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Tinku Territory (Sucre to Oruro)

Llama in the highlands

Llamas in the highlands

Every corner of Bolivia has its own mysteries.  On the way back from Tarija, we decided to travel from Sucre to Oruro across the mountains, rather than circumnavigating them through Potosi, as is usual.  This is NOT a shortcut.  Though the route may look shorter on a map, the serpentine path and bad roads mean it will take several hours more to travel than the road through Potosi.  After a few stops to rest or to explore a bit, this will definitely make for a long day trip.  It certainly might make sense to plan on an overnight in Oruro.  The trip is very worth it, though, if what you want to see is yet another spectacular extension of Bolivian landscapes and another interesting, isolated, indigenous people.

Wild, rocky country

Wild, rocky country

The mountains between Sucre and Oruro are inhabited by Quechua people who still observe the Tinku tradition of ritualistic combat.  I had seen representations of Tinku tradition in the Carnival of Oruro and the Entrada Universitaria in La Paz.  These are intricate indigneous dances by dancers in colorful costumes set to native altiplano music with a strong, almost martial, drum beat.  The Tinku dance troops are always croud pleasers.

What I didn’t know was the source of the dance.  It is actually a representation of the ritual fights which are staged as an offering to the Pachamama (the earth goddess).  The offering consists of the blood spilled by the fighters and, sometimes, of the lives lost in the fights.  Take a look at the video below for a nice Al Jazeera report on the Tinku ritual.  A friend whose father is from this region told me that the fights are now much less bloody than they were in the past when participants often carried stones in their fists as a way of giving their punches an extra wallop.  Note in the video the confiscation of weapons by the police in an attempt to reduce the “efficiency” of the violence.  Tinku festivals are said to occur in May in Macha and Revelo (along our route).

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTSTojpCZhs[/youtube]

A few days later I had the opportunity to overfly part of Tinku country (north of Ravelo and down to Sucre).  I shot a few pics with my cellphone, and despite the lack of quality, I think they give an interesting idea of the ruggedness of this territory which is impossible to understand from still photos from the ground (click on the thumbnails to see the whole photo).

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This is also reportedly an interesting area for textiles.  The traditional textiles of the region tend toward dark colors, with red images of animals and other motifs on black or brown backgrounds.  Unfortunately, we were short on time and could not stop to look for textiles.  Yet another good reason for a return trip.

Traveling the Road

Not one of the wilder stretches of road

Not one of the wilder stretches of road

The first point to make about this route is one that should be made about every road in Bolivia:  You will be well served by asking someone knowledgable about the route before you set out.  Road conditions in Bolivia sometimes change from one day to the next and warning signs should not be expected.  In fact, our trip was affected on both ends.  Major road construction just at the outskirts of Sucre delayed our departure for more than an hour.  Then, getting toward the other end of the road (at about 6:30 pm) we found it had officially closed to traffic at 6:00 pm for all-night repairs of multiple landslides caused by recent rains.  We were allowed to pass, but driving through multiple landslide repair zones with major construction equipment operating in the total blackness of night is really an unnecessary adventure.  By the way, this is a trip I would not take during the rainy season, and this year (2013), I recommend giving road crews another month or so (until May) to clear out the damage from this rainy season.

Route Map (click to enlarge)

Route Map (click to enlarge)

Getting out of Sucre was a challenge for us, but once the road is paved, it should be a cinch.  You leave town toward the north, passing by the airport on Avenida Juana Azurduy de Padilla, which is also highway 6.  At present, and after getting past the construction zone near Sucre, the road is good, new pavement for about the first 17 miles.  Of course, when you travel there is likely to be more pavement and the construction zone may well be further along.  Definitely ask before going or road closures may be a serious problem for you.

Almost as soon as you leave Sucre you enter the cordillera.  The terrain is broken, almost badlands, and you will be climbing and descending between 9,500 and 11,000 feet of altitude for about the first 40 miles of the trip (measuring from the airport).  One of the interesting aspects of traveling through this area is that the altitude, combined with the latitude and an apparently somewhat more humid climate than is usual in highland Bolivia, combine in this region to create scenery similar to an alpine region in a temperate climate — something more similar to the Colorado Rockies than we are accustomed to here in Bolivia.  The deciduous trees of the lower elevations tend to transition to pines as you approach 11,000 feet.  Where a bit of flat land is available, the locals have often planted corn, or even wheat.

Pine woods are not all that common in Bolivia, and a bit of a treat.

Pine woods are not all that common in Bolivia, and a bit of a treat.

We stopped for lunch after some 23 miles at a rocky low pass before reaching Ravelo.  At the top of the hill was what may be (or have been) a ceremonial location, with a number of large piles of stones.  On the other hand, maybe it was just an attempt to clear the land for planting.

Lots of flat rocks make good tables at the spot we chose for our picnic

Lots of flat rocks make good tables at the spot we chose for our picnic

Aliciya always enjoys climbing on rocks

Aliciya always enjoys climbing on rocks

At about 30 miles (measuring always from the Sucre Airport) you arrive in Ravelo, a small town, even if it is the most important of the area.  It’s a small town surrounded by agricultural land.  After passing through Ravelo the main road cuts off to the south of that which is marked on Google Earth and some other maps (Open Street Map has this right, though).  Apparently, this is the result of the ongoing road construction in the area, but it is not noticeable to the driver.  If you follow what looks to be the main road, you will find your way.

Chapel of

Chapel of Khara Khara

The road continues to climb slowly after Ravelo, picking up about 1,000 feet to 11,740 over the next 20 miles, where you will come across the small chapel of Comunidad Khara Khara.  We didn’t have time to stop, but the chapel looks old, despite the tin roof.  Still, the age of adobe buildings can certainly be deceptive.  Signs are scattered along the road promoting the irrigation and other projects of the Government of Bolivia and of USAID, the U.S. foreign assistance agency.

Hoodoos

Hoodoos

At about 55 miles, the road begins to climb again in a more serious way.  Starting at 11,280 feet, the road climbs some 3,000 feet over some 30 miles.  At the beginning of this climb you will come upon some interesting “hoodoo” type rock formations.  At 75 miles there is a turnoff to the left.  Many maps show this as the main road, and it appears to be shorter than what look, on the ground, like the more important road.  Continuing straight along the road takes you to the mining town of Colquechaca in another 20 miles.  Colquechaca (“Qullqichaka” in Quechua which reportedly means “silver bridge”) is officially the highest city in Bolivia, at  more than 13,500 feet of altitude.  Obviously, this designation is highly dependent on the definition of “city” used.  With a population of less than 2,000 persons, some might dispute the use of the term.

Colquechaca

Colquechaca

We had to rush, as we were racing against the dark, but Colquechaca looked like an interesting town.  We were there on a Tuesday, and the town market was in full operation.  There were a lot of local good, many which looked hand-crafted, on display.  I’d like to stop there again some time and wander a bit.  The city is built around a silver mine, which is apparently functioning, though the region around is clearly dedicated to agriculture.

The last five miles into Colquechaca is a descent of some 750 feet, and the decent continues through and beyond the town.  Now you are driving south down the valley of the Rio Colquechaca to Macha, only about 12 miles away, but some 2,000 feet lower.

The stream rushing down the canyon from Colquechaca was running an ugly shade of brown when we were there.  I imagine it is the result of the mining operations.

At about the 100 mile point a nice new bridge has been constructed to cross the river and enter the small town of Rosario.  The bridge is so new and nicely built that you may be tempted to think that is the main road, but unless you want to visit the town, keep going straight down the valley on the right side of the river.

This elevation profile covers the whole trip beginning some three miles beyond the airport

This elevation profile covers the whole trip beginning some three miles beyond the airport

You will recall from the video above that Macha is one of the centers of Tinku tradition.  Here the canyon does an about face and heads north-west, with the river growing from numerous tributaries to become the Rio Grande.  About another 12 miles of easy downgrade gets you to Pocoata, at about 11,100 feet, but from Pocoata you turn out of the Rio Grande valley and begin a set of three ascents to take you finally over the Andes and onto the Altiplano.  First, is a climb up to 12,436 feet over about 6.5 miles.  Then, after dropping back down to 10,800 feet over eight miles, you climb again, over about 16 miles, this time to almost 13,000 feet.  That’s not the end of the climb, though.  After dropping back to 12,150 feet over the next seven miles, you begin the final ascent, a very respectable climb to 14,166 feet of altitude at the pass, some 20 miles further on and 176 miles from your starting point.

Highlands

Highlands

Our real adventure began in Pocoata.  We arrived there at about 6:30 pm, concerned that darkness was coming on fast and worried about traveling in the dark on these rough roads.  We stopped in town to ask about the condition of the road in front of us, only to be told that it had closed at 6:00 pm.  They were repairing the road in the dark.  Given the choice of taking our chances on the road, versus a long, cold night in the jeep, we decided to continue.  We spent the next two-and-a-half hours traveling only 40 miles in the pitch black darkness, passing by huge trucks, excavators, graders and other road construction machinery which was working to repair the numerous places along the road which had either collapsed themselves or been carried away in landslides.  We saw one bus dangling halfway down the side of a precipice  and remembered that 24 people had died in a recent bus accident in the area, no doubt the same bus we saw.

Potato harvest

Potato harvest

At about 150 miles from your starting point, you pass Lagunillas Lake, on your right.  From this point on, the road begins to improve.  Whereas from Pocoata to Lagunillas we averaged only about 16 mph, from Lagunillas to Uncia, we averaged 20 mpg.  After passing through Uncia (at mile 160) the road is paved, and after Llallagua (mile 165) it is a new road with great pavement, markings and signage.  From Llallagua on, even over rough terrain with steep up and downgrades and hairpin turns, at night, we averaged some 45 mph.

There are a couple of sites marked with signs toward the end of the road, which might warrant a stop.  At mile 178 is a sign for an archaeological site.  Another mile-and-a-half down the road is another sign marking a geological fault.  Since we passed this area at night I can’t tell you whether the stop would be worthwhile.

Hopefully, I will get the time to explore this area further.  I think a few days car camping in the area would allow a person to get out on the many small roads back into the more isolated parts of the region, which would be a lot of fun.

 Maps

The following 250k topo maps cover this route:  se-20-13 (not really helpful, as it only covers the first mile from Sucre), se-20-09 (to Colquechaca),  and se-19-12 (Colquechaca to Oruro).  Much of the route is also covered in 50k format.  Check out 6536-IV Sucre, 6537-III Estancia Chaunaca, 6537-IV Sapsi, 6437-I Ravelo, 6437-IV Chairapata, 6437-III Ocuri, 6337-I Pocoata, 6338-II Cerro Hermoso, 6338-III Cala Cala, and 6239-III Huanuni.  The Sucre map is not really that useful, as you start right on it’s edge.  Some of the others vary in usefulness, especially in terms of how well they show the roads, as the roads have changed over the years and some of the maps have not kept up.  Check out the maps page for information on obtaining these maps, all of which can be downloaded for free.

Here is the .gdb file with all the GPS information for the trip.  See my page on using such files here.

 

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