4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Bolivia”

My South America Favorites + Returning “Home” (by Carmen)

17th century map of South America

Our South America trip was better than I could have ever expected.  I loved practicing my Spanish, scouting out local cuisine, imbibing lots of caipirinhas and red wine, and observing the mix of old world and new world traditions.  One thing I hadn’t quite expected was the jaw dropping natural beauty, from jungles and beaches to arid, bushy plains; from huge cacti growing out of red rocks to stark Andean mountainscapes.  It was a collection of unforgettable experiences.

With that in mind, I thought I would get through some FAQs.  These generally begin with “what was your favorite…”.  So here are a selection of my favorites from my fifteen weeks down south.

Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires

Nathan grilling up some lomito

Sifones used to store soda water

Fútbol fanáticos

Favorite City: Buenos Aires.  The city has a special lived in elegance to it.  I enjoyed the cafe culture, the pretty parks, and the slightly rough around the edges feel to it.  And the Argentinian accent, which uses a lot of soft “j” sounds, was incredibly endearing.

Cafayate View

Last rays of sun in the Cafayate canyons

Favorite Town: Cafayate. Good wine, yummy empanadas, an alfajores factory, a spacious main plaza, beautiful scenery and wine flavored ice cream…Cafayate instantly welcomed us.

Pasta, wine, yum…at Pierinos

Quinoa salad at Market in Rio de Janeiro

Artemisia in Buenos Aires

Favorite Restaurant: Pierinos.  I love pasta.  This is the third time I’ve mentioned it in this blog but the slow cooked sauces Pierinos slathers on its homemade pasta steal my heart.  Other favorite eats include Artemesia‘s mostly vegetarian fare, the fresh salads and smoothies at Market, any buffet in Brazil, and fresh ceviche in Peru.

Delicious fried trucha

Chicharron sandwich stand in Arequipa

Favorite Hole in the Wall: Trucha stands on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. So simple but so good with the fresh caught trout fried to perfection in garlic and oil. El Cuartito served my favorite pizza in Buenos Aires.  The lomito sandwich in cordoba wasn’t much to look at but was delicious and big enough for the both of us.  And then there was the chicharron sandwich Arequipa. Fried pork with spicy coleslaw is always a winner.

The spectacular Salar de Uyuni trip

Nathan and me enjoying Bolivian scenery

Nathan the mountaineer on Salkantay

Favorite Sight Salar de Uyuni and Salkantay Mountain. We saw so many beautiful sights but it is the people you share it with that make it even better.  Therefore it’s a tie between the non-stop excitement of the salar de uyuni trip and the first view of Salkantay with old friends from San Francisco. Oh and Iguazu Falls too!

Wine and Cheese in Tafí del Valle

Schwarzwald beer hall in Curitiba, Brazil – I loved the mini stein in the big stein!

Favorite Drinking Experience: Wine and cheese in Tafí del Valle.  We brought a wonderful Malbec from Mendoza, sliced up some local cheese and sat on the porch of the historic villa we stayed at. Heaven.  I also loved collecting mini beer steins at the convivial German beer hall Schwarzwald.  And the most delicious caipirinhas I tasted were made by a Peruvian at Pepe’s Bar in Foz de Iguazu.

Bossa Nova in Rio de Janeiro

Marching band in Copacabana

Favorite Live Music: Los Tabaleros performing at the hidden restaurant. The chef and his friends played the show at the secret restaurant my classmate’s roommates hosted.  I’m still happy I won the cd! Also enjoyed the classic bossa nova in Ipanema and the parade music at Copacabana’s festival.

Church roof in Potosí

Potato peddlers in Sucre

Best Place to Go If You’ve Only Got a Couple Weeks: Bolivia.  The variety of the sights here is incredible!  You can enjoy lush jungles or cold windy mountains.  The people are friendly and helpful.  They keep the traditional culture alive and well.  And, importanly, it’s inexpensive to get around.

Chandelier in Argentina’s congress building

All the places we went and sights we saw, and there is still more to see.  I was sad to leave South America when there is so much more to explore. On the other hand, adventures in other parts of the world beckoned.

Dewy rose in Tafí del Valle

From Peru we returned “home” to California but that’s a tricky word for me.  If home is where the heart is, mine is rather split up. Immediate family in Southern California, close friends in San Francisco, extended family in Chicago.  And then there’s the part of my heart passionate about travel, which creates an itch to make a home in new places.

So the final and most popular FAQ, “What’s next?” Should we travel for the entire year? You’ll have to read the next post to find out.

Where oh where will we go from here?

Northern Migration (by Nathan)

Recoleta Cemetary

In January I began my southern migration. I escaped the constant 60 degrees of San Francisco for the sun and summertime of South America. I was excited to begin work on improving my Spanish and I was ready to live and travel through countries and cultures of which I had only a cursory knowledge.  The plan was to roam from city to city with an open mind, a loose pocket book and a constant curiosity to explore and enjoy the differences in these countries.  After four months of adventure, Carmen and I would return to California ready to embark on another journey.

Fugazza and Faina Pizza

Açai breakfast

Our trip began in Buenos Aires with food, activities and cultures that stood up to any great city. The fugazza pizza was deliciously unique with thick doughy crust, creamy cheese and heaps of oven caramelized onions.  El Cuartito was the best, and I think Rick agreed. I would return for the pizza and empanadas and all the beautiful streets that BsAs has to offer.

Sunset on Ipanema Beach, Rio

Carmen and the sands of Rio

We traveled through Uruguay and into Brazil. Rio de Janiero was everything that I love in a travel destination. Beaches stretched endlessly with the urban landscape pressed right up against the sand.  The culture is vibrant with dance, music and tropical foods.  The açai and fresh fruit drinks stand out as an epitome of fresh summertime delights. The country is a mix of indigenous, Europeans, Africans and Asians, a familiar mix to the United States so we felt welcomed as foreigners.  We could swim, climb a mountain and go dancing all in one day.  I enjoyed gaining a better understanding of the favelas as well as peering down into the city from the many vistas.

Fun at Lapa steps

Iguazú Waterfalls

We worked our way through Brazil’s vast landscape.  We visited the breathtaking waterfalls in Iguazú that roared unbelievably over the cliffs edge. We baked in in the sun on Ihla do Mel on coastal Brazil and we jointed friends in Santiago Chile.  We bussed our way over the Andes into Mendoza for a day or two (or three) of wineries, biking and empanadas. We explored German settled villages and the bigger cities of Córdoba and Salta. It was the canyons that really captured my heart.

Fun light fixture at our hostel

El castillo en Quebrada de Cafayate

Another one of my favorite cities was the charming Cafayate in Argentina.  We sipped wine at several walk able bodegas. We hiked through beautiful canyons and cliff formations.  And most often, we enjoyed strolling through the cozy town.  With a simple town square and food market our time here was relaxing and satisfying.

Jumping off rocks at valle de rocas

Fun on the salt flats

Another bus brought us into Bolivia. The country is poor with struggle, but thriving with cheap delicious food, unforgettable sights and nice helpful people.  One of my favorite experiences of the entire trip was the four day trek into the Salar De Uyuni.We visited brightly colored lagoons, spectacular volcanic rocks and salt flats that made us act silly with our new friends. The home-cooked Bolivian food was excellent and every day I wanted to take the little woman home with me to teach me everything she knows in the kitchen.

Painted desert in Bolivia

Salt harvesting

We continued high into the mountains. The cities of Potosí and Sucre were wonderful places to learn about Bolivia, South America and the indigenous people that lived here for thousands of years.  La Paz contained the best market that we experienced in South America.  This was because the stalls could not be contained by any building and instead flowed out on the streets in every direction.  It was mayhem and delight simultaneously. I loved it!

The best market streets is in La Paz

We biked down mountains in La Paz and hiked islands of Lake Titicaca. A festival in Copacabana engaged our feet and sent us running for cover from fireworks.  Bolivia has a rustic, untamed, and raw quality to it that flaunts colorful traditions with people that are genuine and kind.

Street in Arequipa

When we had finally made our way into Peru our bellies began being stuffed to the brim with constant feasts of amazing food.  Arequipa was the best food city we went to in South America.  There was ceviche, alpaca, rocoto rellenos, chicharrones and fresh fruit smoothies. We found something delicious everywhere we went.  The city had beautiful architecture and the nearby Colca Canyon was great for hiking.

Arequipa food market

Our history lesson continued when we finally arrived in Cusco.  The city is packed with nearby ruins and a brutal history where the mighty Incas were decimated by the Spanish. One downfall of Cusco and Peru is that very few sights have accessible tourist information.  There are an abundance of guides, that costs, entry fees are high and there are many sights to see which makes Peru a challenge for tourists on a budget.  But with friends it is all worth it.

Machu Picchu

On our Machu Picchu trek we went all out with excellent cooks, porters, equipment and a guide.  I think I liked the walking and hiking just as much as the ruins.  We walked for six days climbing snow covered passes, jungles and high altitude wetlands.  We stuffed ourselves on Peruvian favorites and we laughed until we hurt playing card games into the night.  We wondered around countless ruins out doing one another in jumping photos and we caravanned up and down the mountainsides. Machu Picchu in itself is a spectacular piece of history and archeology.  We combined it with Salkantay, the Inca Trail and friends for an unforgettable adventure.

Carmen patiently waiting for me to finish the photo

Our final city in Peru was LimaThe time spent there was brief, but the amounts of ceviche consumed copious.  Ponte de Azul ceviche stands out as one of my favorite meals.  The fish was firm and fresh and the juice sour and spicy.  In the blink of an eye Lima was over and we were boarding a plane saying goodbye to this Lima, Peru and South America.

Every vacation involves exploring new places, having adventures and creating memories.  The challenge and fun of any vacation for Carmen and me is that we leave with a longer list of places to see and immerse ourselves into next time.  Our next trip to South America would focus on exploring the natural side of this continent.  Patagonia tops our list of “must sees.”  We did not want to lug around our carpas and sacos de dormir (tents and sleeping bags) this trip.  So next time we plan on several weeks of hiking and back-country camping.  We want to see the coasts of Peru and Colombia known for beautiful beaches.  And finally we want to see more of Brazil- Belem is supposedly vibrant and bountiful with Amazonian foods and culture.  In no way did we calm our enjoyment of Brazilian rhythms and dance; we want more samba!

Outside the airport, our last minutes in Peru

There are so many places to visit; each city or village opens new possibilities of adventure.  We walk everywhere and we eat everything; that is what 4feet2mouths is all about.  Our love for travel has taken us to the other side of the world.  And as fall sets on South America we land in Los Angeles ready for new adventures, more exotic countries, more tiring hikes and street food that will leave our mouths searing and tingling.  Traveling is too much fun to stop now.  Do you want to join us?

One of my favorite photos: Congresso reflection, BsAs

Dancing and Hiking in Copacabana and Isla Del Sol Bolivia (by Nathan)

Copacabana Bolivia

A trip through Bolivia would never be complete without seeing Copacabana and Lake Titicaca.  Carmen insisted that we stop here and we discovered a small cultural center tucked into a beautiful lake bay.

Two plates of trout

Sunset on Copacabana harbor

The most delicious thing about a town positioned on a lake is that there is access to fresh fish.  For weeks we had been chanting “trucha!” as a way to bring up spirits and remember the funny feijoada experience in Rio.  Now, in Copacabana, there were restaurants everywhere serving trout twenty different ways. And they are all really good.  We found a lakeside kiosk and ordered up one fish “de la diabla” (spicy red sauce) and another “a la plancha con aji” (grilled with garlic).  The fish was tender and juicy and by far the best trout I have ever had!

Our bus on a barge

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  We arrived to Copacabana from La Paz on a bus.  The bus saves some time from driving around the large peninsula and we all had to ride a short ferry ride across the bay.  Even the bus was loaded onto a barge and carried across.  Then the bus weaved its way in and out of the fingers of the lake and eventually dropped into the cute little town.  We expected a calm, tranquil town, but instead found thousands of people and a raging party.

Parade dancing

Lantern costumes

Lantern costumes

Our arrival in Copacabana coincided with one of the biggest holidays in Bolivia, La Fiesta de la Cruz.  It begins around May 3 and lasts for four non-stop days.  Everybody participates and everyone was part of a color coordinated group.  The women wore brightly ornate dresses with bulbous flowing skirts and of course a bowler hat.  The men performed in marching bands or wore lantern-like costumes.  Each group of 100 to 200 people would parade up and down the streets and eventually arrive at the Iglesia de la Sagrada Cruz.

Couple on there way to dance in the plaza

Dancing on the plaza

The party did not stop there.  These groups would converge onto two main plazas.  The marching bands would stand on concrete bleachers swaying to the music, blowing their horns and slamming their drums.  Everyone was dancing in a sway and twirl back and forth.  The dance actually mimics a fighting style as this festival used to be a way for men of different tribes to compete for land.  Supposedly these fights still happen, but we did not see any.

Crazy firework apparatus

Throughout the day the song of the bands was only broken by the sharp crack and pop of fireworks.  At night the pyros had a feast of lights, sparks, flames and kabooms to entertain the crowd.  Carmen and I sat watching as what seemed one in ten rockets failing to explode in the sky came crashing into the plazas below.  At one point they brought out this crazy PVC pipe apparatus thirty feet tall.  Upon lighting it the pyro’s shoulder catches fire from the twirling sparks.  He pats it out and runs for cover as the sparks and flames fly out in all directions.  The colors and light illuminate the people that continue to dance next to this thing.  I looked over at Carmen and there is a mixed expression of fear and intrigued excitement .  The structure ends with sparks spewing out of a cross with high-pitched whistles then the whole thing catches fire.

View from our hotel room

Lofted bed and hammocks

Outside of the partying, Carmen and I found the nicest hotel we have ever stayed.  It was called Las Olas.  Our dining table overlooked the beautiful Copacabana bay.  Our room included indoor and outdoor hammocks, comfortable beds and a kitchenette all for $42 a night which was a splurge for Bolivia.

Sunset on Copacabana

The festivities were a ten minute walk from our scenic overlook.  At sunset our hammocks seemingly rocked to the rhythms of the trumpets.  Throughout the night the horns entered our dreams and at sunrise hundreds of people were still drinking and dancing.

Arch of abandoned building

Copacabana cathedral

The city itself is very picturesque.  The nearby hills provide wonderful overlooks and the bright cathedral is magnificent.  Carmen and I wandered the streets maneuvering around the parade and tasting everything the street vendors had to offer.

Bowl of trout ceviche

One dish I could not walk away from was a woman serving heaping bowls of ceviche from her plaza tent. People crowded around so the turnover looked good.  The end result was sour, spicy and crunchy with crisp roasted corn kernels.

Isla del Sol

Copacabana was just one reason for this destination.  The other was to experience and see more of Lake Titicaca.  This lake is enormous.  The size of the lake is roughly four times that of San Francisco Bay and 0ne hundred times deeper.  The lake is one of the highest in the world at 13,000 feet.

Terraced hillsides of Isla del Sol

We hopped on a ferry and travelled for two hours to Isla del Sol (the Island of the Sun).  The island was sacred to the Inca who believed it was the birthplace of humans.  Our plan was to spend the night and hike the ruins and across the whole island.

Sunrise from Isla del Sol

That evening we met some new friends Chris and Megan from Brisbane.  Sitting in the sand and watching the sun set we swapped travel stories of their camping in Africa and ours of eating through Asia.  We shared some bottles of Bolivian red wine and ate several aromatic plates of trucha.  It was an unexpectedly fun night in a village of less than fifty people.

Pigs napping on the path

The alarm went off when it was still dark.  We wanted to see sunrise on Isla del Sol.  In the faint light of dawn, pigs blocked our path, and then we met a puppy that wanted to hike with us.  These were our first Inca ruins and we were excited.  The ruins included a village of stone buildings and a sacrificial table that were five hundred years old.  And we were disappointed! Bolivia does not protect or care about its cultural treasures.  Our sunrise hike discovered a group of vagrant backpackers that had cooked dinner on the sacrificial table leaving their trash to scatter the site while they slept on the ruins.  A wrong turn in the stone structures and we found where they used the restroom.  How disrespectful can these people be?

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol

Inca ridge path

The buildings themselves were small and not the high quality masonry we would see in Peru.  The best part about Isla del Sol was not the ruins, but the walk itself.  The sacred Inca trail followed the ridgeline of the island and allowed for endless views of Lake Titicaca.  The water was deep blue that met the terraced hillsides that were cultivated five hundred years ago.  We climbed and dipped along the islands spine arriving to the south side for the island.  Another ferry and we bobbed our way to Copacabana.  We immediately grabbed a bus and we were on our way to Peru.  Copacabana and Isla del Sol already a memory of culture, a lake and trout.

Carmen on Inca path

Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road (by Carmen)

I am not an adrenaline junkie.  So when I first read about biking the “death road” I wrote it off as a sight I would definitely be skipping.  But…in Potosí and Sucre everyone we met was talking about it.  I started to be persuaded that it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

View from the top

The reason it is called the death road is because of the statistics.  In previous years an average of 26 vehicles a year fell off the 10 ft wide dirt road down the practically vertical cliff below.  The traffic was two-way and cars passing each other would have to do so in the slightly wider than 10 ft sections.  A more modern freeway was recently completed making the road obsolete, except for tourists on bikes and the occasional fool hardy vehicle.

Start of death road

The first part starts out relatively easy.  It is an 8 km downhill stretch of the modern roadway.  It was good practice going fast.  But then it was time for the tough part (or for Nathan, the fun part) to begin.  It was all downhill form here (literally, not figuratively).

Nathan in his gear

Nathan is an excellent mountain biker, having actually grown up in the mountains.  My childhood experiences of pedaling up and down my flat suburban street didn’t help me much here.  As I made my way down the bumpy road I cursed my decision to only get front suspension instead of rear as well.

The road

At least I felt in control enough that I wasn’t scared of the sheer drop I was riding next to.  Even when we passed waterfalls that flow directly on the road.  But I was definitely slower than the rest of the group.

Group on the edge

Riding through the waterfall

Overall, it was a great experience.  But after 3 1/2 hours, I had had enough.  I hopped in the support van after the guide announced that the last bit was going to be more “technical”.  I knew my butt couldn’t handle it.

Nearing the bottom of the valley

We had started at 4650 m (15,260 ft) and ended the day at 1525 m (5,000 ft).  Our sore muscles were rewarded with a dip in a pool and a buffet lunch.  The jungle setting at the end of the trip felt a world away from La Paz, though it was only a 3 hour ride back (on the modern road, thankfully).  So that’s how we survived the world’s most dangerous road!

Taking a break on a rare flat section

The Return of Street Food in the City of La Paz (by Nathan)

Streetside commotion and Iglesia San Francisco

One thing that is common among all my favorite cities is good street food.  I love experiencing a city that is vibrant with life on the streets.  I love the excitement of the people and the craziness of community that buys and sells everything on the roadside.  In some special places in the world some of the best meals were served from a vendor on a flimsy plastic plate or napkin wrapped delight. 

Street markets in La Paz

In La Paz we experienced a return of street markets.  The street vendors were endless; little stalls stuffed with produce, meat, blankets and DVD’s filling up the hillside with everything imaginable to buy.  Thousands of people scrambled from vendor to vendor weaving in and out of the sidewalk and street and carrying bags filled with the day’s purchases.

La Paz hillside homes

I could spend days and days wondering markets like these.  I do not even buy anything.  I enjoy meandering from stall to stall listening to one vendor describe the perfect mango, or another flaunt a superior winter coat and the buyers negotiating for a better price.  There is so much culture fit into these streets and I like to roam and soak it in deep into my lungs.  And my stomach too!

Sidewalk bowl of lentils

Quite often in these markets we find men and women selling local street side fresh food.  There are doughnut-like things with a molasses syrup, roasted turkeys or pork loins to be made into sandwiches and an abundant array of herbal and thick drinks served out of buckets.  Occasionally we are stopped by an intense aroma that causes us to swirl our head around looking for the source and occasionally this smell is linked to a vendor with a hoard of people huddled around grabbing for some of the delicious eats.  This is how we found lunch one day.  Two women had joined forces to cook up several pots of food and carry them to their sidewalk restaurant.  We had a heaping bowl of soup, pasta with lentils, potatoes and a salsa that made our mouths tingle.  And it cost $1.15 for the two of us!  We sat on a step and slurped down our lunch watching the people flock to this sidewalk deliciousness.

Iglesia San Francisco & plaza

Rooftop of Iglesia San Francisco

Further on we explored the Iglesia San Francisco that was originally built in 1548.  There was a beautiful gold altar and a rooftop terrace that offered views of the city.  The plaza below the church is a central meeting point with a constant stream of people enjoying the sun and people watching.

La Paz protest

Anyone who has been in Bolivia probably has been affected by or in some way has a story about a protest.  The Bolivians seemingly protest constantly.  Carmen and I were very fortunate to not have any of our regional bus trips impeded, but we did meet countless travelers that were delayed.  The protests involve road blocks and fireworks.  We watched from a nearby bridge in La Paz as hundreds of students marched along the main corridor.  There was a steady booming of explosions as the students stuffed rockets into makeshift bamboo tubes held high in the air.

Presidential palace and Wihala flag

Protests are common to all social groups.  Bolivia has one of the most complex populations in South America with the heritage and culture of the people originating from hundreds of different indigenous tribes.  There is even a flag composed of a quilt pattern of vibrant colors to demonstrate the multitude and coming together of these people to create a nation.

Collectivo micro vans

City planning zebra

Just as there is a patchwork of cultural traditions in Bolivia, there is also a patchwork of informal transit.  No formal bus line exists.  Instead private collective vans, called micros, roam the streets calling out their destinations from the window.  Carmen and I crammed into several of these vans to maneuver our way around the city.  The competition for passengers makes for some aggressive driving.  Therefore there is a planning mascot (a happy little zebra) that attempts to restore order to the streets by designating specific passenger drop-off locations.

San Pedro prison entrance

We could not visit La Paz without seeing San Pedro prison for ourselves.  We read a great book called Marching Powder that described the life and experiences of one inmate named Thomas McFadden.  Thomas lived in the prison following an arrest for drug trafficking.  The prison is unique because it is in the center of La Paz and nothing is provided to the inmates by the government, not even a cell.  Inmates rely on their families, friends and personal bank accounts to buy a cell and buy food in the prison.  There are restaurants, stores and mini apartments all housed within the prison walls.  Every prisoner gets a job in the prison, cooking, passing messages or even giving tours.  Thomas started the tours of the prison, but they have since increased dramatically in price.  The most amazing thing is that prisoners are allowed to bring their families into the prison.  The wives and children are allowed to come and go freely throughout the day.  Carmen and I showed up at the prison to watch the door and see the families and people living inside.  Most of what we could see was this enormous trash truck parked tight against the doorway and prisoners carrying suspicious heavy sacks “trash” then covering them with loose debris.  I would not doubt that they still make cocaine there.

Colorful hanging textiles

Colorful street

La Paz streets are intense with colors.  Brightly colored llama and alpaca wool fabrics hang from shop windows in the area that has been nicknamed gringo ghetto.  I bought myself a soft alpaca sweater knowing how warm and life-saving they can be in the cold.  Other streets contained buildings boldly painted in with blues, yellows and reds.

La Paz dowtown

La Paz is unlike any city that we have visited.   The biggest city in Bolivia is unlike lacks modern western influence; there is a rustic and rawness to the streets that is captivated and a history that is exciting.  Thousands of white-washed buildings with clay roves sit perched on the mountains that overlook the city.  The city is, in a way, shaped like a huge bowl and the culture and delights inside are just ready to be gobbled up.

The Sweet Life in Sucre (by Carmen)

Main plaza of Sucre

Sucre, which means sugar in French, is an easy place to like.  Its laid back charm and colonial architecture make it a picturesque city.  Think white-washed buildings, slender stone arches and a tree-lined main square. It also has an international flair with European style cafes and more than a few Italian restaurants.

Picture perfect arches

While Potosí grew out of the silver mines, Sucre was the location of an important law school.  This school became the breeding grounds for the revolutionaries who declared independence from Spain.  Although it took 50 years of war, they Bolivians finally signed their constitution in Sucre.  The economic and political center of the country has since moved to La Paz but Sucre takes pride in the fact that it still is the official capital of Bolivia.

La Dolce Vita Hotel

But we didn’t come to Sucre for the history.  We wanted to enjoy the easy pace of life.  First stop was to check in to our comfortable hotel named, of course, La Dolce Vita.  It was the most spacious placed we have stayed.  The friendly French owners directed us to our first restaurant, an Italian place that overlooked the whole city.

Mirador (overlook) arches

As we enjoyed our yummy nut and her pasta we ran into two of our favorite travelers – Matteo and Gosia!

The official best pizza in Bolivia – they got the award to prove it!

We had a bit of an Italian theme going on as later in our stay we joined our friends for pizza.  It was surprisingly tasty, prepared by a Bolivian guy who had lived in both Italy and Washington DC.  Pizza, wine, excellent company – what more can you ask for?

Bolivian textile with the Milky Way in the center

While in Sucre we got a little culture by going to a textile museum.  We learned how the colorful fabrics often worn by the women in traditional dress have meanings embroidered into them.  This one was particularly cool because it depicted an abstract version of the Milky Way, an important celestial body for indigenous cultures.

Sucre street

Us on the rooftop

As sunset approached we ran over to a church off the main square known for its rooftop views.

The bountiful market

Delicious fruit juice

In the mornings we made a point to head to the market, which had a bountiful display of veggies, fruits, sweets, cakes and sundries.  But our favorite part was the juice stands.  Fresh fruit blended right in front of you all for about 70 us cents.  All the juice ladies call out to entice you, offering 2 for one prices.  It was deliciously refreshing and we visited 1 to 2 times a day!

Lunch at the market

On our last day we enjoyed a market meal consisting of stewed meats, noodles, potatoes and a fermented fruit juice.  Afterwards, a final visit to a chocolate shop was a sweet goodbye to Sucre.  That is, until the chocolate melted all over the inside of my bag. Oops.

Sucre at sunset

Finding Enlightenment And Darkness in Potosí (by Nathan)

Scenic drive to Potosí

Potosí is a city of contradictions.  The contrasts of both riches and defeat are deeply rooted into the high mountains; the history of the city is glorified in majestic architecture and the poverty weathered into the faces of the people.  At first we knew little about the city other than there was a silver mine and it had an altitude unmatched by any other city of the world.  We discovered a place exploding in culture and experiences that we will never forget.

Historic map of Potosí

The city is breathtakingly high in the mountains. We avoided the taxi stand and trudged up the hillside with our backpacks on.  After a six hour bus ride a thirty minute walk at 13,500ft (4100m) seemed doable.  We are a little crazy sometimes.  At each block we sucked in deep breaths of oxygenless air and held onto our chests as our throbbing hearts tried to escape.  A little light-headed and we arrived at our hostel ready to explore the city.

El Cerro Rico through colonial arch

Potosí has a history entwined with Spanish colonial dominance and the production of silver.  Mid-sixteenth century a meandering llama shepherd on the mountainside discovered silver flowing from beneath his campfire.  Within decades the Spanish had colonized and created the city of Potosí beneath the cerro rico (rich hill).

Silver extraction factory

The Spanish forced indigenous and African slaves to work the mines months at a time without seeing light.  The population of Potosí grew so much in the 17th century that over 15,000 men worked in the mines at one time and the city’s population exceeded that of Paris.  Potosí quickly became the richest and most populous city in South America.

4feet2mouths Miners

The mines are still a central part of Potosí.  They are less productive than they once were, but nevertheless over 1,500 men continue to work in over 500 mines that have swiss-cheesed through the mountain.  Carmen and I decided to see the mines for ourselves.  The unique part of visiting the mines is that tourists are supposed to bring gifts for the miners within.  With our coveralls, rubber boots and headlamps we tromped our way to the miners’ market.  We purchased a stick of dynamite, a detonator and nitroglycerine as an explosive gift (only $3!) and a couple liters of soda for the other miners.

Coca leaves

Another purchase was a bulbous bag of coca leaves.  Coca has been used in these mountains for thousands of years and it is drastically different from the connotations associated with cocaine.  The miners chew and macerate 50-200 stemless leaves and they keep the wad in a huge ball in the side of their mouths.  Throughout long hours of work the coca leaves provide energy, alertness and they suppress the need to eat.  An added benefit is that they help ease the effects of altitude sickness.  It takes 1kg of coca leaves to make 1g of cocaine along with many nasty chemicals, so chastising coca is similar to relating a cup of coffee to methamphetamines.

Enormous crystal of bolivianita

The mines were hot, 95°F (35°C) and wet and dusty.  We started in the candeleria mine and we worked our way 1000ft (300m) horizontally into the mountain.  The caverns were created 300-400 years ago and unfortunately I am taller than the smaller natives that dug the mines.  I hunched and squat-walked through the water and muck.  Then there was only a seemingly solid section of rock and an obscured cavity just larger enough to crawl on our stomachs.  The air was thick and the walls wet and the rock dark with an occasional sparkle of silver or pyrite or a stripe of yellow sulfur.

Los Mineros

“Vamos, vamos vamos!” Our guide yelled at us.  We rushed along the tunnel to an opening and he pushed us against the wall.  The slow rumble of the mine became louder; suddenly a two ton cart full of rocks rushes passed us with one miner clinging onto the back.  Our guide stuffs a bottle of Fanta in the cart and a drawn out “graciaaaas” reaches us from the depths of the darkness.

We climbed to the inner depths of the mine.  We would poke our heads down a little hovel then scale the dark cliffs within.  At first we were all cautious of the 300 year old pieces of wood that braced the openings, but when looking into the abyss all of us scratched and clung onto every foothold and support we could find.  Finally we reached the bottom, level four and 275 ft (80m) down.  We found a thirty-two year old miner that looked over fifty that spent all day hammering two holes for dynamite.  At the end of each day he would set off the charges and carry out the rocks in a backpack.

The city of Potosí

The lives of the men are hard in the mines.  The expected lifespan of a miner rarely exceeds fifty years and most die from silicosis, falling rocks or misplaced explosives.  Children also work in the mines; boys as young as ten years work to support their families.  One thing is for certain, they can earn four times more in the mines than in the city of Potosí.  So the men work extremely hard for a few ounces of silver and their lives remain difficult.

Inside the 450 year old Convento San Francisco

The dichotomy of life in Potosí extends to religion as well.  Outside in the light is a community passionate about the Catholic Church. Potosí has several beautiful colonial churches and the San Francisco was constructed in 1547 as a slightly smaller version of St. Peter’s Basilica.  In the darkness of the mines the people pray to a different god, “Tio,” the devil of the mountain.  Their daily offerings of 96% moonshine-like alcohol and coca leaves to clay statues in the caves are a way of satisfying the mountain so that they remain protected and the veins of silver remain plentiful.  The miners live these two lives: hours of darkness and heat in the mountain and a life of family and church in the city.  After four hours of clambering around in the mines the light at the end of the tunnel was thrilling. Squinting and sweating I finally straightened out and looked into the city of Potosí.

Courtyard in Convento Santa Teresa

Potosí was also home to one of the strictest nunneries.  The upper-class Spanish followed a regiment with the lives of their children.  The first born married wealthy into the colonial upper class, the third born served the military and took care of the parents in old age. The second child was dedicated to the church.  In the case of Potosí families paid an equivalent of $100,000 as a dowry for their daughter to become a Carmelite nun at St. Teresa’s.  The rules of the nunnery were so strict that the nuns could only speak one hour per day and there was no communication to the outside world.  Families could visit one hour per month and they were not allowed to see or touch their daughter.

La Virgen De Cerro Rico

We observed a trend in many of the religious paintings.  The virgin Mary appears in many places as would be expected in a catholic country, but the shapeless mound that is typically meant to be non-seductive had been adapted in Potosí to be la sagrada virgin de cerro rico.  During pre-colonial times  each mountain was a god, with colonialism the traditions of the indigenous people merged with the icons of the catholic church. 

Other paintings and figures show a bloody version of Jesus on the cross.  This graphic imagery comes from the indigenous painters intertwining their own pain and suffering from the Spanish colonial rule into their faith in a new religion.

Traditional outfits on colonial streets

Cathedral by night

Walking the streets of Potosí we were constantly welcomed with a splash of history and tradition.  A 400 year old church and a cobble-stoned path were all common sites.  On one occasion we crossed a mother and children each wearing a traditional bowler hats.  In the evening the brightly lit cathedral was a beacon of the city.

Barbershop in Potosí

I too needed enlightenment and getting a haircut seemed to be the easiest way to lighten the weight on my shoulders.  I had been scared to get a haircut for many months because Argentine men have notoriously horrible hair styles.  Throughout our travels we saw multiple rat-tails, lobster-tails and mullets and I refused to pay for something so wrong.  In Potosí I found a nice shop, but I still shook my head vehemently when the barber pointed at a poster of boys with mohawks, fauxhawks and bowl cuts.

Kala purca at Puka Wasi restaurant

With my ears lowered we were in search of some food.  We found a great little restaurant with some local quechua favorites.  Kala purca is a local stew of meat and potatoes that arrives with a scalding volcanic rock bubbling and gurgling in the bowl.  Another night we found a street side snack of lomito and milanesa sandwiches cooked out of tiny stalls.  Each sandwich was doused with an array of sauces, topped with fries and spicy salsa.

Street food in Potosí

Potosí is a charming colonial city.  Carmen and I loved the historic architecture and the rich culture throughout the city.  From this one city, we were gaining an understanding of how Bolivia’s history affects its present.

Salar + me + u = Jumping Photos – Day 4 (by Nathan)

4am – BEEP BEEP BEEP

We rush to get our stuff together, we grab our jackets, the tripod and the camera...today we are going to the salt flat.  Bolivia has the biggest dried salt lake in the world – the Salar de Uyuni.  The salt lake is so big that it contains more than 60% of the worlds lithium and covers about 4100 sq.mi. (the equivalent of 10 NYC’s).  Our jeep drives right onto the salt flat and in no time we are speeding along in the darkness with a destination that none of us can see.

Salt hotel made from salt blocks

We arrive at a hotel de sal which is a salt made building in the middle of the flat.  We had breakfast of bread jam and mate de coca while sitting on salt-carved tables and stools.

Sunrise over the salt flat

The sun slowly crept to the horizon and filled the sky with bright pinks and orange. Gradually the golden light crept to our feet revealing a flat expanse of solid white.  We had to convince our minds that it was in fact salt because the coldness and bleakness of the salar tricks the mind that it is snow.

Jeep silhouettes

Carmen and I practising our jump kicks

And then the jumping photos began… The reason for this?  When else will we be in an environment surrounded by flat white with the visual effects of high-flying kicks?

Fun with food

We also had quite a bit of fun playing with some beer cans and bottles.  We did our best to remember the Honey I Shrunk The Kids movie infused with a little imagination of our own.

It came down to a showdown between the couples: Carmen and I won!

One, two three! Ready, squat jump! were words repeated over and over again and with each leap a medley of laughter as each of us tried to time the best karate kick and jump into the air. Finally it came down to a competition between the couples.  Mark, Sally, Silvio and Mila had impressive jumps, Matteo and Gosia had the height, but could not synchronize after fifty or so jumps, but in the end it was Carmen and I that had the best leap (note: if any of you disagree, send me the photo and we’ll have a vote.)!

Jeep tour friends

Group jump shot

And there were group shots, many many group shots, leaving us all out of breath and our jumping legs throbbing.

Walking from a wine bottle

We attempted to walk out of wine bottles, or being blown from hair dryers, or even squished by a shoe.  All in all it was a morning filled with laughs and fun with our friends.

Salt cones in preparation for harvesting

Exhausted, we made our way from the salt flat.  On the outer edges the people harvest the salt into large cones for drying then refining.

Traditional woman and baby llama in Uyuni

In Uyuni we scheduled a bus for Potosí.  We were rushing to get to the bus when we were stopped in our tracks by the cutest baby llama.  The woman attempted to hold it down for me, but it was quite restless.

We clamber onto the bus and shove our packs between our legs.  Our bodies were exhausted form the repetitive jumping, and our minds overloaded and jaded from the amazing views.  The grandeur and magic of the scenery of the last 4 days was sensational.  There were carved surreal landscapes, painted lagoons, expansive canyons and colors, vibrant colors that I did not imagine were possible at a large natural scale.  Looking back on it, I have a hard time fathoming all the wondrous beauty that we saw.  A Salar de Uyuni trek should be on everyone’s South American itinerary!

Brilliant blue skies

Our bus bounced along the roadway, jiggling and rattling its way up the mountain dirt roads.  Only the main streets are paved.  The vibrations are quite soothing, but the bus continues to acquire more and more people.  Within the first hour our the entire aisle has also filled with people scrambling to hold on as the driver twists and turns the bus at each corner.  A woman next to us held a plump baby with a shawl wrapped around her back.  On her front, several other bags hung from her shoulders; her one free hand clawed at doorjamb for stability.  After a couple hours the baby became restless.  I offered for her to lean the baby on my backpack that was on my lap, instead she passed me the chubby baby. We giggled and made faces at each other for the next hour.  I attempting to entertain it with the few items that I had accessible, but my red water bottle did not have much success for long.  She was a cute little thing and I escaped with minor droolage.

I was asleep seconds after passing the baby back, my head swayed from side to side as we climbed into even higher mountains.  When awoken at my new destination, it was me that had been drooling.

4 Wheelin’ El Parque – Day 3 (by Nathan)

Laguna Colorada

The next morning was cold…real cold, but it was expected when sleeping at 4500m (14,800ft).  We bundled into the jeep at sunrise and we were off to a whole new set of destinations and jaw-dropping sights.  The name of the park that we have been exploring for the last few days is called Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.  The park is one of the most visited sights in Bolivia and it contains some of the most beautiful, color-rich and grand natural earth formations on the planet.  The laguna colorada was one of the most impressive thus far.  This small lake contains all sorts of minerals, mostly borax, but it is the red algae that really flourishes here.  The water was still and the air cold allowing for a hazy reflection of triangular mountains beyond.

Arbol de piedra

Carmen and I climbing on the rocks

Further along the drastic landscape was a bleak desert surrounded by colorful volcanic mountains.  We stopped at a rock forest with hundreds of angular and twisted formations that are remnants from the last eruption many thousands of years ago.  The most famous is the arbol de piedra, but we had great fun just climbing around all the enormous rocks.

Laguna Honda

Flamingos at Laguna Hedionda

We romped through the mountains climbing an occasional mountain and blazing our way through the highland deserts.  The next stop was a series of five lagoons that the flamingos use a breeding sancuary.  I never realized that these birds enjoyed high altitudes.

Landcruser crossing a river

There were times that the terrain became pretty rough and it was nice to have a guide that had been driving these roads and trails for 15 years.

Montaña de siete colores

The landscape throughout the day was mesmerizing.  Everywhere we looked was an beautiful snow-capped volcano, a colorful mountain, bright blue skies, multiple lagoons and thousands of llamas.

Valle de rocas

Tailgate lunch at valle de rocas

Our jeep caravan included an amazing Bolivian woman that cooked for us.  While we played around at the valle de rocas she whipped together an delicious meal of chicken milanesa, noodles and salad.  Of course it was served with the only drink that South Americans seem to know: coca cola.

Friends at the cemetario de trenes

Evening approached quickly, but we did have time to explore the cemetario de trenes just outside of Uyuni.  There used to be reliable and functional train traffic in Bolivia.  In the 1940′ hundreds of train cars and engines were abandoned due to rapidly depleting mining resources.  Now it is just a heap of rusted metal, surrounded by fields of endless trash, nevertheless it made for a good photo opportunity with friends.

That night we prepped ourselves for what was going to be the saltiest day of our lives.

Tupiza & Salar de Uyuni 4×4 Adventure – Days 1&2 (by Carmen)

I didn’t really know what the 4 day Salar de Uyuni tour really entailed but I was looking forward to it nonetheless.  I had seen a picture of one of the tour sights – the salar (salt flats) that looks like you are sourrounded by endless snow but it is actually salt.  This was enough for me to build it into our itinerary.  Fortunately, Nathan trusted my gut on this one.

Quebrada de Palala outside of Tupiza

As we got closer to Bolivia we met more and more travellers who had positive experiences.  A range of superlatives were used to describe the scenery: “beautiful”, “spectacular”, “surreal”, “the best”.  So we hopped in a jeep with Mark and Sally, the English couple we had met in Cafayate, and were on our way.  An our outside of Tupiza and we already had our first breath-taking view.

Adorable llamas were everywhere

Onwards we climbed up to the altiplano (high plateau).  Our excellent driver, Idel, was happy to inform us about the flora and the fauna. The flora mainly consists of sturdy clumps of grass which were fed on by the llamas and the vicuñas. The llamas were adorable all dressed up with colourful ribbons in their ears.  This was how the owners identified their herds.

Wild vicuñas

The vicuñas, on the other hand, are smaller and wild.  They are a protected species so they don’t have ownsers. But once a year the local community rounds them up to shear their extremely valuable wool.  The $400 a pound profits are shared collectively.

Multi-purpose clothes line with llama jerky

Tiny settlements dot the mountain landscape.  They are hard to spot as the mud brick homes blend in with the earth. We stopped in one and saw how their clotheslines were multi-purpose.

Snowy mountain in view from the first nights lodging

The next town over we spend the night, surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery.  The stars were beatuficul but it was too cold to observe for long.  Instead we retreated to our own beds which had 3 heavy blankets on them.

Ruins of San Antonio and viscacha

The next morning we travelled a short distance to a set of Spanish ruins.  The Spanish had settled there in the 16th century because of a nearby silver mine.  They essentially enslaved thousands of indigenous people to work there.  The town had a reputation for having too much money, making people greedy and wasteful.  When an epidemic decimated the population, the town never recovered.  With the silver dried up and the buildings in decay, the last residents left 20 years ago.  Now, the crumbled homes are inhabited by cute, rabbit like animals called viscasha.

Creek with llama

The ruins were followed, of course, by more drastic scenery and more llamas!

Flamingo posing for us at Laguna Morejón

And then a new animal entered the scene – flamingos.  I had always thought of these pink and black birds balanced upon spindly legs as a Caribbean creature. But these flamingos like it rough, toughing out the cold and wind of the Bolivian highlands above 12,000ft.

Chalviri hotsprings

I don’t like it so rough.  At the next stop Nathan and I took a dip in the soothing natural thermal pool.  It was the perfect temperature and had perfect views to boot.

Yummy lunch outside the thermal pool

All warm and toasty from our bath we headed into a dining hall for a delicious beef stew lunch.  I haven’t mentioned yet but there was another jeep in our group.  That made 8 of us total.  It was quite an international crowd: 2 Americans (us), 2 Brits (Mark and Sally), 3 Italians (Matteo, M, S) and 1 Pole (Gossia). It made all our meals very convivial.

Jeeps, hills and new friends Mark and Sally

Dalí desert

But there was yet more to see.  We drove through the Dalí Desert named for the surrealist painter.  I’d say it was an apt reference, especially with the brushstroke clouds painted in the sky.

Us at the Laguna Verde

Then we hit the Laguna Verde, named for the green color produced by minerals such as arsenic.

Sol de Mañana Geysers

Finally, we made it to the geothermic area called Sol de Mañana.  Here the heat of the earth escaped through bubbling mud pools and steaming geysers.  One steam spout was so powerful it almost seemed to whistle like a kettle on the stove.  It was a long and happy couple of days, and the tour was only half over!

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