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Brass, Drums & Coca Leaves

CAM COPE lurches from one street fiesta to the next on the back of a pick-up truck in the Bolivian Andes.

Gravel flies out from our rear wheels and rattles over a precipitous ledge on the side of the road. I watch the tiny stones leave trails of dust, which shower 800 metres down a valley before we lurch around another un-barricaded curve hugging the Andean mountainside. I’m riding in the back of an old pick-up truck, part of a tooting cavalcade deep in the Bolivian sierras. Sandwiched between seven moustachioed trumpet players, two bulky cholitas (indigenous Andean women) and a stack of glittering rooster costumes, I grip onto improvised metal bars to keep my feet from slipping. With each swerve, terrifyingly close to the impressive drop off, I should probably fear for my life. Instead I am loving the atmosphere. It’s the last week of April and I’m on my way to the remote annual ‘Fiesta de San Pedro’. Before things even kick off, Bolivia lives up to its reputation for festive chaos.
I arrived the day before higher up the valley to Sorata, a small mountain village stapled to an impossible hillside at 2,678 metres. Renowned for its peaceful atmosphere and world-class hiking trails, Sorata sits halfway between snow-blanketed peaks and the tropical Amazonian rainforest that its river valley descends to. I came looking for some healthy time out, but instead unwittingly joined an invasion of brass bands and Dick Tracy lookalikes in bright yellow suits.
I soon discover San Pedro consists of little more than a clearing on the side of the mountain, a humble church, a few tin roofs over adobe and an impressive view of the valley. A band of wiry, old flute players wearing bright green parrot feathers and jaguar skins kicks things off. Locals grip hands and form circles to dance, an abuelita (grandmother) tosses confetti and a priest leads a procession. One band plays after another as each troupe high-kicks its way across the field to make space for the next. Men and women pause only to crunch down gigantic, roasted corn kernels and sip on Cerveza Paceña and chicha (a sweet, corn-based drink).
I make friends with a group dancing the ‘Morenada’, an Afro-Bolivian dance with elaborate costumes and masks. They invite me to several rounds of Paceña and insist I try on a costume. A cheer erupts as they somehow persuade me to join the increasingly imprecise footwork of the troupe.
The cars start to roll out from San Pedro late in the evening. One by one silhouettes climb aboard the tooting 4WDs and old Chevron pick-ups that again send a wave of dust across the valley. A few overloaded Toyotas roll past before I flag down a cattle truck. The driver motions to a ladder welded high onto the side-tray that I scale with drunken finesse. I drop into a crowd of grinning teenagers. They are a high-school band but their giggles and sway show that it’s not just the winding mountain ride throwing out their footing.
In the morning a bus driver plays muscular Tetris with my bags in the luggage compartment. The party is not over but I’m keen to experience yet another: the ‘Fiesta del Señor de la Cruz de Colquepata’. It’s about to kick off in Copacabana, a town on the shore of Lake Titicaca, where I also plan to visit the ‘Island of the Sun’, where Incan legend says the sun god ‘Inti’ was born. When we take off, Bolivia’s undulating high plain comes to life, unfolding like a masterpiece of high definition cinematography. The dusty highway cuts between Pre-Incan terraces that descend to the lakeshore and dry yellow grasses that disappear into a distant blue haze of glacial peaks and cumulus nimbus. No plasma has a pixel over this gravel-cracked wide screen.
The scale of the fiesta in Copacabana dwarfs San Pedro. Thousands of dancers and musicians storm the city in parades from the Basilica to the Capilla. Llama herders, polar bears, Don Juans and child-godfathers stamp their way through the streets in time to innumerable drums. In the background firecrackers explode, women towering in glittering pink heels exhibit their thighs and priests bless queues of vehicle engines.
I begin to get an understanding of what street fiestas in Bolivia are all about. They’re not about going to watch; they’re about going to play. They are packed stadium gigs where everyone brings an instrument. Spectators are endangered species, hemmed to the margins while 100-piece marching bands own the pavement. Alcohol flows down every street along with endless streams of masks and costumes. Ancient traditions fuse with religion, regional identity is celebrated, indigenous pride pours from plaza to plaza. Despite the chaos, the sacred is not lost. Coca leaves are offered to saints, cerveza is tipped in offering to Pachamama (mother earth). There is not a moment of peace as day turns to night. Fireworks crack. Beats are drummed. Horns blow. Lyrics are sung. Shoes tap. Bottles shatter. My camera clicks.
LAN Airlines offers six flights per week from Sydney to Santiago via Auckland with ongoing connections to Bolivia. LAN also offers three direct codeshare flights (Mon, Wed and Sat) operated by oneworld partner Qantas.

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Written by: Cam Cope
Published: 28 August 2012

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