Ride ’em cowboy

After crossing the Salar de Uyuni, I honestly thought I had seen everything that the Bolivian altiplano had to offer. Turns out, there’s more. Down in Tupiza I spent a day seeing more of the altiplano, but this time in style. This time I threw my leg over the back of black horse and trotted out into the countryside, John Wayne style. Okay, so I looked nothing like John Wayne or any other cowboy, but I did have a battered cowboy hat. That counts right?

 A had decided to pass on the five hour horseback tour, having never been on the back of a horse he didn’t want to start by trotting through some of the most remote parts of Bolivia. Fair enough. I signed up with three others, including an inspiring South African couple who were riding motorbikes through South America.

After spending the requisite time faffing about with equipment, I surprised myself by managing to get on to my horse with minimal fuss, and indulged myself in thinking that perhaps I was better at horse riding than I remembered. It would soon become abundantly clear that I wasn’t. My horse was imaginatively called Negro, which is the Spanish word for black. After getting acquainted with a trot around the yard, Negro and I were ready to go.

We trotted out into the Valley, and soon the altiplano did it’s usual trick of morphing into yet another spectacular scene. Where the immediate surrounds of Tupiza had been non-descript hills covered with scrub, within half an hour the landscape shifted and we found ourselves gazing upon looming rock formations that blazed red against the blue sky. The first of these was Puerta del Diablo (Devil’s Gate), a giant sheet of rock with a narrow gap that we had to pass through.

For the next five hours our horses picked their way along narrow trails that ran past bizarre rock formations, down ravines and along canyons. It was exactly the kind of landscape that you see featured in all the old “Wild West” movies. Red, rocky, dry, unforgiving but full of so much raw beauty. I really could imagine Clint Eastwood poised to leap out from behind one of the rock formations, or John Wayne sitting by a campfire in one of the canyons.

At lunch we did end up scrambling through Canon del Duende. As we passed through we noticed hundreds and hundreds of small towers of rocks. Each tower had six or seven rocks carefully stacked one on top of the other. We asked our guide about it, and he informed us that these were a type of prayer, the builder would construct the rocks as an offering and then ask for what they wished at the end. “It used to be a wish for rain, now it’s a wish for a flatscreen TV,” he joked.

Negro had been a dream for most of the ride, and this was in spite of the reins being strapped on a bit too tight. But he was a somewhat impatient horse too. At one point, as we were walking up a steep hill, Negro became fed up with the slow horse in front of us and decided he could find a better route. He jumped – yes, jumped – off the path and started charging up the hill, totally ignoring my shrill yelps of “No Negro, NO NEGRO!” and my futile tugs on the reins. It was pointless, I was going wherever he was going. To my terror, as we neared the top of the hill I realised the other side of the hill was not so much a hill, as much as a freaking cliff. I was contemplating whether or not to make like the Man from Snowy River or whether to just fling myself from the saddle, when Negro decided he didn’t really fancy suicide either. He stopped abruptly, snorted a bit, then wandered back to the path. Bloody horse.

It was a perfect lesson in who was really in charge. While at times I might fancy myself a natural horse-rider, it was a timely reminder that I am no such thing. I was not so much riding, as being taken by a ride. I remembered that and kept a tight grip on the reins and saddle, and spoke super politely to Negro for the rest of the afternoon. Thankfully he didn’t decide to assert his authority again and we spent a lovely time with him carrying me about.

After five hours, I was entirely ready to dismount. I think Negro was ready for it to, the second we removed the saddle he bolted over to some hay and rolled in it for a good 5 minutes, legs kicking in the air. I hadn’t actually seen a horse roll in hay before, it is really quite comical.

Exploring the Bolivian countryside on horseback was just brilliant, though it did mean I limited in the number of photos I could take. Negro didn’t really understand “Photo stop!” or “Stand still you stupid horse”. No matter, the reds and golds of that Tupiza landscape is not something I will easily forget.

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