This town ain’t big enough for the eight of us. Tupiza, Bolivia
It was supposed to be just Gary and I travelling south from Uyuni to Tupiza. We had planned to hang out for a few days, shoot the breeze over a few beers, scrape the salt off the inside of our eyelids and eventually book a two-day horse riding tour of the area. According to Lonely Planet, Tupiza is a little slice of the Wild West in Bolivia, just the place to sling up your saddle. Well once word spread about our plans it wasn’t just us anymore. Paul and Sophie were in because Sophie had been dying to do a horse tour for seven months. Kiwis Matt and Sarah were in because they had a lot of time to kill in Bolivia and, although Sarah was allergic to horses and neither of them had ever ridden one, they were game for anything. And Swatti… well Swatti didn’t really have the time or as it transpired the inclination, but everyone else was going so why not? Thirty minutes after arriving in Tupiza we had met Michael, a hilarious and chatty Brit who had already done all the research and was just looking to make up numbers on a horse safari leaving the next day. And so we were eight.
We were up early the next morning to meet our 16 year-old tour guides and our horses. The travel agent, Tupiza Tours, had promised us that they used only Argentinian horses so we were expecting beautiful, shiny, black stallions – the type that are always gently backlit and surrounded by a light white mist. What we got was more ‘Into the West’ than ‘Black Beauty’. Dusty brown, speckled white, patchy black and with big chunks of fur missing they were little more than a couple of donkey crosses that had one foot in the knacker’s yard. Hardly ribbon-winners.
Either way though, they were ours for the next two days so we decided to accept them for the tired old work horses that they were and get the show on the road. It was going to take more than a few half-dead horses to lower our spirits today. Today we were cowboys – fully fledged coca-leaf-chewing, checked-shirt-wearing, whiskey-swigging, straw-hat-toting gauchos – so we threw our legs over our horses, took a minute to laugh hysterically at Gary who was able to put his feet on the ground while sittting on his tiny circus pony, made a few switches (Gary traded up to the most beautiful, affectionate, placid brown horse) and set off down the unpaved, dusty road at a slow plod.
The first few hours were a bit touch and go. The horses weren’t paying a whole lot of attention to instruction; Sarah’s horse kept kicking Gary’s in the face; Gary’s horse kept headbutting Sarah’s leg; Sophie’s horse was afraid of dogs, plastic bags and loud noises; and Laguna, my trusty steed, was dead set on sticking to the front of the pack come hell or high water (both of which were coincidentally soon to follow). Eventually though our attention switched to admiring the immense beauty of the surrounding countryside. We had seen our fair share of desert over the last week but this one really took the biscuit. Bright red, weather-beaten cliffs sat amiably among mounds of loose blue-grey shingle and tufts of parched yellow grass. At every twist on the mountain road the plains became more and more beautiful throwing up deep sandy gorges, menacing cacti, portholes cut in rocky walls and at our lunchtime spot a towering altar of Wild West scenery. Vultures and condors swooped and glided overhead, stretching out to their full 3 metre wingspan and wiggling their long fingers in the breeze.
The ride became more challenging too. It was difficult at first getting used to the Argentine horses/Bolivian donkeys and the unusual way in which they had been trained. They listened to voice commands rather than kicks and tugs at the reigns – quieting immediately to the gentle “shhhhh” of our guides or, as I was quickly finding out with a little help from the ever-vocal Michael, taking flight at a simple “VAMOS!” We also had to contend with deep, fast-flowing rivers that needed to be crossed, steep hills to be navigated and tiny clay villages full of stray donkeys, goats, dogs to be peacefully passed.
By the time we arrived at the ranch that evening we were thoroughly exhausted and our bums felt more than a little violated. After a few painful attempts at sitting down we decided to drink our beers standing up. Three hours and a lot of Paceňa later the Bolivian music videos were blaring, Paul was taking one of our hostesses for a spin around the dancefloor/attic and Michael was showing her mother how to shake her thang.
The next morning we awoke to all those authentic ranch sounds that seem so appealing in films – the donkeys were hee-hawing, the horses were gently braying, a cock was crowing on a neighbour’s rooftop and some wild animal was screeching out its death-cry. Oh no, that last one was just Michael lying in his camp bed, clutching his head and groaning loudly every few seconds. Well we were all awake now so it was time for some stale bread, black tea and another round on the horses. Surprisingly our bums seemed to be in a lot better shape today. Possibly our pain in that region was merely overshadowed by our thumping hangovers.
Within two minutes of mounting our horses we realised that we were wrong – very very wrong. Our bums were in no fit state to be dealing with stubbourn horse-donkeys who were determined to slow trot the whole way home. In desperation we tried to stand up off the saddle to protect ourselves. No luck. We tried making the horses slow to a walk. No luck. We tried speeding it up to a canter. No luck. It seemed we were destined to return to Tupiza infertile and unable to walk or sit – we knew now why cowboys strut about with their legs spread so far apart and their knees slightly bent. Oblivious to our plight the landscape was as beautiful as ever, the villages as quiet, the animals as newly born, the birds as graceful and the sun as bright.
Thankfully our guide finally agreed to lead the horses in a gallop and we took off across a huge field, trampling over waist-high spurts of yellow grass and scaring wild donkey’s out of our way. As always Laguna was keen to stay at the head of the pack so he shot off ahead of the group with me clinging with one hand to his saddle and gripping his reigns in tight with the other – a hysterical mix of crippling fear and childish excitement. YEEEEEE-HAW. We cantered through most of that day, our confidence growing by the minute as we passed fields and crossed railway tracks and rivers. The fun was soon to come to an end though as the horses hit another open plain and took off at a gallop. For some reason Laguna seemed to be running twice as fast as everyone else. He leaned to one side, turning sharply towards a part of the river that was too deep and fast to cross. As he moved he tilted further and further to one side until in one quick swoop he shook his mane and threw me, head over heels off his back. Luckly there were some sharp rocks to break my fall. Before I had even gathered my wits the guides had picked me up by the elbows and were leading me back to my wayward horse – there really was no option but to get back on the horse.
With my fall that day and Sophie’s collision with the ground the day before (a loud noise startled her horse), the lightheartedness was sucked out of the day and for the next two hours we walked in mostly silence, shifting every few seconds from one cheek to the other in an attempt to save our bums from permanent damage. Our Tupiza trip was incredible fun and, even considering my fall, it was a high point of our trip so far but as we arrived back into town and finally bid a tearful adieu to our steeds, we couldn’t have been any happier not to have to get back in the saddle the next day. What we really needed was a few icepacks, rubber rings and a stiff drink.
There are more pictures from Tupiza available in the gallery