Variety… the spice of Bolivia!
Flying into the highest major city in the world is a little bit of a misdirection play. You land at the airport, gasp for air and if you need it you avail yourself of the free oxygen tanks while you await baggage delivery. The 10 minute trip across the plateau leaves you wondering where the heck La Paz is. After a few miles more you turn a corner and begin the descent down into the valley and can see the entire city in one magnificent vista, framed by snow capped Andean peaks and you can’t help but feel a spark of excitement. La Paz is simply thrilling. Bolivia is an undiscovered country that offers a wide variety of climates, cultures and indigenous foods. The city of La Paz, at 11,200 feet high, is the world’s highest capital founded in 1548. A notorious haven for renegades and outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Che Guevera (all of who met their deaths there,) Bolivia is not your average tourist destination. And there are reasons aplenty to talk yourself out of visiting. But even though it’s the poorest country in South America, Bolivia is surprisingly self-sufficient with ample supplies of oil, natural gas and other natural resources. What they lack is common sense leadership that isn’t just anti American but anti anyone! Everyone dislikes everyone else in Bolivia. Discontent seems to be a part of the natural order of things here, but don’t let it dissuade you from checking it out.
The first thing I had to see was the cobblestoned Calle Linares and the famed Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches Market. Witches, medicine women, and soothsayers sell medicinal herbs, llama fetuses, dried frogs and armadillos. Along the street, you’ll find a variety of talismans and old bottles with potions concocted from animal parts like boa constrictor heads. I had a coca leaf reading done to discover what my future looked like and was immediately invited by the two yathiri to attend a ceremony involving the burning of a llama fetus to ensure luck with a new business venture. We got in their car and hit the road to journey up to El Alto, a devastatingly poor barrio that has become the fastest growing city in South America. We stopped and ate some llama jerky, choclo, the local corn that looks like it’s on steroids and the popular Anticucho de corazon: beef heart with peanut-garlic sauce served on a stick. Everyone but me had a cup of coca tea- supposedly it helps avert any possible altitude sickness. Sounds fishy to me. I think aspirin and water works well. Anyway any excuse these guys could concoct to chew more leaf, they took it. I think they reached into a bag every 5 minutes for more, and by the end of the shoot they were electric, vibrating, like mini tin figurines from that old football game where the players wiggle down the field when you turn it on.
I ate the next night at La Casa de los Pacenos, housed on the 2nd floor of an old colonial building which hasn’t changed for decades. They serve cow’s tongue in chili sauce, cow’s stomach, kidney stew, vein soup, penis soup and llama with chocolate sauce. I loved it all. There is a lively restaurant scene in La Paz that combines traditional foods of Bolivia and the dishes of many cultures. Pronto Delicatessen, a more modern restaurant, is known for its “Novo Andino” where the chef prepares traditional foods (llama, quinoa and ispi) that is then influenced by the Eastern technique of combining sweet, sour and spicy…goat ravioli with Asian curry sauce, quinoa spaghetti with coca bchamel sauce. This restaurant is called experimental by some, I call it confused.
La Lucha Libre, is Bolivia’s answer to wrestling as entertainment but with a twist…the contenders are all women who wear the Bolivian traditional dress of a multilayered skirt, white pumps, shawls and traditional bowler hat. The gym where the matches take place is in El Alto, the lower-class district above the capital city of La Paz and I got to watch these colorful wrestlers prepare for their ‘shift’ in the ring. These ladies are tough and oddly sexy at the same time, and they can kick your ass. What’s more I got to introduce them in the ring, a real thrill. Juanita the Caring managed to cheap shot me before the match even began, dousing me with a gallon of cola and sending me ass over tea kettle on to the floor in the resulting melee. Unbelievable.
In contrast to quinoa, which is the super food that Bolivia exports all over the world, the potato which originated in the Andes (there are over 3,000 varieties) and is still Bolivia’s most essential food crop is rarely exported to the States. One unusual variety of Bolivian potato is rotten, black dried spuds. These Chunos or old potatoes are freeze dried in a five day process which makes them look like sugar coated cookies. They are exposed to very low night temperatures in the Andean Altiplano (the high area above La Paz), stomped on to dry them out, then exposed to the intense sunlight of the day. Inside they are black and “nasty”. In this form they last as a long as 25 years. And they all taste that way. I spent a day on Emertrio’s farm which he maintains with the help of his wife and 10 children. They sleep with their livestock, brew beer to keep their cows happy, air dry their own llama jerky, and cook all their meals on a small little clay vessel that they stuff with animal dung and place a pot on the top of the flue. They mostly eat a farmer’s soup of broth studded with vegetables like carrots and onions, rehydrated fava beans called abbas that have been toasted directly on the burning dung for a few minutes before going into the pot, dried llama, and chunos. Lots of chunos. To call this soup earthy is an understatement of dramatic proportions.
Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s most populous city but it has the feeling of a small town with its lack of high-rises and tropical atmosphere. It is a far cry from the Alto Plano. It is hot, humid and is the gateway to the Orient, the Bolivian rain forest. People still gather to visit on the main square and restaurants close daily for siesta. With the largest international community in the country Santa Cruz is not the Bolivia of llamas and cholitas. Instead overall-wearing Mennonites walk alongside bearded Russians, goth kids, Brazilian and Japanese immigrants. We drove south of the city a few hours, stopping along the way to buy achacharu, small tropical fruit that are a seeming cross between a passion fruit and a mangosteen. I ate 4 bags in one day. We dined at a riverside restaurant, well actually it’s a small hut. You order, they go out into the woods, kill what they need to fill your order and return to their endless chuggin’ of beer diluted with warm Coca Cola. We ate fish, twice cooked feral pig and armadillo. It was extraordinary.
Regarded by the Inca as the birthplace of their civilization, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake. We ended out trip by heading out to this sacred area to be a part of an Apthapi, or Andean picnic. First, we were invited to a home to help a family prepare their contribution to the picnic. Overlooking the picturesque lake, families gather to eat together, sitting on the colorful blankets of their region. Each cholita brings a different dish. There is Lake Titicaca trout, like no other fresh-water trout in the world and ispis, the snack food of indigenous people in the area, a tiny fish which is fried whole, salted and served simply along with vegetables, quinoa dumplings, home made cheese, broiled llama and chunos. All of the food is spilled out on the ground to be eaten as we crouch by the shores of the lake, trying to stay out of the driving hailstorm that is pounding into us. A shaman burns a llama fetus, we sing a few songs, say some prayers, the elders eat a few fistfuls of coca and the sun comes out. I forget how cold I am, and pile back in the van and go to sleep. I’m stuffed.