As usual, we happened to arrive just in time for another holiday. Celebrations in Ocurí kicked off with a town talent show with a mix of dances, skits, traditional music, and even a one-man-magic-show for the kids. Trinity made her way back to us after seeing Sonnet off via several hours and various modes of transportation due to the holidays- we were sandwiched right between Bolivian Labor Day and 3 de Mayo.
We first heard of the 3 de Mayo festival when we were in Uyuni. Warnings of mass brawls, fights to the death and human sacrifices had swayed our decision to steer clear of the main cities (i.e. Macha) but we hadn’t realized how widespread the celebration is in rural Bolivia. Ocurí was just getting ready for the crowds! Our hostal-of-sorts Señora didn’t understand how we could leave the day before the festival began, we headed back on the road. According to our undetailed map (a photo of a wall map from Potosí), Surumi was in line north for our next destination. Surrounded by endless mountains and an abundance of trails, and with unreliable maps on the GPS, we now depended entirely on the friendly locals for guidance. Our new “roadblock”- the first language of rural Bolivia is Quechua. Upon leaving Potosí, we only knew how to say “house” (huasi) and “water” (yaku). After a few failed attempts at conversations, we started to preface them with “Quechua no, pérdon. Castellaño?” but the locals still tended to gave us a toothless grin and chat away in their native tongue all the same.
Back in the Salar, Sydney had pointed out how close to the equator we are getting- the big dipper just peeked over the low desert horizon (although the North Star still hid far below). The big dipper has long since disappeared below the horizon of these immense, rolling mountains. With each switchback in the steep valleys, the riverbed disappears as well, leaving an intangible sense of depth and space in its place. A colorful patchwork of harvested plots on the cliffsides seem impossible to reach, let alone cultivate. The road from Ocurí led us through flocks of sheep (so many adorable babies!), greeted by the working women in their gorgeous embroidered skirts and down to the small village of Jirajira- where we quickly realized we had not gotten very far from the 3 de Mayo festivities after all. We were enthusiastically invited to come try Chicha (a drink made from fermented corn), among the freshly slaughtered bull with parts laying all around us. To kick off the birthday week, they even gave Sarah a shot… of rubbing alcohol. Luckily, our “host” led us away from the party pretty early on. We learned the Quechua translation for “We don’t want anymore chicha, thank you” at our next opportunity.
From what we gathered in a jumble of Quechua, Castellaño, and hand gestures, we would reach our next “town”- Guadalupe- by nightfall, then Surumi the next day. Although plenty was lost in translation with Quechua, the Castellaño phrase everyone loves to repeat is “leeeeeeejos eso” (meaning it is very far away) and the hand gestures seemed to indicate extreme ups and downs. One man who accompanied us on the trail down to Guadalupe explained the trail to Surumi to us- when he pointed out two peaks far in the distance we debated amongst ourselves if we were understanding correctly. We couldn’t possibly be going through that pass…
The old Incan trail zig-zagged its way from the riverbed up a long ridge. The air was both thick and thin at the same time with the combination of humidity and altitude. The overgrowth was bright and buzzing with daisies, the scent of honey was nearly palpable. As we passed an old stone patio overlooking the enormous valley, I noted again how the Incans really picked prime real estate. Across the valley we could see a precariously perched house mid-mountain, a faint path for foot access meandered through the near-vertical washes, bisecting the 3,000 ft peak. On top of the ridge, we were amazed to see a soccer game and wondered who had to get the ball when it went out of bounds… and down a 2,000 ft cliff? By the end of the day we had climbed approximately 1,500 mts (nearly 5,000 feet!) over only 15 km and were sleeping directly under the summit of those peaks that had seemed so untouchable. Our legs felt it! We saved the last stretch to Surumi for the morning, and marvelled at the clouds rolling in through the valleys at sunrise.
The folkloric pipe flute echoed off the mountains as a procession entered Surumi below us. But it was May 5th? We were confused that there was yet another unknown holiday. A young girl flagged us over from awkwardly observing the music and dance from the sidelines of the city. She explained this was the grand finale to the May 3rd celebrations in Surumi. After trying to steer clear, we had again wandered right into the middle of the party! We were assured that yes there was going to be fighting, but we were not in any danger.
At this point you might be asking “What is the 3 de Mayo holiday?” but the answer is we honestly stilldon’t know the history, just that we loved the colorful traditional clothing, music, dancing, and parading. And that it involves a lot of drinking and a lot of fighting (however, our new friend informed us people don’t die nearly as often anymore because they are no longer allowed to throw rocks). We felt like we were watching scenes from a National Geographic documentary, missing the narations.
Conflicting information about the way to San Pedro de Buena Vista kept us debating our route forward while we watched. There appeared to be two options: resupply with very few food options for a 5-day trek (missing the deadline we gave ourselves to arrive in Cochabamba by Sarah’s birthday) or bus from Surumi down and around for an approximate total of 16 exhausting hours to get to Cochabamba. Neither sounded very appealing. Like a godsend, a Bolivian Clint Eastwood look-a-like appeared and told us San Pedro was a mere day and a half hike away… although his directions were vague: cross the river, up some switchbacks and down the mountain. We jumped at the possibility. Better than setting up camp near adrenaline filled drunks, we headed toward the river by the light of the full moon, taking in all we had witnessed in the day. This valley was significantly less inhabited valley and very peaceful. We ventured off the partially constructed road to Toro Toro in order to make our way across the river. From the road the river appeared relatively gentle but when we approached we could hear it roaring. We spent the next three hours searching up and down the banks for an easier route. With linked arms, we attempted again and again until the strong current forced us to retreat. Feeling defeated and nearly ready to turn back to Surumi, we gave it one last go. TRIUMPH! Good thing we have such strong legs after hiking for all these months!
Sarah’s birthday and San Pedro were just… several more mountains away. As we inched up the road, we accepted a ride from one of the construction trucks. The delicious employee lunch we got made up for the fact that we are pretty sure we were taken of course to San Pedro. When we started hiking again, we still had 6 hours to hike along the riverbed. Although there are no roads in this part yet, the riverbed seemed like a foot highway with people bustling along to and from “the city” and kids playing in the water. Once the sun went down, river crossings in the dark seemed less appealing. We laid down to sleep under the stars just shy of the city lights. The 1.5 days predicted had turned into 2.5, but we made it in time for cake!