We’re not usually that interested in religious history, but the Jesuits’ social experiment in the heart of this fascinating continent is rather absorbing. We took a back road route across the border from Caceres in Brazil to pick up the “Missions Circuit” in the lowland plains of eastern Bolivia, then had an adventurous journey back up into the mountain valleys to spend more time in and around the lovely city of Sucre, visiting a traditional market, chasing dinosaur footprints and letting llamas distract us from rock climbing on the altiplano.
We made an early start on 27th October 2015, the day we left Caceres in Brazil, so that we could get through all the formalities of the border crossing and still have time to make it all the way to the first major town on the Bolivian side, San Ignacio de Velasco, before dark, over 350km on rough roads.
Having got our stamp out of Brazil the afternoon before at the police station in Caceres, we completed the Bolivian immigration and customs processes in San Matias, a small town just across the border in Bolivia. A few months later this, what appeared to us as a friendly and rather pleasant, little town was “militarised” in an effort to deal with the drug smuggling in the area (coca is legally grown in many countries of the Andes, the leaves having long been used by the Andean peoples as a mild stimulant, very similar to coffee, and helpful for easing the symptoms of altitude – more about that in another blog).
Given these issues, and that our route took us, for quite some distance, on a road running alongside the Brazilian border, it perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise that we had to pass through a series of military check-points along the way. In one village, right next to the border, we were given a slip of paper with the time on as we entered at one end to hand in as we left at the other end, presumably to show we hadn’t spent any time quickly nipping across the border while we were there.
Next to one of the military checkpoints was this map showing the areas of neighbouring countries (in black) that Bolivia claims it once had, and has lost, in wars, treaties etc. over the years. Poor Bolivia’s history reads like the story of a bullied middle sibling. The loss of sea access causes the country ongoing concern and it has taken a case about it to the international court.
All the checkpoints proved to be quite friendly, even the one where Bruce was quietly asked about “money for collaboration” (to which he naturally replied that he didn’t understand and didn’t speak Spanish) – a pretty subtle and friendly bribe attempt as they go! Our last checkpoint was a police stop, where the rather moody policeman (well, it was pretty hot) insisted on seeing and stamping our Temporary Import Permit for the van, which would not have been so much of an issue had the rough road not shaken the batteries out of the safe lock (where we store our documents) and, as we discovered on opening the back, also caused a full bottle of Coca Cola to burst all over the floor!
As we were putting the documents away again and trying to do something, at least temporarily to clear up the mess, he shut up shop for the night and got on his bike to cycle home. If we had arrived 5 minutes later, we’d have missed that checkpoint completely! In the event, we arrived in San Ignacio with time to have a cooling dip in the hostal swimming pool before dark.
The next day, after clearing up the coke, we got the dodgy left suspension looked at yet again – it’s often quite hard to understand what mechanics are telling us at the best of times, but when they have a cheek full of coca leaves, it’s pretty much impossible!
The Jesuit Missions of remote eastern Bolivia
We had visited some missions before, as we travelled south at the start of our trip, through the Missiones region of northern Argentina. The huge stone Missions there are in ruins, abandoned when the Jesuits were expelled, and reminded us of England’s enormous ruined Abbeys. This region of Bolivia is unusual because the Mission towns weren’t abandoned after the Jesuit missionaries left, but continued on in a similar vein. Indeed, one of the churches we visited was actually built by the local people after the Jesuits had been expelled. Several churches have since been restored and six of them are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Jesuit Missions were an experiment in more compassionate (relatively) colonialism. With the approval of the Spanish crown, the local tribes were not exactly compelled to move into reductions, but the Jesuits made it practically advantageous for them to join. They were all built on the same model, around a large church complex and square and, once formed, the Jesuits imposed a heavily controlled social system, down to arranging and dictating marriages. Each person had a role in the society, growing crops or artisanal activities, such as carving or painting, but in return, there was a guarantee of a reliable source of food (if a family’s own crops failed, they could get food from the community supply) and, critically, they were rigorously defended against the scourge of slave traders, which were a real threat to the indigenous populations in the area at the time. Voltaire later wrote that, “The spread of Christianity in Paraguay by the efforts of the Jesuits alone was, in a certain sense, a triumph of humanity.” These communities were so successful that they became effectively a Jesuit state in its own right, trading and exporting surplus crops and goods produced. This success also became the Jesuits downfall and they were expelled in 1767 because they had become too powerful and a potential threat to the Spanish crown.
The Jesuits’ vision was to “civilise” through education and the arts. Music was a central force in this, having discovered, they believed, an innate musical ability in the Guarani people. The last thing we expected to stumble upon in this remote, wild part of South America was Baroque music, but that is one of the aspects of Mission life that continued after the Jesuits departure. In less than eight decades, by teaching the local people to make and play instruments, the Jesuits instilled a love of Baroque music that continued into the modern day, over time becoming an integral part of their cultural identity.
It has been revived in recent years and achieved international recognition, thanks to a large discovery of manuscripts during the restoration work on one of the churches and a collaboration with Florilegium, a UK-based Baroque music group (to learn more, read this and this). A biannual music festival in the region now attracts 50,000 people and, for the young people of the communities, being selected for a local orchestra or choir is like being selected for the local football team elsewhere. Although we didn’t coincide with any concerts to hear it live, we saw many children carrying violin cases and caught a glimpse of a lesson through a window.
Here are some more pictures from our tour of the Mission churches and towns:
And some of the creatures and critters we came across along the way:
The wet road to Sucre
On our last days in the area, we started to get our first rain, which poured down as we put our heads into the All Saints Day Sunday service on November 1st. Given the heat, this gave some relief, but it became unseasonably heavy. El Niño effects perhaps? Climate change? In the weeks following, areas of Paraguay and Northern Argentina were to experience heavy flooding that left many stranded out of their homes and, as we climbed out of the plains and into the mountains, we left news reports of destroyed crops behind us.
Meanwhile, we decided to take a shortcut via a short stretch of unfinished road just north of the major city of Santa Cruz, so as to avoid having to drive all the way into the city, around it and back out again. After all, what would 30km of un-tarmacked road be to us after the many 100s km we had recently done! However, half way along, we hit an obstacle – a very heavily flooded river that had burst its banks. A bridge was in the process of being built, but was clearly some years away from completion. Still, there was a little ferry, a small barge, running backwards and forwards, which, although small, looked fine, in itself, but required navigating mud and flood on either side to first, reach it, then drive away again on the other side. The boatman came out to us as we sat and considered it, persuading us it would be fine… This gallery tells the story of our Top Gear–esque adventure.
We were quite tired and relieved when we made it to Bella Vista that evening, a rather pretty village in the hills looking out over the edge of the plains. Unfortunately the little hotel on a coffee plantation that we were aiming for was booked with a family gathering and, not finding somewhere we felt comfortable free camping as it was getting dark, we ended up splashing out for a room in a more expensive hotel up the road. This actually happens relatively rarely, to our surprise! Unfortunately, rain meant we couldn’t visit Parque Nacional Amboro, as the river crossings on the routes into the park were impassable, and, when we did brave the mud again on the track back to the “Cafetal” the next day, the anticipated views from our little lodge room there were rather more obscured by cloud than we had hoped! But we did get to do a tour of the small coffee plantation – our first plantation visit.
After a rather miserable days drive along the edge of the plains towards Cochabamba, broken only by frequent police stops, two of which were difficult (two in one day out of no more than few through difficult stops on the entire trip so far – maybe it was something to do with the rain… or the culture in the Bolivian lowlands…), we had intended to break our climb back up into the mountains with an overnight stop halfway up, to help with the readjustment to the altitude, but that relied on finding somewhere to pull off the road at around 1,500m into the climb. That was not to be, as the road climbed through dense forest, with continuous tight switchbacks and, being one of the major roads across the country, was heavy with lorries. We pulled off into a small area off the road on one switchback, but couldn’t get more than 20m or so from the busy road, in an area full of rubbish and flies, which didn’t feel comfortable or as secure as we would like. So we ploughed on, with night setting in (we try, if at all possible, not to drive at night).
With the help of the wonderful iOverlander (a website and app where fellow travellers share campspots and other information), we aimed for a spot apparently off the road, by a lake, hoping, with the GPS reference, we’d find it in the dark and that we’d be okay with sleeping at 3,300m having driven up from near sea level in a matter of hours. When we got there, we found a gate firmly shut across the track down to the lake and some military in a building next to it. So we asked – can we camp by the lake? They weren’t happy with that, but directed us to a flat area next to their building and a rather excited young lad hopped in the front with us to show us how to get there (foreigners in campervans are presumably something of a novelty!) We were woken early next morning by another guy wanting to see (we finally worked out) some ID – presumably a change of shift. We picked up on his discomfort, packed up quickly, showed him our documents and gave him a tip (“for some beers”) and hit the road. That had been our first, in desperation, ask an official for somewhere to camp, overnight stop, which had been just fine and probably won’t be our last. And, thankfully, the rapid change in altitude caused nothing more than a minor headache that soon passed.
Taking some time to enjoy Sucre
We had passed through Sucre relatively quickly a few months earlier on our way east to Brazil, but had already decided we would include it on our route back west and spend more time there. Language lessons were on the itinerary, because, in Sucre, accommodation for overlanders is convenient and cheap at a lovely hostel near the centre, the lessons themselves are also very cheap (we each had 3 hours per day of one-on-one private lessons for a week) and because Sucre is a lovely city to hang out in for awhile, with a comfortable climate at a nice altitude, with plenty to see in beautiful old colonial surroundings. We returned, after a beautiful day’s drive through the lower mountains of the eastern Andes, on November 4th. Some pictures from our time in Sucre are below:
From Sucre, we took a day trip to visit the traditional Sunday market at Tarabuco. Although we were there as part of a relatively numerous contingent of tourists, this is very much a functioning local market still where people from far and wide in the surrounding area come weekly to sell goods and stock up. Many people are in traditional dress, because that’s what they wear, not to dress up for the benefit of the smattering of foreign visitors.
It had been up in the mountains in southern Bolivia that we had first encountered people in traditional dress. Everybody wears a hat, a necessity against the strong high altitude sun, with each ethnic group distinguishable by a different style of hat. The woman’s clothing stands out in particular and, as we were to find, is similar, with variations on a theme, all the way up through the High Andes. Many women wear a large, flowing colourful skirt, some longer than others, some more flowery than others; hair in long plaits hanging below their hat (whose shape and style indicates which ethnic group they belong to); a blanket or shawl around the shoulders against the cold; and the biggest handbag ever, in the form of a cloth carried on the back, tied around the shoulders.
In Bolivia, there is a growing pride in the “chollitas” outfit, which continues to be worn even in modern cities up in the Andes, not only by the older more traditional generation, but now by young women in professional jobs (see this article on the BBC by our friend Paula). On the one hand, it was very refreshing to see traditional outfits being carried over into modern life and not rejected in favour of standard “ropa Americana”. It seemed to us that many women these days have both modern western clothing and traditional outfits in their wardrobe. But it also left me with some mixed emotions. The skirt that is so characteristic was imposed on the indigenous people by the Spanish church, after the Spanish conquered the region, and I think what made me feel uncomfortable was that it looks a little too like women and girls being dressed as pretty little dolls because that’s how the conquerors liked them to look, although, of course, big flowing skirts were the fashion at the time of the Spanish conquest.
I was also concerned that it might serve to maintain and reinforce what has effectively been centuries of an apartheid social system in Bolivia. The Spanish imposed a complex social order that recognised and prioritised many dozens of different social groupings, with pure-bred Spanish conquistadors at the top (of course), various degrees of mixed race below that, then the various indigenous groups at the bottom, with Bolivia’s small population of African slaves taking the bottom slot. After independence in the early 19th century, little changed, with the existing elites maintaining their position and the indigenous peoples often being exploited, working the land and in mines. Today, Bolivia officially recognises 36 ethnic groups and there are signs of change, with the first indigenous president having been elected in 2006, but there is still a long way to go. All over the place, there were signs in offices, behind the counters of bars and restaurants, reminding people that “we are all equal under the law”. I was left uncomfortable that, in some ways, the outfits that label the person as belonging to a particular group may serve to hold some people back.
However, whatever their origination, the outfits have become integral to their culture and are, for many, becoming a sign of pride and reclamation of their non-colonial heritage as part of this recent “decolonisation” process that is striving to give long downtrodden peoples a place in an “plurinational” society.
On the trail of dinosaurs
On leaving the city, we set out on a mission to find some dinosaur footprints in the hills just to the west of the city. The drive to Maragua was spectacular, with the road getting gradually narrower, rougher and windier. As we descended steeply down into the crater, we tried not to think about whether the van would manage the climb out (which, of course, it did).
It took us a little time to find the start of the path to footprints, but we got there just in time to pay a small fee to the lady who’s land they are on, wander around them on the shallow rock face for a few minutes as the sun went down and get back to the van as it was getting dark. This gallery tells the story:
We spent the night parked up outside the village, creating something of an interest as the school bus went by next morning while we did our washing up! Then we headed back to Sucre to visit a rather more visited and extensive set of preserved footprints located inside an industrial complex on the edge of the city. There, you pay a rather larger fee to be escorted in tour groups down to look at the footprints and tour the visitors centre.
Of course, a little Bolivian rock climbing
In Sucre, Bruce had found the man who seemed to be it for rock climbing in the city and received instructions for finding the best bit of developed rock climbing in the region, back near Potosi. As the best road onwards to La Paz took us back through Potosi anyway, this fitted quite well. The area he has developed is in a picturesque a bowl of rock behind an estancia where they keep llamas. We spend a lovely day there trying to do a little climbing up at 4,000m, but mostly sitting watching the llamas in the beautiful setting.
We were back on the altiplano – fast becoming one of our favourite places to be. Despite the thin air and the cold nights, there is something magical about this sparse, harsh and simple environment. There was more of that still to enjoy in Bolivia…