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December 11, 2020


Photography and story by Federico Quintana
Introduction by Karin Svadlenak Gomez

Photojournalist Federico Quintana focuses on editorial, wildlife, documentary and human interest work. Now working on personal projects, Federico travelled to the Bolivian Andes, documenting the lives of people from salt and tin miners to remote indigenous tribes.

In this fascinating story for The Pictorial List, Federico tells us about his time getting to know the culture of the elusive and mysterious Chipaya people, who live high up on the Bolivian salt plains.


In the year 2000, I was working in Northern Argentina’s Salta and Jujuy provinces, covering a story on one of the highest railways in the world, “El Tren de las Nubes” a unique railroad system, covering the three frontiers of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, which are all at an altitude between 4000 and 6000 metres on the Andean plateau. On the Argentinian frontier to Bolivia in the Jujuy region lies the first of the three greatest salt flats in the Andes, “Salinas Grandes”.

I became very interested in this mysterious train that travels in this high altitude region, serving mostly indigenous people across these frontiers. I wondered at the time about how difficult the conditions of life could be in this area, as there is almost no natural drinking water available, crops are out of the question, and very few animals other than Llamas, Vicuñas and Guanacos can muster the altitude and climatic conditions, which can go from extreme heat and burning sun during the day to well below freezing conditions at night.

It was here that while I was investigating, I heard rumours of a very particular indigenous tribe that lived in the middle of one of the largest and least known salt flats in the Andes. Coipasa, has a 70 km circumference and is second only to the much better known “Uyuni”, considered to be the largest in the world with its 100 km circumference at over 4000 metres altitude.

These salt flats were created by the very quick rise (in a geological time frame) of the Andes, the second highest range in the world after the Himalayas. As the mountains were formed by the tectonic plate friction on the pacific side of the south American continent, these enormous salt water lakes rose to the clouds, and later simply evaporated, leaving a cape of salt several meters deep as the Andes rose.

I started researching the possibility of reaching this remote tribe, but little information was available and no guide would dare venture in the Coipasa salt flats, as it was uncharted territory surrounded by the river Lauca, which often cannot be crossed.

Bolivia is an ethnically very unique country in South America. Its population is ninety percent indigenous and directly descended from the great Inca empire, which extended across all the Andean regions. There are two main blood lines in the country, the Quechua and the Aymara, descended from Lake Titicaca and from Machu Picchu. In fact, Spanish is only the third language in Bolivia.

The Chipaya are, however, a unique tribe in many ways. Most interestingly they don’t belong to either of the other groups and speak a unique language only known to them. The Chipaya say they descend from the Uros or Uru, a pre-Inca people of which most traces have been lost. What is known about the Uru is that they lived in conical shaped homes called “Chulpas”, made of earth and Lama remains, and were customarily not burying their dead, but leaving them sitting or lying in there Chulpa with no door and the possibility to be visited and offered coca leaves and alcohol by passers-by.

The Uros were apparently chased away and decimated by the Incas, so they took refuge in the most inaccessible place they could think of to maintain their people and culture alive. The Coipasa salt flat, which was still flooded, had these requirements. The Chipaya call themselves “Qnas Soñi” or people of the water for this reason, and say they were here before the sun was born. To this day the Chipaya do not get along with the other tribes of ethnic Aymara or Quechua descendance and keep to themselves.

I made a first attempt in 2001 to reach this elusive tribe. I had hired a guide from a geology mineral and mining company that had a lot of experience exploring the region for big international mining firms. The Andes are extremely rich in precious minerals, such as silver, carbon, copper, tin, selenium (nowadays fundamental for batteries) and even uranium.

Even my guide though, had never seen a Chipaya and had only heard about them. We spent two weeks circumnavigating Coipasa in a desperate effort to reach the centre of the salt flats, but all attempts had failed, and extraordinary rains had rendered travelling with our vehicle extremely dangerous.

The salt can form a thin layer, kind of like ice, and hide some very deep holes with water running underneath. They are called “Ojos del Salar” (eyes of the salt flat). If the vehicle should fall into one it would become unrecoverable. The rivers around were also too high to cross. So I returned home with my hands in my pocket and a curiosity level that was now worse than ever, and I decided to plan a second attempt in a drier season.

On the second attempt to visit the Chipaya three month later, we finally managed, but still, it took us two weeks of trial and error to reach the centre of the salt flat, and once there, we weren’t exactly sure that we would manage to leave so easily. The main village, a few huts, two dirt roads, one north to south and one east to west seemed abandoned, only an occasional silhouette would appear in the distance but would quickly disappear after noticing our presence.

We eventually encountered an elderly man who, despite a great language barrier (he spoke almost no Spanish, Aymara or Quechua), managed to explain that the village only served for school and village meetings once a month and that the Chipaya were going about their business scattered around the salt flats. After setting up camp near a crossing point on the Lauca river, we began to see a little traffic, and little by little the Chipaya started developing a little curiosity towards us.

At first I would spend days walking great distances on the salt looking for distant Chulpas, but when I would reach the location I would find nothing. On occasion I would find scattered bones and skulls in their interior, mixed with fruits, cigarettes, empty bottles of sugar cane alcohol, and so forth. Silhouettes in the distance would still disappear very quickly after noticing me.

It was only my persistence of not leaving that eventually led to an encounter. At dawn outside my frosty tent I heard a woman speaking to Manuel in very bad Spanish. This woman came just to find out what was our business in her territory. We had a lot of coca leaves with us — “Pacha mama” (Mother Earth). Across the Andes coca leaves are of incredible economic and spiritual importance, as they establish a connection to the spiritual world and are a means of exchange and monetary form, in addition to being a hunger and fatigue suppressant and to help with altitude sickness considerably.

So after showing our good intentions, this woman slowly, day by day, introduced me to the Chipaya way of life and eventually introduced me to her family as well as the very special braids and clothing adopted by the tribe. Their way of life is still a mystery today, as the entire form of subsistence of the Chipaya is still unclear. The salt flat ground cannot grow any crops, and drinking water is just not available, except for the salty murky river waters that surround the flats.

The Chipaya, like most Andean people, can walk incredible distances at high altitude and across very rough terrains, the women can easily walk 30 km a day with a child on their backs, and I would see them disappear into nothingness ever so often. Very few animals also lived in the flats, mostly Lamas but it was also a mystery to me how they survive.

A group of the strongest men in the community worked by mining the salt in unbearable conditions. The one and only vehicle in the village served that purpose and was a 1960’s old diesel truck. The miners would set up the truck in the wet season when the salt was softer, and spend a full day loading the truck in an eight man effort. At the end of the day, two of the men would set out for a 20 hour drive to sell the full truck’s load for the equivalent of 50 US Dollars, only to drive back and start over. But many men were missing, and I came to find out that several worked in abandoned tin mines further east and decided to follow up on that upon my return.

I spent several more days with my acquainted Chipaya woman who little by little introduced me to her family and introduced me to community members in the village during a school-day. She had two little girls and one teenage boy who spent his days hunting for ducks or flamingos. As the flocks would fly over their Chulpa, he would cast out a “boleadora” consisting of three strings attached in the centre with three stones at the extremities. By rotating it fast enough he would send it flying as strongly as he could, hoping to intercept the flock of birds, eventually being successful for dinner. The woman's husband was at the mines.

Miners in Bolivia have a history and tradition that dates back to colonial times when the Spaniards enslaved and forced indigenous populations to extract gold and silver for them and made Spain one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. After their departure and the depletion of all their mines, thousands of kilometres of uncharted underground pathways were left abandoned, and Bolivian indigenous people claimed their ownership, threatening a great rebellion should there be any attempt to expropriate the mines. Because the indigenous population percentage is so high the government allows this, as indigenous rebellions would be stronger than governmental control.

Miners in Bolivia hold some form of syndicate with its own rules and it is a great honour to become a miner. Nonetheless, being a miner, especially in tin mines, is not without a very high cost. Miners need to be chosen and accepted by other miners to start with. They come in very young, around the age of 15 or so but seldom make it very far beyond their thirties. The work in the mines consists of exploring uncharted galleries, without maps of any source and without any geological knowledge.

It is about trial and error, but with dynamite sticks and rudimentary pump drills. The altitude is almost always around 6000 meters, and the underground exploration can go down sometimes to 500 meters. Tin gas is extremely toxic, causing profound emphysema and eventually killing the miners from lung disease. Furthermore, the passages and corridors are full of vertical ventilation shafts where a false step might send a man three levels down, and the use of dynamite in this environment leads to terrible accidents more often than not. Miners are strong in Bolivia, they can overthrow a government if they wish. Their lives are short, but they live proudly and are highly spiritual in their beliefs. Religion in these regions of the world is often Pagan, as there tends to be a mixture of the ancient ways and the Catholicism that was forced upon the population. What generally remains is a mixture of the two.

A working day in the mines always starts with a reunion on the outside. The miners gather and discuss their daily plan as they equip themselves with the necessary tools. Among those, there is a substantial quantity of coca leaves and sugar cane alcohol in small plastic nylon pouches. The miners will later descend to their areas in small groups and gather in small cave-like rooms deep inside the mine. A process of drinking and praying to Pacha mama then begins and lasts for hours before the miners will start their exploration in wild physical conditions. They will ask mother earth to be forgiving, they know they are in the territory of demons and are afraid. They say that the Virgin Mary guards them outside, but inside they need to be friends with the demons “Tíos”. In fact there are several statues throughout the mine, about life-size, completely painted in red with green blazing eyes and very obvious phallic conditions. Miners will enter these demon dens and offer them alcohol, coca leaves and lit cigarettes in order to be permitted to work in their turf with no harm to their person.

The population size of the Chipaya was never very clear, as the community and tribe is never all together, but an estimate is of around 2000 people. The tribe had a lot of problems at the time from a lack of resources, mainly drinking water, and the government not acknowledging their existence.

Although this reportage is not very recent I am quite sure the conditions of the Chipaya and miners across Bolivia remain the same to this day.

Read an interview with Federico >>>

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The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.

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