Ride ’em cowboy – Tupiza

13 Aug

The president waved and gave us a generous smile – two white faces in the front row, waving madly with excitement in a sea of Bolivians – we certainly stood out from the crowd! It was our fifth day in Bolivia and we’d arrived in a small town called Tupiza to find a beautifully decorated plaza, locals dressed in their Sunday best and an infectious hubbub on every street. It was so nice of them to give us such a warm welcome!


The Bolivian president, Juan Evo Morales Ayma, was in Tupiza to celebrate the town’s 400th anniversary and from very early, the main plaza was packed with hundreds of locals and a few tourists who were keen to catch a glimpse of the main man and to join in the party.


At around 10.30am the whir of a helicopter could be heard and then it appeared in the sky above making a few locals in the crowd scream with excitement.


With the looks of an 80’s pop star and a laid back demeanour, it was hard not to feel an instant affinity with Evo Morales. He certainly seems to have captured the hearts and minds of the Bolivian people and to show their appreciation they frequently turn out in their hordes to these types of public events.


Morales’ 2005 presidential campaign promised to give power to the poor majority and in the December elections he won a landslide victory making him Bolivia’s first indigenous president. During his early years Morales was a coca leaf farmer (the harmless leaves used by locals to reduce tiredness, hunger and cold) and then began his political career as a trade union organiser, gaining prominence with the rural labourers union and campaigning against the United States and Bolivian government’s attempts to eradicate coca farming as part of the war on drugs. Morales was opposed to the privatisation of companies and services and fittingly one of the first steps he took as president was to nationalise the country’s gas reserves. As his career progressed he also scaled back relations with the United States and developed more amicable relations closer to home in Latin America. The Bolivians love any excuse to rally and protest so in the last few years they’ve been even more active and in Tupiza we saw nurses, miners and teachers all conveying their demands to the president.


Over several hours speeches were made eloquently, military processions were executed with precision and locals watched proudly, nodding and laughing in what seemed like all of the right places.


It was certainly a welcome to Bolivia we would never forget but there was another reason we’d travelled to this small town…to follow in the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who reputedly met their demise at the hands of the Bolivian army in the nearby mining village of San Vincent in 1908 after robbing the payroll in Huaca Huanusa, some 40km North of Tupiza.


The peaceful town of Tupiza is encircled by the Cordillera de Chicas, a beautiful landscape of colourful canyons, mountains and rock formations. The area has a distinctive Wild West feel to it and we simply couldn’t resist the urge to don a cowboy hat and chaps and take up a horse’s reins.


Bearing in mind we’d both only ridden a horse once before and we were in effect complete novices, we bravely booked up a 5 hour tour for the excellent price of 120 Bolivianos (17 USD).


As we quickly came to learn, Bolivia isn’t renowned for its health and safety standards and when we were promised protective head wear…what they actually meant was a cowboy hat! Being particularly mature, we lost no time getting into character and firing our pretend pistols!

The horses were very gentle and well-behaved but unfortunately our guide was very mischievous and even though we’d told him that our horse riding prowess was somewhat lacking, he had us galloping within 30 minutes of heading out. For some reason Dan’s horse liked to take the lead and as he passed myself and the guide at lightening speed on a number of occasions, holding on for dear life, we couldn’t help but laugh and our guide would shout “no more babies for you!!” Fortunately, all of Dan’s vital organs seemed to be intact but apparently a few emergency adjustments were needed at the time.


Our first stop was Duende Canyon (Goblin’s canyon) which was around 30 minutes ride from Tupiza. To reach the entrance to the canyon we had to first pass through a thin , jagged gap between two enormous slabs of stone which required a little bit of steering on our part.


We passed fields of cacti and walls of bright red and orange rocks. We started to feel relaxed on the horses and we moved our bodies to match theirs – as the horses calmly walked our bodies rocked back and forth in time with theirs and when the horses broke into a trot we placed our weight in the stirrups.


We dismounted at the entrance to the canyon and the guide looked after the horses whilst we explored. A passageway twisted and turned through the canyon. In places its sides were very high and only a few strands of sunlight penetrated to the canyon floor and lit up the strange geological formations in a rainbow of colours.

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Some of the rocks resembled wax that had dripped and slid down the face of the canyon, and spiky rocks decorated the summit of some of the walls. There were many nooks and crannies in the canyon and we imagined bandits hiding out there, peering down on us as we wandered through their turf.

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We returned to the horses, who looked much rested, and continued on our way. By this point we were getting into the swing of things and we let out the occasional “yee-ha!” – it was a good job we were alone on the tour!

We rode over hills and into pretty valleys. We passed slabs of solitary rock balanced amongst smaller scattered stones, the most impressive of which was ominously named Puerto del Diablo or the Devil’s Door in English. Even though it was still early morning, the sun was scorching and the sandy ground was parched.


As we approached Valle de los Machos our guide broke out in a fit of giggles as he asked us if we knew what the natural rock sculptures looked like.


We could clearly see that they resembled part of the male anatomy but we played innocent and made him laugh even more when he told us they looked like man’s parts! We joked with him saying that they were much smaller in Bolivia than we find in Europe.


We stopped at Canyon del Diablo and took another walk. Unlike the first canyon, it was necessary to do small amounts of climbing here as the passageway snaked upwards in increasing layers of height. Several small pools of water still lay throughout the canyon reminding us that this wouldn’t be a good place to linger if rain came our way because of flash floods. Sunlight danced on the upper walls of the canyon but down at ground level it was darker and refreshingly cool. We only entered the canyon part of the way but it seemed to go on forever, twisting deeper into the hills.

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As we retraced our steps we were met by a goat herder and his 30 strong fleet of hungry animals. The goats bleated loudly as they passed us, causing echos all around the canyon walls and they ate every small shrub in sight which had flourished here due to the collected rain water. When we arrived back at the horses our guide was stretched out under a tree with his hat covering his eyes. We agreed that he was very sensible. We had brought apples with us for a snack but we decided instead to offer them to our horses. We cut the apples into several pieces with our Swiss army knife so that all three horses could have some and our offerings were gratefully received. Our bribery seemed to work as on the way back to town our horses trotted calmly and listened to every instruction we gave.


We’d left Tupiza earlier that day as passengers and we were now returning as Stetson tipping, chap wearing, stirrup kicking, horse rustling cowboys and cowgirls. We’d had a fantastic experience following the trail left behind by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and even the thought of walking like John Wayne for the next few days couldn’t dampen our natural high!!

One Response to “Ride ’em cowboy – Tupiza”

  1. tina stevenson December 9, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    You cant get rid of me now. I ENJOYED EVERY MOMENT. TINA

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