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. …