NUMBING WIND sweeps across Bolivia's southern Altiplano, a forbidding steppe and desert that stretches nearly 2,500 miles between towering mountain ranges, the western and eastern Cordilleras. I have come here in the peak of winter to join a caravan of llamas that will carry one of the great natural staples of life-salt.
For centuries, the llama, a domesticated cousin of the camel, has been the tireless pack animal of this lofty region of South America. Now, slowly but surely, it is being replaced by trucks. I am here to record an old but disappearing way of life. My companions will be two Quechua Indians, a 66-year-old man and his nephew, who will herd the llamas to a distant valley where the older man, Irineo, will barter the salt for grain and produce.
The salt, purchased by Irineo in 25-pound blocks, comes from nearby Colchani, a village at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest and highest salt lake. Miners there scrape the pan's surface for granular salt for human consumption, or, with big axes, cut less- pure blocks, layered with clay, for use by farm animals. Those blocks sometimes still travel on the backs of llamas, such as Irineo's.
At 6:00 am it is still dark at Irineo's house. The Chacala River nearby is frozen almost solid, and the thickly coated llamas in their stone corrals tremble and press together for warmth. Irineo and his wife Marta have been working since 4:30, he without ever getting near the fire to warm his bare hands or sandal-clad feet. The sun will not rise for another hour.
Two days earlier in preparation for the trip, Irineo had wrapped his salt blocks in grass to protect the llamas' sides during transport. Everything else, except for llama wool and fat that he will also barter, will be packed and unpacked daily. That includes bedding, clothes, food and my photographic equipment. He stuffs this gear loosely inside rugged brown-and-white bags made of llama wool and begins sewing them closed with tough llama-wool thread. Like a tailor, he keeps big needles pinned behind the lapel of his coat, a plaid jacket too large for him.
Irineo's wife prepares snacks for the journey. Marta wears socks in her sandals, but after roasting quinoa, a cereal, over a fire, she bares her feet, using them to thresh the grains inside a round stone mortar. To keep her balance, she must hold on to a wall.
The couple owns close to 100 llamas, worth about $100 each. In addition to their coarse, woolly hair for weaving clothes and blankets and for plaiting ropes, the animals provide them with meat, hide for sandals, fat to make candles, and droppings to fertilize their fields and fuel their fires when there is no wood.
Besides llamas, Irineo and Marta maintain some 60 small sheep, a kitten and two black shepherd dogs. They grow quinoa and potatoes as their staple crops and acquire corn, barley and some vegetables and fruits through the barter of salt. They buy the salt for the equivalent of about 20 U.S. cents for each of the 25-pound bricks.
A few yards from Irineo's house are great holes where he has buried his potato harvest to keep it moist and strong until September-spring in the Southern Hemisphere-when he will plant it, or until he needs some for the pot. In August, he will plant beans, in October carrots and on- ions, in November barley and quinoa.
While Irineo and Marta finish their work, I walk up to the llamas' corrals, built against high natural rock walls. There are two: one for the males, one for the slightly smaller females and their young. The animals sit quietly, their heads reaching just above the stone walls. They look earnestly in my direction as I approach, ears forward in keen interest and alarm. Some are all-white, others all-black, all-brown or spotted. All have big, bright eyes, with thick long eyelashes. All are elegant, dainty.
Like all members of the camel family, llamas actually originated in North America, perhaps 40 million years ago. The prototype camel crossed the frozen Bering Strait to spread through Asia and the Middle East, where it evolved into the Bactrian and dromedary camels. Or it moved south, splitting into the four species now found in South America: the llamas and alpacas, domesticated some 6,000 years ago, and the still-wild guanacos and smaller vicu-as.
Just as Irineo finishes sewing the last bags, his nephew Fulgencio arrives. The younger man stares vacantly, hands in his pockets. Though Irineo would not trust anyone else to assist him on his expeditions, he won't let Fulgencio pack or even cook, only help load and herd the llamas, get water and gather brushwood for the fire.
No great undertaking in the Altiplano is attempted without involving Pachamama, Mother Earth. Now Irineo brings out of his house a koba, an offering of herbs and symbols of the journey ahead. He puts it on the ground, lights it with a match, and, standing with his wife and nephew over the fragrant smoke, pronounces ritual words.
That done, Fulgencio brings the male llamas out of their corral. Females are reared only to breed and are not used to carry loads. Irineo selects the 27 animals that will travel, ties them to a rope and lets the others go. Within 15 minutes, he and Fulgencio have loaded the entire caravan. The llamas have such thick coats that no pack saddles are needed.
In this dry season, the Chacala River is reduced to a frozen zigzagging trickle. We walk briskly on the soft sand of its otherwise-dry bed, the two Quechua Indians egging on the llamas with whistles and cries. The llamas' broad buttocks dwarf the salt block they carry on each side, but over half of their rear ends are dense, bulky wool, and they are much slimmer than they look. I wonder how they can carry 50 pounds at all.
The landscape changes by the minute, often dramatically. A wall of reddish sandstone slabs towers above the sandy river floor. Later it will change into rough sculptures that look to me like fantastic animals and people. During the following days, we will cross green frozen steppes, sandy deserts, narrow gorges and canyons, and all the guises that mountains are apt to take.
The llamas walk in an ever-changing mass always kept together by the prodding Quechua men. Sometimes one animal bolts, perhaps trying to return home or to assert his independence. One of the men runs to bring him back.
After nearly two hours on this first day, we reach Pilcoya, a hamlet where Fulgencio has a second house. There are many llamas grazing, but they stop eating and come to meet Irineo's animals. Having sniffed the newcomers, the local llamas squeeze into our caravan.
You would think that the two groups are being friendly, but soon, if not separated, they would fight viciously. "Llamas that have grown separately cannot be made to walk together," says Irineo. Which is why llameros, or llama caravanners, can never join forces and Fulgencio cannot bring his own animals on this journey.
By now, the temperature has risen above freezing. Irineo breaks the ice on the stream and briefly waters his llamas. Then we walk continuously for four more hours. The llamas proceed at a brisk pace, moving noiselessly. When the wind does not blow into my ears, I hear only the men's whistling and shouting. At times, the animals balk.
Walking with drooped shoulders, slightly swinging his spare frame from leg to leg, Irineo does not look athletic. Yet, what 66-year-old athlete anywhere could run up and down the mountains after llamas all day, at times at altitudes nearing three miles, all the while continuously whistling and shouting, and still find the energy on arrival to take care of the many camp chores?
Now, following the To-mave River, we pass Villapampa and other deserted hamlets with padlocked doors. The inhabitants are away herding llamas and sheep. Far behind in the distance, the Salar de Uyuni gleams in the sun, an immensity so white it could cause blindness to unprotected eyes. The great salt pan is underwater during the rainy season, for the rivers and streams that flow into it find no outlet to the sea. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind the minerals it leeched on its way down.
By mid-afternoon, we reach a stone corral in the middle of nowhere, built by the llameros of old. They erected such corrals at intervals of approximately six-hour marches, always near drinking water, pasture and brushwood for the fire. Now each night, we will camp at one.
Fulgencio gets water from a stream, and we sit down for a late lunch, some toasted corn and instant cold quinoa porridge for them, some bread and cheese for me. We taste each other's food. Llama meat is also on their menu, a staple in this part of Bolivia. The taste is somewhere between beef and mutton, though closer to the first.
Irineo has driven llama caravans since he was 12, save for two or three years spent in school, and would not do anything else. He could transport his salt by truck, as many former llameros do, and even buy his grain from a shop in Uyuni, though at a higher price, but would not dream of it. "I have a sister in the United States," he says, "and three sons in La Paz, Santa Cruz and Argentina. They all ask that I give up what they call 'my hard life,' that I go live with them. But I'm happy here."
The two men busy themselves with chores, and not a moment too soon. Before 6:00 pm, the sun sinks behind the mountain, and the cold returns with a vengeance. Because the corral walls are crumbling, the llamas must sleep tied up. As usual in these cases, Irineo and Fulgencio run a rope around them, then attach them by the neck, three by three. For a while the animals stand. Later some kneel, pulling down the necks of those not ready to rest. That's often a time for some llamas to pester each other.
Before we go to sleep, Irineo lights a fire, puts on it a pot of water with pieces of charqui (llama jerky) and onions and tiny speckled potatoes he peeled earlier. The two men will eat the same heavy soup at the beginning and end of each day. I sit with them at the fire, my hands so close to the flames they should be burning, yet I am unable to warm myself in the frigid air. By 8:00, being too dark and cold to do anything, the two men slip under their heavy blankets and I into my sleeping bag.
The days ahead will be a reprise, albeit with newer landscapes and events. By 4:30, Irineo is awake and cooking again. We leave at 7:30. As yesterday, we climb almost continuously, though now between smooth, undulating mountains. On a slippery, stone-littered downward slope, the llamas get skittish as we approach Churi Habera, a hamlet with a truck and numerous llamas. Our route takes us along the Tambo Mayo River- still white with ice by late morning, where even the waterfalls are frozen, and on to the windswept puna. On this treeless tableland, where only tufts of yellow spiky grass grow, the biting wind pulls tears from my eyes. Finally we descend onto a vast, well-watered plateau where, under Mount Cuzco, hundreds of llamas roam.
After a quick lunch, Irineo tells me about the people of Villa Concepci-n, which we will pass tomorrow. When the grazing gets poor around their village, they herd their llamas to this plateau and keep them here for a period of time, just as Fulgencio does in his own region. As he talks, a strange noise catches my attention: Our llamas are hummimg contentedly as they graze.
The next day, I leave with my cameras before the last llamas have been loaded. Almost an hour later, not seeing them follow me, I wonder whether I took a wrong turn and climb to get a better view. Each time I am about to reach a crest that will let me scan the other side, the mountain rises further. I'm near the top when I see the caravan at last, delayed because Irineo had paused to give the animals extra time to feast on the green pasture.
Together again, we climb over the pass, descend along another river and squeeze between long stone walls fencing fallow fields. Villa Concepci- n is at the end. Before we get to the first house, the llamas stop and refuse to budge. "Trula, trula! (go, go)," Irineo shouts. The two men whirl their ropes above the caravan, whistle and shout, but to no avail.
"They're afraid of the houses," Irineo explains. The llamas seem anchored to the ground. We push the poor animals from behind but with about as much success as if they were heavy cupboards. It takes us 20 minutes to get them on the other side of the hamlet, only 200 or 300 paces away.
From there, we follow a trail climbing to a mine (miners in some places still use llamas to carry ore), then leave it to cut cross-country over ankle-bending stones and through brushwood that entangles and unties my shoelaces. The pace is deliberately slow to give the llamas time to nip the spiky bunch grass along the way.
We move downward into warmer land dotted with scattered small farmhouses and scribbled all over by endless stone walls. Up again to a cold puna crossed by another frozen river and dotted with many llamas. And then through sand dunes, across a stream, and to a corral surrounded by roofless abandoned stone houses. The corral tonight has no holes in it, and the llamas will sleep free of ropes.
The next day, we walk over high, rolling puna, scrambling over rocks and fields of stones. Hardly an hour on the way, Irineo stops to let the llamas graze a while. Now I know why some bartering journeys take so long. On a trip like this, the animals are given about four hours to eat and periodically the caravan must stop to give them rest.
Day after day the pattern continues. Finally, we descend into a valley dotted with small, clay houses and full of browsing llamas, sheep and even a few pigs. From here we climb again, this time through sand dunes, which remind me that we are not far from the Atacama Desert, and by 2:00 pm drive the llamas in a rundown corral to unload them again.
Next morning, the sun has not risen when we leave this camp, but it lights the next immense plateau where we descend soon after. As in all well-watered areas, there are a few clay houses and many grazing llamas, but no people visible anywhere. Lower plateaus succeed this one. And as we go down, the wind drops, different birds appear, and I notice that I can hear their songs. I can also feel the warmth of the sun.
By mid-morning, we are walking at the bottom of a warm canyon, and the Palcuyo River, which we have to cross back and forth, is almost free of ice. Even so, the llamas always hesitate before putting in their delicate feet.
We leave the river to walk up a narrow path and soon are looking down into an abyss. Suddenly, a caravan of burros and llamas four times as long as ours appears around a bend. The burros, dull and harmless as they look to me, frighten Irineo's llamas so much that half bolt above and below the narrow trail, miraculously clinging to the steep slopes without rolling to the bottom. Five llamas of the other caravan do the same. The chaos is incredible.
Little by little, at great pain, the other caravan extricates itself from ours and moves forward. Irineo struggles to coax his llamas back to the trail. "I lose llamas to fatal falls on every journey," he complains as he clambers down like a goat to help a llama up.
Though the light is flat, I lag behind to photograph the fantastic rocks. When I catch up, the llamas are grazing above a deep valley whose every foot of silt has been terraced for farming. The view is breathtaking. We have reached our destination, Watarchi, curiously absent from my oversized map of Bolivia. Watarchi is at once the name of the river that runs at the bottom of the valley and of a village stretching thinly along it.
As we drive the llamas to a corral, we must pass between houses, and once again the llamas spook. We run up and down the slopes to bring the bolting animals back into the ranks, but the three of us are not enough for the job. In the end Irineo gives up, and we move the llamas back again, to a corral far above the village.
We have hardly unloaded the packs when some villagers arrive, mostly women. They are there to see the salt, the llama wool into which they immediately sink their hands, and the llama fat. Within a couple of hours a beaming Irineo has bartered everything. Each person has reserved the part of the merchandise that he, or she, wishes to acquire. Later, and the day after, the buyers return carrying their currency: corn, barley, habas (large flat beans), carrots, watermelons, small speckled apples and small hard peaches. To judge from the general good humor, everyone is satisfied. "They haven't seen a llamero in three years," Irineo says. "I must come back here."
At the world's largest salt lake, miners scrape the pan's surface for granular salt for human consumption or cut blocks to be used by farm animals.
The animals sit quietly, ears forward in keen interest and alarm.
All have big bright eyes, with thick long eyelashes. All are elegant, dainty.
The packs have been barely unloaded when some villagers arrive. Their currency is corn, carrots, flat beans, watermelons, apples and peaches.
Victor Englebert, who grew up in Belgium and lived in Colombia for 23 years, has followed and photographed nomadic peoples from Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan to Tuareg and Tibrinya salt caravanners in the Sahara and Ethiopia. He traveled to Bolivia on assignment for this magazine.…