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Between heaven and hell in Bolivia

In the strange heart of South America, travellers can find paradise as well as the scars of a dark past. Tom Templeton experiences the highs and lows of Bolivia

The wooden platform looked out onto a teardrop-shaped lake a mile across, set in the centre of thick jungle. Siobhan dived in first and swam towards the middle. I followed her into the green velvety water. At the approach of dusk – with a troupe of spider monkeys swinging and chattering through the trees on the far bank for a final feed before bed, and a pair of green and scarlet macaws squawking overhead – we trod water in the centre of the lake, listening and watching as clouds began to darken the pink and gold sky. Suddenly the clouds burst, and a million pearls of rain were bouncing off the surface. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the rainstorm finished. In Chalalan, in the middle of the Bolivian rainforest, we had a sense of paradise.

A week earlier, 400 miles to the south, we were in Potosi – a town full of ghosts and, according to one Spanish chronicler, site of ‘the mouth of hell’. At 4,000 metres above sea level, Potosi is claimed to be the highest city in the world. With its 2,000 colonial-era buildings, Potosi is a Unesco world heritage site, but the beauty rests on a foundation of tragedy. Towering over the town is the Cerro Rico (rich mountain) – a dusty pink cone, once full of silver, now riddled with half a millennium’s worth of miners’ tunnels.

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