Tupiza is a small town with about 20,000 residents and sits at 3000m. There is not a lot here, at all. There is however,strangely, about six Italian restaurants, all with exactly the same décor and exactly the same menu. We struggled to find anything but pizza.
The main draw here are a few specialised tours, the first being horse riding. The surrounding countryside is straight from a spaghetti western – red canyons and cacti-filled valleys are the norm. Reputedly this is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid finally met their maker thanks to the Bolivian army. We are going to get our cowboy on, in a butch gruff kinda way. Think John Wayne, not the village people. Back in Brazil we had our first experience of horse riding in the Pantanal and although the location was most definitely authentic at the time it felt like the horses were on a rail, no end of shouting and kicking would make them steer off their well-trodden paths. Promised the real deal, we sign up to go out for five hours, just the two of us and a guide. At £3.50 an hour each, it’s a bargain with Tupiza Tours, although we ignore stories of people being dragged to their doom dangling off the back of a horse. Where else in the world do you get to do this sort of stuff without a health and safety office ruining all the fun?!
The next morning at 10am we are introduced to our guide Marcelus, more boy than cowboy. He’s about 15. Horse driving lessons are done within about 30 seconds, we are given some leather trouser-type things and a cloth cap and off we go.
Horses are a lot bigger when you’re sitting on them. Maximo, my beastie, is a kinda white brown colour and very responsive to my steering and surprisingly I settle in quickly, as does Leah. Within minutes we are trotting into stunning canyons, forgetting our transport, exchanging ooos and ahhhs at the amazing landscape around us. Our kindergarten cowboy guide then provides us with two long branches and using his best sign language notifies us that these will be used to beat the horses backsides to make them go really fast. Oh.
We discover our horses have three speeds. The slow walk, a comfortable and altogether pleasant sightseeing experience. A quick kick in the ribs will shift gears to a trot (or canter, I’m not down with the lingo), this is not fun. Imagine every single organ in your body moving about a foot up and down inside your skin, then add a rucksack to your back. Leah nearly falls off and I just hang on to the damn thing for dear life. Then there is the whip, I’m not big on beating animals with sticks but I do what I’m told and whip Maximo’s backside. The thing goes off like a rocket.
I’m 37, and I’ve been there and done a fair bit and all that. I can honestly not remember the last time I had as much fun as I had galloping full speed on the back of that horse. The bouncing up and down seems to vanish, the ride becomes incredibly smooth and I realise that I’m no longer hanging on and am actually riding hands free, steering with one hand and whipping the poor creature’s backside with the other. Why have I not tried this before? If you have not ridden a horse at speed, you need too. Maybe it’s a boy thing. Maybe it’s the heat and too little water.
For the next five hours we mooch around the landscape up steep hillsides and down through narrow little gorges. My backside is complaining and the novelty starts to wear off a little – where’s the beer? Altogether the day was a whole lot of fun, for the price, it’s unmissable if you’re in Bolivia, although 5 hours was enough for us and 2 days would have been excruciating, we could hardly walk the next day. I recommend Tupiza Tours and our guide Marcelus. I would ask for him personally – mention me, I’m sure he would remember the grinning idiot making cowboy noises all day.
So what’s next? There is only one other thing to do in Tupiza and that is kick off a tour of the Salt Flats, lagunas and volcanoes nearby. We have booked 4 days and 3 nights out in the middle of nowhere with a driver (Mario), a cook (Benita) and a rather nice couple from the UK and Finland, which is lucky as we had nightmares of being stuck for days with elderly Americans or drunken teenage Aussies.
All this deserves it’s own blog entry…