Walking in the footsteps of the Incans

We got an early start and headed out of the city for about an hour and drove to the village of Chataquilla, located at 3,600 meters ( feet). After visiting the chapel at the top of the mountain, which was built over another miraculous image of the virgin Mary. I’ve heard many versions of this folktale in Venezuela and Colombia all the way back to Spain. It must be a Hispanic-America Catholic phenomenon.

Ale and Nadia sample some coca leaves to relieve the soroche.

The local government restored an Incan road from the chapel, dropping 1000 meters to the village of Chaunaca. The path wound around the steep mountain and there were a few very steep drops. Workers took care to cut and fit stones around the original remaining Incan stones to create a level, 1 – 2 meter wide trail. The entire walk is about 5 kilometers, but at that altitude, it felt like double that. We took our time, taking lots of photos, learning the names and medicinal uses of the plants and sorting out the children’s various needs. The views were spectacular and the sky was a pure blue. It was an absolute pleasure taking in the views of the geology and the many valleys, peaks, canyons, etc. What a great morning!

End of the trail – we made it!

We were planning to visit another village in the ancient Maragua crater but my sister-in-law was not feeling well so we returned to the hotel. I really want to explore more of the villages outside Sucre. It is a wonderland for mountain biking, rock climbing/scrambling and walking. It would be similar to the American Rockies in the southwest, like the state of Utah.

In the late afternoon we visited La Recoleta convent again for a sunset dinner. On the walk back we stopped in the plaza to get a taste of some of the Bolivian Independence Day celebrations. There was a school parade and lots of vendors, music and people-watching. We had a wonderful stay in Sucre!

View of Sucre from the roof of our hotel.

Bolivia is awesome for travel and adventure. The combination of a tropical latitude in the Amazon river basin and the widest part of the massive Andes mountains, blows away what most countries have to offer for adventure travel. I do hope to come back and especially as my children get older, I want to share with them the wilderness of Bolivia. My ideal trip would be to spend a week in the Amboro National Park, entering from the Samaipata side and then going to Vallegrande to see where Che Guevara was killed. Next we would go to the highest capital in the world, La Paz. While there we would do side trips to Lake Titicaca and see the village where Modesta is from and climb the snow-capped peak of Mount Sorata. Next we go to the salt deserts of Uyuni, staying in a salt hotel and do a driving tour of the amazing, alien landscapes of the high Atacama desert. There are brightly algea-colored lakes, high altitude flamingos, herds of vicuna and the weird rock formations. We would finish up by visiting two Amazonian parks, Alto Madidi and Noel Kempff and then the pantanal, the largest wetlands in South America. How is that for a trip!

Hike in the Seven Cascades Canyon

The fifth cascade made a refreshing water hole.

Our goal today was to get out of the city and see a bit of the Chuquisaca (name of the department) hinterland. In the morning we visited the Fancesa Cement Quarry, which they claim is the largest dinosaur track/footprint site in the world. Years ago the company was digging limestone out of the quarry and they ran into a layer of Magnesium oxide rock which was not used in the cement making process. Two geologists working at the company noticed the fossilized dinosaur tracks. Nadia and I visited the site 15 years ago when there was nothing for tourists and since then, the government has established a visitor’s center with displays and information about the geological time scale and dinosaurs. It is quite an informative center and worth visiting if you want to learn more about dinosaurs. The prints are huge and criss-cross a massive (150 meters high by 1 kilometer in length) slice of rock. It was once a lake and the prints of 4 different dinosaurs can be identified.

Owen looking at the sauropod prints on the wall of the quarry.

In the afternoon we went on a hike to the Siete Cascadas canyon. It is located past the cement factory in one of the many mountain canyons/valleys in the area. The guide from the hotel was very knowledgable about the local trees. The driver asked me to smoke a cigarette when we got down to the first waterfall to appease Pachamama, the Quechua indigenous god. He said on Tuesdays and Fridays in the month of August it is bad luck to swim in the waters of the river in the canyon without this offering.

After a few puffs, Owen and I dove into the blue water and it was cold! The guide showed the boys a few rock climbing moves and we explored the canyon a bit. We made it over the fifth waterfall, but the sixth and seventh require some serious rock climbing skills. Sadly there was some graffiti and litter at the site, but the rock formations and waterfalls still made it an awe-inspiring site.

Ollie leads us out of the canyon.

On the way back out, we walked down the river a bit and took a smaller trail back up to the entry road. We saw a freshly killed goat carcass, which the guide said was probably the work of a fox. I loved scrambling with the boys through the canyon and the opportunity to get off the regular trail. The scenery reminded me a bit of the mesalands of the Venezuelan state of Anzoategui, except it was just a deeper ravine here in the Andes.

The access road hugs the side of the cliff and is dirt and it is a bit dodgy with a steep precipice. Our driver was careful going up and down.

Sad to see the tough life of the poor of Sucre.

The drive back into town went through some very poor barrios. The Barrio Alegria was definitely a misnomer (alegria means happiness in Spanish) as the roads were unpaved, makeshift houses, and disheveled children and garbage in front of the homes. Lots of opportunities for community service up there and I am amazed how people survive in such a tough environment.

The city has the great idea to use people dressed as zebras to act as crossing guards during rush hour. The colonial streets of Sucre are narrow and there are lots of universities and K-12 schools getting out plus regular pedestrians.  At first I thought why zebras, but then figured out the white lines of the pedestrian crossing resemble a zebra. A creative way to keep people safe and add to the character of the city.

I can’t wait to explore more of the countryside on Day 3 as we are going for a full day excursion. We finished the day with a walk about the 25 of May Plaza and pizza.

First Day in Sucre Bolivia

The flight from Santa Cruz to Sucre is only about 30 minutes, but the difference between the two cities is vast. Sucre is the judicial capital (home of the supreme court of Bolivia) and on my birthday, May 25, 1809, the first call for independence from Spain was declared here. Ironically, Bolivia was the last South American country to be liberated from Spain after 14 years of war in 1825. Most likely that Bolivar was a Venezuelan and started there. I need to re-read the history of Bolivia and to read the latest biography of Simon Bolivar.  The city is named after Simon Bolivar’s right hand man, Antonio Sucre. It is cool to think that Bolivar was here The historical center of the city is a UNESCO world heritage site and is known as the “white city” or “cultural city” by the Bolivians. They kept the Spanish Andalusian colonial  style with most of the buildings being white.

The hotel that we are staying at, Parador Santa Maria La Real. The hotel is a 17th century mansion of the Spanish court, when Sucre was known as Real Audiencia de Charcas. The owner beautifully restored it to its past glory and it is a pleasure to stay in. The Spanish loved the inner courtyards, which were open air and the center of life in the house. Rooms built off of the courtyard, like rooms of a motel, were used for sleeping, clothes cleaning, the kitchen, etc.. When they were restoring the place, they found a basement that they are unsure what it was used for. The owners turned it into a museum/dining hall with his collection of colonial antiques

Nadia and I have fond memories of walking up to La Recoleta Church when we visited in 1998.

As with most of Andean Bolivia, the city is at altitude, over 9,200 feet (2,800 meters). If Denver, Colorado USA is the “mile high city”, then Sucre should be the “two-mile city”. It is so bright, with blue skies and it reminds me of a Mediterranean look, but drier and higher. It is a small city, with a population between 250,000 – 300,000 people and has a small town feel. Lots of European backpackers coming through the city, as this must be on the South American circuit. Altitude gives me a headache the first day and today I had a slight one. We are also a bit sluggish and it was a slog up the hill to spend the late afternoon at La Recoleta Church. There is a nice cafe there and some good views of the city. Nadia and Ale enjoyed the shopping in the markets and bought some beautiful rugs/textiles. The prices are so cheap here in Sucre. I am glad to show the children the Andes and they can learn about dealing with altitude.

Nadia shopping for textiles in the central plaza of Sucre.

I wonder how these mountains looked like before the Spanish arrived, or maybe for that matter, before the Incans came. I guess there were probably more trees and vegetation which helped for a wetter climate. Sucre is at 19 degrees south latitude and most of the deserts and arid areas are found around 30 degrees latitude like the Atacama, Sahara, etc.

Sucre is being touted as a place for globally mobile foreigners to settle and live or for a place to retire. The cost of living is incredibly low (contrasts with the drug-boom bubble economy of Santa Cruz), there is nice sunny, dry, cool weather, and the third piece, which I question, is it is a culturally rich place with lots to do, both intellectually and outdoors. We will be here for a few days so I will be weighing in on this topic.

Owen and Sebey playing chess above Sucre.

I finished the night playing cachos with my nephew, Oliver and Ocean in the hotel bar. I tried a local drink called a chuflay which is made of the Bolivian spirit singani, which is a type of brandy distilled from wine, and ginger ale on the rocks. It was OK, but nothing special. I preferred the kids’ chocolate submarines, hot milk poured over a bar of chocolate. We laughed a lot and it was a great way to end our first day in Sucre.

The mountains of Sucre as seen from the plane.

A Bolivian Hacienda

Kids enjoy time in the pool.

We had a nice three days at La Hacienda Santa Maria La Antigua, a 2,500-hectare ranch 95 kilometers north of Santa Cruz. It is a working dairy (1,000 head of Holando-Argentino  cattle) farm and beef ranch (2,000 head of Brahman cattle). The ranch has a small hotel and spa which caters to foreign and domestic tourists. We had a wonderful stay which has been the highlight of the summer for us. We were the only guests staying at the hotel so we had the place to ourselves. It felt like our own private ranch!

The 2,500 hectare property is located about 6 kilometers via sandy road from the village of Buena Vista. It is very close to one of my favorite places in the world, the Amboro National Park. We were not able to get into the park on this trip, but we did get to do some walking in the forested areas as well as explore the pantanals (wetlands) of the ranch.

We learned all about the dairy industry, watching the whole process of getting the cows into the corral, showering them with a misty spray for 15 minutes to calm them, and then the mechanized milking. We got to sample fresh milk straight from the cow and drink from the refrigerated tanks. I learned that the biggest milk producing cow on the farm produces 37 liters of milk per day and the average life span of a dairy cow is six years. They are in milk production about 6 months a year.

Sebey and Owen on the walk in the forest.

The kids were more interested in the swimming pool, games area (billiards/table tennis) and karaoke. They also have pet caimans, toucans, cats, etc. that the kids enjoyed playing with. I went out for walks in the wetlands and saw a huge variety of neotropical birds. You can see my nature blog for more photos and stories.

Ocean and Oliver loved the puppies at the hotel.

I have mixed emotions about ranches. It was nice to see cows actually eating grass and being outdoors. They eat about 60-70% forage and 30% grains. The industrial-agricultural model of meat and milk producing in the US reduces this. The owner treats his employees well and has really made a tourist service for the local and brought income to a poor area. I don’t like however, the loss of habitat for wilderness and I hope he can preserve more land for forest. He is probably one of the better land managers, as most Bolivians are ignorant to environmental concerns. I will definitely reduce my consumption of beef, which I don’t eat a lot of, just because I see how much energy it takes to bring it to the table.

Brahman beef cattle were also abundant on the ranch.

The silence, darkness, stars and the sounds of a tropical night were intoxicating. It really lifted my spirits and recharged my psyche to be at the hacienda. We also benefited from a lack of internet connection and it was good to interact with the children in an old-fashioned way.

Andamios Hermes

Andamios Hermes is my father-in-law’s business. An andamio is a scaffold and my father-in-law, Hermes Chavez rents and sells scaffolding to small and large construction projects. He got the idea when living in Australia and has been quite successful for the past 10 years. Hermes loved working with metal and was a welder in Australia. He also had a metal factory in Santa Cruz for years that made galpones (metal roofs) and scaffolding for sale.

Andamios Hermes in the streets of Santa Cruz

This is the ideal business for him in his later years. He owns around 400 meters of scaffolding and most of the time, it is being rented. As I say, easy money! Working with Hermes is his right-hand man, Horacio Surubi. Horacio has been working with the family for a long time. He is originally from San Jose Chiquitanos. You can always identify the scaffolds by the green and white colors, the colors of Santa Cruz Department. It keeps him busy, with either calling customers to remind them to pay or check on the status of the rental or dealing with clients either picking up scaffolds or dropping them off. There are also the details of paying Horacio, upkeep of the scaffolds, etc. It is not a full-time job, however, and gives a pace that an older gentleman can keep up with, as well as, giving him a good income in his later years.

Horacio is the muscle behind Andamios Hermes.

They rent to both small constructors, who will rent one module for a couple of days, and also to big companies like Palco Cement, who has rented 50 modules for several years. There are lots of construction projects going on in one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Best wishes for continued success for Andamios Hermes.

The Bolivian Yahtzee: “Cachos”

Oliver rolls the cup of die to start the game.

We have been playing the Bolivian dice game of cachos. I remember playing with Nadia a lot when we were living here, and when I saw the game in a souvenir store last week, I bought one. It is a popular game to play with friends, especially at parties or in bars. The origins of the game are sketchy, but it is said to have been brought to Bolivia by Spanish soldiers, who liked to play dice games.

Cachos is easy to play and I included a scoreboard below. You should make your own for each player, the same format as a tic-tac-toe board. The object of the game is to fill the squares with as many points as possible. Each turn consists of rolling the 5 die out of the cup twice. Players attempt to gain as many points on each of the squares. For example, a roll of three “4” and two “2” would be a “full” and if done on the first roll, it would be worth 30 points + 10 points bonus for the first roll. If a player rolls three “4” and one “2” and on the second roll, picks up the one dice and rolls a “2”, they would get 30 points. Depending on the first roll, you can go from everything from trying to get five “1” or five of a kind. You need to select a square to fill or eliminate at the end of every turn. The Spanish names of each of the squares are included in the diagram. In different parts of Bolivia, they are known by different names. I am not sure why the game is called “cachos”, which means horns in Spanish.

A twist that we play is a player can call “abajo” or “bajo” before lifting up the cup. The results then of the roll are taken from the bottom, instead of the top of the die. For example, a “6” becomes a “1”.

Santa Cruz Journal: July 27, 2015

The past few days we spent going outside of the city, visiting some small towns in the area. Above, the boys and our friend, Pablo are shown during a hike in the hills beyond the  town of El Turno. It is located to the west of Santa Cruz, in the foothills of the Andes. A perfect climate and amount of precipitation for plant growth. Absolutely beautiful! The boys were a bit scared hiking through some of the thicker forested areas that made me laugh. I kept joking we were going to stumble into a clandestine coca processing lab, which sadly, is a possibility in eastern Bolivia.

The government completed a paved road from Urubo to the village of Porongo. Previously, one needed to go towards La Guardia and then take a 3km unpaved road to go there. The main Porongo plaza above, was very tranquilo on a Friday afternoon. I fear that Santa Cruz will keep growing out to Porongo and it will lose its rustic charm.

We ran into a procession (above) celebrating the Day of La Paz, the legislative capitol of Bolivia. The parade was happening in El Torno, a small town here in the Santa Cruz department. It shows the incredible amount of internal immigration from the Andes to the eastern lowlands. Andean immigrants almost outnumber cambas (the people of the eastern lowlands) here. The girls above are wearing the traditional bowler hats of the chollas of La Paz. The short skirts are an homage to the long skirts of the chollas as well.

I snapped this cool photograph of my daughter Ocean and our dog Lulu on top of las dunas de Urubo. These are sand dunes similar to the more famous las lomas de arena in the south of Santa Cruz. There is a new housing development going up there. I don’t know who would want to buy land near shifting sand dunes? Anyway, the kids liked running around and exploring the area.

I have been impressed with the Bolivian wines! The city of Tarija is known as the wine growing region on the southern border of Bolivia with Argentina. They are known as the “vinos de altura” (wines of altitude) because the city is over 6,000 feet in elevation. I especially like Campos de Solano and Kohlberg. It would be a fantastic get-away to go on a wine sampling trip and some hiking there.