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Comanche and the Queen of the Andes

Puya Raimondii, just after flowering, December 2013

Puya Raimondii, just after flowering, December 2013

We enjoyed a glorious day on the Altiplano on Sunday.  Our plan was to drive a loop south of La Paz, visiting several colonial-era churches, a mining town, and some Inca and Pre-Inca ruins as well as Comanche and the famed Queen of the Andes.  In fact, we had such a good time in Comanche that we got no further.

I have probably already lost a few of you.  First, Comanche.  The Hacienda Comanche belonged to the Machicado family from 1906.  Unfortunately, the status of the property, and especially of the Casa Grande, is currently contested, like many properties in Bolivia. It sits on the railroad line from La Paz to Arica, so is sometimes called Estacion Comanche.  Near the train station and the newly asphalted road is the Casa Grande of the Hacienda, built by the Machicados in 1910 in an Italian baroque style and still mostly standing.  Hidden off to the side is the village, with its granite church.

The Train Station

Then there is the Queen of the Andes, also known as the Puya Raimondii.  The Puya Raimondii is the plant with the largest flower of all.  A bromeliad endemic to only small regions of Peru and Bolivia, the sword-like leaves form a main growth of the plant which can extend to three meters in height (and width, since it is spherical in shape).  However, the flower, or inflorescence, which appears only after some 40 years of growth, shoots up to as much as ten meters in height.  After the plant flowers, it dies, and, strangely, seems to burn itself black.  The inflorescence of a single plant may display more than 3,000 individual flowers and produce six million seeds.  The Puya flowers in the spring, sometime between September and November.  Unfortunately, though, there are no plants flowering this year.  The locals say next year is a sure thing.

Tatyana and a Puya Raimondii

With such a prodigious display of reproductive power, one might expect the Puya Raimondii to be thriving.  However, though it may have existed as long ago as the time of the dinosaurs, it is having a tough time now.  Considered endangered, it grows only in very small areas of Peru and Bolivia.  In Bolivia, only the hill next to the town of Commanche and one square kilometer of land in the Vacas Municipality of Cochabamba host the Puya.  Why it does not spread is a mystery.

Aliciya and Puya

Comanche is known for another product, as well.  The granite which serves as cobblestones throughout Sopocachi and other parts of La Paz comes from the quarry which shares the Comanche Hill with the Puya.  In fact, the U.S. Embassy in La Paz is also made from Comanche granite, a source of pride for the locals.

 

It’s also a good place (of course there are many good places) to watch the viscachas play.

We saw lots of viscachas playing among the rocks and the puyas

The timing of our visit to Comanche was propitious.  We arrived on the day that the local community had selected to do their challa (sacrifice or prayer) to the Pachamama (Mother Earth/Mother World) to ask for success in the new tourism venture they were undertaking.  When we were about halfway up the hill, the locals started up.  Though they stopped every so often (they had a band with them and would stop to play a while) they soon passed us by.  When we got to the top of the hill, they were just starting the ceremony.

A holy man built a fire from the dried dung of animals and laid out the items to be sacrificed, mostly food items and including, prominently, both alcohol and coca leaves.

With the small fire blazing, we all got on our knees and he offered a prayer in Aymara.

He then lifted the offerings and, one by one . . .

 

. . . placed them into the flames.

He then took a bottle of alcohol and poured a bit onto each of the four “corners” of the fire.

The four “corners” or directions are very important in Aymara cosmology. If I understand correctly, they represent the four major regions of the Inca Empire, the Contisuyo, Collasuyo, Antisuyo and Chinchasuyo.

With the fire burning higher . . .

. . . the holy man offered each of the participants, myself included, the opportunity to “challar,” tossing a little bit of alcohol onto each of the four corners of the fire.

Once the ceremony was concluded, the band struck up a tune and everyone started to dance.  I got some good photos of the

youngsters dancing before being pulled into the dance myself by one of the cholitas.  Aliciya and I danced with the group until the dance broke up, after which Aliciya and I went with some of the youngsters to climb around on a pile of rocks near the ceremonial ground.

 

The locals invited us to participate in the meal they had prepared and laid out in the Casa de Hacienda (Ranch House) below.  Not surprisingly, they had to wait for us for lunch as Aliciya was the only one of us who was able to even come close to keeping up with the locals on the way down.

We enjoyed a delicious and interesting meal of llama meat, both freshly fried and jerked, white corn, quinoa soup, chicken, chuño, baked local potatoes, and hard boiled eggs.  Our hosts were only too happy to show us the textiles they are producing from alpaca wool and the items they are carving from the granite, as well as some early pottery work they are doing (but they lack an oven for glazing it).  All in all, it was a great, and extremely interesting day.  What’s more, they are looking to attract people to their town to experience the same, so now it’s your turn!

We have visited Comanche several times since that, most recently in December, 2013.  At that point, we were just a week too late to see the Puyas in bloom, a shame, since at least six bloomed that year.  Here is a photo of just the inflorescence of one of them.  If you look carefully at the top, you might see just a bit of the remains of a few of the 3,000 flowers that were there a week earlier.

Top of the inflorescence of one of the puyas that bloomed in December, 2013

Top of the inflorescence of one of the puyas that bloomed in December, 2013

Getting to Comanche

With the recent completion of the paved road to Comanche, this is a pretty easy trip.  (One bridge is not finished, so one small stream must be crossed at a ford, but it should not be much of a challenge, even for a sedan.)  To get there, head south from El Alto on the Carretera La Paz-Viacha (19).

Road to Comanche – Click to enlarge

It’s a straight shot to Viacha, and through Viacha you also need to go straight, though some turns are inevitable. You’ll know you’ve found the right way when, as you leave town, you cross over a cute, one lane, stone bridge.

Viacha – Click to enlarge

From Viacha, the road continues on pretty straight.  It is mostly a newly paved road in very good condition.  At about 18 miles from the center of Viacha, there is a turn off to the right, but you want to keep to the new road on until you arrive at Comanche.

Here is a .gdb file you can use in your GPS or open in Google Earth to see the route in greater detail.

The Hike

It’s a short hike, only 0.65 miles, though it is a bit steep.  From the front of the hacienda house, circle around to the right and follow the well trodden path.  You climb almost steadily from 13,283 ft above sea level to 13,787, for a total climb of some 500 ft.  It took us an embarrassing hour and a half to get up, but I’m attributing that to Aliciya’s determination climb across the rocks on the sides of the path rather than walking along the “boring” path.  The hike is also covered in the .gdb file.

Contact Information

While you can have a nice (short) hike and view the puya raimondii without making any previous arrangements, the locals would be happy to host you for events similar to what they put on for us.  I’ll get information on how to set that up and put it here within the coming days.

More Photos

I took a lot more photos If you would like to see some of the highlights, go to http://larrymemmottphotography.com/portfolios/comanche/.

 

Comments

Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Caquiaviri and Pacajes Province
Time January 29, 2013 at 7:39 am

[…] One could also make it a loop by continuing south from the second bridge, instead of crossing it, to Comanche, then on to the mining town and provincial capital Coro Coro and around to Achiri.  I haven’t […]

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