Bolivia: From the Amazon to the Andes with the Quechua
After a brief spell away from our tours with Sumak Travel following our adventures in Argentina and Chile, Harry and I once again found ourselves back on the road in unchartered territory. This time we began our journey at the gateway to the Amazon rainforest, a small town called Villa Tunari in the North of Bolivia, known for its ‘Ethno-Ecotourism’. There was certainly no doubt about it, as the enormous sign displaying the grand statement ‘Ethno Ecotourism paradise’ seemed to suggest.
Rising early on our first day in the jungle we pulled ourselves across a rickety old rope bridge and into Carrasco National Park. We were in pursuit of a unique animal of this region, the Guácharo (oilbird), a nocturnal bird that nests in caves within the forest. Living alongside these mysterious birds in a nearby cave was a colony of bats, which allows you to gain an intimate insight into their underground lives – if you are brave enough to put up with the horrendous stench of bat droppings. These unique animals illustrate the rich bio-diversity in the Bolivian Amazon. After a sweaty but somewhat exhilarating experience trekking through the forest and encountering some amazing wildlife, we made our way back to the lodge in one piece.
Our next destination couldn’t be further from the jungle, taking us from the Amazon to the Andes to a Quechua community high up in the mountains. A gruelling five hour journey awaited us through some stunning scenery, finally reaching the charming little village of Aramasi, nestled in a valley at 2,500m. To most, this may seem a dizzying height but in Bolivian terms this is merely a small hill. A significant amount of the country lies over 3,000m – La Paz the capital city, being the highest in the world at a record 3,650m.
The postcard setting of Aramasi is home to 90 families, among the soft rolling hills of the valley dotted with small houses and gardens is where this Quechua community peacefully go about their trade. Their livelihood used to consist primarily of working the land and making artisan woollen craftwork, which we were fortunate enough to see being finely produced. Nowadays however, tourism is slowly integrating into their daily lives. Very few families speak Spanish as a result of being so isolated up here in the hills. Their native Quechua language has remained firm in spite of outside influences, unlike other indigenous languages we had come across on our travels so far.
Our journey continued even higher still to another village settlement called Chunu Chununi. The village stands at a whopping 4,300m with strange but intriguing looking llamas roaming around the hillsides. Yet most striking aspect was neither the landscape nor the wildlife but in fact the Quechua people themselves. The women wear a stunning array of colourful, bright clothing topped off with a British bowler hat strangely enough! It turns out the Quechua people picked up this odd custom from the British railway workers way back in the 1920’s, a touch of British charm never goes amiss.
Once again we were welcomed with open arms – and when I say open arms, I mean lots and lots of food. We were taken up to the highest point in the village over 4,500m which revealed endless valleys and mountains as far as the eye could see. At this height, the altitude makes every step feel like a mile, leaving us utterly exhausted but enthralled by the site in front of us. Just as the bitterly cold winds were drawing in and thoughts of our adventure coming to an end, we were surprised by a traditional music and dance display from the women of the village. Feeling somewhat awkward as Harry and I attempted to join in, we felt truly humbled by their kindness and enthusiasm of their proud culture.
After an eye opening experience understanding the Quechua way of life, we made our way back down to the overwhelming metropolis of La Paz. Yet looking around the manic, polluted, hustle and bustle of the city it became clear to me that Bolivia is very unlike other South American countries we have visited so far. Indigenous culture is not a thing of the past here and isn’t exploited for its monetary value like is so often the case. Instead their culture is present in everyday life, from the colours, the clothes, the food, the music and the language itself. It seems Bolivia is part of Quechua culture, not the contrary.
Photos by Harry Dowdney
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