Bolivia: Reflected glory

With a history shaped by silver, the Incas and the conquistadors, high-altitude life on the Bolivian Altiplano can be as magical as the optical illusions created by its mirrored salt lakes.

By Nigel Richardson
Published 27 Apr 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:47 BST
Llamas, Salar de Uyuni.

Llamas, Salar de Uyuni.

Photograph by Phil Clarke Hill

We're in one of those markets that reveal the strange backstories and mindsets of the local culture. What are those things? I ask my guide, René Silva. He's a mistizo — half white, of Iberian descent); half Jalq'a, an indigenous people renowned for their textiles. I'm pointing at small cardboard tubes, displayed next to bundles of cigarettes bulging with black tobacco. "Cohetes," he replies. "Explosiónes."

Rockets? Explosions? Perhaps they're used to light cigarettes — a sort of cross between a match and a lighter. But no — René explains they're explosive devices that the campesinos (farmers) fire at hailstones and other undesirable weather events to prevent damage to their crops. Do they work? "Sure," says René.

This is the weekly market in the village of Tarabuco, in Bolivia's Altiplano ('High Plain'). I'm feeling giddy, not just with the crystalline sunlight and the discombobulating effects of altitude (we're at 11,000ft), but with a sense of cultural displacement. Stretching round the main square are stalls selling Jalq'a weavings (the patterns are pretty weird: fabulous birds and beasts with multiple limbs and disfigured heads), sandals made from old rubber tyres, and chess sets featuring Incas and conquistadors. In the backstreets, a religious fanatic is bellowing through a megaphone — I think he's calling out winning lottery numbers, till I notice no one is listening — while shoppers select coca leaves as if deliberating over single malt whisky. Not just the leaves, which are dispensed from green sacks and come in different grades, but the catalysers — chalky sweets that bring out the full effect. "You chew them with the coca and they release the 14 elements," says René. "The saliva also has an effect. It's like a laboratory in your mouth."

As we talk, a campesino appears, buys a bag of leaves, bundles it into his blanket, which he throws over his shoulder, and ambles off, his cheek bulging with a wad. And it strikes me that this man is a thousand or more years old — not the biological individual, of course, but everything that he represents: his language (Quechua, also spoken by the Incas); his dress of layered fabrics; his high-cheekboned features, burnished by warm sun through thin air; not to mention the coca habit, which René explains thusly: "For campesinos who are sad and worried, it makes them think more clearly."

Five hundred years ago, our friend was no doubt ingesting industrial quantities, for the arrival of the Spanish shredded his way of life and altered the course of South American history. As we drive back from Tarabuco to Sucre — the first Spanish city founded in Alto Peru, as Bolivia was formerly known, René pinpoints the moment when everything changed — not so much 1538, when Sucre was established, as seven years later, when seams of silver as wide as rivers were discovered in a mountain at Potosí, 50 miles south west, "and different people arrived". Greedy people, he means, and since then Bolivia's turbulent past has been largely written by them. My lodgings in Sucre, the Hotel Parador Santa María La Real, turns out to be an illuminating footnote to that history.

The day before, while I was waiting in the lobby to check in, I was ambushed by a fugitive from the pages of Graham Greene. "Mucho gusto, señor." A dapper figure stood in front of me and gave a slight bow from the waist — and did I merely imagine that he clicked his heels? "I am the Spanish consul — and the owner of this hotel." And before I'd even procured my room key, Luis Pedro Rodriguez Calvo whisked me down a medieval rabbit hole, then up through an Escher-esque fusion of courtyards, terraces, patios and stairways. His hotel is a synthesis of three townhouses, underwired by an ancient brick passageway (probably once a tunnel between two convents) and stuffed to its Baroque gunnels with exquisite furniture from the salons of 18th-century Europe.

These pieces, which Don Luis has cannily acquired from surrounding mansions, show just how opulent and powerful the city had become by the mid-19th century, and it was all down to Potosí silver. A generation after independence from Spain (in 1825), the owners and shareholders of silver mines titivated the old colonial mansions of Sucre with Neoclassical facades and hung their Parisian frock coats in Spanish rococo wardrobes. Que elegante! But beyond the galleried windows, life in the new country of Bolivia was anything but elegant, as a succession of caudillos (military dictators) and what René termed 'last-minute patriots', i.e. turncoats, fought and killed over the wealth embedded in the mineral-rich Altiplano.

Silver Mountain

Following a silver thread, René and I leave Sucre and travel south west by car, across the wide gorge of the Pilcomayo River and up into the heart of the matter: Potosí. The name applies to both the city and the mountain of silver that looms over it — bald, sinister-looking, like a cone made of flesh. For centuries, Potosí was a byword for fabulous wealth. In Cervantes' 17th-century fable Don Quixote, our eponymous hero tells Sancho Panza that were he to pay him what he was really worth, 'the treasure of Venice or the mines of Potosí would be a small recompense'. But many more have been made miserable rather than rich under its baleful spell. The compact main square in Potosí is all-aslope, like the deck of a ship in a storm. At one corner, and occupying a whole, thick-walled block, is the Casa Nacional de la Moneda (National Mint of Bolivia). Now a museum, it contains one of the most resonant paintings in Latin America: La Virgen del Cerro (The Virgin of the Hill), by an unknown 18th-century artist. In the painting, the Virgin is depicted in a red dress that's also the silver mountain itself — synchronising with pre-Hispanic beliefs that she is Pachamama, Mother Earth.

Pachamama has been an unforgiving goddess. There's a popular saying, much quoted in guidebooks, that you could build a bridge to Spain with all the silver mined here since its discovery in 1545. But as René says, "you could also build a bridge with the bones of the miners who have died extracting it" — including many thousands of African slaves. René makes this point as we stand in Potosí's miners' market watching sad-looking men stocking up on coca leaves (to keep them going through long, foodless shifts), gunpowder, fuses and detonators. These are the modern-day miners of the Cerro Rico — Hill of Riches — and they're still dying. The rivers of silver have dwindled to rivulets but 15,000 men continue to work the Potosí mines, mostly in private cooperatives, eking a living from deposits of tin, lead, zinc and the now-meagre silver traces. The air is noxious and it's dangerous work.

A modest business has sprung up in Potosí enabling tourists to visit the mine — you venture deep underground, bearing gifts such as coca leaves for the miners — but I have neither the head nor the heart for it: my head is throbbing with the altitude (Potosí sits at a lofty 13,500ft) while my heart weeps for the misery of their existence. So we push on, following a thread that now turns to white — white for salt.

A world away

It leads us 100 miles south west, over hillsides scored with Inca terraces, to the town of Uyuni. As we descend towards it in slanting evening light, it appears as a shimmer of debris on a mottled mirror — the mirror being the Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat bigger than Lake Titicaca. Uyuni, they say, is the coldest place in Bolivia, with no encircling hills to break up the icy winds that howl down off the Andean mountains and up from Patagonia. Unlike Sucre or Potosí, it has no pretensions to elegance — it's a former railway junction and military garrison — but Uyuni is enterprising and cheerful, with shops that cater for both body and soul (musical instruments sharing shelf space with alpaca sweaters).

These days, its principal business is the salt flat itself — scores of agencies of varying repute line the Avenida Ferroviaria, advertising 4WD day trips across the white expanse (in January, when rain floods the salar into a perfect mirror, camera-wielding Japanese tourists come here in their thousands). After one night in a backstreet hotel, we head out there ourselves and I experience the oddly weightless feeling of driving the salt flat — like taxiing along an endless white runway and never quite reaching take-off speed. This is a place of optical miracles produced by the bending of bright sunlight across the salt. Mountains and volcanoes hover above the horizon. Lakes appear and let you chase them, then vanish into the white. And at dusk, the dying sun projects a shifting colour show on to the blank canvas of the salt: ochre, peach, pink and, finally — amazingly — blue. We spend the night in a silver Airstream trailer parked on the salt flat — overnighting on the Moon's Sea of Tranquillity could hardly be a more otherworldly experience — and the next morning return to Uyuni, where René walks me through a murder scenario.

It's a story that goes to the heart of Bolivian identity. The murder victim was Hilarión Daza, a notorious caudillo and the president of Bolivia during the War of the Pacific of 1879-1880, when, due to his incompetence and cowardice, the country lost its coastline (not to mention the Atacama Desert) to Chile. The wound in the national psyche this loss has caused will never heal. After being deposed in
1879, Daza fled to Paris, but returned in 1894 hoping to restore his reputation. At the Chilean port of Antofagasta, he caught the train to Uyuni. "Two o'clock in the morning, he leaves the train with his bodyguard and walks this way," says René as we cross the Avenida Ferroviaria into the Plaza Arce. "On this corner, his bodyguard pulls a gun, shoots him dead." No one knows for sure who ordered the assassination but he was probably killed by powerful figures (including the then president, Mariano Baptista) with interests in the Potosí silver mines who were worried he'd expose their corruption.

On the edge of Uyuni, alongside the tracks of the Antofagasta-Uyuni railway, is a poignant sight — scores of rusting steam locomotives abandoned in a place known as the Cementerio de Trenes (Train Cemetery). Clambering up onto the footplate of one of these iron crustaceans, I'm struck by a thought — this could have been the locomotive that delivered Hilarión Daza to his fate. Beyond the rusting trains lie the landscape he crossed — a wilderness of desert, volcanoes and lakes stretching through the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve to the Chilean border. We drive there through dusty old towns of adobe houses, where cholitas — indigenous women in layered skirts and men's hats — sit knitting in pools of sunlight; past the entrance lie roads to distant super-mines worked by shadowy foreign corporations; across Gobi-like sand plains where the light bends and deceives.

Certain landmarks — Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde, coloured respectively red and green by algae and minerals, and a rock shaped like a tree — attract fleets of Land Cruisers from Uyuni, which line up as if for a Toyota commercial as their backpacker passengers leap out to take selfies. But it's easy to find zones of pure emptiness. The following morning, after spending the night in an adobe hotel built into a cave, we park on the shoreline of Laguna Vinto. It's like a shard of glass. Scarves of white hanging above the horizon are the snowcaps of otherwise invisible mountains. The only sound — amplified by the water — is the high-pitched chuntering of pink flamingos. They're clustered like a floating tutu in the very middle of the lake, safe from the foxes and pumas that patrol the edges at night. We turn off the engine, cease talking, and drink in the solitude. No coca is required for me to think more clearly or feel more intensely at this moment. Explosiónes of pure pleasure are detonating in my mind.


Getting there
There are no non-stop, direct flights from the UK to Bolivia. The cheapest option is to fly to Madrid, then take a Boliviana de Aviación plane to Santa Cruz, followed by an internal flight to Sucre. The new British Airways direct flights to Lima, Peru, starting 4 May, will also facilitate onward flights to Sucre via La Paz.

Getting around
To complete the itinerary within a reasonable timescale, it's advisable to book a ground package that includes a car and driver (and, preferably, guide).

When to go
Winter (May to October) is the dry season (although nights are cold). December to February is increasingly popular for visits to the Salar de Uyuni, when it is covered in water and particularly photogenic.

Need to know
Visas: Not required for UK passport holders for visits of up to 90 days.
Currency: Boliviano (BOB). £1 = BOB11.
Health: As altitude sickness is a potential problem, consult your GP about Diamox tablets. Drink plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol when you're there.
International dial code: 00 591.
Time difference: GMT -5.

Where to stay
Hotel Parador Santa María La Real.
Airstream Deluxe Campers on Salar du Uyuni can be hired from Crillon Tours.
Hotel Jardines de Mallku Cueva.

More info
The Rough Guide to Bolivia. RRP: £18.99.

How to do it
The Ultimate Travel Company offers a 16 day 'Ultimate Bolivia' tour of the Bolivian Altiplano, plus Santa Cruz, La Paz and Lake Titicaca, from £4,412 per person including international and domestic flights, car, driver, guide, excursions and most meals.

Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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