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Bolivia

In February 2024, I travelled to Bolivia with a group lead by an Italian, Flavio Bosi of Lightandland and his Bolivian wife, Daniela, who made an excellent fixer for all matters Bolivian including recovering my bag lost in transit. Bolivia is a landlocked country bordered by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile and Peru. The seat of government and administrative capital is La Paz although the largest city and principal industrial centre is Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Its geography varies from the peaks of the Andes in the West, the Altiplano – a high plateau of endorheic river basins - and the Eastern Lowlands within the Amazon basin. The country's population of about 12 million, is multi-ethnic, including Amerindians, Mestizos, Europeans, Asians, and Africans. Spanish is the official and predominant language, although 36 indigenous languages also have official status. Before Spanish colonization, the Andean region of Bolivia was part of the Inca Empire, while the northern and eastern lowlands were inhabited by independent tribes. Spanish conquistadors took control of the region in the 16th century and Spain built its empire in large part upon the silver that was extracted from Bolivia's mines. After the first call for independence in 1809, 16 years of war followed before the establishment of the Republic named for Simón Bolívar, although over the course of the 19th and early 20th century Bolivia lost control of several peripheral territories to neighbouring countries including the seizure of its coastline by Chile in 1879 and Acre territory to Brazil. It experienced a succession of military and civilian governments until 1971, when Hugo Banzer led a CIA-supported coup d'état that installed a military dictatorship. Banzer's regime cracked down on left-wing and socialist opposition and other forms of dissent, resulting in the torture and deaths of a number of Bolivian citizens. Banzer was ousted in 1978 but later returned as the democratically elected president from 1997 to 2001. Since the 2006–2019 presidency of Evo Morales, the country has enjoyed political stability and although it remains the second poorest country in South America, it has however slashed poverty rates and has the fastest growing economy in South America (in terms of GDP). Its main economic activities include agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, and manufacturing goods such as textiles, clothing, refined metals, and refined petroleum. It is very rich in minerals, including tin, silver, lithium, and copper but is also known for its production of coca leaves and refined cocaine. In 2021, estimated coca cultivation and cocaine production was 39,700 hectares and 317 metric tons, respectively. After spending a little time in La Paz acclimatising to the altitude, which ranged during the trip from about 3,900 m to over 5,000 m, we travelled 4 hours by road down to Oruro to attend the carnivals there. 

Oruro has a population of about 265,000 and sits at an altitude of 3,700 m. It was named after the native tribe Uru-Uru. It is Bolivia's fifth-largest city by population. It was founded in 1606 as a silver-mining town. It has been subject to cycles of boom and bust owing to its dependence on the mining industry, notably tin, tungsten (wolfram), silver and copper. It thrived for a while, but it was eventually abandoned as the silver mines became exhausted before being re-established by European Bolivians in the late 19th c. as a tin mining centre. For a time, the La Salvadora tin mine was the most important source of tin in the world. Gradually, as this resource became less plentiful, Oruro again went into a decline although its economy is still based on the mining industry although now increasingly popular for tourism. Its economy is now growing through trade and economic connections through improved road links with Chile, especially for exporting products to Pacific markets. The city is known for its Carnaval de Oruro, considered one of the great folkloric events in South America for its masked "diablada" and Anata. This is a particular interest to Flavio, who, as well as being an accomplished musician and qualified Chiropractor, practices Street Photography. What is Street Photography? That’s a question that is widely debated. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica I think does a pretty good job of defining street thus "Street photography, a genre of photography that records everyday life in a public place. The very publicness of the setting enables the photographer to take candid pictures of strangers, often without their knowledge. Street photographers do not necessarily have a social purpose in mind, but they prefer to isolate and capture moments which might otherwise go unnoticed."

In the pre-Hispanic period, what is now Oruro was a religious pilgrimage centre of the Andean world. Pilgrims would trek to the "Sacred Mountain of the Urus", where they could call protective deities: wak'as, achachilas and  apus. These deities included Jamp'atu Qullu (hill toad), Argentillo Arankani (hill lizard), Quwak (viper), the condor and Wakallusta, among others. After the Incan Empire expanded to the region, the culture expanded as well and included an evil demigod, WariDesam, and a sacred demigod, Apus waka. El Tío (The Uncle), is believed to be the "Lord of the Underworld". There are many statues of this devil-like spirit in the mines. El Tío is believed to rule over the mines, simultaneously offering protection and destruction. Miners bring offerings such as cigarettes, coca leaves, and alcohol for the statues and believe that if El Tío is not fed, he will take matters into his own hands. Today, the miners are Catholics and they believe in both Christ and El Tío. However, worship of El Tío is condemned strongly by the Catholic Church. Images of El Tío are usually not allowed outside of the mines, as this is seen as the realm of God and El Tío has no place there. Likewise, Christian symbolism is not allowed inside the mines, as this "Underworld" is seen as El Tío's realm. Miners believe that although a Christian god rules the earth, another god presides underground. The Catholic Church perpetuated the myth of the defeat of El Tio at the hands of the Archangel Michael and statues of El Tío are paraded around the Carnaval de Oruro in a ceremony that represents this. Spanish colonization led to the breaking down of the indigenous native legacies. However, many indigenous rites were preserved, giving rise to a religious syncretism of Catholicism and Wari Culture. Christian ideas of the Virgin and the Devil from Catholic teachings were absorbed into native ideas of Pachamama and El Tio, a blending of religious symbolism that can still be seen during the Carnival. The native Itu ceremonies were banned by the Spanish in the 17th c. However, the Uru continued to observe the festival in the form of a Catholic ritual on Candlemas, in the first week of each February. Christian icons are used to conceal portrayals of Andean gods, and the Christian saints stood in for other minor Andean divinities. Legend also has it that in 1756, a mural of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared in a mineshaft of the richest silver mine in Oruro. Ever since the Carnival has been observed in honour of the Virgen de la Candelaria (Virgin of the Candlemas) or Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft). The most important elements of the Carnival now occur in and around the Sanctuaria del Socavon (Church of the Mineshaft).The carnival is one of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. We first went to meet some of the artisans that make the masks for the carnival to photograph them at work. 

The following day was devoted to the Andean Anata, the ancient Harvest Festival, that follows the same route as the carnival and therefore gave us the opportunity to plan our following days activities. The main carnival event, the Entrada, started early the following Saturday morning and lasted around 20 hours into the early hours of Sunday. The carnival route is about 4 km in length and the main event includes about 28,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians so not surprisingly ran over 4 hours late. Considering that the masks can weigh over 30 Kg and the participants were dancing over the whole route, it is quite a feat of endurance. More than 48 groups of dancers participate, representing various indigenous folk dance styles and all areas of the country.  (Such as the dance of the devils or diablada, morenada, antawara, awatiri, suri sikuri, wititi, intillaqta, tarqueadas and sampoñaris). It ends with a brief Mass celebrated for all the dancers in the Santuario de la Virgen del Socavon. The following day the whole event took place a second time, without the religious fervour and mostly without the heavy masks but with a lot more alcohol! We spent a lot of time over these four days following the performances although venturing far from the hotel in the early hours on Sunday was not considered advisable.

From Oruro, we travelled 4 hours by road onto Uyuni for one night before moving on to a three day, two night tour of the deserts and lagunas of the Altiplano of southern Bolivia visiting variously the train cemetery, the Bofedales (Wet lands) de Villa Alota, a number of lagoons and the geysers Sol de Mañana, the Salvador Dali desert and the Stone Tree. Accomodation in the deserts was, well, adequate for the not too fussy, with occasional electricity and a certain amount of hot water for the fortunate. The drivers needed to plan their fuel consumption as there were no filling stations to be had and therefore a need to carry extra on the roof of the 4WDs as well as food supplies to supplement the hotels. We finally returned to Uyuni to the comfortable Jardines de Uyuni Hotel and its restaurant.

The whole of the next day we spent on the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, an area of over 10,000 km2 in southwest Bolivia, near the crest of the Andes at an elevation of 3,656 m altitude. The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes that existed around forty thousand years ago but had all evaporated over time. It is now covered by a few metres of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. The large area, clear skies, and exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar ideal for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites. Following the exceptional rain that we experienced during our visit, a thin layer of dead calm water transforms the flat into the world's largest mirror, 129 km across that made some most interesting photos. The Salar serves as the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano and is a prime breeding ground for several species of flamingos. It has also been used as a filming location for movies such as Star Wars.