Date sent: Monday, December 18, 1995
From: billc@sybase.com (William H. Coffin)

Subject: Lost on the Bolivian Altiplano

Linda didn't expect to celebrate her birthday in the schoolyard of a Bolivian village so remote that they had never seen foreign visitors. None of us expected to be there. We were supposed to be in the village of Challacota, miles away, preparing to watch a total eclipse of the sun.

We were out in a remote part of Bolivia's Altiplano, a vast, desolate plateau at an average altitude of 13,000 feet. We were a travel group, an odd assemblage of twenty people from all over the United States. That very morning we had left La Paz, Bolivia's capital, in a bus.

The bus had climbed up out of the huge bowl that encompasses La Paz, giving us a breathtaking view of the city and the towering Andean peaks that loom over it. We then pulled out onto the Altiplano.

At first we drove on asphalt roads through arid countrside, with cultivated fields that looked exactly like raked gravel. We passed many chollos and chollas, the Aymara Indians that make up most of Bolivia's population. Although the men look very modern in their sneakers and jeans, almost all of the women were traditionally dressed, in derby hats, flaring multi-layered skirts, and brilliantly colored shawls. We stopped at several barricaded police checkpoints, where we bought bananas and cookies. Later, when the food ran short, we'd be very glad of these little extravagances.

Our trip leaders had been pondering our destination. There were two alternatives: one was Rio Mulatos, where the Bolivian government had staked out rows of tiny compounds in the desert. The other alternative was Challacota, a remote village many miles northwest of Rio Mulatos. Rio Mulatos would be crowded and unpleasant, but Challacota was very remote and with no facilities at all. The decision: we would go to Challacota. Our guide was confident that he could find it. From the drab town of Oruro we took the road that led southwest into the desert.

After several hours, we drove down out of some low hills and stopped at a last dusty checkpoint. From here we looked out over a dirt road stretching straight across a dry floodplain. We stopped for a quick lunch.

This day was Dia del Muerte, Day of the Dead, when Bolivians pay homage to their departed relatives by drinking and eating with them. An elderly man in a nearby adobe hut invited us to join his family. In small groups we entered a low-ceilinged room. At one end was a beautiful shrine, a table laden with chickens, fruits, wreaths, loaves of bread, packs of cigarettes, and coca leaves all carefully arranged around the candles which provided the room's only illumination. Smiling but dignified Chollos, peasant farmers, sat on rough benches against the other three walls. We were offered beer and mezcal, and our host explained, through gestures, that we were honoring his departed wife.

They waved goodbye to us as we left, and we were disappointed to leave so quickly. But we had a long way to go. Soon we were out on the great flat floodplain, with a deep blue sky towering over us, filled with dramatic cloudscapes. The land became drier, a seeming impossibility. We saw no more cultivated land, passing only an occasional herd of sheep, alpacas, or llamas. Not a single tree stood in this land, only a scattering of low brush on the red dust. Occasionally we passed a single Indian afoot or on bicycle, incongrous in the vastness.

The road soon became a pair of ruts in the red dust. And when we crossed a dry watercourse or salt flat, the ruts disappeared entirely. Occasianally we would ford a small stream, but only after the drivers threw stones into the water to gauge the depth. The bus tottered precariously but somehow never quite tipped over. Often we followed the wrong ruts and had to backtrack to find the actual road.

Our driver became worried about our location. He had been trying to contact his agency in La Paz by radio. He continually shouted "LaPazLaPazLaPaz" into the mouthpiece, and this chant became our mantra as the trip continued. Our schedule was tight, for we had to reach Challacota by sundown. We were hungry, and our guide promised that an advance group awaited us in Challacota with T-bone steaks.

Occasionally we passed dusty adobe villages, each with a church, a blue-painted school, and, surprisingly, a basketball court. The adobe houses had roofs of thatch or of corrugated tin. The tin roofs became rarer and rarer as each village we passed was poorer than the last. Many of the buildings were ruined. We stopped near one such village so the driver could ask a solitary bicyclist for directions. The new information did not agree with our instructions radioed from La Paz. Our guides debated among themselves, consulting several different maps. We drove on, nervously scanning the horizon and watching the sun's steady descent.

Dust devils spun continuously on the horizon. Occasionally we climbed into low brown hills and passed barren ridges. We were now near the largest salt flats in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. Beyond those flats lies the Atacama in Chile, the driest place on earth, where no rain has ever fallen in recorded history. We could see the snow-clad peaks of Chile in the distance.

We stopped at another village to ask directions but found no-one. We wandered past the church, the basketball court, and the schoolhouse, out into the open Altiplano, and saw a crowd of people celebrating Dia del Muerte in the cemetary. They were eating, drinking, and laughing. As we approached, they beckoned us to join them. One young man, in a zombie-like state of drunkenness, offered us mezcal which he poured into plastic cups from a green plastic jerry can. It tasted very good, but I soon found myself trying to explain, in English, why I must refuse a second cup while he eloquently argued, in Spanish, why I should drink more.

The villagers insisted that we were far from the correct route, which was many miles to the west. But whenever the sputtering radio made connection, La Paz insisted that we were still on course. At last we left the village, still trusting the route given by La Paz. The sun was close to the horizon, and we had to hurry to reach our destination before nightfall -- driving in darkness would be quickly disastrous in this country.

We passed some low hills, each one topped with a small stone silo-like structure. Our guide explained that these are ancient Aymara tombs, never excavated, and carefully avoided by the living Aymara.

Soon after, we reached Andamarca. But it was the wrong Andamarca! The road, such as it is, ends here. Our driver at last discovered that our route should have been through Belen de Andamarca, many miles to the west, not here in Andamarca de Santiago. The locals had been right all along, La Paz was obviously confused by the similarity of the names. We were in twilight, and we could go no further. Worse, our dinner was in Challacota, so we had nothing but our lunch leftovers. We had been on the road for fourteen hours.

The locals were surprised at our presence, and someone told us that the village had never before seen foreign visitors. This was a bit hard to believe, since the lovely colonial church whose belltower overlooked the schoolyard was dated 1728, and surely some gringo had stumbled on this place in the intervening years.

Our guide negotiated with a local official and arranged for us to sleep in the school compound. Dia del Muerte would continue the next day, so school would not be in session. The school had three classrooms with adobe floors thick with dust. Many of the windowpanes were shattered. We moved the wooden benches up against a wall and lit candles against the deepening darkness, for Andamarca has no electricity. The outhouse toilets were squat-style, each one a hole in the ground between two concrete tiles to stand on.

We waited patiently while our guides, who had found some chickens and some rice, assembled a dinner. Someone started a brushwood fire in the schoolyard. Someone else discovered a small shop across the street which usually operated on the barter principle, but was willing to accept our bolivianos in exchange for beer. At this elevation the opened beer foamed ceaselessly, but somehow tasted delicious. The stars came out, and in the absence of electric lights and at this altitude, they blazed with knife-edged brilliance.

Four or five young men of the village joined us, and we shared our beer with them as we stood around the fire. One of them, inspired, told us that they would play us some of their music. They left to fetch, we thought, their instruments, and we eagerly anticipated hearing some of the beautiful, heartbreaking Andean music. But when they returned, one of the young men proudly held a cheap boombox playing disco music! After some negotiation, we prevailed on them to play a tape of indigenous music, and soon they were teaching us dance steps, and under those stars, with the eddying sparks from the fire, warmed by the beer, we danced. Someone had brought a bottle of chardonnay from La Paz and gave it to Linda, whose birthday was now revealed, and we all congratulated her, and ourselves, on such a serendipitous birthday celebration.

At last dinner was announced. The dining hall had tables but no chairs -- fortunately we had brought folding chairs on the bus. We ate a late dinner, by candle-light, of chicken and rice. Posters on the wall advised, in Aymara, not to stare at the sun during the eclipse.

Yes, we did reach the eclipse. That evening our guide hired a local guide to ride with us to Belen de Andamarca. In the morning we found that the guide had celebrated Dia del Muerte too zealously, and, after finding someone else, we departed.

At first we retraced our route past the Aymara tombs, but soon we turned westward. The road became yet worse, and sometimes we were surrounded by Saharan sand dunes. We saw no more sheep, and the llamas became fewer. We did see several vicunas, so graceful compared to the ungainly llama, bound across our path.

The weather was ambiguous. We saw storms in the distance and massive cloud formations above us. We'd be crushed if we came all this way and couldn't see the eclipse because of bad weather.

We passed through Belen de Andamarca, dropped our guide off with his bicycle, and hired two young brothers to take us on to Challacota.

Challacota was much smaller than Andamarca, and seemed mostly to be in ruins. This town looked like seven- or eight-hundred people may once have lived here, but now we think there couldn't be more than fifty. Challacota is surrounded by salt flats stretching out toward distant mountains.

There was one other group of foreigners here for the eclipse, a small group of French who mostly disdained our friendly overtures. They had arrived in four-wheel drive vehicles, and must have felt cheated of their sense of adventure when we arrived in a large bus.

Again, we stayed in the local schoolyard. This had only a small one-room schoolhouse, so we set up our two-person tents in the schoolyard.

My wife and I wandered to the local cemetary with Nike, who speaks fluent Spanish. We talked with some Aymara women. Nike asked how they felt about tomorrow's eclipse, and one responded that normally they'd be worried, but were relieved that the American scientists were there to make sure everything went alright.

As the sun began to set, Barbara organized a basketball game with the American, French, and Aymara women. The Aymara women doffed their bowler hats and played with a surprising skill. They are not tall, but they handled the ball well and were very fast, with their long braids flying behind them. And their endurance showed us why the Bolivian national soccer team, whose home stadium is in La Paz, has never lost a home game.

That night in our tent, we vainly tried to sleep, but all night long we heard our worried co-travellers mutter about the weather as they observed the darkened heavens. In the morning we climbed out of our tent to view a threatening sky.

After breakfast our group carried the astronomical paraphenalia out onto the soccer field, where the salt crystals crunched underfoot. There were breaks in the clouds; there was cause for hope.

It is impossible to describe a total eclipse of the sun. It is an event so awesome, so overwhelming, that people will endure hardship and discomfort just to observe it. We were not astronomers, we were just there for the experience.

After the eclipse, we packed up our gear while warmth and light returned to the world. (The temperature had dropped from 60 degrees F to less than 40 within about fifteen minutes.) By nine o'clock we were on the bus again, lurching northward, trying to reach La Paz by nightfall. And we had a new worry. The clouds were menacing, and we saw storms on the horizon. As we drove along the two ruts in the red dust, Rick mentioned that this entire region was inaccessable during the rainy season. And the rainy season was now due to begin.

Another problem was that we were travelling by a different route, the route we should have taken from La Paz to Challacota. With no guide, we risked losing our way again. Somehow, after all we'd seen, I just didn't feel very worried.

Through the long day we drove, through occasional spatters of rain. We stopped once, when the bus got stuck in the thick red dust of a wide dry river flat, and all pushed the bus free.

As the afternoon wore away, the road began to improve, and we recognized landmarks. As dusk fell, we cheered and applauded our driver as we finally reached the relative safety of asphalt pavement.

At ten o'clock we reached our hotel in La Paz, where the proprietors had set out hot coca tea for us. And after three days, I really enjoyed the luxury of a tepid shower!

Bill Coffin

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