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On the Incas

Equatable with the Mayas and Aztecs, the Incas made a significant impact during their empire's brief reign. They were the apex of Precolombian civilisation on South America's West Coast and Cusco was the heart of their empire.

Cusco remains to be a highlight of the trip. We were so excited to be there, we'd read so much about the Incas and we were keen to go deep. We spent two weeks in and around Cusco exploring ruins, visiting museums, learning about the culture and planning our trips. The fact that we had friends in the city at the same time just added to the buzz.

But before we get into the adventures some may appreciate a bit of background on the Incas. This was important for us because, although Saskia had always wanted to visit, I (Mark) had always viewed it with some skepticism. Basically I tend to approach popular spots such as this with wariness – does it really deserve to be popular or does everyone head there simply because it's the done thing? So one of the first things we did when we arrived in South America was buy a couple of books on the Incas to work out why Machu Picchu is important and find our own reasons to go there.

Statues of the Incas great ancestors, Manco Capac and his sister Mama Ocllo. They stand at the base of Escalera del Inca on Isla del Sol.

The Rise of an Empire

According to Inca mythology the first Incas came to Cusco from Isla del Sol. This creation theory is important because the island was considered by many tribes to be the origin of the sun god and therefore the Incas were the sun god's descendants.

Statue of Pachacutec in Plaza de Armas, Cusco.

The general consensus, however, is that the first Incas lived in the region around Cusco. Their quest for empire was triggered by an unsuccessful invasion from a neighbouring tribe, the Chanca, in 1438 AD. The Incas' unlikely victory inspired a belief that they were supported by the gods and a new visionary leader, the famous Pachacutec, came to power.

Pachacutec drove the Incas to build an empire, which would be called Tawantinsuyu, with Cusco as its capital. They first expanded south into Bolivia and his son, Tupac Inca pushed north into Ecuador. Through a mix of subjugation and alliances the Incas were able to extend their empire as far south as Santiago and as far north as Quito. They cleverly maintained power through forced relocation of tribes and the use of Inca tribesmen to act as governors in conquered territories. In this way they reduced the risk of rebellion and created a reigning elite based on Inca bloodlines.

To borrow a quote, “within a generation the Incas had grown from an anonymous small tribe of the Cusco valley to become the dominant force in the Andes” (A. Stewart, 2011).

Inca Sites and Network Theory

Pachacutec's vision was of a giant network of sacred centres connected by a system of roads. At each of these sacred centres he constructed large towns or fortresses. These served as centres of worship, commerce and symbols of dominance for the empire.

He recruited talented masons and constructed the gold plated sun temple Qorikancha and the fortress Sacsahuaman. He has also been attributed with building Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu.

Example of Inca stonework. No mortar is used.

His stone road network, the Capac Ñan, is estimated to have covered up to 30,000 kilometres, or 20,000 miles. The famous Inca Trail is actually part of this network but you will find restored sections of road in many parts of the Andes.

We will talk about this a bit more in latter posts but what is really impressive is the alignments between the towns, sacred geological landmarks and winter and summer solstice lines. Pachacutec was a genius who designed an empire that had an intimate relationship with nature and the gods.

Art and Religion

Prior to the Inca assumption of power several small civilisations existed along the coast and the Andes. These cultures, which go back over 5,000 years, developed art and religious concepts that were eventually adopted by the Incas.

Ceramic pot depicting the head of someone significant.

The primary and enduring concept was that the world was divided into three realms: the subterranean, the earth and the heavens. Each of these had deities ascribed to them in the form of the serpent (subterranean), the feline (earth) and the bird of prey (heavens).

Religious beliefs were also linked to nature with worship of the sun and water and a reverence for the elements. These civilisations also conducted ceremonies and sacrifices (mostly llamas but also people) that aimed to appease the gods and ensure the seasons were favourable and the land produced bountiful crops.

Perhaps the most well known aspect of Inca art was their obsession with gold and silver. The stories from the Conquistadores are hard to believe but the Incas decorated their temples with extravagant displays of gold. The Qorikancha, their main sun temple, was apparently a marvel to behold and featured a garden of plants sculptured out of silver and gold. The lords and nobles also used metal adornments such as hats, ear plugs, nose rings, necklaces and arm bands. Cusco must have been an amazing place before it was lost.

The Conquistadores

Many will be familiar with this story so I will keep it brief. In 1527 AD the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish 'entrepreneurs' first came into contact with the Incas. The meeting was relatively minor and it was not until 1532 that Pizarro was able to meet with an Inca of high nobility. By this time the Inca empire had reached its zenith and was in decline. The empire had been torn apart by the rival sons of the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac, grandson of Pachacutec, who had died of a pestilence introduced from Europe (smallpox). The war and disease had left the empire weakened and Pizarro saw an opportunity.

The heads of war clubs used by the Incas.

A meeting was arranged with the victorious Atahualpa in Cajamarca, northern Peru. It was here that Pizarro and his company of 168 men met with Atahualpa's army of 80,000. Reports state that the Spaniards were not prepared for such a large, well organised army, and spent their first night planning how to survive the next day. Astonishingly, they decided to try and ambush the emperor and hold him to ransom. They had camped inside the town of Cajamarca, which had been deserted. Pizarro ordered his soldiers inside the surrounding buildings and to wait for the order to attack. The Sapa Inca was lured into the central plaza in the belief that the Spaniards could be easily dominated. The trap was sprung. Using cannons, rifles and swords, the Spaniards massacred Atahualpa's retinue and took him hostage.

Pizarro's plan worked and he was rewarded with a room full of gold and two rooms full of silver as ransom. Buoyed by this victory, Pizarro slaughtered his captive and began the shockingly rapid and ambitious destruction of an empire and its culture.

By 1572 the Incas had effectively been subjugated, their gold and silver plundered, their cities burned and religious sites desecrated.

Fortunately the Spanish did not completely erase all trace of the Incas' great accomplishments. Thousands of artefacts have been recovered and are held in museums in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Many ruins have been excavated and much of the stone work and aqueducts have been preserved.

Recommended Reading

We had a great time exploring the area and it really helped to have read a bit about the Incas beforehand. There is so much more going on than Machu Picchu, and even if time restricts you to that site alone, these books will give you a better understanding of its design.

Mark Adams, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, 2011. An excellent recounting of Hiram Bingham's discovery of Machu Picchu. Sheds new light on the design of the site and is an indispensable guide to the Incas.

Kim Macquarrie, The Last Days of the Incas, 2007. In-depth, easy to read narrative on the conquest of the Incas. Kim has the talent of making history feel real.

Alexander Stewart, The Inca Trail: Cusco and Machu Picchu (Trail Blazer Guide), 2011. Excellent guidebook that provides hiking information on the many significant Inca sites around Cusco. Also provides great maps of the ruins, which meant that we didn't need to hire guides. A must for independent hiking.



A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Bullfighting)

Part of the festival celebrations involved bull taunting – a cross between a rodeo and a bull fight. We sat in a makeshift stadium (that looked like it would fall over in a strong gust of wind) and watched with a mix of awe and horror as the event unfolded. It was a total free for all on the field. Most of the guys were drunk, fighting each other to ride the bulls, only to fall off and get trampled. Several people were injured, some seriously. There was no security, no management or control. The treatment of the bull was completely cruel for the frightened animals. The only saving grace was that the bulls were not killed like they are in Spain, and at least some of the bulls evened the score.

As the afternoon progressed and the alcohol sank in, the bull fighting degenerated and more and more people started getting injured. There were so many people on the field that the bulls had no option but to plough into someone who was too drunk to get out of the way fast enough.

There was one old guy, affectionately known by us as Stumbles the Drunk, who could hardly stand and spent his time zigzagging across the arena, occasionally waving his shirt in the general direction of the bull. He didn't seem to know where he was and occasionally looked up at the crowd with confusion. We knew this wouldn't end well. Sure enough, a bull ran straight for him, he froze and they head butted each other. Poor old Stumbles ended up unconscious on the ground and was carried off by his arms and legs to a waiting ambulance.

Stumbles the Drunk, the people's champion.

The more drunk they got, the more the guys had to show off how macho they were. Shirts came off, insults were fired, people clawed at each other to get onto the bull first and pulled the slow ones off. Then they started actually throwing punches, which involved crowds of people joining in and quickly forgetting about the bull running loose behind them. All chaos broke loose when a second bull came free of its tether and ran into the crowd!

Macho men.


Towards the end of the afternoon a bull ran at the fence line where men where clinging to the side hoping to avoid contact. Unfortunately, one guy was punctured in the stomach by the bull horns, thrown in the air and then fell to the ground. A crowd surrounded him and we couldn't see what was happening until they tried to carry him to the edge of the field. Only then did we see a pile of intestines lying on his bare abdomen. He was quickly put in an ambulance and taken to Trinidad (3 hours away). We asked around the next day to see what had come of him. One person said that they managed to put his intestines back inside him and sew him up, but another said that they thought he had died. We never found out for sure.

After this incident, people began to lose interest and the general drunken behaviour took over from the revelry of the earlier celebrations. The bullfighting was wrapped up, followed by more parties late into the night. Some people came off second best but to be honest, we didn't feel too sorry for them after the way they were tormenting the bulls. The safety standards are not what you expect elsewhere, but that's Bolivia in a nutshell!

Chaos on the field.


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Fireworks)

At night the party really kicked off. The plaza was packed and bands competed with each other across the streets.

The action was centred on the church, where Achus were running through the crowd with fireworks spinning on their hats. The sky was also being lit up by fireworks, which were paid for by two wealthy families that compete with each other every festival.

It was great fun being there. There were dangers though – people were throwing small fireworks into the crowd. This, along with the Achus, was causing chaos as people scattered in all directions. At one point a small firework barely missed a child in a tree but instead hit the father in the face. Amazingly he wasn't hurt and despite this experience he left his child sitting exposed in the tree!

We left around midnight but the fiesta kicked on to around 4:00 am. Some people were still drinking the next morning and others had passed out on the sidewalk. This was easy to ignore though and the bands kept a good vibe going the next day.

Here's a recording of two songs played by the guys in the photo below.


A Fiesta in the Amazon: San Ignacio de Moxos (Parade)

San Ignacio de Moxos is a small town between Rurrenabaque and Trinidad in Bolivia's Amazon Basin. We heard that it hosts one of the best festival's in the Amazon, so we flew to Trinidad (the road is terrible), and made our way to the small town to be there for the 324th fiesta. Started by jesuit missionaries, the UNESCO world heritage festival combines local indigenous traditions with Christian imagery. The celebrations last several days but the highlight of the festival is the colourful street parade that involves hundreds of people in traditional costumes following the procession that is headed by the statue of Saint Ignacio.

Saint Ignacio; a sun costume, particulalry important to indigenous cultures; pan pipes.

Despite stifling heat and humidity, the parade lasted several hours as people danced and sang their way around town. There were colourful dresses and hats, as well as the iconic feather headdresses, which were absolutely stunning. Community groups, school children, sport teams, old and young alike all participated wearing different costumes. The indigenous worship of the sun, moon and animals was strongly present in the costumes represented by horses, feathers of colourful parrots, jaguar skins, jabiru heads and paper maché figures of deer, goats, birds, fish and a giant anaconda. The whole town seemed to be out celebrating.

Mother's Club.

Animals were a common feature. Clockwise from the top left: cow, jaguar (real pelts were used), and a red deer.

The masked Achus are another icon of the festival. The hats they are wearing later held spinning fireworks.

The amazing feather headdresses were particularly spectacular and are most famously associated with the festival.


No Molestar los Animales

The photo above shows a tourist holding a yellow squirrel monkey. It was taken during our pampas tour in Bolivia's Amazon. The poor monkey was snatched with child-like glee from a tree that our guide had plowed into. Apparently animals are cute toys to be touched and handled for our entertainment. We also saw people almost jump out of our boat to touch a crocodile!

Kids from our tour try to get up close with the monkeys. We were with Fluvial Tours.

The same operators will catch anacondas and let people hold them for photos (and shit on the tourists out of fear) and we heard reports of people getting so close to dolphins that they were bitten.

We were shocked at the approach of the tour operarors, who clearly knew that some tourists wanted an up close experience and competed with each other to get their boats closer to the action. All the operators in the pampas that we saw behaved the same way, despite signs in Rurrenabaque warning people not to 'molestar los animales'.

We would encourage you to do a bit of research before committing to a tour in the Amazon (note that most operarors run tours in both the pampas and the jungle). We think it is really important that this behaviour is not encouraged. Surprisingly, this operator was recommended by Lonely Planet but in their defense they did warn about this sort of behaviour. We will be sure to raise this with them all the same.

Thanks for reading,

Mark and Saskia.


Macabre La Paz

The overnight bus from Sucre to La Paz was far from comfortable, and we arrived early in the city exhausted, cold, and suffering from altitude sickness. Our first impression of La Paz was not helped by the fact that they had a public holiday the day before, and the previous night's revelry left the streets filthy, smelling like one giant toilet. Needless to say, we were not particularly inspired to go exploring, and instead went to bed feeling sorry for ourselves.

La Paz from El Alto.

The next day we decided to organise a city tour to see the highlights in one go, rather than trying to find the motivation to do it ourselves. This turned out to be the perfect solution! We found a cool guy called Ben who runs Banjo Tours around La Paz. There are free walking tours, but they only go around the central city, which we figured we could just do ourselves. This tour went off the beaten track, taking us through different areas of the city by walking, on local buses and in a private van. Highlights included a lesson on the dark history of the city, a visit to San Pedro Prison, being blessed by a shaman, wandering through the witch's market, having our fortunes told, and returning to the city for some traditional food and drink. It was a bizarre day, but totally worth paying for a guided tour to get that extra insight into such a crazy place!

Main Plaza with the buildings of Parliament to the left.

La Paz – not so peaceful!

We began our tour wandering through the old colonial streets of La Paz. There is a clear divide where the Spanish town stopped and the indigenous town started, which was exaggerated to the point that until recently, indigenous people in traditional dress were not even allowed in the main plaza. Things have progressed with the election of the country's first indigenous President Evo Morales in 2006, but La Paz has a dark history that is still in most people's recent memory.

Walking around the main plaza, our guide pointed out bullet holes in the buildings surrounding us. In 2003 the police went on strike in La Paz. This was dealt with by the military stepping in with orders to shoot anyone who resisted, including the police. Not something you would expect just ten years ago, but these things don't always get highlighted in international media in the same way that they would if something similar happened in a western country.

We also passed by several dilapidated buildings, which looked abandoned. While most people may have presumed that they were in fact empty, it was recently brought to light that these buildings are being used as “suicide houses”. Apparently, the idea is that anyone who has lost the will to live (mostly homeless people or drug and alcohol addicts) will go to one of these houses where they will be put in a room with a bucket of alcohol, which they drink until it kills them. Being practical, I asked what they do with the bodies without raising suspicions (given there is a police station right across the road)?

Good question. Apparently there is somewhat of a black market for human bodies (dead or unconscious) to be used as sacrifices in construction in a similar way to the llama foetuses that bring good luck to the foundations of building sites. While we were in La Paz we heard various people talking about stories that they had heard regarding this issue. Its all a bit hard to believe that is would really happen, but in a place like La Paz, you just never know.

Parliament House flies the indigenous flag alongside the flags of Bolivia and La Paz.

Bullet holes in the walls around the main plaza; security guards at Parliament House.

San Pedro Prison

We stopped by San Pedro prison, which was made famous in Rusty Young's book Marching Powder. The book follows the story of an Englishman arrested for trafficking cocaine in Bolivia, who spends several years in the unique social environment that is San Pedro prison. Our guide pointed out that there are security towers on each side of the block where the prison sits, however they are not manned as the prison is essentially independent of external guidance and security.

Prisoners buy and live in apartments in different areas of the prison, depending on how much money they have. Wealthy prisoners (mostly corrupt politicians and drug traffickers) have cable televison and all the comforts of home – including being allowed to have their families live with them. Until recently there were children living inside the prison with their parents, leaving the complex to go to school during the day and returning at night. An incident where a young girl was raped led to all the children being removed just a few weeks before we were there.

It was possible to go inside the prison on a tour until recently as well, however, another incident (where two tourists were separated from the group and raped) led to the authorities stepping in and stopping it from becoming a tourist circus. It is afterall a prison with convicted criminals inside. As such, we only saw it from the street, which was interesting enough after having read Marching Powder.

San Pedro Prison.

Shaman Blessing

We took a van up to a lookout over the whole city, with stunning views of the mountains in the distance. It was here that we were going to be blessed by a shaman in a commonly used change of luck ceremony. We were told to sit and wait while the shaman made a fashionably late entrance.

A women lit coals on a burner while he arranged various stones, small parcels of herbs wrapped in paper and little bottles of liquid. He gave out different things to people eg. one guy had a rock up his sleeve, another held a piece of rope. I was lucky enough to be chosen to have a parcel of herbs put into the front of my shirt (which he later retrieved and burnt).

The ceremony combined traditional indigenous customs with a Christian blessing. He used the bottles of liquid (alcohol) to create puffs of smoke and fire, touched us on the head, blessing us all with luck and well wishes for our family and for our travels, all the while repeating what sounded like a Christian Hail Mary.

A clash of cultures during a shaman blessing.

What made the shaman ceremony even more surreal was the guy in the background wearing a mexican wrestling mask, repeatedly yelling into the camera to make what we presumed was a promotional video. So random!
Witch's Market

We continued in the van to El Alto, which is a separate city from La Paz located on the steep surrounding mountain. It is one of the more dangerous places and not many tourists go here by themselves. Apparently it gets pretty violent at night, but during the day it seemed fine. The markets are the initial wholesale supply area for the city of La Paz, so they were packed with fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, spices, nuts, popcorn, popped pasta and all sorts of other unidentifiable things.

Th infamous Witch's Market is also located in El Alto (a smaller touristy version can be found in the central city of La Paz). Here you can find all manner of spells, herbs, llama foetuses, llama babies, wax figurines, starfish, and armadillos, all to be burnt on fires for change of luck ceremonies and rituals. There are spells for everything. A truck driver might go in and buy a wax figure of a truck, with a selection of herbs and spices, to be burnt for safe travels. The dead llama babies and foetuses are used for good luck in construction, to be buried in the foundations, and are surprisingly expensive. But this is big business and people pay for it because they believe in it!

We wandered around the market stalls, looking in awe and horror at the selection of spells for sale. It was a really interesting insight into Bolivian culture, and definitely not something you see everyday!

Tiny llama.

Take your pick - make a spell show bag!

Choosing the right spells is serious business.

Fortune Teller

Our tour included having our fortune read by a local shaman. There were six of us in the group, and we all huddled inside a tiny room where the shaman sat at a desk with a human skull and dead armadillo sitting next to him on a shelf. He looked at us all, and rather than do a fortune for each of us, decided to do it collectively for the group. Before he began he explained how he had become a shaman after being struck by lightning and finding spiritual power.


The ritual began when the shaman scattered coca leaves over a cloth, picked a few up, and told us we would all have money in our futures (is that because we were all tourists who clearly had more money than the average Bolivian?). He also told us that one of us would be the victim of an envious person, but we could change our luck by buying one of the spells from the Witch's Market and having a shaman burn it while performing a ceremony (as we had experienced earlier in the day). There wasn't much more to it than that. We were all a little sceptical, and his legitimacy was not helped by the fact that he was clearly drunk and could barely speak coherently.

Despite the obvious business connection between buying spells and having shamans perform rituals, the local Bolivian people are really superstitious and they truly believe in all of this. There are shamans everywhere, and it is not a subject taken lightly. Many people have combined worship of saints and Christian holidays into their spells and rituals, but the missionaries did not succeed in changing the local beliefs entirely. The strength of the indigenous culture is really evident here.

We returned to the city as it was getting dark. Ben shouted us a giant Bolivian cheese empanada and some chicha, which is a thick, warm, purple corn drink. We said our farewells to the group and wandered off in search of dinner. Mark was cold so he bought a poncho, then we stumbled across more festivities for no apparent reason. There were people singing and dancing in traditional costumes out the front of the San Francisco Church. We stopped for a quick look, then went back to the hostel to contemplate what was one of the most bizarre days we have had in South America over a nice cold beer.

New poncho!



Regional Arts and Crafts

The area around Sucre is well know for its colourful, intricate, woven materials. Each region has a different style, usually depicting devils and animals. Mark went to Potolo village, where the red and black design below is traditionally from.

The Museo Textil Indígena in Sucre showcases various tapestries and highlights the different designs. It also includes different traditional dress and even has mummies with hair still attached, showing how the women braided their hair.

Each tapestry takes 5-6 months for the women to complete on a loom where they weave amazing patterns in great detail. The result is quite striking!


Out and About in Sucre

A beautiful white washed colonial city, colourful markets, cool bars and an amazing array of restaurants makes Sucre a great place to hang out. We planned to stay a couple of days and ended up here for a week, with not much to show for it except lots of good food, cocktails and fun with new friends!

When you have been travelling for awhile in one continent, you inevitebly end up on the same path as other travellers. For some reason, Sucre seemed to be the place we converged with all the friends we have made along the way over the last few months. What are the odds of walking down the street and running into people you know, or staying at the same hostel on the same date, months after you have met someone? Pretty random, but lots of fun! We had a great time socialising, going out for lunch and dinner, drinking and salsa dancing, which was some much needed luxury after battling through the cold of the Salt Flats. It was really nice to see familiar faces and have some element of a normal life after being on the road for so long. The next best thing to being at home with all the friends we miss!
After wandering around town admiring the plaza and colonial buildings, we stumbled across the local markets. Not only is this the best place to buy cheap delicious fruit juices, but we also found all sorts of comfort food. We got a little excited, Mark bought a bunch of meat, we found olives, cheese, and the ingredients for guacamole, and decided to invite everyone around for a bbq to use up some of the ridiculous amount of spices we have been carting around with us since Argentina. Then we bought a massive cream filled cake. Just because we could. On top of that, we decided to make mulled wine and found huge cinnamon sticks to go with it. Perfect ingredients for a dinner party! Other backpackers looked on with curiosity as we fired up the bbq and put our gourmet chef hats on. Good fun, and so nice to be able to cook for friends even if we were in a hostel far from home!
If we had more time we would have loved to stay longer. Sucre would be the perfect place to hang out for a few weeks and learn Spanish. Not only is it a cool city, but the Spanish spoken in Bolivia is so much essier to understand than the heavily accented Spanish elsewhere in South America!


The Mountain That Eats Men

Potosí was founded in 1546 and was once one of the biggest and richest cities in the Americas due to the wealth of silver found in the mountain, Cerro Rico. The mines produced around 60,000 tons of silver, which brought significant wealth to the Spanish empire through centuries of exploitation of local indigenous people and African slaves who worked and died in the mountain.

It has been claimed that up to 8 million people have died whilst working in the mine or through illnesses contracted as a result of spending so much time underground. Consequently, the locals now refer to it as the mountain that eats men. The mine is still in operation today, although there is very little silver left. The digging of over 90 kilometres of tunnels has seen the 4300m high mountain drop around 100m in height, and an American engineer has predicted that within 50 years the whole mountain will collapse. Despite this, the miners still continue their back breaking work, scraping for whatever minerals they can in horrendous conditions.

While we were in Potosí we had the opportunity to visit the mine. Whilst we were a little apprehensive about the dangers of an operating mine, curiosity overtook sensibility and we went underground to experience it first hand.

Cerro Rico and the Potosí mine.

While we have been travelling we both recently read George Orwell's investigation into the coal mining towns of 1930's Northern England, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). It provides great descriptions of the conditions which resonated with what we saw in Potosí. So, to help describe the experience we have borrowed a few of his passages.

“When you get down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the “fillers” are at work…when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there – heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.”

The documentary The Devil's Miner follows the story of two young brothers who were forced to work in the mines to support their family after their father died. It describes the combined fear and reverance of the devil, or Tio as it is locally referred to. While most of the miners are Christian, when they are underground they worship the devil because they believe that he controls the mine and that Christ has no power underground.

The statue above is one example of a Tio which we saw inside the mine. The miners pray to the statue upon entering the mine so that they might find a good vein of silver or be protected from explosions, toxic gas, silicosis and falling rocks. They give offerings such as coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes to the Tio statues, which can be found in every major mine within the mountain. They also perform sacrifices, such as slaughtering llamas at the entrance to the mine and throwing blood on the walls and doors to appease the Tio so that he will be satisfied with the sacrifice and won't take a human life. The film was really interesting and incredibly sad. Definately worth watching to get an insight into the horrendous conditions faced by men and children working in the mines even to this day.

The Devil's Miner (Trailer)


The miners in Potosí work long shifts without a break and may work up to 24 hours, even the children. They depend on small comforts to make their day 'tolerable'. Coca leaves and cigarrettes are common comforts to stave off hunger and fatigue.

George Orwell described the conditions inside the mines in England, which have not changed much in modern times in Bolivia…

“the heat…in some mines is suffocating – and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun.”

Although there is no conveyor belt, the use of pneumatic drills and dynamite exposes miners to high levels of toxic dust. As per the photos below, miners are exposed to copper sulphate, sulphur, arsenic and asbestos all day, every day, in heat up to 40 degrees celsius.

The orange crystals are copper sulphate.

Poisonous minerals accumulate on the wooden beams.

The mine is in a precarious state. Walking through the mine, we often passed under broken beams, tunnels could be back brackingly low and at times we were forced to crawl on our hands and knees and slide down vertical tunnels. Can you imagine 90 kms of this?
“In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal. But as the seam gets worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit (entrance).
You do not notice the effect of this till you have gone a few hundred yards. You start off, stooping slightly, down the dim-lit gallery, eight or ten feet wide and about five high…Every yard or two there are wooden props holding up the beams and girders; some of the girders have buckled into fantastic curves under which you have to duck.
I am handicapped by being tall, but when the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody…You have not only got to bend double, you have also got to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come.”
The combination of heat, dust and lack of oxygen meant that we were often forced to stop for breath. We wore bandanas over our faces to protect us from breathing in the toxic dust but it was impossible to breathe properly though it, which inevitably meant we had to keep removing it (and thus inhale the dust). No wonder the miners all get silicosis and other lung diseases.
At one stage during the underground tour we stopped to catch our breath. Our guide did not notice and kept walking with the group. We were soon left behind. We gave chase but we could not see any lights or hear anyone.
After walking for a few minutes we came upon a fork in the tunnel. We called out to our group but there was no response. The walls seemed to swallow our voices. Trying not to freak out, we took a gamble and kept walking in the same direction, continuing to call out into the darkness. We came across another junction with no-one there, which shocked us. We waited a few minutes and resolved to carry on, again trying to head in the same direction.
After about ten minutes we caught up to the group. Saskia confronted the guide but instead of apologising for leaving us behind our guide told us we were being too slow. He was particularly unsympathetic as he used to be a miner and clearly did not want to be there, but we learnt he was also hungover from the night before and had just finished joking with everyone else in our group about how he got lost in the mine with a tour group once before. As far as we are concerned it was his job to make sure the group was with him; our safety is his responsibility.
Two obvious mistakes were made. Firstly, there should have been two guides, one at the front and one at the back (as is common on caving tours back home). Secondly, the guide should have retreated to the previous junctions when it became clear we weren't there. Poor mistakes for an experienced outfit. We were with Koala Tours and on the basis of this experience we would not recommend them.
Setting that aside, everyone in the group was grateful to leave by the end of the tour. We were only there for a few hours and must have seemed incredibly precious to the hardened miners who literally kill themselves working there, but as an outsider who has never experienced anything like that before, it was intense! Whilst it was definately an eye-opening experience, it is not something that we would want to do again. We remain embarrassed to know that we will never have to work in conditions like this when for some this is their best option.


On Luthiers and Music in South America

Taking a guitar on the road was one of the best decisions I (Mark) made. It is a great way to meet people and liven up a common room.

During our travels I've taken an interest in South America's traditional instruments and the people that make them. I thought I would share a few stories for fellow musicians.

Bariloche – A Cabin in the Snow

I have been travelling with a Martin & Co. Backpacker Guitar. You can see it in the photo above. It's an acoustic electric tapered to be light weight and to fit into overhead compartments on planes. It's been a great companion but eventually it needed some maintanence (the mic jack fell out).

So after a couple of enquiries I managed to get in touch with a luthier in Bariloche. With a street address and vague instructions about heading up the mountain behind town I jumped in a cab and headed out into the snow.

It soon became clear that the cabbie was lost. We knew that our destination was somewhere up on the mountain, the trick was finding it amongst the labrynthine back roads and forest. The snow was starting to fall heavily as well, which didn't help.

After driving for an hour through the forest we found a path in the woods. I struck out on my own and soon found a cabin surrounded by snow covered trees. I'll never forget the impression when the door opened: there was the smiling luthier and his apprentice. Behind them was a room full of guitars with a crackling fire. I could have stayed the night!

I must have been there for about two hours. We chatted and listened to Argentine folk music while they set about making the repairs. I was in no rush to leave. I remember watching big snow flakes fall outside the window. Magic.

Eventually things were sorted and I was on my way. It was a good time, my thanks to Hernán Rojo for the help (rojoluthier@hotmail.com, rojoluthier.blogspot.com, 02944 15411156).

Tilcara – A Flute and Kalimba

When we were planning our trip I hadn't thought about buying musical instruments as we travelled, but I got inspired when I met a Frenchie that had bought a kalimba in Córdoba. The kalimba is a popular folk instrument from the Argentine pampas. It is traditionally made out of gourde and wood, with the sound produced by striking a metal comb.

The kalimba produces beautiful tones and being so small it is easy to travel with. The idea of owning one grew on me, partly because I had begun to experiment with my own music recordings.

We were lucky to stumble across a luthier in Tilcara who made a range of musical instruments: charangos, guitars, flutes, kalimbas, pan pipes and rattles. Talk about a kid in a toy store! Even Sas got inspired, the craftsmanship was so good. We walked away with an instrument each; Sas bought a flute and I finally bought a kalimba. Happy days!

The flute and the kalimba.

The following is a short recording of my kalimba. The track was composed using a drum machine app (DM1) and a loop app (Loopy HD) on my iPad. Effects were added with Cubasis.

We purchased our instruments from 'El Sikuri', near the Pukara ruins in Tilcara, Argentina. The luthiers working out of the shop are De Micaela Chauque and Andrés Santanita (http://elsikuri.blogspot.com/).

La Paz – Home of the Charango

While I was happy with my kalimba the shop in Tilcara had left me hungry to purchase a charango. As it happened the guy managing our hostel in Tilcara could play and he ripped out a song for us. It was awesome and I had to have one!

Now, you may be wondering “what the hell is a charango?” The charango is a nylon 10 string solid body instrument. The strings are paired into five sets and tuned G-C-E-A-E. Inspired by the Spanish lute and guitar, the charango was invented because the Spanish colonisers refused to let the native people play their instruments.

Traditionally made out of armadillo shells and wood, it is now considered unethical to use armadillo (I've also seen them made out of turtle shells and a miner's helmet). The body and neck are one piece and the soundboard, bridge and fretboard are made from different types of wood (as with guitars). Note that it is good to ask about the woods as they do change, particularly with the fretboard.

La Paz has become the home of the charango with many stores selling the work of Bolivia's talented luthiers. I must have played around 20 across four shops in La Paz before I made my choice. There is a range of quality in terms of tone and craftsmanship and I wanted something that sounded good and was well made. This turned out to be a challenge but I got there…

Ain't she a beauty?

The charango was made by Everth Zapata of La Paz. Unfortunately I didn't meet him as the luthiers do not work in the music shops in La Paz, but that's ok.

As an aside, I highly recommend a visit to the Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia in La Paz. For only 5 Bolivianos (less than 1 US dollar or AUD) it is possible to learn about the huge range of traditional instruments in South America, including those used by the Incas.

There's an incredible variation between countries. I saw guitars of many different shapes, such as elongated designs from Puerto Rico, Panama and Brazil. There were also 6, 8, 12, 15, 16 and 18 string guitars (try searching for a Guitarrón Chileno) and even double sided charangos, guitars and violins (two necks back to back).

String instruments are hugely popular but the collection also includes pan pipes, drums and flutes. I particularly liked the Inca flute designs, which are instantly recognisable and used a mix of zoomorphic and sexual designs. There's even a petrified mummy on display to show that instruments were buried with the dead pre-colonisation. Be sure to check it out if you are in town!