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Horse-riding in Bolivia’s Wild West

How My Equestrian Dreams Were Thwarted by La Negra Paloma

Saturday, 28 February 2009

While travelling through Peru and northern Bolivia, I had gotten it into my head that I was secretly a star horsewoman who had been robbed of a childhood chance to bond with mans’s other best friend, the mighty horse. So when I found out that Tupiza, in Bolivia’s south-west, was not only the last stand of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but also possessed unrivalled scenery and horseriding oportunities, I knew that my time had come.My travel companion, on the other hand, was distinctly underwhelmed by the prospect of horseriding, and couldn’t even be bribed with banana chips and an ice cream sundae to join me, given that her last four horse encounters had ended with her doing one or more of the following: screaming; crying; leaping off her horse; being hospitalised. And it was thus that I made my way, at 9am one Saturday, through the deserted tumbleweed-blowing-in-the-wind streets of Tupiza to my tourist office to embark on a seven-hour horseriding extravaganza.

Vincente, my guide, turned out to be seventeen years old and still in high school, and a full head shorter than me (like the entire Bolivian population). He immediately endeared himself to me by asking what my favourite animals were and stopping a stray dog from chewing on my shoe. We walked twenty minutes along the train tracks outside of town to the horses, which were held behind a rickety fence the likes of which only Bolivians can construct – a few old fence palings, some tree branches, and a bit of carpet strung artfully together with rope.

The gorgeous multicoloured landscapes in Tupiza

My horse was a black Argentinean monster called La Negra Paloma and it became clear from the get-go that we were not going to be friends. La Negra Paloma was not at all impressed with having to be roused early on a Saturday morning and separated from her friends and feed to be kicked in the ribs by the likes of me. She tossed her head and skittered away from me in protest as I tried to mount, and then, once on, she refused to walk.

For the first twenty minutes Vincente had to drag her along by the reins behind Juan, a sturdier, smaller horse, a humiliation which La Negra Paloma did not appreciate. The moment for her revenge came as we entered a country lane and Vincente decided that we should go a little faster. La Negra Paloma took off at a terrifying pace, with me clinging for dear life as I almost bounced clear off her back, praying for a quick death. She galloped straight at a rock wall and screeched to a halt, deciding that a few mouthfuls of grass would be adequate reward for that fearsome demonstration of her power. We had three more false starts in that vein, La Negra Paloma careening at walls and me shrieking loud enough to wake all of Tupiza’s 22, 000 residents, until, exasperated, Vincente slowed things down to an infinitely more manageable walk.

Off we went, along a gravel path that opened up into open Wild West terrain. Tupiza is arid and thorny, with jutting red escarpments on one side as you ride, and rainbow-coloured mountains on the other. They begin as a pale sandy yellow close to the ground and graduate to a deep ochre red, a bruised blue, purple and pink, and are crowned in green vegetation. “Spectacular” doesn’t begin to cover it.

Rainbow rocks are typical of the region, giving this wild west an otherworldly feel

After a little while we were joined by a group of three French TV journalists, which gave me ample opportunity to discover just how much my French had deteriorated. La Negra Paloma could have cared less about that, and insisted on walking behind a stout, speckled white horse. At first I mistook this for her better nature emerging in the company of her friends, but I soon realised that that was a ploy. La Negra Paloma, it appeared, was a firm believer in the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”, and our two high school student guides informed us that, in age-old tradition, these two ladies were engaged in a fierce contest over the plodding portly caramel-coloured male horse leading the group. Typical. La Negra Paloma was thirteen years old and not looking too fresh; a little grey around the snout and mane, she was competing with a younger and healthier looking specimen. However, she was not giving up without a fight, and whenever she had the opportunity to get close to Speckles, she would snap at her head. “Your horse is kind of mean,” Juliette commented. Yeah, no kidding.

We carried on for another hour or two, through ravines and valleys and along dry riverbeds. Vincente told me the story of how Tupiza got its name (a joke in which two conquering Spaniards debate where to pee: “tu pisas primero…”) and of the ultimate demise of Butch and Sundance (unsurprisingly, he strongly supported the theory that they met their end in Bolivia, and would not hear of my argument that they made it back to the States alive). Every now and then the horses would randomly break into a canter, their own hoofbeats spurring them into a gallop all together, La Negra Paloma so fierce and jerky that my squeals echoed off the red rock walls as I tried desperately to hold on.

As we crossed the bridge to Inca Head Mountain the skies opened and began to pour with rain so we galloped to our lunch spot, a little stone table shielded by weeping willows, down by the river. Vincente had brought me a fried egg sandwich, a tamale (steamed mashed corn and dried fruit wrapped in a husk) yoghurt and fruit. The Bolivian guides never ate with us on tours, even when invited. They would melt into the background and eat separately from the group. We just wanted them to sit and talk with us but some kind of unwritten rule seems to forbid that.

As the rain abated, Vincente came running over, for the first time looking his age. “Hey guys! Do you want to play soccer?”

That was how we ended up in a higgledy-piggledy six-a-side formation spread out across the valley, players including one Bolivian in his forties who was a weapon on the field and whom everyone called tío (“uncle”), and three giggling fourteen-year-old girls who were more useless than I was and complained when the boys kept the ball as far away from them as possible. The game was hijacked by a Jack Russell called Bruce Lee, a fierce non-partisan defender who had all twelve of us trying desperately to wrangle the ball back. Manchester United, eat your heart out.

Soccer at Inca Head Mountain

It was time for Vincente and I to make our way back to Tupiza, so we farewelled the others and remounted. After another abortive attempt at galloping Vincente and I swapped horses and I ended up on the marginally more tranquil Bolivian horse Juan, on whom I could actually enjoy a little speed, being significantly closer to the ground. Vincente wanted to really ride, as he was a horse lover who had found himself a weekend job taking inexperienced tourists out on the trails and never got to ride the horses alone or for pleasure. “Only with tourists,” he said forlornly. I felt bad… and so let him risk my life a few more times, praying vainly that he at least was enjoying himself.

We walked for a long time along a gravel mountain road, occasionally being passed by rattly old trucks with trays filled with Bolivians heading home to their properties, all staring bemusedly at me through the dust. Eventually we diverged onto a trailless bit of beautiful scrub, all red rocks and cacti and espina, a spiky bush with large peanut-shaped fruit. Vincente told me a joke about the Argentinean slang for horse (“pingo”) and the Bolivian slang for penis (“pingo”), and then dramatically acted out, with finger pistols, collapsing back onto his horse, what happened when an Argentinean came to the ranch demanding a horse (you can imagine). He told me a little about his family (he lived with his grandparents and his brothers went to school in Villazón, the border town) but shied away from talking about his parents (divorced). He told me his favourite subjects were maths and literature, and that he wanted to study but didn´t know what, like most seventeen year olds everywhere. When I told him that my whole body was starting to hurt, he took the opportunity to grope my leg and I let him, figuring it was the second-biggest thrill he’d had all day (first being me screaming every time La Negra Paloma terrorised me).

Tupiza: the long-disputed death place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

After a rest in the Valley of the Machos, with its very phallic rock formations (“Do you know why they call it that?”) we thankfully headed home with a few spine-jarring gallops. There was no ceremony in farewelling La Negra Paloma, whom I was definitely not going to miss. Juan, too, gave me the hairy eyeball every time I tried to stop him from grazing when we were supposed to be trotting, as he clearly considered trotting to be necessary only to reach greater grazing areas. I had to admit to myself that perhaps my dreams of equestrian glory were a little ill-informed.

Vincente walked me back to town and waited outside as I told the tour agency what a great guide he had been. “He’s a good kid,” she said, nodding. I went back out to thank him and to wish him well, but Vincente had vanished into the dust-blown street like smoke.

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