In the Bolivian lowland – on a mission in the missions

The magic continued during the following three days, which the six of us – Marjolein and Edward, Carito and Luis, Marin and I – spent in the sparsely-populated cattle-ranching area northeast of Santa Cruz called Chicitos. Luis was originally from San Javier, and his family owns a hacienda and a house there, so that he kindly invited us to come for a visit and get to know a part of Bolivia that none of us had been to before. The Chicitos region is famous for its beautiful Jesuit churches in former mission towns, which were built during colonial times. In the 17th century, the Spanish missionaries succeeded in converting the indigenous population to Catholicism and getting them to settle in small towns and practicing agriculture. While the mission towns themselves have not really survived, six of the ten Jesuit churches have been restored and declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We visited the churches in San Javier and Concepción and were even given a tour by one of the conservators, which was very interesting and demonstrated how much effort went into the restoration process of these churches. The bell towers and courtyards especially were very pretty and the intricate and rich paintings quite intriguing. Besides the churches, however, the towns of San Javier and Concepción did not have any other real attractions except for their laid-back atmosphere and their location in the middle of fast-disappearing tropical forest and grassland.

We enjoyed a particularly beautiful day and night together at Luis’ family’s hacienda near San Ramon, which was a bumpy jeep ride away from the main road and surrounded by a savannah-type vegetation. On our way to the farm, we stopped at a natural pool formed by a river that allowed us to take a plunge and sit underneath a small waterfall. All very picturesque, even though the sky was overcast and the water more than refreshing! I enjoyed picking and tasting small pakai fruits in the nearby vegetation, and we all squeaked when we felt little shrimps or gobies or some other animals nibbling on our toes in the muddy water! At least we did not have to worry about piranhas!

When we reached the hacienda in the late afternoon, we were welcomed by Luis’ family and farm hands and took a good look around: This dairy farm with its many happy cows and calves, with its free-range sows and cute sucklings, its goats, horses, nandus and wild tropical birds seemed like the perfect organic farm to me! Apparently only natural food and farming practices were used; every morning the cows were milked by hand for five hours, and it was made sure that the calves still had enough milk for themselves; the milk was then sold to a cheese dairy. I will always remember the one morning when we came to watch the milking of the cows and were surprised with a special wake-up treat by Luis and his mum: They brought glasses with concentrated coffee and filled them up with warm, foaming milk straight from the cow’s udder! What a delicacy! Of course I had to try to squeeze some milk out of the poor cow’s udder myself but then realised that I needed a bit more practice… We also went horseback-riding on the farm, cuddled the kids, had warm home-made cheese bread and saw very colourful birds – all very idyllic but surely lots of work for the farmers!

In the evening some of the men put a recently slaughtered goat over a fire, while we girls prepared some other food or made ourselves comfortable around the fire. Edward and Marin had brought a guitar and started to beautifully play and sing. We all joined in a bit later but also had to keep an eye on a cow named Ñeco, which was tame and wanted to be around us all the time. Ñeco was born with a harelip and thereby had to be raised with a bottle; this harelip now caused him to dribble; sometimes it got dangerously close to the fire or drooled on someone; we therefore had to push the cow away numerous times. Another funny situation near the fire happened when a huge insect flew towards the light and dropped to the ground. My biological curiosity was immediately awakened, and so I inspected the moth-like animal, found some false eyes on its hind wings and discovered a huge projection at its front that resembled a crocodile head. I had seen these “lantern bugs” in documentaries and zoological drawings and started to get super excited when suddenly my study object was crushed by Luis’ shoe! While he insisted for days that he had saved my life at the time, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that this beautiful insect had died for the wrong reasons… For the rest of the evening Luis told me that this Vibora cuco (it turned out to be Fulgora laternaria, a planthopper) was the most dangerous animal in the area, that it was aggressive and could kill me within 15 min after being stung and that I was very lucky that I survived… My biological gut feeling told me that he couldn’t be right, and I tried to carefully set this straight. But only when we had an Internet connection again and found out that the dangerousness of Vibora cuco was a myth particularly in the Santa Cruz area of Bolivia did we make peace about this subject again. What a laugh!

After our truly wonderful time together in Chicitos and Santa Cruz, Marin went back to Cochabamba, while the rest of us continued our journey in Tarija in southern Bolivia. Marjolein, Edward, Carito and Luis were invited to a wedding of another Dutch-Bolivian couple there, and we were hoping that I could join them as well. I could, and the wedding party was good fun, even though there was not much of a local aspect about it except for the guests and the music. Besides that of the others, I enjoyed Cecilia’s company very much, she was a common friend from Cochabamba, and we would spend more time together over the next few weeks.

Tarija is a charming city set in a fertile, agricultural region that felt very Mediterranean on account of its many vineyards, arid mountain scenery and warm climate. The valley is also the site of numerous fossilised bones of Pleistocene megafauna, which apparently were quite accessible but not easily found without a guide. I tried my best to organise a tour to these fields but, unfortunately, didn’t succeed since it was Sunday and no guide was available. Next time! So instead I joined my friends on a tour to a bodega in the Valle de Concepción outside Tarija, where there were supposed to be wine tastings and a fiesta and a beautiful countryside. The taxi ride to the valley was already an experience, as the driver was quite talkative for a change and played absolutely great local music – together with the wind in my hair, the sunshine on my skin, the pretty scenery and friends in the backseat a reason for much happiness! Our day out at the bodega included lots of grilled pork (of course), very sweet (red) and very sour (white) wine (which, when mixed, is called a rosé and quite bearable, I learned), dancing to lively local bands on a Sunday afternoon and a bit of sentimentality, since this was our last day together and I would travel on my own for the next little while. But one door closes and another one opens…

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