Tag Archives: saga

Day Six: Clichéd Tourist Photo

¡Ay caramba! Godzilla is on a rampage!

Childhood superheroes to the rescue!



Day Six: Sleeping Zombies

At the base of Thunupa Volcano is a cave that is home to a family of sacrificed mummies who have been there for over 1200 years. Due to the altitude, the air is dry and cold so the bodies have been well preserved and the cave still contains pottery with remnants of food (quinoa and llama) left with them for the afterlife.

There are six mummies: the mother, father, two teenage children and two small children. Apparently the ethnic group of Chiparas lived in Coquesa until they were killed and the village was taken over by Aymaras. The Aymaras sacrificed the family of Chiparas, leaving them all in the foetal position so that they could be reborn into the next wold.
Aymara people still live in the village today, and every year on the first of August there is a ceremony at the cave to honour the pachamama.

Two small children and the father in the walled off area; mother on the right.

After 1200 years, there is still colour in the pottery and cloth wrapped around the bodies.

One of the older children with offerings of food for the afterlife.

The other older child. If you look closely you can still see colours in the woven cloth.


Day Five: Volcano Hike

We booked an extra day on the salt flats tour to summit Thunupa Volcano. We were hoping to get a better view of the salt lake and to see a second salt lake on the other side of the volcano. It had seemed like a good idea when we booked it but by that stage we were questioning the decision!

So, after a 5:30 am start to watch the sun rise we said good bye to our comrades and headed to Coquesa, a little pre-inca village on the northern edge of the salt flats at the base of Thunupa Volcano.

The view from Coquesa. Note the water.

Thunupa Volcano, peak 5,450 metres.

Around 10:30 am we set out with our guide. It was a long day; we returned at 5:30 pm. As there were no local guides we went with our driver Albierto. He handled it well for someone who sits in a car all day!
The views were spectacular. The sides of the hills were lined with old rock fences, which we could see stretched for some distance. Coquesa is small now and you can see how big it must have been. Now it sits within the ruins of an older civilisation.
The colours of the rock slowly changed to a burnt red as we neared the crater. The air also became thinner. Saskia did well but altitude sickness got the better of her. At around 4,500m she agreed to turn back and find somewhere warm to wait. So Mark and Albierto continued on.

Looking into the crater. You can see the plug near the centre of the pic.

The walk was hard going. The trail crossed loose rock and shingle, which made it difficult to keep our footing. The trail was also steep so the air quickly became thinner and thinner.

Looking down at the southern edge of the crater.

Eventually we reached the rim, which sits at around 4,800 metres. We were pretty relieved to get there. After ten minutes of rest we decided to keep going up. The footing again was uncertain and the air difficult to breath. The trail zig zagged up the side of the rim and Mark found he had to stop and catch his breath at every second turn.
At 5,150 metres we agreed that we were going too slow to reach the summit with the remaining light, let alone be high enough to see down the other side. We were also worried about Saskia waiting for us, so we agreed to turn back. We filmed a panoramic video for Saskia's benefit then raced back down the rim, causing minor rock slides as we slid down the shingle.

We found Saskia well and warm and continued back down. As noted we arrived at the car at 5:30 pm. Our guide had actually left us behind an hour prior and we found him waiting sheepishly in the car. We were too tired to bring it up so jumped in the car and headed back to Coquesa.

Looking south from the feet of Thunupa Volcano.

All in all it was a good time but we were disappointed with being pushed to tackel Thunupa that day. Our understanding was that we would go up on the last day of the trip, which would have given us a whole day plus a bit of rest. Turns out our guide and the cook drive back to Tupiza after dropping people off in Uyuni and their need to get home determined the timing of the hike. So, anyone interested in this hike (which we do recommend) should be crystal clear on which day the hike will be undertaken. Due to the altitude more time makes it much easier so be sure to agree on a schedule that suits you before the tour starts (and make sure that the guide is in that conversation).

Thunupa Volcano from the salt flat.


Day Five: Salt Flats

We got up early to drive out on to the salt flats to watch the sunrise. It was freezing, but the beautiful colours made up for it. As the sun came up we started to get a sense of just how massive the salt flats are!

We had breakfast at Isla del Incahuasi, one of 26 islands in the middle of the salt flats. The island was covered in cactus trees and provided a stunning lookout point over the salt flats. After wandering around the island, we said our goodbyes to the rest of our group who were continuing on to Uyuni. We jumped back in the jeep with our guide and cook and headed towards the opposite end of the salt flat to hike up a volcano!

Day Four: Laguna Colorada to Salt Flats

After another freezing night in a hotel with no heating or insulation, we got up early to start the day by heading to the Árbol de Piedra (stone tree). Despite the temperature, everyone got out of the jeep and had a look around the rock formations. There were a whole bunch in one little part of a vast expanse of desert, which was quite unusual.

Again, we spent a lot of time driving but had plenty of amazing scenery to stare at out the window. The landscapes kept changing, and even though we drove past another five lakes (Ramaditas, Honda, Chiar Khota, Hedionda, Cañapa), they were all different and equally as beautiful.

We stopped for lunch near a little hill that protected us from the cold wind. Our cook was awesome, always preparing really good food, and even accommodating people who don't eat meat with food that actually tasted nice! We sat down for our picnic lunch on the rocks surrounded by viscachas (similar to a rabbit) bouncing around behind us.

Just before dark we arrived at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats) at a salt hotel which was made entirely from salt. It was still cold, but not quite as cold as the previous two nights, and everyone was excited to have a hot shower (there were no showers in the other hostels).

While we were waiting for dinner to be prepared, Mark went for a walk by himself and came back very excited that he had found puma tracks a few hundred metres from where we were staying. The guides were a little surprised, and we found out afterwards that some people were a litle freaked out at the concept of having big cats so close by (eg. One person got up in the middle of the night to close all the doors and barricade her bedroom door in case the pumas were hungry!)

A couple of the other jeeps from the same company showed up at the same hotel and it was nice to have some extra people to hang out with. We played card games and drank wine to keep warm, which was the perfect way to finish off a great day.

Salt Hotel


Day Three: Quetena Chico to Laguna Colorada

We spent a lot of time in the jeep and covered a lot of ground, stopping every now and then to take photos and appreciate the amazing scenery. We passed by several lakes and lagoons which were half frozen and particularly beautiful. A few people tried to walk out on the ice, only to fall through it and end up with wet feet for the rest of the day.

Highlights for the day were the amazing Volcano Licancabur (5950m), swimming in thermal springs in freezing conditions, geysers, and watching the sun set over the pink Laguna Colorada surrounded by flamingoes. The photos speak for themselves, and even then they don't quite do justice to the absolute beauty of the landscapes in this part of the world.


Aguas Calientes (Hot Springs)

Laguna Blanca


Laguna Verde with Volcano Licancabur


Laguna Colorada



Day Two: The Haunted Ruins

This is another side story from Day Two of The Saga. This wasn't mentioned in the original post but one of our stops was at some 'Haunted Ruins' at the base of a volcano.

The story is that these ruins are pre-Inca. Indigenous people moved here to mine for silver and gold, which eventually attracted the attention of the Incas. The Spanish later came and conquered the site.



The reason it is considered haunted is the town's history of sacrifices. These started off as llama sacrifices in exchange for good luck etc, which in some places is still practiced. The problem is that under the Spanish (? or Inca, we are not clear on this) the sacrifices became human.

Llama bones were scattered around the site.


The village was eventually abandoned and when Bolivia became independent a new colony tried to establish itself (the source of the white washed buildings in the centre of town). Apparently people in the colony suffered nightmares and decided the area was haunted by the ghosts of the human sacrifices. It all became a bit much for the superstitious and they abandoned the site.


The ruins themselves were interesting to walk through but the area was pretty desolate. Mark found various bone piles and even clay jar fragments. We are not sure how old the jar fragments are but the guides seemed genuinely surprised that we found them!


All in all in was an interesting stop. We don't visit sites like this very often!


Profile of a Bolivian Village


This is a side post from Day Two of “The Saga” (cue dramatic music). As development nerds we were interested in the quality of life of the Bolivians living in Cerillos, one of the small towns we passed through. The following is an attempt to develop a basic profile of Cerillos.

Cerillos is a collection of hamlets located about half a days drive south west of Tupiza via a dirt road. It sits at an altitude of approximately 4,100 metres (we were there in winter and it was dry but freezing cold!). The hamlets have a combined population of around 80 families of between 5 to 10 people each.*

Local shop.


As you can see in the photo below, the housing is traditional adobe brick with thatch roofing and floors of either dirt, stone or concrete. Apparently it takes 2 to 3 people about 15 days to build a house, which will last 50 years. In this hamlet the houses were designed as walled compounds with stand alone rooms, which they modify based on the family’s needs.


The town is powered and we saw several sattelite dishes and solar panels, so they definitely keep on top of the football. We’ve already mentioned that the roads are unpaved so they have reasonable access to infrastructure for a remote community. Not many people have access to cars, but there is a steady stream of tourist jeeps and produce trucks passing through.


The nearest hospital is in Tupiza but they have a medical centre in the hamlet. This is staffed by a doctor and two nurses. We don’t know what their level of training is and we did not visit the centre.

Local diet is fairly basic and consists of llama, beans, quinoa, maize and of course potatoes.

With regard to water they are apparently quite secure; we were told there is sufficient water all year round, with rains coming in summer. Water is accessed via a large pump and pipe system which draws from an underground source. We are not experts on this sort of thing but as you can see below the system is sophisticated.

The sanitation situation will make many squirm. The little we saw was not good. As there were no toilets in the café we were all forced to ‘use nature’. When searching for a good spot we did find two outdoor toilets near a school. They had three walls, a concrete floor and a roof. However, there was no door, toilet base or hole in the floor, let alone a ventilation pipe. We’ll spare you a description of the mess but it was revolting. Hate to think that kids have got to use those facilities.

Solid waste was dumped in a gully by the school. Not sure what their options are in that environment but this is more or less what we expected (although we didn’t like it being so close to the school).

Taken from a different village but you get the idea.


They do have a school which services all the hamlets. Disappointed to admit that we forgot to ask any questions on this. You might be interested to know that kids typically attend school for half a day as they are also expected to assist their families with manual labour. We also note that secondary school only became compulsory in 2010.


As we understood it the mines in the area were the main source of income. This is where most of the men worked. Household income was supplemented by the sale of llama meat and pelts. Apparently the women tendered the llama herds if the men worked in the mines.

As the climate there is so arid there are poor options for food crops. So, it seems that the people of Cerillos are very much dependent on the success or failure of the mines.

Pen of llamas with colourful earrings to mark ownership in the village.

Pros and Cons

Reading back over the post, we are surprised at the amount of information we have. Although it is only a basic outline, we thought that the village was well served in terms of services and access to infrastructure. Bear in mind that this is a remote community in South America’s poorest country. We think that the community is fairly self-sufficient, a good thing if people wish to preserve the village way of life.

There are a few issues though. We haven’t delved into the mining situation but with only two sources of income the village’s economic security is tied to the mines. We wouldn’t be surprised if most of the villagers emigrated once the money begins to dry up. That said, the mines probably instigated the village’s creation.

The environmental sanitation was not good. Those are the worst toilets we have ever seen and the solid waste was an ugly pile of trash. This stuff often gets neglected (1 billion people still defecate in the open) but it is a shame to see things like this. We later saw that things were better managed in other communities.

Abandoned house on the outskirts of a village.

Wrap Up

So, hopefully this was interesting to read. It was certainly fun to write, not bad for a spur of the moment idea. But that’s all it was…Please note that Bolivian villages are not homogenous. The climate, the proximity to urban centres and trunk roads are just some of the factors that can make a big difference between village life in different parts of Bolivia. This was just an attempt to provide a snapshot of what life is like in a village we visited. Hopefully it has been informative.

Thanks for reading,

Mark and Saskia.

*We didn’t ask about maternal or child health, although we should have given the family size. We mostly spoke to our guide and assumed there is only so much he could know. Here are some national stats that may be of interest:

  • The maternal mortality rate was 190 deaths per 100,000 live births over 2008 to 2012. Developed countries sit at between 5 and 15, although the U.S. rate is high at over 20/100,000. Brazil, a neighbour, sits at 51/100,000.
  • The under 5 child mortality rate was 51 deaths per 1,000 live births over 2008 to 2012. Developed countries sit at around 5/1,000 and Chile, a neighbour, is at 9/1,000.
  • The rates tend to be worse in rural communities when compared to urban communities.
  • Two reports stated that maternal and infant mortality remain the highest in the region after Haiti. Several reports did however note good progress in bringing the rates down over the last 20 years.
  • UNICEF/WHO data reports that national access to safe water is good at 88% of the population, 71% for rural communities. However, only 27% of the population have access to improved sanitation, with only 10% in rural communities. We can believe that!

Day Two: Tupiza to Quetena Chico

After looking into our options, we organised our trip with Tupiza Tours. We left early in the morning in a convoy of four jeeps, each loaded with food, water and fuel. We had to be self-sufficient as our accommodation was very basic. So, in our car we had our guide (Alberto) as well as a cook (Veronica) and we were joined by Claire from Ireland and Tyler from Canada.

The crew. Pic taken near Palala Village.

We started out by covering the same ground as the previous day's mountainbike ride to El Sillar. This time we visited the top of the ridge, which gave us a great view on either side.

Looking down to the Rio San Juan del Oro.

At roughly 11:30 am we passed near San Vincente, the alleged site of the killing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This was and still is mining country and Butch was in the neighbourhood staging robberies… but that's a whole story on it is own so we will try and get back to it later.
We stopped for lunch in Cerillos, the largest in a cluster of hamlets that largely exist because of the mining industry. Although this was the largest hamlet, it was not much more than a tiny shop and a few mud brick houses. We took some notes on this hamlet out of curiosity, which is covered in the next post (we won't make a habit of it though).
The day was long, dusty, and due to the altitude, cold. Several people in other cars were suffering pretty badly from altitude sickness. We were ok but hadn't realised how important it was to acclimatise first. Fortunately the scenery was dramatic and kept changing at every corner, so it wasn't taking away from the trip.
About midway into the afternoon we came across a truck that was bogged in an icy river. For some reason that did not inspire caution with our drivers and one of our jeeps was bogged too. Our guide stopped so we could get out and lighten the weight of the jeep, then he got across and tried to help his mate. Then another jeep from the same company came up behind us and also got stuck…shambles. Eventualy we all got out…
Shortly after this we passed a small convoy of trucks loaded with cars. We thought they were crazy to be trying to cross through this country while the rivers were freezing over but our guide informed us that they were using these backroads to avoid the police…those cars were stolen and this was basically a smugglers route.
The scenery was stunning the entire day. We were constantly in awe as the landscapes changed every few hours. We ended the day watching the sun set on Uturuncu Volcano (6,008 metres).
Later in the evening we arrived at the first nights accomodation at Quetana Chico. We know its winter, but there is nothing that could prepare us for how unbelievably cold it was, and without any internal insulation or heating, it was difficult to get warm. The lady in the office at Tupiza told us that it would get down to around negative 30 degrees celcius overnight, and around negative 15 degrees inside. We managed to distract ourselves with card games, music and wine but went to bed fairly early to keep warm and get some sleep before the next day of adventures!

That was a long night and it was the coldest on the tour.



Day One: Tupiza Triathlon

Crossing the border from Argentina was relatively straight forward. We caught a bus from Tilcara to La Quiaca, walked a few kilometres, then got our stamps and crossed into Villazón. From there we jumped straight into an overcrowded mini van with a crazy driver who delivered us safely to Tupiza. The town itself is nothing special, but the surrounding landscape is exceptional!

Most people seem to stop over quickly in Tupiza on their way to the Salt Flats, but we wanted to get to know the countryside a little better so we stayed for a few days. One activity offered is the Triathlon, which involves a combination of a 4x4WD jeep tour, horse riding and mountain biking. We decided that this was the best way to cover the area in a short amount of time and have a bit of fun along the way!


Jeep Tour
The off road four wheel drive experience took us north of town into a wide valley. We drove past amazing rock formations, through dry river beds, past wandering llamas, goat herders and through tiny villages made up of adobe mud brick houses.
We then came back south of town to visit a popular river spot surrounded by stone mountains. In summer the whole river is flooded but it hardly rains at all in winter, so it was almost empty. A picnic lunch consisted of the staple ham and cheese sandwiches, with llama tomales, a local specialty. Despite asking for vegetarian food, they forgot to pack it, so Mark ate all the tomales (he was stoked!), and I got an exciting cheese sandwich!

Horse Riding
We spent a couple of hours after lunch riding through Quebrada Palmira to Canyon del Inca, via Puerta del Diablo (Devil's Gate) and Valle de los Machos (Valley of Men). Apparently the route through the canyon was an old trekking trail for the Incas.
The scenery was stunning and we had a great time riding horses through Bolivia's wild west!

Mountain Biking
We ended the day with a sunset downhill mountain bike ride from El Sillar through the Quebrada Palala. The lighting was fantastic, it turned the grass a golden yellow and the red rocks glowed.