Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 3

A Most Enjoyable Cup of Coffee

Lake Titicaca, La Paz and Sorata, Part 2

At last I was ready to start. I bought a good, strong mule to carry me, hired three others and two Indians from La Paz to carry my provisions and gear, and started off with my old groom, Miguel Cadez.

I had everything ready to make a start on the Tuesday, only to find that no amount of persuasion could induce the Indians to leave on that day. It appears that they have strong superstitious objections to starting on a Tuesday, like many sailors who object to setting sail on a Friday.

However, the next day we started, and M. Guibert, Major Holt, the manager of the Chicago Bolivian Rubber Company, the Argentine Minister, Senor Cabral, a few Bolivians, and many other English and Americans, came over to bid me God-speed, and wish me luck.

As is my usual custom, we travelled slowly, so as not to knock up the men and animals. After ascending the long hill to La Paz Alto, 12,500ft. up, we marched along the high flats to a place called Acacache, which consists of two huts of mud and stone, one of them a rest-house, where I stopped for the night in a room with a mud floor and a mud bed built up about three feet off the ground. The owner of the huts was an old Colonel, who had fought in the war with Chili and afterwards in the revolution. Unfortunately for him, he had backed the wrong horse, supporting Alonso instead of Pando, and as all his property had been confiscated after the revolution except this farm he had had to retire up here. From him I bought a supply of barley in the straw, sufficient for the mules, and a sheep for myself and the boy, which the Indians killed and skinned in return for the inside except the kidneys. After skinning it, they rubbed in salt and hung it out to freeze during the night. In this way meat will keep quite well in these altitudes, if the carcase is also protected from the sun during the daytime. I also bought enough potatoes and eschalots to make a good stew for every one. Indian mule men and porters are always supposed to feed themselves, and they generally carry a good supply of parched corn, meal and frozen potatoes, which they call chuno, and which is not bad in a stew when you can’t get the real thing. They also carry a supply of coca leaves, which they suck all day long on the road, and very often cocoa slabs as well; without these, no Indian in Bolivia would dream of travelling. Still, I have always made a practice of cooking enough food to leave a fair amount in the pot for them, and in consequence, unlike many other travellers who have written of their experiences, I never had any bother with them.

After a good dinner, and a most enjoyable cup of Yungas coffee, I went out to see that the mules were still feeding. It is absolutely necessary to look into these small matters yourself, for in some places the seller of fodder is quite capable of taking the stuff away from the animals, and then swearing they have already eaten it. I never think of turning in until after 10 p.m., so that I can be sure my beasts have had a good fill.

Next morning, after an early cup of coffee, I went out at 6.30 to see that the mules had the rest of the barley which had been put aside for them, and then took a bathe in the pond close by, which still had a fair coating of ice over it, except round the edges, which were always kept broken for the animals. The old Colonel was astounded when he saw me bathing, and said that if he did such a thing as have a cold bath it would kill him, to which I replied: “Not at all, so long as you can dry yourself afterwards in a beautiful hot sun like this.” I am certain it is a great mistake to leave off your morning bathe in these altitudes, and I have never done so.

Breakfast consisted of bacon and eggs, tea and wholesome bread made in the Bolivian fashion. The Bolivians always crush the best wheat with stone mills, and in this way all the best quality of the corn is preserved in the flour, instead of being lost, as it is in the newfangled process of machine-crushing.

After saying good-bye to the Colonel, who made me promise to come and see him again, I started off at nine o’clock, my usual hour for morning camp at these heights; for by then the sun has had time to warm up the backs and pack-blankets of the mules. In my opinion, the chief reasons why travellers so often find their animals’ backs galled and sore are, first, that they invariably start before the gear is properly cleaned and dried by the sun, and second, that their mule packs are far too heavy and cumbersome. My own equipment consisted of plenty of blankets, two broad thick pads made of straw and soft Capincha leather to cover each, and a broad strap made of the same leather to join the two together. I seldom had trouble with my animals, and I think these reasons had much to do with it.

As I rode along over the high flats on an easy-paced mule, in the finest atmosphere in the world, the blue sky above my head, behind me the magnificent view of the pyramid-shaped Yllimani mountains, and in front the lofty peaks of Sorata and the Ylliapo, with the whole extent of the immense inland sea of Titicaca spread below me, I thought that nothing could be more wonderful. As on the day before, we passed hundreds of llamas, each with the load of 50 to 75lbs. that they are accustomed to carry on journeys over the flats. The llamas are of all colours, from pure white to black and white, brown or yellow; beside them walk the little Indians in shirt and coloured pants; red and yellow, and black and grey seem to be the favourite colours. They are all barefooted, and each one carries his “poncho,” which is a rug of guanaco or vicuña-skin with a hole cut in the centre for the head to go through; vicuna-skin is much the most expensive and is only worn by the well-to-do. The Indians always take their wives out with them on all their trips, and sometimes they are accompanied by all their women; for an Indian may marry as many women as he can afford to keep during his life and provide for after his death. Before he can marry, he must first of all provide for each wife a hut or materials for building one, corn and meal for one year, seed for the next, the owner finding oxen, ploughs, water for irrigation purposes, if necessary, and land, usually on the share system, also grazing for his llamas. Most Indians have a few llamas, and some have large herds; there are no wild llamas, for, in the time of the Jesuits, Peru, as Bolivia was then, made a law that all these animals were the private property of the Indians. I once met a German who told me that while he was visiting Lake Titicaca he went out shooting and, among other things, killed five of these harmless animals; but when he got back to La Paz he found that the Indian owner had complained, and he had to pay seventeen dollars for each. Of course I told him it served him right, as he ought to have known, and they were no good to him in any case. I also told him of another German, a first-rate shot, who, when we were on a guanaco and vicuña hunting trip with dogs and rifles, actually shot and killed a wild donkey!

An Indian woman of the Bolivian interior. Illustration from Adventures in Bolivia.

This coffee, grown in the Yungas Valley, near La Paz, is famous all over the world for its excellence and flavour. It should be toasted with sugar and ground up the same day; when mixed half and half with Costa Rica, it is hard to beat.

‡N.B. This is one of the old Inca Laws, and still in force with all Indians who are colonials, that is, who belong to an Estanciero, and work for him on shares.