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January 2013
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Caquiaviri and Pacajes Province


Destination Caquiaviri

Destination Caquiaviri

Caquiaviri is a small town on the road to Charaña, which is on the border with Chile and Peru, north of Tambo Quemado.  It’s a great destination for a day trip from La Paz, and it will soon be an even better destination.

According to German Ambassador Philipp Schauer, in his book, “Tour Guide of Iglesias Rurales: La Paz y Oruro” (Iglesias Rurales = Rural Chapels), “The chapel in Caquiaviri (The chapel of San Antonio Abad) is one of the masterworks of sacred architecture on the Altiplano.”  It was built in the 1560’s, making it one of the oldest churches in the region.  In the 1730’s, three altars and a pulpit were added, decorated in baroque mestizo style.  It also harbors 30 paintings.  Like most paintings in the Altiplano chapels, these were probably intended more for didactic, than artistic, purposes.  The large painting of the “Triumph of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders” gives a hint at the history of the church, which was built by the Franciscans, but taken over by the Dominicans in 1581.  (By the way, get Ambassador Schauer’s book. At most, I am giving you a taste of the great information and hints from the book.)

Caquiaviri itself apparently pre-dated the arrival of the Spanish.  It was a capital under the Incan Empire, and was on the road to Cuzco.  Today it is a small town, but a cute one, set against a hillside.


Getting There

From El Alto, take the road (carretera) La Paz-Viacha (Avenida Tihuanacu) south.  From its intersection with Avenida Litoral, it’s about 10 miles to Viacha.  You hardly even leave the urban area, as the growth of El Alto threatens to extend into Viacha, which means that you will likely be fighting traffic all the way, and even if you aren’t, watch out for the “shock busters” or “donkey backs” as the Bolivians call them, the speed bumps which are laid across the road at frequent intervals.

You can find directions in this .gdb file, which can be opened in Google Earth or used directly on your GPS.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

Viacha, itself, is a bit of a difficult passage right now.  You want to continue on straight through town after jogging to the right, or west,  by some three blocks, past the central plaza.  However, the main street out of town, the continuation of Road 19 which brought you from El Alto, has been completely torn up for repairs (utility installation?) for most of the past six months.  If it has been completed by the time you get there, that will make the passage easy.  Otherwise, you probably need to stop and ask how to get out of town towards Coro Coro.

The work is over, at this point, as you have left the urban area behind, and the trip is pleasant.  For the next 18 miles you pass through rolling hills.  Emerald green in the rainy season, they turn various shades of brown and red when the vegetation dries up.  There are also several small lakes and ponds on which you are likely to see a variety of water birds, including flamingos, if you are lucky.  At 15 miles, you pass through a customs checkpoint.  The principle illicit activity here seems to be smuggling gasoline, so if you don’t look like a smuggler, you should get through without a hitch.  That said, you’ll probably need to stop and chat with the officers for a few minutes.

The First Bridge

The First Bridge

Three miles further, you come to the first of a series of bridges which are under construction.  Although the stream here hardly exists in the dry season, if there has been recent rain you won’t want to try to ford it.  Happily, the local population have come up with a temporary solution while waiting for the government to complete the bridge.  They have built their own temporary bridge, for their own use.  You will pass over two such bridges, the second soon after the first.  They are narrow, and have no railings.  I crossed them in my Jeep Grand Cherokee, but I would not try it in a Suburban or a Land Cruiser; they are just too wide and heavy.  Actually, before you can cross them you first have to negotiate with the locals.  To me, their initial line was that “we built this bridge just for ourselves, you can’t cross.”  The guy in charge seemed a bit surprised when I offered to pay, but didn’t take long to offer a price – actually, several prices.  First he said, Bs20, then Bs40, and finally settled on Bs10, all before I could even enter into bargaining.  I would have paid any of those prices and felt good about it, just to know I was contributing to such a virtuous effort on the part of the local population.  I suggest bringing along some kind of small gift for the locals standing around there (I always carry a supply of decorative pins, myself, for such occasions).  They will certainly appreciate it.



Shortly after crossing the first bridge, you will find yourself at the second.  We arrived at this bridge just in time to see a truck, and then a bus, attempt to ford the river to the side of the bridge (they wouldn’t have fit on the bridge, itself).  Both vehicles got stuck in the clay we were told forms the bottom of the river.  We forded the river ourselves, hardly more than a small stream, when we were here in the dry season, though.  This bridge is actually worse than the first, seemingly made of leftover construction materials and stones and mud picked up at the location.  You will find yourself paying again (it’s maintained by a different community).  There are lots more crossings, but at least when we were there, in January, these were the only two that were really problematic for a serious 4WD vehicle.  None of them would be a problem in dry season.  And, more importantly, the bridges all seem to be well underway, so there should be fine cement bridges at all the crossings in a matter of months, making this an easy trip.  From the looks of road crews grading the road in between the bridges, it looks like they plan to pave the road, too.

Crossing the bridge; Tatyana was shaking so bad with fear for me that she couldn't hold the camera steady

Crossing the bridge; Tatyana was shaking so bad with fear for me that she couldn’t hold the camera steady

For now, though, the pavement extends for less than half mile from the second bridge before giving way to a dirt road.  It’s a pretty well maintained road, so that’s not a huge problem, but you will, of course, make much slower progress.  The terrain changes, as well, from rolling hills and small scale agriculture, to much rougher broken terrain; the scenery is wilder, and the occasional houses take on the colors of the surrounding soil, mostly reds and purples.  Some ten miles from the bridge, you will see a small village with a pretty large, maintained-looking church, off to the left of the road.  This is apparently the Comunidad Labra.  Just over the next ridge, is an outcropping of minerals being mined on a small scale.  This is the first of several mineralizations along the road, and explains the large trucks you’ve been seeing as you drive.

South, towards Canambari

South, towards Canambari

Another mile down the road and one more river crossing, and you come to an unmarked turnoff to the south.  This dirt road extends to the small town of Canambari, and the Coro Coro-Achiri road, which could make a loop of the trip.  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 done that trip, but will eventually.

Another eight miles from the turnoff toward Canambari, is Caquiaviri, nestled up against the hillside to the southwest, the chapel prominently overlooking  the town.  We were there on January 21, and the local fiesta, San Antonio de Abad which reportedly begins on the 17th, seemed to be just coming to a close.  It is reportedly celebrated with a running of the bulls.

From Caquiaviri to Achiri is another 30 miles, but we’ve only made it to Vichaya, about half way.  The terrain changes significantly after Caquiaviri.  From the bridge until Caquiaviri, it is rough but seemingly relatively fertile.  Sheep outnumber llamas and small scale agriculture is in evidence.  After Caquiaviri, it becomes noticeably dryer and less arable.  Sheep are no longer visible, and llamas appear only occasionally.  Old mines and new are in evidence on the sides of the road.  Some seven miles out of Caquiaviri is a very noticeable set of eroded washes, mostly on the south side of the road, which is interesting for the gorges cut into the plain.  If you get out and walk around a bit, you will likely find some strange square and rectangular stones which weather out of the dirt, as well as old pottery shards.  This area must have been populated sometime in the past, but all that’s left are the shards.



Another mile and a half down the road you will come to the small mining town of Vichaya.  Vichaya appears to be experiencing a mining boom.  There are operating mines scattered all over the area, and many have large trucks parked next to them, being loaded with the minerals being taken out of the ground.  Next time I’m there, I’ll stop and find out what it is they are mining.  We got another four miles beyond Vichaya before coming to another bridge-to-be.  In this case, the detour around the construction site was a field of mud, and we decided to forego the risk.  When we get the chance, though, we’ll be heading back out this way to find Pirapi Chico and Cerro Pirapi (marked in the .gdb file) where, according to Ambassador Schauer, one can find more than 30 stone chullpas, some dating to the 14th century, and a fortress which may have served the locals in their resistance to the Inca invasion.  Definitely a place I want to explore.


Pingback from Larry Memmott's Blog » Cerro Pirapi and Pirapi Chico Necropolis and Fortress
Time February 20, 2015 at 5:28 pm

[…] halfway between Caquiaviri and the Bolivia/Chile border at Charaña are two hills on which the ancients chose to build a […]

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