Journey to Italaque, Bolivia | Part IV


An Andean Adventure in Four Parts
By Henry Kuntz
Final Part: Our Strange Journey Back

(Synopsis: With the Italaque festival winding down, afternoon of May 3rd, Patrick and I began our trek back to Puerto Acosta. As night fell, we lost our trail. A light rain began, then snow flurries. Unable to put our sleeping bags down on the wet ground, and unable to see our way forward, we walked back and forth on a single stretch of road the entire night, waiting endlessly for daybreak.)

Almost imperceptibly, the first faint gray light appeared. We now began to move with purpose, seeking to find the trail back to Puerto Acosta. We had scarcely begun our search when snow began falling in earnest. In only a few minutes, the countryside was blanketed in white. It was beautiful to gaze on, even in our weariness, but everything around us became instantly unrecognizable, unfamiliar.

We knew the trail we were looking for wound out of the extensive plain and valley we had hiked through two days earlier. If we could locate the valley, we could get back on the trail. For a while, we thought we had found it. With snow blowing about, clinging to my beard and to our clothes, we wandered far down into a spacious, mountain-ringed flatland that resembled the area we had come through. Our shoes and feet, already wet from the rainy night, became soaked and heavy as we sloshed through the frosty groundcover. We seemed to have uncovered a portion of a trail here or maybe over there, but all paths came to a dead end; there was no way out of this valley save for the way we had walked in.

By the time we had trudged back to the road, three long hours had passed. We had been on that out-of-way rut for fifteen hours. We were exhausted and trying to fend off a feeling of hopelessness. But at least the snow had stopped; slivers of sun poked through the clouds. Since we had camped in this place the night before, we had not seen a single person, a single dwelling, nor any passing vehicle. Then, just as we were beginning to silently ponder the unthinkable, that we might actually not be able find our way out of this place, a big bouncing open bed truck came rattling up the lonesome corridor. We were as much astonished as elated and relieved.

The vehicle, packed with human cargo, was plying the route from Italaque to Escoma, the town we had passed through on our way from La Paz to Puerto Acosta. We climbed aboard while the riders, mostly Indian men on their way to some rough job, stared at the embarrassed and foolish pair of us with amusement. We took it in stride, aware of how ridiculous we appeared in the eyes of those accustomed to the mountains’ ways. Underneath, we felt happy to be alive; because while we had not exactly stared Death in the face, we had caught a fearful glimpse of the Grim One dancing excitedly in the distance.

Less comprehensible and more strange was the treatment we got once we arrived in Escoma.

It was mid-morning when we stepped off the truck into the town square. The sky had cleared; we stood beneath an immense blue dome. A blazing sun was perfect for drying out our shoes, clothes and sleeping bags. We laid our things at the plaza’s edge, then sat and ate the last bit of bread and sardines we had. The humble fare tasted heavenly, whetting our appetite for the proper meal we hoped to have.

We also dreamed of getting some sleep.

As a clock struck twelve, high noon, we roamed the square in search of a room; by chance, we wandered into the town’s only restaurant. A boy began to seat us, but we declined his invitation momentarily to gather our belongings. When we returned, no more than ten minutes later, the establishment’s owner, a taut, broad-shouldered woman of Spanish and Indian descent, stopped us at the door. Flailing her arms and head about, so as not to look at us directly, she haughtily announced that there was no food: “No hay comida, señores!”

We were taken aback. Through an open door, we could see half-empty soup bowls on the tables, patrons dining, and slabs of meat on a long table in the kitchen. It was mid-day, after all, when Bolivians eat their main meal. “Perhaps later?” we inquired. “Sí, tal vez,” she replied, but her voice trailed off, her tone was noncommittal.

We went back to searching for a place to sleep. We discovered the town’s only hotel, a rich red-brown brick and wood edifice two stories tall with an indeterminate number of rooms. The establishment’s proprietor, a slim, pale mestizo with shiny white hair, couldn’t say for sure if anything was available. We should check around 3:00 o’clock, he said.

We hung out in the square for a while; later we tried at the restaurant again. It was the same story.

While we might have chalked our situation up to bad luck or circumstance, the writing on the wall soon became clear. When a small señora in a dank little sundry shop refused to sell us even a roll of toilet paper, claiming she was “out,” while a supply sat clearly in view on an upper bare-plank shelf, we began to get the message.

Why we were being given this message, we had no idea. Several Israelis who had stayed in Escoma and who had boarded the truck we were on a few days earlier going to Puerto Acosta, had not related any bizarre tales of the place. So what could have happened since then? Perhaps we had been mistaken for someone, or taken for U.S. government agents working to eradicate the popular indigenous coca crop. More likely, we were shouldering the blame for some recent social transgression attributed to one or another testy foreigner who had passed through the area ahead of us. Who knew?

Admittedly, we could hardly have looked our best after weathering a night in the mountains, but the town was not big on appearances, and we had not forgotten our manners.

Dutifully, we approached the innkeeper again about a room; the response was a predictable “No hay.”

An hour later, 4:00 o’clock, a truck showed up going in the direction of Puerto Acosta. Almost simultaneously, and with an underlying sense of “Eureka,” Patrick and I exclaimed, “Let’s get out of here!”

But there was a catch. The driver would not risk taking his vehicle over the usual route to the town, portions of which were sunk under three or four feet of water from Lake Titicaca, swollen and expanded beyond its bounds by the season’s ill-fated torrential rains. He would drive a quarter of the way. We would have to walk the rest, a distance of twenty kilometers.

We didn’t think about it; we climbed aboard.

Our fellow travelers were an amenable lot, young and old, men and women, who generously included us in their circle and offered to steer us toward our destination. Patrick and I clung to the wooden railing that enclosed the back of the truck. The clattery rig bumped along a beaten up road until, in the early evening dark, it came to an unsteady halt at the edge of a nameless village. The bunch of us, forty or so, came piling off the truck; people began rapidly moving in the direction of the trail to Puerto Acosta. Most people were not actually going there, but they were able to reach their villages by means of the same path.

A muddy byway skirted the little pueblo. Several houses on its perimeter emitted just enough light for us to avoid stepping into the deep pools of water that were about. From somewhere, we could hear high wispy flute tones; and we could see little decorative touches, colored lanterns and streamers, inside the windows of the houses. As Patrick and I passed by one of the adobe casas, two large Indian women, their hair undone, came straggling out, sobbing uncontrollably. A day’s festivities, and no doubt a bit of strong liquor, had unloosed some long-buried sorrow, attested to now by their wet, streaming tears.

We kept moving, not wanting to separate ourselves from the group going toward Puerto Acosta. We stayed close to two young Bolivian men who were leading the way. The two set a fast but steady pace. Considering the altitude we were at (more than 12,000 feet), the ease with which they maintained their momentum was amazing. Patrick and I pushed hard to keep up with them; the four of us were soon walking alone, having outdistanced everyone behind us. We tried to literally follow in their footsteps. They skipped over rocks and picked their way through the trails’ ubiquitous puddles with a sixth sense, faster and more surefooted in the dark than either of us might have been in the day. All the while, they were smoking cigarettes and carrying on conversation!

For a long time, we hiked the gradual slope of a high ridge that dropped down into a canyon on our left; then, the ridge disappeared, the trail narrowed and became rougher. The night was clear, punctuated by occasional moving clouds.

In our worn state, Patrick and I were hallucinating. We would see distant flashes of what appeared to be mammoth snow-covered Andean mountain ranges.

When we had gotten about three quarters of the way to Puerto Acosta, three hours on, the young men bid us adios and disappeared down a hidden footpath that led to where they lived. Before they left, they pointed us in the direction we needed to go. But we were unsure of ourselves in the dark and waited to see if anyone else might be coming along who was going our way.

Ten minutes later, an Indian man and his son showed up. Their loose white clothing stood out in the night and was girded skirt-like around their waists, leaving their lower legs exposed. They were stooped over due to the heavy burdens they bore on their backs. Each, with their arms behind them, carried a rectangular wooden box, as wide as their bodies and more than half their height, which was secured by means of a thick leather strap that went around the boxes, then over their foreheads. The man’s son was only a boy, but he was uncomplaining, as stoic in demeanor as his father.

Their destination was Puerto Acosta; they didn’t mind us accompanying them. The trail became rocky, went up a little, down a little. Their philosophy of travel was the opposite of that of the young men we had been with. They avoided small puddles, but they walked straight through wide mountain streams or any standing water. We had little choice but to follow, once again saturating our shoes, socks and feet.

An hour and a half later, we arrived in Puerto Acosta. Its normally quiet pitch black streets gave evidence of the town’s ongoing fiesta, with strains of drunken crooning coming from some of the houses.

We thanked the man and his son for guiding us. Then we found our way to the unnamed pension we were staying at. We pushed open the door to our room and stumbled through. Josh sat on a bed reading. Seeing us, he bolted up and stared in disbelief. “Holy Jesus!” he declared. “What’s happened to you?” Before we could utter a word, he left and returned with a large beer and three glasses. That gold sparkling brew was a divine elixir! Then, though we were barely able to string together intelligible sentences, we told him our story – of our trek to Italaque, of the wild native festival, of getting lost in the mountains and the tale of our return. He listened silently, intently, gaping incredulously.

Then he related to us what had gone on in Puerto Acosta. On the first day of the festival, a riotous procession, complete with siku, or panpipe, ensembles, had charged to the summit of the nearby hills. A group of men bore on their shoulders a heavy platform graced with a dazzlingly decorated statue of the Virgin. In the midst of the foray, one of the bearers spontaneously handed his privileged cargo to Josh, an honor which, despite the protest of his aching back, he dared not refuse. God knows, if the Virgin were to have tumbled from her place of glory, there could only have been hell to pay! For two days, the bands had been playing their music on the hilltops and simultaneously shooting off sticks of dynamite! Josh himself had been invited to rehearse with and play in one of the bands. Tomorrow, the festivities would continue with private house parties, to which we were invited.

Splashing ice cold water on myself from a tiny sink that night was never so pleasing. And to actually sleep in a bed again was luxurious.

The next morning, brass bands and panpipe ensembles marched boisterously around the town and the square. They were bound for the inner courtyards of residences where the festival parties were being hosted.

By afternoon, the affairs were in full swing. We hung out where Josh’s band was playing.

The group consisted of over twenty players of small single-row sikus. That made for a big sound coming from the little instruments. Resonance was added by the players simultaneously directing their measured blowing into the center of the band’s round, if ragged, circle. People danced to the fast, syncopated music. Someone beat out time on a great drum to propel the sound along, and two men strutted about, each crashing together a pair of lively handheld cymbals.

There was plenty of beer to drink. Dressy waiters in starched white shirts and black bow ties brought around silver trays spread with glasses of translucent red and green liqueurs whose syrupy ingredients perhaps best remained a mystery. Sadly, there was little to eat that was appetizing, only some bony chicken with the seemingly always dirt-flavored Andean freeze-dried potatoes, or chuño, and white rice of the driest sort.

The following day, May 6, we boarded an early morning truck out of Puerto Acosta to begin making our way toward Peru. It was night when we reached the strait of Tiquina, a narrow stretch of Lake Titicaca where one could cross the lake on a barge, continue to the Bolivian town of Copacabana, then on to Peru. As we reached the strait, enveloped by the consummate darkness we had become accustomed to, we were struck by the glare of bright electric bulbs strung over market stalls on the other side of the water. What a revelation to see the light! Strange and wondrous and so liberating!

Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.
Text, photos, and recorded sound Copyright Henry Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.


Meisch, Lynn: A Traveler’s Guide to El Dorado & the Inca Empire: Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia. Penguin Books. 1977.
(While reflective of the period in which it was written, Lynn Meisch’s guide remains an extensive and valuable one-of-a-kind cultural resource.)

Bricker, Victoria: Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas. Texas Pan American Series. 1973.
(The concept of “ritual humorist” comes from this engaging ethnographic study by Victoria Bricker.)

Journey to Italaque, Bolivia | Part III


An Andean Adventure in Four Parts
By Henry Kuntz
Part Three: The Festival’s Wild Finish; Lost in the Mountains

(Synopsis: Following a daylong truck ride from La Paz to Puerto Acosta and a day’s trek across the altiplano, Patrick and I arrived in the musically renowned village of Italaque, Bolivia, for the May 3, 1986 festival. As the “Feast of the Discovery of the Holy Cross” began on top of a high hill, fantastically costumed musicians came playing panpipes and drums, flanked by two “giant condors.” We were amazed to find ourselves witnessing a rare pre-Inca dance.)

Now the pink flamingoes came flying by!

Or so it appeared, as the headdresses of the newly arriving band, adorned with the plumage of the exotic bird, rose above the gathering at the entrance to the small courtyard and chapel. The feathers stood upright atop broad-brimmed cream felt hats and fanned out in wide semicircles. The ritual headpieces were worn over bright multi-hued Andean knit caps, or chullos. The players’ attire, visible as they passed into the yard’s scant open space, was strange: close fitting navy blue coats over flowing white cassocks. Sheepskins, secured by a cord tied between the hide’s front hooves, were looped over the men’s shoulders.

listen to Second Group (Alto Bamboo Flutes)

The long, punctuated whistles of the musicians’ alto bamboo flutes, twenty of them, sounded like a shrill flock of birds lunging this way and that in patterned rhythmic reverie. Only the vibrantly measured beating of a big round frame drum, loosely and gravely snared, gave ground to the non-stop flight. While a leader made offerings and said obligatory prayers inside the chapel, the players circled the courtyard, rapt in the sounds of their own creation.

Interspersed among them were two children as kusillus, “monkeys,” taking on the roles of ritual humorists. The function of a ritual humorist is to relieve the serious nature of an event by poking fun at participants (“monkeying around”), often with the effect of reinforcing (by contrast) accepted community values. These types of characters are common at native festivals throughout the Americas. Here the kusillus were devilish sorts dressed predominantly in red, white wool masks pulled over their heads and faces, short rope whips in hand. As the little clowns ran about waving their whips, miniature bells jingled, interjecting a random rhythmic element into the ensemble’s airy song.

Holding their high melody, the musicians wound onto the precipice of the hill where the first band continued blowing mightily into their great sikus, drums still roared, and the giant condors freely soared.

A third band, then a fourth, came briskly up the hill playing bamboo flutes; most were thick three-hole instruments more than a yard long.

Prayers were said and rituals carried out in the courtyard and chapel, then the bands moved through the crowd onto the high precipice.

The two groups, likely from the same community, were similarly attired and played the same music, but separately. Like the previous band, they wore loose white cassocks but without the topcoats; colorful woven belts held the garments in place. On their heads were tied round, stubby, nearly brimless hats richly decorated with a raft of lime, canary, and rose feathers. Curiously, they also wore a black, single-braided women’s wig that fell down their backs but was generally obscured by the scarves around their necks.

Their ethereal and windy tune, lower in range than that of the flamingo-feathered group, was highly stylized, insistent, and trance-like with odd rhythmic twists. There was a quality to it, an elegance even, that called to mind certain types of Japanese or Korean court music. And the players, in their long flowing garments, might have passed for Oriental.

listen to Third Group (3-hole flutes)

Dark-hooded jesters, whose turned-up piggish snouts served as an unsubtle affront to the highfalutin occasion, goaded the bands on; they dryly beat the tightly drawn skins of wooden drums that were strapped over their shoulders.

Then the scene was altered entirely. A band from Italaque showed up wearing western suits and sport coats, ties, and dress hats. They blew vigorously into small twelve-tube sikus, alternating tones between instrumentalists to double the speed of their quick, syncopated song. The music was crisp and precise, directed by shrill peals from a military whistle.

listen to Group from Italaque (small sikus)

When all the bands had moved onto the precipice of the hill, the music really took off.

The groups circled and snaked about one another. Each ensemble continued to play its own swooping, rising, loping mantra right alongside those of the other bands. Drums exploded from everywhere. You might imagine this intentionally created din was like cacophonous noise, but it was more like a wild polyphonic avant-garde circus! And along with the mixes, movements, and interactions of sound, there were whirls and swirls of color from the swaying of the bands, their festive attire and feathered headdresses. The kusillus raced about the area snapping their whips, bells jingling. The giant condors soared majestically high, glided gracefully low.

We expected the Italaque festival to feature a contest between panpipe ensembles. What we encountered was an ancient totemic dance and living ritual whose dizzying array of hues and tones would have been outrageous in a dream.

We wandered dreamlike among the bands and the crowd, joining the locals for chicha, a sour yeasty corn beer, careful to spill a few drops on the ground as an offering to Earth Mother Pachamama before sipping. We spooned down more of the unsavory tuber stew (aftertastes of dirt and dung!) we had eaten for breakfast. Finally, late afternoon, we gathered our things and began the walk back to Puerto Acosta.

Energized by the excursion that had brought us to Italaque, we were excited and eager to undertake the return. We would walk as far as possible before nightfall, sleep outdoors, continue the next day.

It began well enough. In a couple of hours we had climbed completely out of the valley and reached the only road we had passed over on our way to the village. We were not in the same place, however, as when we had crossed it previously. Oh well, we thought, we could easily figure out where we were in the morning. Now, it was getting dark.

We suddenly became aware of how alone we were in this high, remote place. The vastness of the space around us added to the sense of isolation. The world below felt light years away.

We unrolled our sleeping bags behind some boulders to protect us from the wind and crawled in. An hour later, a light but steady rain began. We weren’t prepared. Patrick thought we should attempt to walk above the clouds to escape the rain, to get to where we had been two days earlier when we had traveled this way. But it was so impenetrably black we could scarcely find our way back to the road. We managed, following the low glow of a penlight that quickly gave out.

The narrow camino now appeared only as an unsure outline, and we had no idea which way to go. The rain began turning to snow, and we were getting chilled. We got back into our sleeping bags to warm up, placing them down on the shoddy clay surface beneath us because it seemed like the driest place. For a few minutes it was; then I felt the sudden sensation of ice water on my back. Patrick shouted, “Let’s bail, mate!” and we scrambled out of the runoff from the storm.

We threw the wet bags over our heads and shoulders to shelter us and began walking. While we hoped to reach higher ground, there was little chance of it; we could scarcely distinguish ourselves from the sea of inky darkness surrounding us. We walked, not so much seeing the road ahead of us as imagining it. Only by squinting our eyes were we somehow able to envision it at all. So instead of going to a higher elevation, we found we had gone to a lower one. There was less wind and it was not as frigid; there was light rain instead of snow. We decided to remain there.

The stretch of road we were on was perhaps a hundred yards long and sloped gradually up at each end. We walked that desolate byway back and forth – back and forth! – the entire night just to keep our circulation moving and to fend off the freezing temperature.

Patrick was especially cold. While we were both wearing down jackets, I had on long underwear and a pair of woolen mittens; he was much more exposed. To cover his hands, I gave him an extra pair of socks I had thrown into my bag at the last minute, but they weren’t really enough. Fortunately, he had the hardiness and survival ethos of the sporting life he was accustomed to; he had been a professional soccer player in Australia.

Occasionally the rain would stop but not for long. We only hoped the weather wouldn’t turn worse, and neither of us said out loud our worst fears. We huddled together for warmth and diverted ourselves with simple conversation, exchanging a few words about our families and our lives at home, in opposite hemispheres on opposite sides of the globe. Since we had only known each other for a week, you would have thought we’d have had a lot to say; but it was as if we had known each other forever, sharing an instantaneous bond born of traveling together in an unknown land. So mostly we walked, passing the longest night, waiting endlessly for daybreak. Only the surety of dawn’s coming kept us going.

Next Week: Final Part:

“Our Strange Journey Back”

Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.
Text, photos, and recorded sound Copyright Henry Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.

Journey To Italaque, Bolivia | Part II


An Andean Adventure in Four Parts
By Henry Kuntz
Part Two: El Condor Pasa

(Synopsis: With the goal of attending a festival of panpipe ensembles in the remote but musically renowned village of Italaque, Bolivia, on May 3, 1986, my travel companions Josh, Patrick and I rode the back of a truck for a day high up the far side of huge Lake Titicaca. By evening, we had arrived in Puerto Acosta, the last outpost before the Peruvian border. From there, we were told we could reach the village. We discovered, however, that there was no road and no transport, only a “muy directo” path. Italaque stood 25 kilometers away.)

In spite of the distance, longtime locals assured us we could walk to Italaque from Puerto Acosta in seven hours.

It was a brilliant morning. We had arrived the evening before in total darkness. Now we could distinguish our surroundings. Tiny Puerto Acosta’s calm, airy lanes centered on a big, open plaza; the town tucked neatly into a gentle mountain valley.

There was no proper restaurant in town, only one-room comedores with simple planks to sit on. A señora served up whatever she had available. For now, that was eggs, dry bread, and weak coffee, the same meal as we had eaten in the just discernible candlelight of the night before.

At 10:30 Patrick and I set off for Italaque. (Josh, nursing a pulled muscle, decided to remain in Puerto Acosta which was beginning a festival of its own.) We toted sleeping bags and carried packs with overnight basics, a bit of bread and two tins of sardines. We were almost immediately in the country. We started up a hill and in only a few minutes inauspiciously lost the muy directo path in the middle of a field of green vegetables.

We found our way out of the garden and onto a nearby trail. Six feet wide, winding upward, this had to be the route.

For a long time, we hiked up, then down; up, then down, up and down. All the while, we could not be sure where we were going.

Hiking just above the tree line (at 12,000 feet), our surroundings, while nowhere near as barren as the moonscapes of higher elevations, were mainly rock and green scrub. Early afternoon, we suddenly stepped onto a wide cultivated plain ringed by craggy offshoots of the lofty Andean ranges. The spaciousness and dramatic clarity of the setting were exhilarating. For Patrick and me, it was an opportunity to experience the real life of the altiplano. Basic but cared for adobe houses stood at expansive intervals; each dwelling’s inhabitants maintained extended agricultural tracts. There were scattered groups of people about: women herding sheep or exhorting well-packed llamas forward, men digging and harvesting tiny potatoes. Veins of water flowed freely through long irrigation canals.

As we crossed the plain, the wistful tones of wood flutes wafted on the wind. The sounds came from a distant settlement. Nearby, an Indian man motioned us to his home to speak with him and his son. He was a handsome man, a bronze sheen to his skin, square face, prominent cheek bones, in loose white clothing. He was about 45 with the aura of a wise elder. He was curious to know where we had come from and where we were going. We filled him in, but our conversation was as much an unspoken acknowledgement and affirmation of each other’s presence as it was an exchange of information. He wished us well and sent us on our way.

At the plain’s end, we stopped for a brief lunch. Then, following a narrow roughshod path, we climbed very high up, spectacularly above a layer of white clouds, then wound steeply down, more than 3,000 feet, into a rugged green valley. (Oh, the legs!) All around, the mountain’s abundant rock had been used to create fences and facing for rows of flat terraces that were planted up and down the sides of every available incline. (This agricultural method was put in place by the Incas; many Inca terraces are still in use.) We traveled alongside a streaming silver river until our path took us over some boulders to the other side. The trail veered off; stone gave way to cobblestone. Daylight waning, to our amazement we walked into Italaque.

The village’s boundaries were roughly defined by high rock wall fences. Its white stucco buildings were topped by tin roofs. Tall eucalyptus trees graced the area, so that the village appeared almost as a mountain oasis.

Italaque was even tinier than Puerto Acosta, not even a pension to stay in. The Aymara Indian men we encountered upon our entrance into its large square were impressed by the fact we had arrived there on foot. One of them – short, dark, dignified – hospitably suggested that we spend the night with him and his wife. Like his compadres, he was durably attired in wool sweater, alpaca scarf and heavy jacket, a worn but stylish brown fedora on his head.

Night was coming. The town had no electricity; it also had no running water, only the nearby river. Our host led us to a room above a small store he owned. It is where he and his wife lived, ate, and slept. The modest room was little decorated; a corner was noticeably hung with antique wood flutes and panpipes.

For dinner, the señora served Patrick and me one fried egg each along with about twenty baby boiled potatoes. There was an unknowable story in the dusky map of her stoic Indian face, barely lit by the faint flame of a low hanging oil lamp.

Bedtime followed. The señor secured the door to the space with an old skeleton key that creaked as it twisted in its weathered lock. We were confined for the night. There was no bathroom, so the señora placed a pink plastic pail on a miniscule balcony for use as a toilet. When the señor extinguished the flame of the lamp, the darkness was as dense as in a deep cave.

The couple slept in one double bed; Patrick and I, in our sleeping bags, in another. An ongoing nightmare was a loose plank in the middle that automatically popped up whenever either of us shifted positions.

I had just passed into a state of semi-slumber when the low throbbing of big bass drums began. They rumbled purposefully, persistently in the distant night. The beating came to a quickened crescendo, halted, ritually began again. My eyes shut; mind drifted through dreams. Silence. Sound! From the square below: the loud riffling of snare drums, cadential bursts of breath blown hard into perhaps a dozen high-pitched sikus, or panpipes. I could imagine the jaunty spring in the steps of the musicians as they marched. Their playing was taut, crisp, and proud, not unlike that of a well-drilled fife and drum corps. The band’s snappy sounds slipped mysteriously in and out of the consummate blackness.

We were up early, walked to the river to wash, wake, and rejuvenate.

The celebration of “El Dia de la Invencion de la Santa Cruz” was to take place several hundred feet above the town on the narrow ridge and precipice of a hill known as Calvario. The May 3rd date, honoring the “Discovery of the Holy Cross,” is coincidental to the timeframe that the constellation “Southern Cross” reaches its highest peak in the heavens. We hiked the hill’s rocky grade. On its crest sat a tiny chapel and courtyard. A quiet market spilled off the top, barely clinging to the summit’s edge where an ample portion of earth had eroded away. It was mainly run by Indian women in an array of bowler hats, plaid aprons over their bright skirts, peddling an odd assortment of items ranging from wool and polyester clothing to rubber tire sandals and plastic kitchenware. A barely palatable stew of anonymous highland tubers (our breakfast!) was being eagerly downed by hungry villagers.

By mid morning, circles of costumed male musicians, twenty to twenty-five in a group, began forming on the hillside below. Their instruments included the sikus we had anticipated and also large and small end-blown flutes and a variety of drums. The drums boomed periodically as the players carried out ceremonial observances, including the consumption of an overpoweringly strong white grape brandy. Their ritual drinking would continue throughout the hours of playing to come; the festival’s celebrants, we included, would be invited to join in the communion. As a clue to the drink’s significance, when asked if I wished to partake of it, it was with the simple question, “Potencias?’” or “Powers?”

Single file, the first group of musicians began rapidly ascending the hill, stepping hurriedly in their rubber or leather sandals. Over silky white shirts and dark pants, the players were hung with shiny gold and rainbow- streaked capes and scarves; their cocoa brown faces were offset by tall hats circled with gaudily painted feathers of red, yellow, and green. Running intently, they simultaneously blew a low stately melody on their great and small sikus and beat out rhythms on their drums. Most of the sikus were grand, the longest tube of each instrument being nearly four feet long. The players exhaled big billowy breaths of sound that whooshed about like gusts of mountain wind; their airy blasts were harmonically tinged with the twitters and chirps of panpipes only inches in length. The drums that were strapped over their shoulders were large; the heads were over a foot in diameter and the wooden cavities, surrounded by animal hide, more than two feet long.

listen to First Group – Large Sikus

As if the sight of the band and the sound of it were not astonishing enough, at its wings flew two giant condors! Rather, I should say, two beings who, for the sake of the ritual, had taken on the feathered costume and character of the great bird of prey. When the group had reached the courtyard of the small chapel the musicians, still playing, began circling about the creatures, first in one direction, then the other. Someone entered the chapel to pray and make obligatory offerings. The birdmen, shrouded in black, opened wide their dark wings for full effect and stood upright, their faces hooded with white gauzy material through which they could see and to which was attached a small mirror, perhaps to honor Inti, the Sun, or to ward off evil influences. And they began imitating the postures of flight of the Andean condor which they believe is endowed with mythical powers.

As the world’s largest bird of prey, inhabiting and soaring above the mountains’ highest and most remote peaks (the realms of spirit), the condor is thought to carry the souls of the dead into the afterlife. It lives by feeding on what has died, but in so doing transforms what could be dangerous to life. The condor therefore symbolizes the mysteries of life and death. It inhabits a world between worlds, able to carry messages to the gods.

The dance of the condor likely dates from pre-Inca times, as it is intimately associated with the history of the siku which itself is that old. Little has been written of it ethnographically, however, and it is rare to see it.

We stood in awe of what we were witnessing.

The great birds momentarily drew in their wings. The sikus blew a long, slow finish to the ceremonial song. The drums, now alone, roared like rolling thunder. Then, beginning the tune anew, the group wound its way through the festival crowd onto the narrow precipice of the hill.

Already, a second group of musicians was playing and entering the small courtyard. A third, then a fourth were ascending the rocky slope.

The giant condors circled portentously overhead.

Next Week: “The Festival’s Wild Finish; Lost in the Mountains”

Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.
Text, photos, and recorded sound Copyright Henry Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.

Journey to Italaque, Bolivia | Part I


An Andean Adventure in Four Parts
By Henry Kuntz
Part One: Finding the Way

In South America, where seasons run counter to those in the north, it was the fall of 1986. As I crossed the Peruvian border into Bolivia — in the midst of a five-week trip — little did I know that I was about to embark on one of the most exhilarating yet harrowing journeys of my life.

A principal goal of mine in coming to Bolivia – whose population is 60 to 70 per cent Indian — was to attend an intriguing Andean festival in the village of Italaque. I had read, in Lynn Meisch’s Guide to El Dorado and the Inca Empire, of an event on May 3rd of each year, the feast of the Discovery of the Holy Cross. This was to feature a contest among groups of sikuri or panpipe players from surrounding areas who had undergone musical training there. Italaque holds near-legendary status in the region for the high level of its players’ musicianship.

The only problem was that I had been unable to locate the village on any country map I had seen. So upon arrival in La Paz — the world’s highest capital city, sprawling compactly around a bowl-shaped stone canyon at 12,000 feet — I immediately went to the tourist office, a tiny kiosk on the esplanade of a wide boulevard, for the purpose of obtaining directions.

There I met Australian Patrick Hanson and American (and Australian resident) Josh Ahrens who, excited upon learning of the Italaque festival, were intent to join me on the journey.

They were thirtyish in age, flaunting a spirited youthful enthusiasm. I was two months shy of turning forty.

We found the village on a detailed map, high up the far slope of Lake Titicaca. (Lake Titicaca – at 12,500 feet – is the world’s highest navigable lake and the second largest in South America, covering 3,200 square miles.) This side of the lake, the northeastern one, is little traveled by foreigners. The border which runs between Peru and Bolivia there, and which continues diagonally through the lake, affords no legal entry or exit points from either side of the frontier.

So the first response to our inquiry from the woman behind the counter was an attempt to discourage us. “No es una area turistica,” she warned, in a forbidding and foreboding tone we, in our naiveté, cavalierly shrugged off. She said that the only way for us to make the journey was to hire a driver whose services would run U.S. $300. Since each of us was living on between $10 and $15 a day for all expenses, that sum was out of the question. Even dividing the cost three ways, that would minimally come to a week’s budget for each person. *

There had to be another way, we thought. After all, locals were somehow doing the trip. So we asked around and discovered the cobbled back street where transport to that part of the country departed. And it was there we presented ourselves in the cold, clammy darkness of the early morning of May 1st.

What type of transport we expected to get, I can’t recall, but what we boarded – with a packed crowd – was a large, open flatbed truck, a raised beam running the length of its center and its sides flanked by wooden fencing. (In the Andes, one discovers that while buses, and to a certain extent trains, ply the major routes, other travel needs are met by trucks such as this, commandeered by private drivers, who may or may not combine their runs with other business.)

Truck etiquette seemed to be to place one’s belongings beneath oneself to sit on. That presented a certain logistical problem for me (packing camera, cassette recorder, and a three-foot long wood bass flute and several LPs I had purchased), but most people had with them only large mushy bundles of things tied together by blankets, and the floor of the flatbed was stacked and carpeted with these.

The prime seats were behind the truck’s cabin, held on to dearly by several oversized Indian women who leaned comfortably back, uniformly attired in their wide indigo skirts and colorful rainbow wraps, their heads sporting the always-fashionable dark bowler hats.

People began securing their places in the truck around 6:00 AM. It wasn’t until after daybreak, 8:00 AM, that we finally began our snail-like ascent from the city’s cavernous gorge. Hovering above the metropolis in the distance stood its majestic “guardian,” snow-packed Mount Illimani, gazing caringly down from 20,000 feet.

We passed over the canyon ridge and onto the altiplano, the vast high tableland stretching from northern Chile to central Peru between the two main eastern and western Andean cordilleras or ranges. Traces of the eastern cordillera could be seen in the distance; the plateau itself was wide and endless.

Everyone was well bundled because, although it was a spectacularly bright and sunny day — the Andean sun is in fact, due to the thinness of the high altitude atmosphere, the hottest direct sun I’ve ever experienced — the air was cold, heightened by a chilling wind from the moving vehicle. The Indian women further anesthetized themselves to the temperature by steadily chomping on clumps of dry coca leaves.

I should say a few words about the altitude, because for most of a month, I lived at or above 12,000 feet. Being at that altitude is not simply being at an elevation but being in an elevated state. Following a headachy day or two of personal acclimatization, there comes an amazing sharpness of perception – and atmospherically, everything is sharper — and a clarity of mind unlike what one normally experiences at lower levels. It is not unlike being stoned.

As the truck clattered past the canyon’s rim, we were struck by the appearance of clusters of dusty, unkempt red clay barrios. Only the poorest lived in this windswept area, descending daily to work in the less harsh climate of La Paz. Gradually, nature reclaimed the space until we were riding not far from Lake Titicaca itself, its glassy waters gleaming sky blue in the morning light.

By early afternoon we arrived in the town of Escoma, two-thirds the way up the Bolivian portion of the lakeside. A road runs from there to Italaque, so we had thought to depart the truck at that juncture and secure other transport. But we were told nothing was moving in that direction anytime soon and that it would be better for us to continue on to Puerto Acosta, the last town of note before the Peruvian border; from there, we could get to Italaque.

Escoma was well into one of its own yearly festivals. No one was going anywhere. Our driver took off: for a meal or to join in the celebration, we didn’t know. Meanwhile, we waited uncertainly on the truck.

From around a corner of the square we could hear strains of clashing brass bands. Trumpets, French horns, tubas, big bass drums – band after band came parading in front of us, playing their own version of the same melancholy tune. Women in brown alpaca ponchos, scarlet velvet skirts, and black bowler hats, threw their heads back high, bobbed low, twisted this way and that, proudly displaying their steps. Snaking among the women and the bands were fantastic characters in cartoon armor, floppy cardboard capes with layer-cake shoulders, silly white, brown or orange wigs on their heads. A mocking affront to the conquistadores?

An hour and a half later, we began rumbling down the road toward Puerto Acosta.

Now, there is a superstition among the Indians of the region that whenever Easter Sunday comes too early, before the end of March, as had occurred this year, it is a fateful harbinger of natural calamity and disaster. True to form, rain after rain had deluged the area in previous weeks, raising the level of gigantic Lake Titicaca nearly ten feet. Entire villages had been inundated with water, farmlands had turned to mush, the train on the Peruvian side of the lake between Juliaca and Puno had discontinued service because most of its tracks were submerged and, of course, portions of road were completely flooded.

The impact on our journey was such that there were parts of the highway that were so under water that the weight of the passengers in the truck would cause the vehicle to bog down. We had to abandon the truck and scurry, sometimes as much as three quarters of a mile over steep inclines, to catch up to it, waiting with its engine revving. No one wanted to be left behind. Even with that precaution, water would rise to near the top of the truck’s four foot high wheels, so close to its underside that it looked as if it might float away. Somehow, it always managed, struggling sluggishly through the lake’s new periphery. We continued on.

At 7:00 that evening, we loped into Puerto Acosta. The place was utterly dark save for a lone dim streetlamp near the bus stop, the town’s only electrical extravagance. A small boy led Patrick, Josh, and me through the black streets to an unmarked pension whereupon a gaunt, jowl-faced Spaniard, flashlight in hand, greeted us at the door. He led us to a rectangular stone room, spartan but not unpleasant, where there was a bed for each of us. The room came to 2 million pesos apiece, extra for however many thin candles we burned. The bathroom was outside and around the corner: a sink, no shower, only cold water.

No matter, we were happy to be there. The Spaniard brought us a large beer to cool our thirst, and we queried him about getting to Italaque. To be sure, we could reach the pueblo from Puerto Acosta, he said. But there was no road and no transport, only a path. We could walk it easily, he claimed. The path, he said, was muy directo. And the village was only 25 kilometers away!

Next Week: Part Two: “El Condor Pasa”

Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.
Text and photos Copyright Henry Kuntz. All Rights Reserved.

* Note:

While we were on a strict traveler’s allowance, we became instant millionaires upon entering the country. The Bolivian peso was trading at nearly two million (!) to one US dollar. The currency was so devalued that a single sheet of toilet paper was worth more than a one peso bill. Luckily for us, there were now one million peso notes. There were reports of restaurant patrons having to produce foot high stacks of bills to pay for a meal.