We spent over a month in Southern Peru, starting in Cusco, the ancient heart of the Incan Empire. From Cusco we visited Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world where indigenous tribes live on floating islands and ancient communal living structures are still in use today.
After Lake Titicaca we endured the grueling trip up to the gold mining town of La Rinconada. Everyone had warmed us that road was the most dangerous in all of Peru because of frequent roadside robberies, in fact two people were shot for their gold on the night that we left, but this did not deter us. At 18,000 ft. above sea level La Rinconada is the highest inhabited place on earth. We spent two days recording a short documentary about life there, talking with locals, exploring the glacier and getting far off the beaten path.
Next stop was Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, and the perfect place to begin an adventure to Colca Canyon, which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and home to the Andean Condor, the largest bird in the world, as well as many distinct ethnic groups.
We ended our journey through the South of Peru at the magnificent Machu Picchu.
It is begining to sound like a cliche in South America, but La Paz really is a city of contrasts. Imagine local folks drinking espresso while checking their iPhones on a sidewalk cafe, then imagine dried llama fetuses being sold next to indigenous healers and soothsayers who can whisk away your problems with a prayer and a dime.
The socialist Evo Morales government of Bolivia has attempted to tackle many of the cities problems by building a series of gondolas connecting the many disjointed parts of this city. The popular gondola system whisks locals from deep in the valley to El Alto on the valley’s rim. It connects the have and have nots and most importantly eases the horrendous traffic.
High above La Paz, sits an even larger city called El Alto. El Alto is the largest indigenous city in the Western Hemisphere, with well over 85% of the population claiming indigenous roots. El Alto is as close to the intensity and chaos of India as one can get in South America. Mini vans turned into public buses fight for a space to pick up riders and young men and women shout out their destination at the top of their lungs.
Some visitors may never leave La Paz, and locals may tell you not to visit El Alto, but if you are ready for an adventure and willing to take a few steps off the beaten path, take that teleferico up the hill and give El Alto a chance, you won’t regret it.
We spent two weeks traveling across southern Bolivia through some of the most spectacular landscapes on planet earth. After nearly being denied entry into Bolivia and getting told to “get your backpacks and get the fuck out of here” by the Bolivian border guard, we eventually made it in.
We ascended into the Andes to the capital city of Sucre. Sucre is a pleasant city with lots of Spanish colonial architecture, and one of the largest middle classes in Bolivia.
From Sucre we climbed even higher to the silver mining city of Potosí, located at 13,342 feet above sea level. Potosí has a more gritty feel than Sucre, with silver miners flooding the street after work, and brutal temperatures with frequent snowfall. The surprisingly bustling Potosí was founded by the Spanish in 1545 who bankrolled their empire by mining the Cerro Rico. Centuries later the same silver mines are still active, and adventurous travelers can tour them. Although Potosí is not an easy city to visit, it is certainly one of the most authentic cities in Bolivia.
Next we started our three day Salar de Uyuni jeep expedition. We drove across salt flats, passed smoldering volcanoes, bright green, red and pink lakes, and climbed over 16,000 ft passes, and took a sunrise dip in a steaming hot spring. Most people come to this part of Bolivia for the salt flats, but the most impressive part of the journey was the day after. Geographically speaking, this is one of the most spectacular places on earth.
The Mennonites have resided in the Chaco region of Paraguay since 1927, turning an inhospitable land into one of the most productive and wealthiest regions of the country. The Mennonite colonies now produce around 6-7% of Paraguay’s total Gross Domestic Product despite only making up less than 1% of the population.
The Mennonites are a deeply pacifist religious group that originated in Europe during 16th century and are known for their collectivism and cooperative farming practices. Fleeing religious persecution in Europe, many of them immigrated to Canada. At the turn of the 20th century, the Canadian government implemented mandatory secular education, which angered the Mennonites who saw it a threat to their way of life. In 1927, many Mennonites immigrated to Paraguay, because the government agreed to let them practice their religious and cultural rights if they developed the arid, remote Chaco region. However many of the original Mennonites were not able to survive in the region the Paraguayans called the Green Hell.
Went spent most of our time in Loma Plata (located in Menno Colony), which is the oldest and most traditional of the communities. Most people in the town work at the Cooperativa Chortitzer, which producers high grade dairy products that are sold across the country. The Mennonites in the Chaco are generally viewed positively by the Paraguayans. Most seem to admire their perseverance and work ethic, and wonder why the cooperative Mennonite model cannot be implemented across the country. Some believe that they harbor racist sentiments which translates into hiring discrimination. However, nearly everyone we talked to during our time in Paraguay praised them for their hard work and tenacity.
As the sun set in the sweltering Chaco, I stuck my thumb out on the side of the highway to hitch a ride into town. Two Paraguayan men in a mini van picked me up, and took me where i needed to go. They both worked as doctors in the Chaco, treating the rural communities. I asked both men about their relationship with the Mennonites. The first man responded, “you have to admire what they have done. They came from nothing and created this (pointing to the Chortitzer Cooperative). My only complaint is that they think of themselves as superior, as better.” The other doctor in the car responded, “well…they simply are better.”
We took a supply ship up the Rio Paraguay for three days in search of travel enlightenment. It wasn’t always easy, but it was unforgettable. That’s Paraguay in a nutshell.
Director and Editor – Nick Neumann
Camera – Nick Neumann
Host – Walker Dawson
Guitar Solo, #5 by Neil Young
West Dub by Kanka Dub