South America | Bolivia – From the Altiplano to Kantu Ñucchu
The road wound up and out of Potosi offering one final glimpse of Cerro Rico and the city that was born of silver. Blue skies and cumulus lay across the arid mountain horizons marking the end of the rainy season as well as our visit in Potosi’s grey intensity.
The tired engine pulled us along the road, snaking through cactus-clad canyons and carrying us over the windswept passes. We were leaving the Altiplano and moving to the central highlands. An endless sea of mountains, adobe villages set amidst small fields of quinoa and mais, streams carrying muddy torrents of the last rains’ waters down to more fertile land below. Cactus and brush peppered the ochre mountain canvas and I lost myself somewhere between these images and those that had passed our way in the past weeks journey.
Descending into one valley my eyes were caught on one solitary object by the river below. It seemed foreign from a distance but as we drew nearer it took a familiar form. Lush in leaves and breathing in the breeze, the tree was perfect in it’s solitude. Had I just spent 6 months in the Sahara my amazement would have been justified but it had only been a matter of weeks. But then again these weeks were spent on the Altiplano, where life and energy take on other forms, still and almost eternal.
On the high plains of Bolivia age is measured in scores of millenia as the wind and rain gradually etch their songs into the silent stone. While human existence is pushed to the extremes in the all-but-uninhabitable expanses there lies a living soul. She moves in the wind and flows in the water, unbounded in her wild beauty. She follows the moon till the dawn and waits for the sun on the horizon, greeting the day with a love that only a mother can know. Yes, there is life on the Altiplano and it will long outlive ours.
We rounded a bend and my thoughts followed suit and left the Altipano behind. As our descent continued I wondered in what form Nature’s beauty would manifest itself next. The question was answered before it was completed as the cactus gave way to a new valley with patches of eucalyptus and pine foresting the lower slopes. While both are foreign to this soil I greeted the answer to my question and drew in deep breaths of the sweet highland breeze.
We had been at an average altitude of 4000 meters for more than 2 weeks now and dropping a mere 1000 meters was pleasantly noticeable. The engine, which had been gasping for oxygen for the past 3 hours, seemed to notice the difference as well and shifted into a higher gear as we passed through the rolling suburbs of Sucre, Bolivia’s second capital.
If I were writing a guidebook I would be forced now to describe every detail of this pleasant city, writing about the parks and the whitewashed colonial facades that line the steep and narrow streets which fall from the palm-filled central plaza. Fortunately that is not my job, because to be honest I don’t care much for cities and sometimes I find it just shy of torture to write about the creations of man while being surrounded by the wonders of Nature. Now that I have that off my chest it is only fair to say that Sucre is an attractive city, go there if you get a chance, eat pizza, drink wine and praise some other of mankind’s more useful inventions and then make your escape to…
Kantu ?ucchu lies just 20 kilometers, and worlds apart, from Sucre. The paved road ends at the village of Yotala and from there you will only hear groans from your taxi driver as he creeps along the gradual 400 meter descent, cursing every stone that opted to fall from the mountains and create yet another obstacle in the already rough road.
Alternatively you could ride with a small mini-bus (whose driver is already well aware of the hazards of off-road transport) for a fraction of the cost IF you can find just where in Sucre it departs from. Needless to say we ended up with the grumbling taxi-driver option, which served the purpose just fine and for the added cost I was able to add a few very useful words to my spanish vocabulary!
All we knew of ?ucchu was that there was a small hostal of sorts that provided meals and a relaxing atmosphere in a country setting. As we were both trying to shake off various minor ailments this sounded much better than navigating the congested streets of Sucre and so we soon found ourselves at the end of a rough road, in a fertile valley, with an agitated driver, in front of a grand colonial estate.
Certain that we must be at the wrong adress, we hesitantly asked at the main gate and to our suprise this was ‘the small hostal of sorts’ that we had heard about. Following the caretaker inside we soon realized that the beautiful facade was about the only part of the building that had seen any mantainance in the past few decades but that only added to the charm.
The well-worn steps led up to a grand terrace overlooking the fragrant citrus trees in the small courtyard below. Through the citrus trees a whitewashed arch led to flowery gardens set around a dormant fountain, behind which lie a much older adobe house with an ancient tiled roof. A hammock hung lazily on the veranda looking over the main house to the forested mountains that flanked the valley and all the while the air was filled with the sounds of singing birds and the sweet smell of pollen. Quite often the most pleasant treasures one encounters on a jouney are those that are unexpected and it was clear that we had stumbled onto a real jewel in coming to ?ucchu.
The following days passed effortlessly. Coming from the arid plains and busy cities, Nucchu was a paradise, a refuge from the ‘gringo trail’ we had been following since Chile. Aside from our original goal of simply trying to get ourselves back to good health, the tranquil environment also gave us the precious time needed to digest all of the impressions that were running loose in our thoughts.
The surrounding mountains offered excellent day hikes and we spent a few lazy afternoons at a vantage point high above the adjacent valley. The jagged peaks of the Cordillera de los Frailes filled the western horizon and I spent hours picking potential routes that might lead to their imposing summits.
When my eyes weren’t ‘climbing’ they were farming the parceled land that lined the valley floor and extended to inclines that would scare even the strongest tractor. The campesinos that worked the fields were spread about the valley calmly going about their day’s work. The children were tending herds of goats and sheep and playing by the streams while their parents tilled vacant fields and harvested crops of gourds and pumpkin.
Adobe houses were clustered under the shade of larger trees where women bearing water or carrying clothes would appear from the shadows. Everyone seemed to have a task but nowhere did it appear to be a struggle. Living, simply living, enjoying the sun and the gentle breeze, no stress, no haste, just the peaceful routine of a lifestyle that had seen little change over the centuries.
Perhaps only wetern eyes can appreciate the simplicity, even when we might not be able to understand it. I watched the tranquil scene and thought about the pressures of a working day in ‘the land of milk and honey’ and had to laugh, it seemed a high price to pay for the relative luxury of having a toilet that flushes.
After a few days Alberto, the owner of the property, arrived and he gave us a brief history of the house . The adobe house above the gardens was built in 1600 by a Spanish silver baron as a temperate retreat from Potosi’s harsh climate. Although I had assumed that Potosi’s silver must have played at least an indirect role in the estate, I had mixed feelings upon hearing the confirmation. A week before I had worked in the mines for a day with the Indians and now, just like the Spaniard that had first built the house, I was enjoying the fruits of their ancestor’s labors, far from the countless graves and the desperation of the mines. Here was the other side of the coin, albeit the more pleasant side.
We walked through the mill in the building below the main house as Alberto told us that it had been the first grain mill in Bolivia. For lack of finding a local stone that was hard enough to withstand the ‘daily grind’ the huge millstones were imported from France. (I had to pity the poor mules that had the misfortune to have dragged these massive stones across the Altiplano from the coast !)
Located on the old road between Charcas (now Sucre) and the mines of Potosi, the mill played an crucial role in Potosi’s supply chain and the house and surrounding structures became an important stop to rest and repair the Spanish wagons.
Alberto brought us next to the old house showing us the rooms and the small chapel that was built into the adobe walls. 400 years of a most dramatic history had filled these walls with life. I tried to imagine what stories they had heard, what joys and what sorrows had given them their present color. From colonial splendor and cruelty to the battles of independence, from the death of one culture to the expulsion of another, history is full of bitter tales but I suppose the taste is always relative to where you might be standing.
Across the courtyard there stands yet another adobe house, built in the early 1700’s. This small house had an even greater tie to Bolivia’s history. Antonio Jose de Sucre, the great general who fought the Spanish throughout South America in some of the most decisive battles in the war of independence and who was personally responsible for the Bolivia’s statehood in the years that followed, had taken refuge here after being ousted from the Presidency some time in the late 1820’s. Wounded in the coup, he spent 3 months recovering in ?ucchu and it was here that he wrote his famous last proclamation to the people of the infant country before leaving to live in a self-imposed exile in Venezuela.
The story continues in 1859 when the main house was built for Don Gregorio Pacheco,Alberto’s great-grandfather and president from 1884-1888. A French architect was called in to oversee the construction and, as was usual since the colonial times, almost all of the furniture was imported from Europe. Once Don Pacheco had become president the house was used as a weekend retreat as well as for entertaining foreign dignitaries. This required the installation of Bolivia’s first telegraph line which connected ?ucchu with the governmental capital in Sucre. Over the next half a century the house quartered 8 of the country’s presidents at various times.
During the Chaco War with Paraguay, between 1932 and 1935, the family was forced to leave the country and sadly, the house fell into it’s current state of disrepair. It is now being (slowly) renovated to regain it’s original grandeur and I can’t imagine that the beauty of it’s natural setting and the fascinating history will remain a secret for long. Perhaps in ten years it will only be a destination for expensive package tours but for now (and as long as they don’t pave that road !) Kantu ?ucchu remains a gem waiting for lucky travellers to stumble across.