers of clothing including a fleece or woollen jumper and, ideally, thermal underwear. You should also take sun block and sunglasses to counter the fierce glare – snow blindness is a real possibility here.
From Colcha K, just south of the Salar de Uyuni, it’s a 160km drive down to the entrance to the RESERVA DE FAUNA ANDINA EDUARDO AVAROA. En route you cross the edge of the smaller Salar de Chiguana, a railway line running from Uyuni to the Chilean border, and a forlorn military outpost where you may have to show your passport. The track then climbs above 4000m and passes a series of snow-frosted volcanoes straddling the border. It is not advisable – and, in any case, extremely difficult – to visit the reserve independently (see Tours of the Salar and the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa).
Like the Salar de Uyuni, the desolate landscapes of the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa possess a surreal, otherworldly beauty. This is a land of glacial salt lakes whose icy waters are stained bright red or emerald green by microorganisms or mineral deposits; of snowcapped volcanic peaks and frozen, high-altitude deserts; of rocky outcrops scoured by the unremitting wind into strange, Dalí-esque formations.
There is a wide range of rare Andean wildlife here, including many species rarely seen elsewhere. The salt lakes support large colonies of all three South American species of flamingo, including the world’s largest population of the rare James flamingo, one of the eighty different bird species found in the reserve. You’re almost certain to see large herds of vicuñas grazing on the scant vegetation of the high, semi-desert grasslands. Viscachas and even the elusive Andean fox are also frequently spotted.
Some 200km southeast of Uyuni, the isolated town of TUPIZA nestles in a narrow, fertile valley that cuts through the harsh desert landscape of the Cordillera de Chichas. Sheltered from the bitter winds of the Altiplano by steep jagged mountains, the town enjoys a comparatively warm climate, while its friendly and laidback inhabitants help make it a popular stop for travellers passing through southern Bolivia. The real attraction, though, is the dramatic desert scenery that surrounds Tupiza, a landscape of red, eroded rock formations, cactus-strewn mountains and deep canyons that is ideal for hiking, mountain biking, horseriding or just touring in a jeep – all of which are easy to arrange in town.
Tupiza was founded in 1535 by the conquistador Diego de Almagro. For most of its history the town’s economy has been dominated by mining operations in the surrounding mountains. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was the base of Carlos Aramayo, one of Bolivia’s biggest mining barons, and the mine payrolls were rich enough to attract the attentions of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who are believed to have died some 100km to the northwest. Today, the mineral deposits are largely exhausted, and Tupiza’s economy depends more on its role as a market centre for the agricultural communities of the surrounding region and, increasingly, on tourism.
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.
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.
About 92km south of Tupiza, the ramshackle frontier town of VILLAZÓN is the main border crossing between Bolivia and Argentina. Set at an altitude of 3445m, it’s a busy little place bustling with cross-border traffic. Most of the people crossing the border here are Bolivian migrants who live and work in Argentina. Unless you get stuck overnight, there’s really no reason to linger here; it’s better to push straight on into Argentina or to Tupiza or Tarija