From the gravel parking lot in the border town of Tambo Quemado, we hitched a ride on a bus headed east. Our idea was to see one last town in the Sajama region before heading to Oruro, where we’d catch a train to Salar de Uyuni. Usually we have a plan, but between the blockades and the laid back attitudes of the Bolivians, we weren’t quite sure how long it would take or exactly how to get to Curahuara de Carangas, only 40 miles away from Mount Sajama.
The bus let us off at a bleak intersection on the highway. We figured we’d walk from here to the little town of Curahuara de Carangas, but as we got off we saw a lady sitting, waiting, next to a billboard, her traditional bundles of rainbow colored cloth sitting in piles next to her. She smiled at us with a valuable collection of golden teeth and suggested we wait for a combi-van with her, insisting it was an hour’s walk into town.
Under the strain of four backpacks we readily agreed and dropped our bags into the dirt. A dog wandered over and slept in the shade my enormous pack. Still in the Altiplano, the sun burned through the thin atmosphere and washed out our surroundings. The air was cool though, so despite the intense glare we stayed bundled in several jackets each.
A family arrived and peppered us with questions about our travels. Unlike a lot of other developing counties where the idea of traveling for a year seems extravagant and wasteful, Bolivians seemed genuinely interested in our trip. We chatted under the bleached out sky, while several combis passed, each crammed full of passengers or building supplies. Our companions kept insisting we wait. Every time we hoisted out bags onto our shoulders they objected, saying a bus or taxi would be along at any minute.
When a combi with some space finally pulled over, our companions squeezed in. A little boy ran up from out of nowhere and squirmed into the last bit of available space. The father of the family told us to jump in, but there was simply no space. We stood there looking stupid as the door slid closed and the van drove off. The lady with the golden teeth waved. Minutes later we caught a taxi driving by and rolled into the sun baked town of Curahuara de Carangas.
The attraction of Curahuara de Carangas is what’s named “the Sistine Chapel of the Altiplano”, a large adobe church, again seemingly molded by hand and whitewashed. The style of these high planes churches was like none we’d ever seen. They resembled western style churches, but incorporated the Incan disdain for right angles. The bell tower was tapered, with a thick solid base rising to a narrow, light tower. Chunky buttresses pushed against the walls of the chapel, squeezing it into place.
It was the interior of the Curahuara de Carangas Chapel that was incredibly unusual. Every inch was covered in naïve frescos. A few panels were thought to have been painted by a European, possibly a Frenchman from the court of Louis XIV, since the sun-king makes an unlikely appearance in an unlit corner. The rest was created by the indigenous faithful, projecting biblical scenes through the lens of life on the Altiplano. Noah’s Ark had a number of animals who looked suspiciously like llamas filing up the gangplank two by two. Alpacas and pumas make far more appearances throughout than ever mention in the Old Testament. The effect of the paintings was overwhelming and begged to be studied for hours. A horrifically detailed vision of heaven and hell was worth a few days alone, ideally accompanied by a Biblical scholar, an art historian and an anthropologist. It was worth the investigation just to find the face of a helmeted conquistador being consumed by the flames of Hades.
The town had grown and spread in recent years, so much so that across the street from our little chilly hostel was a chullpa like the ones we’d driven so far to see, partially consumed by the walls of a house. The chullpa faced east as always, but the house conformed to the city grid, facing south-east. The discordant planes and the obvious disregard for an ancestral relic was jarring.
Word was that Oruro, the seat of the Miners Union and the epicenter of their discontent, was free of blockades for the next day. We climbed into a combi-bus, my knees stuffed under my chin, and headed out of Curahuara de Carangas. All over the developing world these little vans are packed with passengers, their luggage, and their children. The drivers rarely leave until the last bit of breathable space has been filled, and this combi-bus was no exception. Ladies in their iconic bowler hats, long braids and voluminous petticoats sat shoulder to shoulder with fedora’d gentleman in suits of frayed llama wool – and of course two gringos who barely fit between the seats and looked amusingly out of place. There was a a profoundly drunk young man stuck in the very back of the van who gurgled when his desired stop came and went. When he objected louder, the bus driver just laughed at him and we drove on. Another passenger lectured him on the evils of alcoholism.
After a couple hours of dropping people off and picking other passengers up in the middle of featureless wilderness, we reached another crossroads and changed for a slightly bigger bus heading to Oruro. When we finally arrived, we bought two train tickets to Uyuni, the little town parked at the edge of the world’s biggest salt-flat. The train was the smoothest, most picturesque option. We’d been told to avoid the bus from Oruro to Uyuni, the road was unfinished and even by Bolivian standards, horrible. After Magda bought the tickets, I asked, cheekily, if the trains were effected by the blockades. The man behind the counter gave an “of course not!” wave, and we all laughed.
The next day on the train, we’d already settled in and taken our shoes off, ready for departure, when the conductor entered the car looking embarrassed. The tracks to Uyuni were being blockaded, the train was cancelled. We stared, dumbfounded. As the news sunk in we scrambled to collect our things. Shoes untied, backpacks crooked on our shoulders, we ran outside to the curb and grabbed a taxi to the bus station. Out of options, we booked tickets on a night bus, hoping that we’d be able to sleep through the worst of the terrible road.
After a night of staring at the dark ceiling while the bus was rattled down to its very frame, while wrapped in layers of sleeping bags and jackets to fight the cold and dust, we rolled into Uyuni. Bleary eyed, exhausted, our core temperatures all but extinguished, we staggered into the hostel we’d booked online. Unexpectedly upgraded to a huge suite, we fell through the doorway into the frigid sheets and dropped into unconsciousness.