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Lured by spectacular rock formations and historic landmarks, tourists are discovering the enchantment of this once-prosperous trade center in southern Bolivia

It's no contradiction to say that southern Bolivia's wide open spaces have been a crossroads for centuries: The earliest inhabitants fought both the Incas and the Spanish there, muleteers from the region's many mines fed their stock on the rich barley plains, and foreign travelers--from a couple of American toughs named Butch and Sundance to the more genteel set--have long been drawn to the area's bucolic river valleys, astonishing mountainscapes, and peaceful towns.

A century ago American travel writer Marie Robinson Wright was enraptured by Tupiza, the little provincial capital in the department of Potosi: "Nowhere are the valleys more picturesque, the skies bluer, or the fragrance of flowers and shade of trees more attractive to the sight than in this charming border city."

And today, Tupiza has been discovered anew. "We now see as many visitors in one week as we used to see all year," exclaims Beatriz Michel Torres. Her partner, Fabiola Mitru de Sanchez, chimes in: "Tourism has increased dramatically." And not a moment too soon, as the region's traditional mining and agricultural sectors have declined. Torres and Mitru de Sanchez operate Tupiza Tours.

The tourists--chiefly Britons, Australians, Americans, Germans, and Israelis--are attracted by the spectacular scenery and the hiking, jeeping, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Horseback excursions are particularly popular. In the immediate vicinity of Tupiza are vertiginous rock formations unique to Bolivia--El Sillar, for example, where the road mounts a sharp ridge between two valleys; the Quebrada de Palala, a tributary of the Tupiza River, which is walled by fantastic red rock formations; and El Canon, a narrow, serpentine valley just a short hike west of town.

Further away, but still attainable by jeep on a day trip, are San Vicente and Portugalete. American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end in San Vicente, a now-dormant mining camp sprawled in a windy, desolate bowl some 14,500 feet in the Andes. They spent several months in and around Tupiza in 1908. Butch's alias, Santiago Lowe, appeared in a local newspaper listing of hotel guests just before he and the Sundance Kid held up a mine payroll at the foot of Huaca Huanusca, Dead Cow Hill, north of town. The bandits died, apparent suicides, after being cornered a few days later in San Vicente by a military patrol. They were buried in an unmarked grave in the village cemetery.

Further west some 160 miles, in the far corner of Bolivia close to the Chilean border, are the Lagunas Colorada and Verde--yes, one is red and the other green--and countless unnamed saline-rimmed lagoons and marshes dotted with high-Andean flamingos. Abandoned mines gape. Wind-seared rock formations jut out of rumpled sand dunes. One could be on Mars. Indeed, rocketing around southwestern Bolivia in an all-terrain vehicle is the closest thing on earth to intergalactic travel.

The earliest known inhabitants of the area were, in the words of the late local historian Francisco Salazar Tejerina, a very valiant and warlike tribe." These were the Chichas. Their blood ran strong for centuries, even after the Chichas themselves had vanished. Young men from southern Potosi continued to distinguish themselves on the battlefield, rebelling against both the Incas and the Spanish. In an opening skirmish of the War of Independence in 1809, the Chichas helped defeat the royalists in the Battle of Suipacha just south of Tupiza. Another historian, writing in the 1870s, said flatly that the Chichas region "produces the best soldiers in Bolivia."

The Chichas fought the Chiriguanos and Tobas from the Chaco lands to the east and held off the Incas from the north for years. They were finally conquered by the seventh Inca, Yahuar Huacac, although some historians believe that the Incas dominated the region much earlier. There is also some linguistic evidence to suggest that the Aymara infiltrated the region first. Whatever the chronology, vanquishing the Chichas opened up what is now northern Argentina--Tucumin, Salta, and Jujuy--to Inca conquest. The entire zone formed Kollasuyo, the southern quarter of the vast Inca empire.

The Chichas are no more, having been obliterated by war, disease, and conquest, but their name survives in two Potosi provinces, Nor Chichas and Sud Chichas. The name Tupiza, the capital of the latter, is thought to have come from the Chicha word topiza. The meaning of the word is lost, although some say it means piedras rojas, red rocks, or perhaps arenal, sandy ground.

Until recently, Tupiza was thought to have been founded in 1574 by Luis de Fuentes y Vargas, who established Tarija that year as well. But Bolivian historian Alfonso Crespo contends that Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro put the town on the map decades earlier, in October 1535, while camped along the Tupiza River with his twelve thousand-man expeditionary force en route south to invade the remnants of Kollasuyo. If Crespo is correct--and most tupicenos certainly hope he is--Tupiza would be not only the oldest town in Bolivia but also one of the oldest in South America.

"Since the early nineteenth century Tupiza has been a trading center, an entrepot," says Georgetown University professor Erick Langer, who has studied the economic history of the region. "Mining--silver and later antimony, tin, and bismuth--enriched Tupiza. The mines employed miners and muleteers and created a brisk demand for potatoes, wheat, and barley--forage for the mules--grown on the local estancias." Mule trains carried ore to contraband markets in northern Argentina or to the port of Rosario further south and hauled back to Bolivia Argentine products such as cloth--"cheap woolens to expensive silks" according to one observer--and other consumer items.

Many were the mines in southern Potosi--Tatasi, Chorolque, Esmoraca, Portugalete, San Vicente, Oploca, Chocaya--their names ring like bells in the region's history. Some had been worked by the Chichas long before the arrival of the Spaniards, or even the Incas. Emblematic of the mineral wealth is the conical 18,600-foot Cerro Chorolque, which is honeycombed with tin, bismuth, antimony, silver, gold, copper, quicksilver, lead, wolfram, zinc, and iron mines.

Tupiza flourished during the colonial era as a way station on the trade route between Buenos Aires and Lima. The town also benefited from the mule trade, which powered the immense mining industry in Bolivia, then known as Upper Peru. From 1740 to 1810, a veritable river of mules, upwards of seventy thousand mules a year, flowed from Salta north to Tupiza, where they pastured on the broad vega on the eastern side of the river. Rested and fattened, they moved on to the mines.

Tupiza's prosperity attracted immigrants from all over the world. In 1900, out of a population of several thousand, 150 were foreign. Families named Poklepovic from Yugoslavia, Mitru from Greece, Manning from the United States, Rosensweig from Germany, Civran from Austria, and Hutcheon from Scotland all settled in Tupiza, and some of their descendants reside there today. Tupiza's proximity to the Argentine border also made it a convenient sanctuary for political refugees, especially during the country's turbulent Rosas era.

By the late nineteenth century, mining had shifted from silver to tin and other minerals and had brought progress in the form of the English-manufactured, steam-powered locomotive. But progress extracted a price. The railroad from the Pacific coast to Oruro in central Bolivia, which opened in 1892, began to divert some of the ore caravans destined for the Argentine port of Rosario. The railroad's adverse effects accelerated sharply in the 1920s, when an extension came through Tupiza, linking the Northern Central Railway of Argentina with the lines to southern and central Bolivia, not to mention the Pacific coast of Chile. Chicheno estancias were devastated by the cheap agricultural products imported by rail from Argentina and the demise of the caravans of ore-laden mules, which had fed on locally grown barley. In the 1940s and 1950s, tin, antimony, and bismuth prices slumped, and the fortunes of Tupiza, now tied to the world markets, suffered further. In the 1990s, what was left of the mining industry collapsed. Hardly a mine is still operating in southern Potosi today.

Today, with a population of twenty thousand, Tupiza is spread out on the western side of the Tupiza River in an agreeable, open valley at the southern, lower end of the altiplano, between the Cordillera Oriental and the Cordillera Occidental in the Central Andes. The Tupiza runs south into the San Juan del Oro River, which snakes more or less east, toward the Pilcomayo. Though seemingly isolated, Tupiza sits at the center of a web of inter-departmental roads leading north to Potosi, Uyuni, and Oruro, east to Tarija, and south to Argentina.

The rivers in Chichas flow during the brief January-to-February rainy season. Most of the year, their sandy beds are the best--and sometimes the only--rural roads to the outlying villages, and are shared by trucks, buses, goat herds, and llama caravans. A trading tradition that dates back centuries, the caravans haul salt south from the Salar de Uyuni to Tarija.

Outside of town in just about every direction, one encounters craggy canyons of sedimentary rock, marine and nonmarine sandstone, mudstone, and shale, ranging in color from deep red and russet to pale yellow. Over the eons, the wind has worn the rocks into Gaudiesque spires, walls, and buttresses, which loom over the meandering river beds. Kaleidoscopic sunsets dance on the rock formations.

The border towns, Villazon on the Bolivian side and La Quiaca on the Argentine, are a scant forty miles south by train or bus. The railroad tracks on the Argentine side washed out in heavy floods years ago, but frequent express buses take travelers south from La Quiaca to Jujuy and Salta, the two major cities of northwestern Argentina.

Tupiza's central plaza, the Plaza Independencia, is shaded by shaggy pine trees, imported from France by the wealthy Aramayo family, under which old-timers gather on park benches. Shoeshine boys, their stands emblazoned with homemade Nike symbols, roost on one corner. Ringing the plaza are the late-nineteenth-century cathedral and the old customs house (now the post office, subprefecture, and Instituto Geografico Militar, where trekkers buy their topographical maps), an ice cream and coffee shop, a movie theater, a photography studio, the Club Union, a beauty salon, the Banco Central, a credit union, and a mine company.

Bicycles carry children to school and their parents on errands. Jeeps and SUVs, mostly belonging to government agencies or mining enterprises, jog around the plaza, disappear down side streets, only to reappear a few migrates later to repeat the exercise.

The town's iconic troubadour, Alfredo Dominguez, died young twenty years ago, but he inspired a new generation of folk singers like Willy Alfaro, who can be heard at impromptu penas during local festivals. Yet another example of the territory's cultural kinship to northern Argentina, tupiceno folk music owes more to the melodic, guitar-based zambas of Salta and Jujuy than to the haunting zampona and quena harmonies of the Andes.

Tupiza has two museums: The Museo Municipal, on the second floor of a modern building just off the plaza, displays mining gear, antique photographs, and military uniforms. The colonial-era Alfredo Dominguez School of Fine Arts building, on the main plaza, contains a room dedicated to the artifacts of Eduardo Eguia, a doctor and philanthropist of the early 1900s. Just across the river, in a grove of eucalyptus trees, is Chajra Huasi ("country house" in Quechua), an imposing Italianate mansion built by the Aramayo family in the 1870s. Confiscated during the Revolution of 1952, the home is now occupied by economic-development agencies.

The patriarch of the Aramayo family, Jose Avelino Aramayo, was born in 1809 in Moraya, a village south of Tupiza. A trader while still in his teens, he hustled mule caravans between Jujuy and La Paz, a distance of more than twelve hundred miles. Like many traders of the era, he invested in the mine properties he sold goods to. Although he kept his headquarters in Tupiza, he traveled frequently to Europe to raise funds, recruit engineers for his mines, and buy merchandise to import. Before he died in Paris in 1882, his enterprise--Aramayo, Francke, and Company--had became one the largest and most powerful mining conglomerates in Bolivia.

Another of the region's many entrepreneurs, Gregorio Pacheco was born in Livilivi in Sud Chichas in 1823 and moved to Tupiza as a boy. Like Aramayo, he started out as a trader (but branched out into contraband silver ore, a lucrative business, given the high Bolivian taxes) and made a fortune investing in the area's mines, including the venerable Portugalete, which dated back to the colonial period. Pacheco was among the first of the new Bolivian mining elite to enter politics, serving as his nation's president from 1884 to 1888. The spectral ruins of Pacheco's Portugalete, abruptly deserted in the early 1900s when the silver boom went bust, lie some forty miles northwest of Tupiza.

About the time Pacheco was born, British mining speculator Edmond Temple, atop a mule, was following the colonial road along a valley floor north out of Tupiza toward Cotagaita, marveling at the sights: "The solid adamantine banks on each side, towering in some places a hundred and fifty perpendicular feet above my head, and rent in ten thousand different shapes, gave evident signs of some awful convulsions which nature had here undergone."

With more than its share of awestruck admirers over the years, Tupiza's beauty has been late to catch on with the modern-day backpacking set--but it finally has.

Daniel Buck resides in Washington, D.C., and is a frequent contributor to Americas. All historic postcards are from his private collection.
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Author:Buck, Daniel
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:3BOLI
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Next Article:Julia Alvarez REAL Flights OF IMAGINATION.

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