It may be of use to intending travellers in Bolivia to say a few words in conclusion, first about the country in general, and then about the equipment that is necessary for such journeys as I have described.
Bolivia may be divided into four zones.
First: Peaks and mountains above the line of perpetual snow.
Second: The great plateau between the heights of 8,000ft. and 14,000ft. At this altitude the atmosphere is the purest in the world; people consequently live to a great age. Besides the old men I have already mentioned, another old man of the Andes is fresh in my memory. A few years ago while I was looking for old abandoned mines in the most out of the way parts of the Cordilleras, travelling very often over the same paths as the Incas had used, I was told of an old Chilian patriarch, who had at one time been wealthy, but had a lot of his property confiscated by the Government, after the revolution of Balmaceda’s time, as he had backed the wrong horse. He was still pretty well off, and retired to the Cordilleras and built himself a fine stone house and stables, in a beautiful fertile valley about 9,000ft. above the sea. I stayed with him and his wife for three days. He told me he was 97, and his wife 82. She looked older and more fragile than he did. He told me that a few leagues off there lived a wealthy old Argentine, called Don Antonio, who had lived in the Andes all his life, was 127 years old, and had married his fifth wife. I went to visit him, and was received by a pretty woman, whom I asked whether I could see Don Antonio. “He will be sorry he missed you,” she said. “He has ridden to San Juan” (which was eight days off by mule-back), “and will only be back next week.” She very kindly put me up for the night, and told me she was the old man’s fifth wife, and had been married ten years, and was now twenty-seven years old.
This part of Bolivia is the home of the beautiful chinchilla fur. The chinchilla is only found in certain parts of the Andes, and lives at 15,000ft. to 16,000ft. There are three classes, the Chinchilla real, the Moskat and the Raton; the first is by far the best, but the second is not bad, and looks beautiful when seen by itself, but when seen side by side with the first looks quite common.
When wealthy merchants send some one to buy up these skins from the Indians, they must take care to pick out a man who knows the difference between the three classes of skins. I knew a big firm once that sent the wrong man and lost heavily over the buying up of these rare skins; the Indians had sold him a lot of the second class skins (the Moskat) as the Chinchilla real. But their representative had never been further than the railway train could take him, did not know Spanish, and had never done any travelling with mules; in fact, he was an absolute greenhorn at the work, and got badly swindled. On the other hand, I met a man who had been in the mountains for six months, and had bought a good lot of skins from the hunters for a New York firm, and sold them at a profit of £8,300; he got 1,800 of the Chinchilla real and 1,700 of the second class. Once when I was on a mine-hunting job far away from any town, I bought several of the Chinchilla real skins for £1 10s. each and sold them at £50 per dozen, and at the same time I bought some second class for 2/6 each and sold them at £6 per dozen. I could have bought many more, but had not the cash with me.
Third zone: Semi tropical valleys 4,000ft. to 8,000ft., in my opinion the finest climate in the world. Not too warm in the daytime and cool at nights. All kinds of fruit grow at these altitudes, and there is plenty of shooting of different varieties to be had without much trouble.
Fourth zone: Low lying lands of the Beni, Madeiro, Mamore, Tipuani, Challana and other tributaries of the Amazon, and lands sloping to the River Paraguay. This is a great rubber country in the interior; very beautiful and very unhealthy. To get to it you have to cross the highest ranges of the Andes. There is plenty of game, but it is very hard to get at. In this zone you find some of the rarest and most beautiful orchids known, as well as gorgeous butterflies, lovely creepers and tropical plants, and flowers in wild profusion.
The Mamore district is full of rubber trees of the best class. It is calculated that six hundred trees give 30 to 40 arobas of rubber during the first month; in the second month the trees give less, and in the third less still, so that a good seringuero must know when and how to tap. In wet weather the trees give more latex, but the quality is not so good, as water mixes with it. Only the bark must be tapped, and there is a fine of £50 for cutting down a tree. Several methods are employed for coagulating the latex. Here is one of them. The latex is poured into a wooden bowl two feet long, half a foot wide, and a foot and a half deep, and a solution of alum and hot water is poured on it, causing coagulation. In order to compress the latex, a heavy wooden bar is inserted into the cavity of a tree, and heavy logs of wood, or big stones are suspended at the end. One night is sufficient for the rubber to become white. This method was discovered by Strauss. Another method, supposed to be the best, is to place the latex near a fire, and stir it round continuously with a stick; this makes it remain a dark brown, nearly black. For every estrada the Bolivian Government charge a rent of 32/- yearly, payable in advance, half yearly. If any half yearly payment is not paid, the concession may be confiscated and taken up by anybody else. An estrada measures 150 by 150 metres, and contains anything from twenty-five to one hundred trees. A good rubber property means a thousand estradas or more. Trees are supposed to be at their best from twenty to one hundred years old; after fifty years they do not give so much latex, and after one hundred they give still less. Most of the seringueras are in the hands of rich merchants, who have given them goods up to the value of twenty pounds, and even over one hundred pounds or more on credit; consequently, the picker is usually in the debt of the merchant. The life is a hard and unhealthy one. Some rubber experts say that plantation rubber will go back after twenty-five years, and will not contain the same degree of elasticity as the wild rubber; if that is so, it will be a heavy blow for the plantations. I am not in a position to say either way. But it is pretty well known in Brazil that in San Paolo the rich Dumont Coffee Estate, to satisfy its shareholders, planted rubber at 2,100ft. Only the Ceara did at all well, and that gave very little latex; at ten years old the rubber trees planted on this estate proved a complete failure.
The chief tribes of Indians in Bolivia are the Quichua, Aymara and Guarani. All the principal towns here have schools, doctors, and many lawyers, but very few dentists and not many undertakers. Approximately there are in the country:
- Whites .. 250,000
- Half-castes .. 500,000
- Tame Indians .. 1,000,000
- Savages or Untamed .. 250,000
The people are hospitable, and the Indians are quite easy to get along with, if you go the right way to work, though of course there are good and bad, as there are in most parts of the world. The dry season is from April to October, and the other months are wet. When it rains in the forest, it snows in the mountains. The limit of forest is 14,000ft. and the snow line 16,000.
It will be seen by the short description given in this book that Bolivia, or Upper Peru as it was until 1805, was one of the richest parts of the Inca kingdom. Many of the remains of the work done by these people can be seen still, and some of them are kept in good repair, especially the old roads which they used. One of their famous stone bridges is still in existence and kept in repair. In Bolivia you have every sort of climate, from the most freezing cold of the Cordilleras to the steamy atmosphere of the tropical forest. Hundreds of rich old mines still remain to be re-discovered in the mountains, which are known to many Indians but to very few whites. I suppose I know of about as many as most people, all accessible, and most of them very rich. It would pay any Companies interested in silver, gold, copper or tin to send some one to locate some of these old workings; and take samples. Personally I enjoy those long mule rides in that healthy atmosphere, and hope to go again on another trip.