Travelblog SA#31: Cochabamba, Sucre & Potosi – Bolivia

23rd-30th November 2018

Coming to Cochabamba felt like my travelling had come full circle because it is possibly because of this place that I am in Bolivia now. Years ago, I watched a documentary called The Corporation which covered the story of how the people of this city rioted in against the rise in their water rates shortly after their supply was privatised in 1999. It escalated over the course of several months and the army had to be called in. There were several injuries and even a death but the people never backed down and eventually won. To this day, Bolivia remains one of the few countries in the world to retain a publically-owned water supply.

I remember feeling inspired because I saw a nation whose people had something that my own country lacks and I wanted to go there one day.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

And now here I am. Although, I admittedly didn’t do much during my time in this city. The cold I had been suffering from over the last couple of weeks had gone to my chest and I wanted to rest to make sure I was well enough for the ayahuasca ceremony coming up.

I did go up to see the Cristo de la Concordia one afternoon though. It is the second largest statue of Jesus in the world and it is set within a park overlooking the city. The cable car to reach it was near to my guesthouse so it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Eventually, the night of the ceremony came. I still had not got over my cold but decided to go ahead with it anyway. It was in a house on the outskirts of the city and there were about a dozen other people there, most of them locals from Cochabamba.

The shaman was a man called Miguel Kavlin, and he has been a practising scared medicine for several decades. He spoke to us for a while about some of the experiences we were likely to have before the ceremony began and then commenced with a long period of meditation and prayer. We were each called up to imbibe some of the liquid.

What happened over the hours which followed I will not go into too much detail, as it was very personal. Almost everyone who drinks ayahuasca will experience contact with spirits and entities. They will also relive moments from their past – some of which they thought they had forgotten – which helped shape the person they are, and they will do so in a way which helps gain a sense of clarity. It is an emotional rollercoaster, but most people come out of it feeling a sense of catharsis.

I cannot compare Miguel to other shamans because this was my only experience with ayahuasca but I can say that I was very happy with the way he worked. When I arrived I was nervous and he said some things to me which put me at ease. He has a very comforting presence about him and he worked hard all night to create a great energy in the room. While I was fading in and out of awareness, between all the visions I experienced that night, he was playing drums and other instruments and their rhythms helped ground me.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I didn’t sleep at all the night of the ayahuasca ceremony and then the following night I caught a bus, so I was very tired by the time I reached Sucre. It was a great place to kick back and rest, having well-maintained colonial streets, a laid-back atmosphere and lots of great restaurants.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

After resting, I spent a couple of days touring around Sucre’s museums. The Cathedral and the Museo de Charcas had great collections of colonial religious art, and I also particularly enjoyed the Museo de Arte Indigena which had old lots of old tapestries which were excellently crafted. There are some outdoor activities one can embark upon from Sucre, including day trips to mountains and waterfalls, but I was quite happy to spend my days there languidly. My mind was still contemplating a lot of the things that I saw during the night of the ceremony and it was going to take me a while to feel ‘normal’ again.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

After a couple of days in Sucre, I moved on to Potosi, one of the highest altitude cities in the world. It is a historic place, nestled beneath Cerro Rico, the world’s largest known silver deposit which people have been mining for over four hundred years.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

I spent my first couple of days in Potosi still pursuing light activities. I had to acclimatise again as I was at 4100 meters. I wandered through its UNESCO awarded streets and I visited its Convento de Santa Teresa, which has been home to Carmelite nuns from affluent families for centuries and is now also a museum.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

A visit to Potosi isn’t complete without going down the mines though. It is not one of those things you do for enjoyment but it is illuminating and part of the experience of Bolivia. There are some dangers involved, as the mines still largely operate the same as they did hundreds of years ago, so you are at a slight risk of cave-ins and breathing in noxious gases.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

First, we all needed to be kitted up in red over-garments, rubber boots, and helmets. We even had to wrap our feet in plastic bags for some reason. Our guide then took us to the market so that we could buy snacks, drinks, dynamite and coca leaves as gifts for the miners. It was surreal seeing how easy it is to buy dynamite in Potosi. It only costs $3 a stick and you can buy them alongside groceries.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

In the first few minutes descending into the caverns, a couple of the people in the tour turned back. Apparently, that is normal, and I could understand why. The initial tunnels were quite narrow which forced us to climb and crawl, and the air was dusty. All the silica in the air combined with the altitude makes it difficult to breathe.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Despite this being one of the most gruelling work environments in the world, the miners seem quite proud of their job and fairly happy considering that their life expectancy is so short. Most of them don’t die from accidents but from a condition known as silicosis, where the lungs fill up with the silica dust. They say that once you start working down there you have twenty years before the disease either kills you or forces you into retirement. At one point we met a man who was on his twenty-fifth year, currently the oldest miner.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

One of the most interesting things we saw were the effigies for El Tio, a local deity whom the miners leave offerings and pray to daily. I have videos of our guide explaining this tradition to us here.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

It is true that there is a slightly voyeuristic element to first-world people paying to be taken on a tour down these mines, but I also feel that if you enjoy some of the trappings of the modern world – such as a smartphone – you owe it to these people to see the price of obtaining the necessary materials. It is sad that these people live such gruelling and short lives but, having lived many of my years in Wales, I know that simply closing these industries down without giving people other means of income is not the answer. I have seen what happens to such communities. I am not going to pretend I am smart or knowledgeable enough to know what the answer is though.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

For now, I do think that tourists going for trips down these mines are mostly a good thing. The gifts that they give to the miners help supplement their income and the more people who are aware of the poor conditions, the more likely things are to change. Most of the guides are former miners who have now found a source of income which doesn’t require them to spend as much time down in the caverns so it has probably prolonged their life spans.

 

For more photos from Cochabamba, Sucre and Potosi, click here. This album also includes much more videos from down in the mines.

If you are interested in taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony with Miguel then you can contact him via email (miguelkavlin@gmail.com) or WhatsApp (+91 82642 44598).

Advertisements

Travelblog SA#21: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 1 – Peru

15th-18th October 2018

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

You would think that I’d have grown bored of historic highland cities by this point, but I was certainly glad I saved Cuzco for later in my trip because it topped them all. Once the old capital of the Incas, and then after, a colonial centre, it is a city with multiple layers and, as you wander around its streets and alleys, there is always something which catches your eye. Some of its original walls, built by the Incas, still stand today, and they were so masterfully shaped to fit into each other they baffle historians. I have not been to a city that I can be so happy to just freely wander and get lost within, since Kathmandu in Nepal.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Cuzco has many sites to see but most are ones you need the boleto turistico for. This ticket is initially expensive but allows you to wander around dozens of museums and ruins not just within the city itself but the entire Sacred Valley. It has a time limit though, so it didn’t make any sense for me to buy one yet as I was heading to do the Salkantay trek in just a few days.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

There were a few places within the city which can be visited independently of the boleto turistico though, such as the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, which I was very impressed by. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have a fascination with history but even I have to admit that sometimes endless cases filled ceramics and artefacts can bore me. This museum is one of those places which manages to make ancient relics engaging. They concentrate on quality rather than quantity and every single item they put on display is fully annotated with information of its context.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

They also have an audio guide (which costs extra but I highly recommend) and have divided the rooms of the museum in a way which takes you on a journey through Peru’s different pre-colonial civilisations. Many ones I had encountered before during the last six weeks. It was great to have a museum which brought them all together into a meta-narrative.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Qorikancha was another attraction I went to see. Being a Christian monastery built over the ruins of an old Inca palace, you could almost say it is the very epitome of Cuzco itself.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Although they might not look like much now, these bare-looking stone chambers within what is now one of the central courtyards of the monastery were once an astronomical observatory and series of temples. All of them were completely covered in gold, the recesses in the walls were filled with offerings to the gods and even the space in the middle was filled with shining statues. When the conquistadors arrived they were said to have been awestruck but that didn’t stop them having all of the gold melted down as part of the ransom for Atahualpa’s – the last Inca emperor – life, and building a church on top of its foundations.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Interestingly, despite the Convent of Santo Domingo’s shady beginning, the monks of this place eventually took a more humanitarian approach later down the line and became advocates for indigenous rights and even helped to catalogue some of their myths and traditions. The modern convent, as it now stands, is host to a collection of colonial religious art where one can see some of conscious steps the clergy made to lure the natives into Christendom as part of the development of Peru’s mestizo culture, such as paintings depicting Jesus as dark-skinned, several examples of Incan deities assimilated with Christian saints, figures such as Mary chewing cocoa leaf, and even Inca-presenting women (in both features and attire) present in the biblical scenes.

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESUnfortunately, I can’t show you any examples of this as I was not permitted to take any photos of the artwork, nor the church of Santo Domingo itself (which is unfortunate, as it has a wonderful interior and great atmosphere), as well as a few other religious spaces within Convent grounds. This is probably the only criticism I have of the place, but I did find it to be a bit of a double-standard on their part, as they have no problem at all with you taking snaps of the ruins of a sacred Inca site they built over.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Otherwise, I found Qorikancha a wonderful attraction. It is a great place to help gain insight into the history of not just the grounds, but Cusco itself, and the addition of an audio-guide you can download onto your phone enriches the experience. It is one of the cheaper attractions to see in Cusco and great value considering the amount of effort they have put into making it engaging for people.

I wish I could say the same thing about Cusco’s cathedral, which I had planned to visit that too but decided against it when I found out the quite frankly disgusting entry fee they are charging people now.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Not many people pass through Cuzco these days without going to see Rainbow Mountain, which says something of its allure considering it is a very new attraction and not even made it into the current version of the Lonely Planet yet.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

All the tours which go there leave very early in the morning as it is quite far away. During the journey you from an altitude of 3400 meters to over 5000, and almost everyone will feel some degree of altitude sickness when the bus arrives at the car park where they have to finish the last leg of the journey by foot. All of the tour guides carry oxygen tanks and medication with them and the walk takes about one to two hours depending upon your fitness level. Many people end up hiring a horse to carry them and some even have to turn back.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

The views, before you even reach the ‘rainbow’ part, are stunning. Which is good, as taking photos gives you an opportunity to catch your breath.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

When you reach the top, the real struggle is then managing to get a decent snap of the view between all the crowds of people posing in front of it

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

It was shortly after this photo was taken that something I was certainly not expecting happened to me.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

A storm was approaching – we had heard some rumbles nearby just a few moments ago – we were suddenly enveloped within a cloud of mist. The rumbling repeated, this time directly above us.

And then I felt something strike my head. There was a snapping sound, and it was followed by a weird sensation. I put my hand to my head where I’d felt it and a weird crackling sound spread across my scalp. Several people were staring at me and it took me a few moments to realise what had just happened.

I had been struck by lightning.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t a particularly big one, otherwise I would have been in trouble, but still, I think it’s quite cool that I am now one of a small number of the population who can say such a thing.

15.JPG

It happened so quickly and I didn’t really have too much time to dwell on it because we were then engulfed in a snowstorm. Cold winds came, and with them, heavy snow. I wrapped myself in my coat and covered up my backpack. Within a just a few minutes, the Rainbow Mountain was white and its colours could no longer be admired. The winds were so bitterly cold I decided to start making my way back down to the car park. On my way, I passed people who were still on their way up and felt sorry for them, not only were they having to finish the ascent within a storm but they were not going to be able to see the mountain at its best.

SAM_8533_Moment

The next day I got ready for the next step of my journey, the Salkantay trek, which will involve four days of hiking through mountains of the sacred valley and ultimately conclude with me seeing Machu Picchu.

I will be returning to Cusco though, and when I do there are plenty of other sites I plan on seeing.

 

For more photos, click here.