Take a big house in the middle of a small village lost in Bolivia’s countryside, about ten travellers / artists / singers / hippies volunteers, wonderful landscapes to explore, horses to explore the region and a traditional Bolivian celebration… mix all these ingredients and you get an unexpected and unforgettable volunteering experience!
From Potosi to Mondragón
As I was visiting Potosi, I received the visit of my friend Juan, who was in this volunteering since already three weeks. He convinced me very quickly to join him in this adventure. The idea was actually to paint and set up a big house, held by Macario, owner of the hostel La Vicuña in Potosi; in the prospect of a traditional feast held every year at the end of May.
The house is located in the small village of Mondragón, about one hour and half from Potosi (45 min by bus and 40 min on foot). An unknown treasure 3 300 m high, at the heart of a big valley with red/orange rocks, several caves and an exceptional climate (big sun and blue sky everyday, clear and starry nights – although very fresh at this autumnal period). A place that would be perfect if the river that flows in the valley was not that full of foam and rubbish coming from Potosi.
There I joined other traveller friends of Juan on my arrival, that I already met during our weekend in Salta: the Argentinian musicians Luna and Juan (with who we had already shared a maté) as well as the Spanish Enam (who was present during the bungee jump). We were also followed by Mauricio, an Argentinian travelling by bike. We spent more than one week together before being joined by other Argentinian travellers, Valentino, Ignacio, Tomas, Juan (three Juan, it was getting quite complicated!)…
Daily life in Mondragón
Life rhythm in Mondragón was quiet and pleasant: ashtanga yoga every morning with Luna, cooking, horse rides or walks in the area, painting and work in the house, evenings spent chilling on the beds in the living-room, listening to all the musicians playing and singing… all of this without any WIFI connection, which made us live even more intensely every single moment.
Hot springs being in the region, we also enjoyed Miraflores thermal baths. A big pool with 35-degree hot water without any tourist but only Bolivians… privileged moments followed by a return walking at night under the starry sky, magic!
We also discovered the process of chicha preparation, a popular traditional drink made with fermented corn. The first step was to mix with our hands corn, corn flour and warm water so to obtain two big doughs, that would then be cooked for hours (all night long) on a fire. The obtained liquid was then let to rest for about a week, giving a refreshing and slightly alcoholic drink.
The same night when the chicha was cooked was a prayer vigil in anticipation of the forthcoming feast. At midnight, we all gathered in the temple that was set up in the house so to pray the patron saint. The problem with this kind of night is the obligation to drink… a lot! Indeed the tradition is to share glasses (way too full) of a drink prepared with a cinnamon tea mixed with singani (white alcool around 40°) or even worse, ethylic alcohol!
After listening to the chacareras and other traditional songs played by Luna and Valentino, the night ended up in a very improbable way with a dancefloor and music way less traditional out loud in the speakers… a huge contrast until the end!
I let you discover below a short video showing the atmosphere in the house:
La Fiesta del Cristo de Manquiri
The Cristo de Manquiri celebration was held during last week of May, for the locality’s patron saint. This feast of ancient tradition is organized by two families (one of them being the one of Macario), which each try to offer the best experience to the whole village. It started with a mass in Manquiri’s beautiful church (a little village located on the other side of the mountains) to bless the two families, while lamas were being sacrificed at home (luckily I didn’t have to see this). Alasitas, offerings representing the wishes (house, car, money, etc.) of everyone were offered and then beer and the inevitable drink with cinnamon and singani were being shared on the square in front of the church.
The atmosphere was really great, with all the musicians in our team that starting playing from the morning in the bus and didn’t stop for the whole day. Back to Potosi after the mass, I went to immigration office (the French can stay three months in Bolivia but have to extend their visa every month) while the rest of the group was going back to Mondragón.
I had quite a fright on that occasion as I came across an ass**** who was well decided to put a spoke in my wheels. He indeed claimed that staying in Mondragón for two weeks was fishy and that he would have to investigate so to make sure I was not doing some hidden illegal work or any study! He then asked me to come back on the following afternoon so to let him time to do his researches, while threatening me to expulse me from Bolivia… nice!
You can imagine how dreadful I felt when I came back to Mondragón, but luckily the evening there helped me not to think about what had happened. We had a superb celebration at the feet of the village’s church with a huge fire, traditional music and dances in alternating with the songs of Luna and Valentino. The atmosphere was cheerful and friendly and let us all beautiful memories of this first evening.
Unfortunately I missed the festivities second day because of this obligation to come back to Potosi… but at least I managed to extend my visa! As I was waiting for this same horrible man, another one came in the corridor and asked me why I was there: I took care of saying that I was staying at the hostel La Vicuña and not in Mondragón so not to arouse his curiosity and got my stamp in two minutes with him, to my great relief!
The evening and the three following days were then way too much similar: same music, same dance, same tradition to drink, drink and drink from early morning to late evening (beer, chichi, singani…). If we had found the first moments amusing, we then got seriously tired of this repetitive feast. It was supposed to last three days and finally lasted five days, without even changing from one day to another, so we were really bored of it in the end.
I remain really happy and grateful to have left such unique moments. We were essentially surrounded by Bolivians with who we could share a lot, we discovered traditions that are specific of this territory, I could take a lot of pictures and videos… living such experiences is not given to every traveller and I am fully aware of it.
Here is a video that i made to show the atmosphere of the whole celebration:
After these tiring festivities days, we stayed one weekend more so to get some rest (we all ended up sick), clean the house, have one last horse ride and last hike in the surrounding mountains… it was then time to move on as our visa is not that extensible, time is flying and we have only seen one small part of Bolivia so far.
I thus left with Juan to Sucre, my head and heart full of nice memories of all these moments laughing and sharing. This volunteering was memorable human and friendly experience!
To be continued…
Local bus Potosi – Miraflores : 5 BOB
Then 40 min walking from Miraflores to Mondragón
Thermal baths in Miraflores : 5 BOB per person