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Bolivia's alpine salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni form one of the harshest livable climates on planet Earth. Despite enduring the frigid wind chill at 15,000 feet, this flamingo enjoys a meal foraged from beneath the salt.
The capital of South America’s poorest country seems an unlikely stop for globetrotting food pilgrims. But Claus Meyer, co-owner of Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant, is set on changing that. In April he opened Gustu, a haute dining spot that will cook only with ingredients grown or produced in Bolivia. For $135, diners can enjoy 15 courses paired with Bolivian wines. Dishes may include llama shoulder, poached in butter for 14 hours, and vicuña (similar to alpaca) jerky with hearts of palm, egg, and fried trout roe. The restaurant’s cooking school will train 30 low-income students each year. Photo courtesy of Stephan Gamillscheg/Ibis. This appeared in the June/July 2013 issue.
Carnaval will be here soon, and Bolivian Carnaval has a slightly different flavor than what you'll find in Rio, Venice, or New Orleans. Each year schools of dancers take to the streets wearing the traditional costumes of the different departments of the country. There are a number of styles of dance as well, each derived from a particular aspect of Bolivian history. La Diablada, los Caporales, and the Tinku are just some of the dances you'll see over the course of the event. Oruro is considered the epicenter of Bolivian Carnaval, but celebrations are found just about anywhere in the country. A word of caution - bystanders will get wet from the incessant barrage of water balloons.
El Valle de la Luna features an almost extra-terrestrial landscape caused by erosion. There are two circuits through the park, one that takes about 15 minutes, and a longer one that takes about 45 minutes. Both are easy hikes, but hang on tight to the little ones - there are some steep drops protected by questionable guard rails. There is a nominal entrance fee, about USD $2 for foreign adults. Park signs are in Spanish and English (English translation courtesy of Google).
There are many reasons to stay at Hotel de Su Merced in Sucre - the lovely staff, the soft beds, the central location. But the best part of staying here? You can have lemon meringue pie for breakfast every day. It is included in the delicious breakfast which also includes the usual eggs, fruits and assorted other breakfast pastries. But until Bolivia, we had never considered pie a breakfast food. We might just have to keep this in our morning routine.
This was purely one of those luck of the draw photos as I was sitting in my hotel room in one of the tallest cities in the world. I walked to the lobby and noticed the orange hue of sunset had set in. I didn’t have much of a view from my room, so I frantically raced up to the roof to see if they had a walkway. They didn’t, but they did have a couple open windows which I was able to lean out of and get some fantastic sunset shots with the Monastery peak in the foreground and the fiery sunset in the background.
For traditional Bolivian food, the residents around the San Miguel area of La Paz like El Vagón del Sur. I started out with the tucumanas (empanadas with a spicy garlic sauce) and surubi (an Amazon river fish), followed by the picante de pollo (chicken in a spicy red sauce, served with potates and chuño). Outdoor seating is available when the weather is warm, and most entrees go for around USD $10 each.
Achachairú (ah-cha-chay-ROO) - one of my favorite parts about Bolivia is native to the eastern region near Santa Cruz. Bolivian women (usually from La Paz) dressed in native clothing offer bags and bags of this delicious fruit at practically every stop light. All you have to do is hand over 10 bolivanos out of the window of your car and soon the entire bag is sitting on your lap waiting to be cracked open. To enjoy the fruit you have to crease the skin a bit with your fingernail and then squeeze it until it pops open. The white fruit surrounds a small pit inside and essentially you just eat the pulp! Before you know it, this bag turns into a pile of skins and pits on the floor. Wishing they exported to the US...
Even if I didn't have family in Bolivia I might fly to La Paz every so often just to eat salteñas, a meat or chicken pie. You can find them just about anywhere in the city, and the only bad salteñas I've had are the ones I tried to make myself. Watch out for the olive.
The San Francisco cathedral was originally constructed in 1549. Take the guided tour of the church (20 Bolivianos per person, or about USD $3) even if you don't speak Spanish. The guide will lead you up to the roof for some great views of La Paz. Take a deep breath if you're claustrophobic - the stone stairway is a bit tight.
One of Bolivia's leading artists, Mamani Mamani, painted this mural on the exterior wall of the Lanza shopping center (close to the Plaza San Francisco). You can also view some of his original paintings in the VIP lounge of the movie theater in the Megacenter mall in the Zona Sur. Prices range from USD $800 to $2000 (for the paintings, not the movie). There's also the Casa Museo Mamani Mamani in San Miguel (C. Gabriel Rene Moreno #1248, Bloque D-3, San Miguel, La Paz, Bolivia).
Tiwanaku is an ancient, Pre-Incan city considered by archaeologists to be one of the most important Pre-Colombian archaeological sites. It takes an hour to get there from the the Cementerio district of La Paz, and it is well worth it. The citizens of this ancient state believed that the head was the dwelling place for the soul, so the city is full of stone heads!
Spend any time walking around Bolivia’s capital city, and you’re sure to witness a curious and initially ominous sight: Men and boys in ski masks and stained clothes are ubiquitous on the sidewalks of La Paz. Especially when you first spot one, or have one walk straight toward you, it can be unsettling if you don’t know who they are or why they look like a mugger. Not unlike India’s untouchable class, Bolivia’s lustrabotas, or shoeshine boys, live in a world of blatant discrimination and shame. Stuck on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, many are homeless, and they are often harassed by fellow Bolivians. As a result, the tradition of the mask was born. In 2009, you could volunteer through the Adventure Brew Hostel with a street outreach organization that ran a soup kitchen in El Alto, La Paz’s poorest (and highest) neighborhood. Most of the patrons were lustrabotas, who relished the opportunity for community and a warm meal. Within the confines of this oasis, some even shed their masks. Child-workers shared stories of wearing the disguise so that their schoolmates would not know what they did for a living. I’m not sure that volunteer program still exists, but the lustrabotas now sell a newspaper called Hormigon Armada (Army of Ants) to raise funds for themselves. You can also apparently volunteer for lustrabota street outreach through an NGO, the Rainbow Foundation. It might be the most heartbreaking, but rewarding and memorable thing you do in Bolivia.
Calle Jaén is a pedestrian-only colonial street close to the Plaza Murillo, containing a number of museums and artist workshops. The Marka Tambo peña is also here (Calle Jaén 710) if you'd like to catch live performances of traditional Bolivian music. The Spanish-language show starts at 10pm (-ish).
Okay, so it's hard to find a bad cup of coffee in Bolivia. But if you're in the San Miguel area of La Paz, you can check out the Roaster Boutique. Not only can you get a cup of coffee and a slice of cheesecake, but you can also sign up for classes on "The Science of Coffee," or "How to Be a Barista" (both beginner and advanced levels).
I don't know if I had ever climbed anything before my summer in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Growing up just outside of Philadelphia, outside activities like hiking just weren't relevant, and now I found myself living in a city 8,400 feet above sea level. Walking through the markets induced heavy breathing. I saw the snow-capped mountain every morning on my walk to work. It was nice to look at and a nice change of pace for me. I never even thought climbing it was an option. Too my surprise, a few hiker friends of mine from all over the world popped the question while out at dinner. "Hey, tomorrow we're going to climb Cerro Tunari, you in?" I wasn't really sure what this entailed. Do I need a pole? Can I wear running shoes? I quickly learned it requires altitude pills, lots of bread and jam, layered sweatshirts, and some humility. As we approached the top, breaks were necessary every 3-5 minutes to actually find oxygen. Reaching the top was a revelation for me. I could see miles into the distance, looked down on the clouds, and was overcome with a feeling of calm. A new passion was born. I now find myself climbing things wherever it is I'm traveling.
Beautiful basecamps are a real treat at this mountain range in the Bolivian Andes. Set on the stunning Chiar Khota Lake, hikers fortify themselves with fresh trout caught in the lower mountain lakes before ascending the surrounding peaks. Greener mountaineers or those looking for a warm-up will enjoy fun day hikes to Austria Peak, a popular trekking route outside of basecamp. The pyramid of snow that is Pequeño Apalmayo is the main attraction and you’ll experience an additional summit of Tarija peak on your way to the top. Serious mountaineers can attempt Condorri Peak from the same basecamp, making this location ideal for a range of interests and abilities.
The Guembé Biocenter is a 60-acre environmental resort/preserve (if that's a thing) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It has a restaurant and swimming pools, as well as extensive grounds that contain a lake, tropical plants, an aviary, and a butterfly pavilion. It's a fun way to spend the day in Santa Cruz, and it's very kid-friendly.
Mercado Cancha Calatayud is South America's largest open air market, selling everything from books to furniture, clothing to diapers, live animals to mouth watering saltenas (if you do not know what a saltena is, it is reason enough to book a trip to Bolivia!!). No single photograph could capture the chaotic and staggering energy that permeates every alleyway and main artery of this market. This photo is of two Cochabamba women (who dress much differently than those living in the Altiplano), taking a break from the hectic nature of the mercado to catch up, not flinching a bit as busses whizzing by their sides. Although Cochabamba is Bolivia's 4th largest city, we did not find many travellers there, although there is a large ex-pat community. With its mile weather, progressive and passionate people, and stimulating market culture, Cochabamba lured us to stay about 10 days longer than we had initially planned!
A lot of the Salar de Uyuni tours include an early-morning drive out across the salt flats--largest in the world, and around 12,000 ft. high--but there's a far more satisfying way to enjoy the other-worldly light show. We stayed in a salt-block hotel on the mud-flats along the Salar's edge, and after willing ourselves out of bed in the punishing pre-dawn chill of the Altiplano, we strolled out onto the perfectly flat expanse of salt. By the time we got as far as we dared go--you never want to lose sight of buildings, as people do get lost--we could see 4x4s in the distance shuttling their charges out for a glimpse of sunrise. But from our vantage point, all was silent and perfectly still--especially the water, which at this time of year forms a mirror some 200km square.
On our first trip to Guatemala, (pre-digital era), my wife spoke rudimentary Spanish and I was far from fluent. In return for our fledgling language skills, this girl gave us a warm smile...and perfectly smoky tortillas as well. A few years later, we would return; my head-start in the language had disappeared, as my wife's Spanish had caught up to mine; we could finally both communicate with ease. Handmade tortillas and friendly smiles would become mainstays during the year we lived in Central America...
We took a 3 day jeep trip from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. This incredible trip features lagoons in colors like crimson, coral, violet, chartreuse and icy blue. The high altitude desert reveals crystal clear night skies awash in stars. Other highlights include geysers, active volcanos, salt flats and hot springs. These otherworldly scenes along with wildlife like llamas, flamingos and alpaca come together to create a truly unique landscape. It is an absolutely unforgettable experience for around 200 USD.
Every morning at 10 o'clock sharp, the local taxi and minibus drivers line their vehicles up in front of the Cathedral of the Virgin of Copacabana to receive her blessing for health, wealth, and safety on Bolivia's notoriously treacherous roads. They buy elaborate decorations from the local vendors; paper flowers, streamers, and small statues of the Virgin are carefully placed on the vehicle. The atmosphere is bright and festive. Taxi drivers are wearing their Sunday-best and family members take lots of pictures. Finally, an elderly woman emerges from the cathedral carrying incense, and a huge bottle of beer! She walks from vehicle to vehicle offering a prayer of blessing, waving the incense, and for the grand finale, she splashes beer onto the hood of each car. The drivers leave the ceremony happily displaying a new sign in the rear window: BENDECIDO EN COPACABANA (Blessed in Copacabana). ThenI think to myself "does it cost more to ride in those taxis than in others that haven't been blessed?"
From Avenida Sucre, take Avenida La Bandera and then head uphill. Climb the flight of stairs, take a few minutes to catch your breath, and enjoy the panoramic view of La Paz. Be sure to wear sunblock! The sun is strong at this altitude. No entrance fee.
For some reason, Mexican mariachi bands are very popular at Bolivian weddings these days, which struck me as a bit odd. Then again, people in my country do the chicken dance at weddings, so who am I to judge? On Saturdays you can go to los Puentes Trillizos (a group of three bridges in La Paz) to see paceña brides-to-be walking across in their wedding dresses for good luck.
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