by James Stewart, The Telegraph, October 14, 2019
Do you know how the llama got its name? Bolivians say that when the Spanish pushed into the heartland of the Inca Empire (today’s western Bolivia) in the 1530s they were impressed by the strange beasts of burden – strong, resilient and covered by a fleece that produced a uniquely warm wool. What do you call them, the Conquistadors asked: “Como se llama?” “Llama,” repeated the Incas, confused.
I mention this story because there are two Bolivias. One is a familiar country of Catholicism, smartphones and Toyota Land Cruisers. The other is a country the Incas might recognise, one infested with magic.
In La Paz a company director told me she prayed first to Catholic saints, then to Illimani. “It’s our protector,” she explained of the mountain that reared beside the city, its snowy summit as sharp-peaked as a child’s drawing. I also met a lawyer who’d recently returned from Switzerland. No, he didn’t believe in white magic, he said, but just in case he avoided the mercado de las brujas, the witches’ market where shamans peddled llama foetuses and esoteric potions. Where was it? Beside the conquistadors’ Church of St Francisco of course.
The experts call such cultural duality syncretism and it’s one of the surprises of Bolivia, alongside talking mountains and walks with dinosaurs. I hadn’t come for either. I’d come for a nice spot of camping.
Earlier this year, Steppes Travel launched the first glamping holiday in Bolivia: six yurt-like tents scattered nationwide, which can be positioned within eight national parks. Whatever your interest – hikes or jaguars in Kaa Iya National Park – the chances are a tent can accommodate.
The launch comes as Bolivia, one of the least-developed countries in Latin America, shifts from a destination of wild backpacker breaks to one of wild luxury adventures. In 2012, sleek Airstream caravans were parked on Salar de Uyuni saltflats. Now there’s boutique hotels and posh camping. I knew that a Bolivia experienced under canvas would be different from anything else and I wanted to see how different, without sacrificing comfort along the way.
I begin in La Paz. Clambering around a canyon, it is a crazy, chaotic, beguilingly improbable city. Wardens in zebra costumes dance at crossings. Jugglers entertain at traffic lights. Formidable cholita women with the chiselled faces of ancient idols and black plaits like tarred rope do the daily shop wearing bowler-hats and floral pinnies. (If you ever wondered what happened to those Nora Batty-style aprons from the Fifties, the answer is Bolivia.)
Above it all soar ultra-modern cable cars – fittingly for a city at 11,940ft, public transport is in the skies. There’s clean air aplenty up here in the world’s attic. But it’s air-lite – dieters’ air with reduced oxygen. With my guide Javier, I head over La Cumbre pass at 15,100ft. Breathing becomes a conscious act. Hypoxia fogs my brain like the cloud condensing in my hair.
From the mists emerges a statue of Christ the Redeemer and, gathered beneath, a family in puffer jackets standing around a Lilliputian pyre. On top, licked by flames, is a baby llama – an offering to the old god, Pachamama, Mother Earth, at the feet of the new.
I’m tempted to join them. The road runs ahead, looping with giddy abandon around crashing valley spurs and past waterfalls which tumble thousands of feet. Snowy peaks serrate the horizon.
We’re en route to Cotapata National Park, nearly 100,00 acres of mountains, cloud forest and languid river valleys in the Yungas, where the altiplano tilts to the Amazonian basin. I was supposed to camp in a high forest clearing but a forecast of heavy rainfall forces a riverside pitch near backpacker dorms. Hardly the inaccessible adventure. Still, the tent is lovely, a canvas pumpkin with a double bed, pretty rugs, fairy lights festooned on the poles and smart new slippers in a basket of toiletries. A chef rustles up pork and quinoa.
The switch makes more sense the next day. We gather – rakish truckers, old men in broken sandals, cholitas carrying bulging aguayos, the technicolour blanket-bags of the Andes – ahead of stationary traffic on the road. Or where the road should have been. It has slid into the valley overnight. In its place rages a new river that has scythed through the forest above. Vidal, our driver, splashes hooch on to the wheels of his Nissan four-wheel drive and has a quiet word with Pachamama. “OK, let’s go,” he mutters.
Two hours later I’m with national park ranger Andrés in the crepuscular gloom of the cloud forest, the air rich with woody decomposition, a river hissing unseen in the valley below. Blue morpho butterflies a handspan wide shimmer neon-turquoise in shafts of sunlight. Scarlet feathers smear across the canopy with a rasping screech: two male Andean cock-of-the-rocks are showing off to females. Andrés says the species is making a comeback from hunting: “Our grandfathers believed they had gold in their stomachs.”
Through his eyes the forest becomes cultural. There’s the pulpy cherimoya fruit, which flakes like perfectly cooked cod, tastes like mild passion fruit and cures stomach cancer. There are the soft leaves for ultra-eco lavatory paper, the warty stinging leaves used to thrash thieves and the stems that pulp into a soap to wash the dog. It’s a sylvan folk-knowledge passed “from my grandfathers”. When I ask Andrés if it’s still used he looks at me as if I’m mad. Of course it’s still used.
We pause in a clearing. Terraces patchwork the opposite hillside – coca plantations. Coca is to Bolivia what sherry is to the shires, a pleasant social habit sanctioned by cultural tradition (pre-Inca in Bolivia’s case). Parents offer leaves to break the ice with prospective sons-in-law. A bag sits on the dashboard of most taxis.
Like sherry, coca has a terroir – bitter and brittle in the south, sweet and chewable in the Yungas. Local production is booming with the backing of indigenous president (and former coca union boss) Evo Morales. If you’re wondering, it tastes like green tea, and no, no buzz.
The problem with coca, American narco-agencies aside, is that plantations are eating ever deeper into the Yungas cloud forest.
Farmers of traditional annual fruits – avocados, grapefruit, mandarins, lemons, limes – are becoming cocaleros instead. Coca yields four harvests a year and a strong union provides health and education for farmers’ families. In their sandals who wouldn’t do the same?
Like much in Bolivia, things are not straightforward. The dainty birdboxes I’m shown turn out to be hives for miniature bees. They produce a clear, light honey that costs $100 (£81) a kilo and cures cataracts in a fortnight. Near Coroico, a soulful hilltown above a jungly river, a worker in boutique plantation Munaipata explains coffee production. I’ll never begrudge the expense of a cup again.
Is there no other employment, I ask when Brigida mentions 14-hour days. “It’s noble work,” she says. “And look.” She points up to a forested fin of mountain raked by cloud. “Isn’t it beautiful? People here once said the mountains talked to each other.”
Afterwards I go to Toro Toro National Park. In a couple of years you’ll be able to get there on a new road from Cochabamba city. I wouldn’t wait, though. Sure, the journey’s a grind; nearly five hours to travel 90 miles (144km), through adobe villages splashed with revolutionary slogans (“With education there are no different classes!”, past cornfields and cacti gilded in the dawn, across shattering river beds where the landscape shifts up a gear as you drop into second.
But it’s worth it to arrive before everyone else into one of the oddest landscapes I’ve seen, a plain walled by triangular fins like stegosaurus plates. It’s an extraordinary sight. For two nights my tent, pitched on a low hill, provides a front-row view.
But it’s like ocular tinnitus – I never quite get used it.
Unesco is considering Toro Toro as South America’s third Geopark because the plain lays bare a prehistoric sea that extended from Venezuela to the Brazilian plateau. Fossilised shells litter the limestone fins. Dinosaurs are everywhere.
With help from my new guide, Jaime, the plain transforms into a Cretaceous shoreline. Here’s a carnivorous theropod ambling in the shallows – bird-like footprints in sun-baked clay, which are so clear you can see the curled claws that distinguish its left foot from its right. You know it’s ambling because the prints sashay from side to side. A sprinting giant lizard leaves prints in a line.
By a river where women are doing the laundry we track a herbivorous sauropod’s circular holes, each ringed by the petrified mud. Jaime waves an arm upstream. “There are prints and prints that way for miles,” he says.
Around 3,500 dino tracks have been documented. I kick gently at a hummock of topsoil. A theropod toe appears, faint but unmistakable. I’m goggle-eyed. It’s Jurassic Park-meets-Indiana Jones.
We ascend the next day to a plateau at 12,200ft. Jaime stoops and hands me three smooth stones: shards of a mortar and a pestle that moulds into my grip. How old, I ask. Jaime shrugs: “Who knows?” The short answer is no one, because there have been no studies, although they may have been left by the same Inca shepherds who painted concentric circles in a nearby cave as they transited from highlands to plains.
We squirm through a canyon to end up on a bluff, gazing across a valley to a dusky pink escarpment. Beyond it peel mountains; range upon range upon range, fading into a grey haze without a single sign of modernity. It’s quite a view, a glimpse into fathomless time.
Waking that night, I get up and go outside the tent. Silvered by a waxing moon, the plain glitters with animist magic. It becomes more than scenery. It is a realm of ancient gods. Of course Bolivians respect Pachamama. Surrounded by this, who wouldn’t?
How to do it
Steppes Travel (01285 601050; steppestravel.com) offers an eight-day itinerary to Bolivia from £3,500 per person based on a couple, including three nights’ full-board accommodation while glamping (B&B elsewhere), private excursions, all flights and transfers.