Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 7

Rolling Stones Gathers No Dosh

The Caballo Cunco Treasure: First Attempt, Part 7

After a breakfast of Irish stew at 7 a.m., we walked at once up the hill, which was so steep that no mule was ever made to go up with more than 50lbs. of cargo. The distance was measured by hexemeter as 2,600 metres. Manuel and the men always got to the top before me, but not by much.

During the whole time I did the crowbar work myself, and the others rested while I was moving the big stones to be rolled down the cliff and through the forest to the river below. After working on the south side for two days, I abandoned that end, as I saw no signs of the hand of a man, and began digging down on the north side facing the River Cato. It was soon evident by many indications that the formation here was the work of man, and not of nature. I found the bones of birds, guinea-pigs, some snail shells that are generally found on trees, and stones and pebbles from the river beach below, and when, at the depth of nine feet, I picked up a wooden cork, and, at twelve feet, a yellow altar slab with flowers nicely engraved on it, there was no longer any doubt in my mind. Mendizabal, who had just arrived with the authorities from La Paz, was of the same opinion. Don Tomas, the engineer, told me that the journey back to La Paz would take them eight to ten days, and they wanted meat, so, before the officials returned to La Paz, we organized a hunt for wild cattle, and got two young bulls and a cow, which we made into charque or dried meat, by cutting them into strips, and then salting them out in the sun. I shot one bull and the cow, and Mendizabal the other with my double sixteen bore Holland and Holland. All the cattle without a brand in Bolivia are considered wild, and belong to the Government, and anybody may catch or kill as many as they like, provided they pay the nearest authority £2 a head on behalf of the State. Mendizabal told me that a few years ago, some twenty days’ journey further, he bought two thousand heads in that way down the River Sacambaja near the Brazilian frontier. He made four trips, two each year in the dry season, and drove down two hundred tame cattle to the vast grassy prairies in the interior where the wild cattle were plentiful. The Indians living there make a business of rounding up wild cattle; they first fence in big tracts of land, and drive numbers of cattle into these open savannas, then they round off a certain number into a corral, and the tame cattle are then allowed to mingle with them, and they are eventually driven off to their new home. The Indians always accompany the herds for the first four or six days for about 10/- a head, and in this way very few are lost. Mendizabal drove back one hundred of the tame cattle with each batch of five hundred of the wild. Don Lisandro also told me he bought his big estancia (ranch) at Cuti, from the Government; it is nine leagues wide, mostly grass with plenty of water. The boundary on the north is the River Sacambaja. There are all sorts of climates on this estate, from tropical heat to the intense cold of the Calatranca Range. When he bought the place, there were one hundred and five families of Indian squatters on the land, whom he valued more highly than the land. They all stayed and became Colonists under him, and he has a code of rules which are just and strict. They all look up to him very much, and call him Tata (father). There is no drunkenness and no thieving. When any man wants to marry, he has to show a hut and a plot of ground, ready for sowing, and enough food in the house for one year, and seed for the next. Everything is done on the half share system, Don Lisandro supplying the land, implements and seed. When the harvest comes round all the grain is taken to the estancia house, and equally divided between him and the growers. They are at liberty to go and work outside whenever they like, provided they get his permission, which is always given except in crop time. I had several of his men working for me at various times, but they never stayed very long; they used to say there was no necessity for them to work outside, except when they wanted some money to buy something. Don Lisandro did not keep any stock, but grew maize, barley, wheat, ochres, potatoes and onions in large quantities; he had sheep and llamas feeding on the higher ground, and horses, mules and cattle on the more sheltered ground. He took great pride in his horses, and bred from a pacer and a half-bred Arab; he was a great believer in the Arab strain. The estancia house, stables, wool-shed, granary and other buildings form a square round a large open yard with grass plots in the middle, and the whole is surrounded by a broad walk twenty feet high, and entered by a gate of the same height, opening from within. The climate is good and the scenery grand; there is plenty of shooting, and no neighbours nearer than thirty-six miles. There was a horse and mule-breaker and a carpenter kept on the premises. The farm was not fenced in at all, there were merely a few paddocks near the house for convenience, as the Bolivian law does not, like Argentine law, oblige the owner of an estancia to fence it in within so many years, a very expensive item. He has a church, which he built himself, and he keeps it in very good order; the door is kept open from daylight to dark, as the custom is in these countries, and a priest comes from Palca twice a year, and remains a week or ten days. All the produce is sent to Oruro and La Paz by cargo mules.

Don Lisandro said he had often been looking for the Jesuit treasure during the last twenty-five years. He once found a lot of skulls and bones near the convent, and opposite on the hill called the “Negro Muerto,” where the men were buried that died in the fever epidemic. He never found any treasure, but the Indian owner of the Caballo Cunco Hill, that I denounced, had found over £20,000 worth, and he had bought large tracts of land and many cattle and sheep with the money. Just before I left Sacambaja the owner of the soil sent his wife to say he hoped I would be lucky enough to get something, and, as far as he was concerned, he did not wish to participate.

The dry season was now at an end. I left Manuel at the hill, with provisions, as caretaker, and returned in the middle of October to Cochabamba, going on from there to Oruro by the same way by which I came. I disposed of the mules at an advantage. I stayed a few days there, and went on by train from Oruro, which takes two days and two nights, travelling only by day, down to the important town of Antofogasta, the nearest port to Bolivia—and so home.