Goodbye to salteñas and Bolivia

It’s the Tibet of the South Americas; the highest and most isolated of the Latin American republics.  From snowcapped Andean peaks, green jungle to low lying savannas. As much as 50% of the population are pure Indian blood so it’s the most traditional country in South America. From La Paz to Tiahuanaco to Lake Titicaca, to Isla de Sol, to Los Yungas; there is something compelling to see at every turn. Because of the elevation, the weather can be psychotic. I’ve never been anywhere with such variable weather conditions.  One moment I’m wearing three layers of sweaters and the next I’m sweltering hot pulling off layer after layer. Not just variety in weather but in people, which is the beauty of the country.  You never know what you’re going to find in Bolivia. It’s raw, crude and powerful. Another bonus is since it’s not heavily visited by tourists, I found myself sharing the experiences with just a handful of people. Bolivia is still one of the least visited countries in South America. I think the underdevelopment is a blessing in disguise as I’ve rarely seen so much wilderness in near pristine condition

I tried salteñas which are similar to a baked empanada. We stopped and bought them at a vendor. They are pastries filled with beef, pork or chicken along with peas, potatoes. You can get them sweet, slightly spice or if you are like me, very spicy.

Salteñas is the most popular snack in Bolivia.You can also get this pastry that has spicy meat or chicken along with chopped vegetables, olives and hard boiled eggs. It’s a mid-morning snack named after the city of Salta in Argentina.

Saice is a typical Bolivian meal that is made of spicy beef cut up in little pieces and chuño puti which is dehydrated potatoes cooked with egg, then it is garnished with tomatoe and onion sarza.Siesi es un plato tipico de Bolivia que consiste de carne picada sazonado en aji colorado, servido con chuno puti y sarza que es basicamente tomate, cebolla y perejil.

Wahtia is a plate that consists of pork, beef and chicken cooked in the earth on hot rocks. The meats are placed in a covered container and buried over hot rocks to cook for hours. This plate is accompanied by bolivian corn, potatoe and plantains. Wahtia es un plato que consiste de carne de res, pollo y cerdo. Estas carnes son cocinadas en un recipiente y enterrados en la tierra sobre piedras calientes, hasta estar totalmente cocidos. Este plato es acompanado de choclo (maiz), papa y platanos cocidos.

This meal is an exercise in being full or in my case; there was so much food on the plate I couldn’t even attempt to eat it. The gracious family I stayed with wanted my last meal to be special. They meant well but that much food and particularly meat on one plate, was too much for me.

Bolivia is the oldest country known to eat potatoes. They have more than two hundred varieties divided into three groups: red, yellow and white.

Bolivia is bien disorganizado– chaotic, but there is something about the chaos that once I walk away from it, even for a day, I start to miss it. The warm people who add “ito” to the end of a word to make it more polite. The dogs running amuck as if they have somewhere to go, fresh bread baked daily that you can buy ten pieces for 5 Bolivian pesos (.75 cents), the shining sun one moment followed by thunder and lighting so strong that it is advised to unplug your computer and poverty so shocking that it seems like a scene from a film. In the film business we use pop up tents to keep the actors, director, producer, etc. comfy and cozy when the location is too hot. I saw families in Bolivia living on the streets in those tents except their tents had holes in them.

I think what I’ll miss most of all is tea time.  The family actually sits down together nightly while enjoing tea, fresh bread, pastries and take a moment to be in each other’s presence.

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Coroico, Bolivia

We hired a driver to take us from La Paz to Las Yungas: a stretch of forest from the Eastern slope of the Andes Mountains to the southeastern region of Peru to central Bolivia. Our destination was serene Coroico. The route to Coroico is a 38 mile road that was once legendary for its danger. At one time it was considered the most dangerous road in the world. Back in the 90’s approximately 200-300 travelers died per year because of accidents on the road. The road was improved but it was still difficult at spots because of the  narrow width and the intermittent cobblestone road. The death defying road is balanced by rewarding scenery.It’s best to put on your i-pod, go inside and not watch the road or the driver.

Once outside La Paz, the sight of the snow capped mountains lends itself to quiet thoughts. The glory of forested canyons, cloud-wreathed mountain peaks and orchards began leading us to Coroico. Hotel Esmeralda is rustic and tropical.The pool was green when we arrived, because the road had been closed and the supplies couldn’t get in. The next morning we were greeted to clear, blue water and were grateful for the arrival of the chlorine.  I’m not big on swimming pools because I don’t like the chlorine. I prefer salt water.  Once the swimming pool was clean it was a perfect spot to relax and breathe. Hot showers and best of all, an incredible view from the terrace of the  room; green surrounding hills as far as you can see. It’s a restorative, contemplative spot; hot and humid. The weather in La Paz is erratic. Because the altitude in Coroico is lower, it’s nice and varies from warm to hot.  It’s a slow pace yet the tranquility is a welcome change from the hectic pace of La Paz.

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Valle de las Animas, Bolivia

Valle de las Animas : the Valley of the Souls is quiet, peaceful and serene. Another unpaved road which made for a bumpy ride but it was worth it. Canyons eerily eroded with spire shaped rocks. Hundreds of peaks ranging in color from red to gray. The only sound is the quiet. Crisp, cool air with the smell of herbs surround the area.

There was a mother with her six baby pigs, friendly llamas and sheep that seemed to smile and want to be our friends.

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La Paz Cemetary

On a return trip back from Isla Del Sol, we came upon the cemetary in La Paz by chance. Row after row of crypts with decorations from family and friends ranging from the typical red rose to momentos like toy soldiers and barbie dolls. Once the body is cremated, these spaces are rented or bought. There were many people bringing in flowers, adding water and praying in front of the glass doors.

For each wall, there are hundreds of these doors. The expansion is so massive that some places seemed like apartment buildings.

Finding the cemetary was serendipitous and a lesson in non attachment as we literally stumbled upon it because we weren’t sticking to a plan. I found it fascinating that each crypt was personalized. I’ve always found cemetaries to be morose, cookie cutter places. Maybe I will re-think cremation and being scattered in the waters of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Especially love the crypt with a bottle of Coke. Someone liked drinking Coke.

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Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Next stop Isla del Sol off Lake Titicaca. Isla del Sol is the spiritual centre of the Andean world, revered as the place where the Sun and the Moon were created and the Inca dynasty was born.  It seemed fitting to buy a bottle of Campos de Solana Reserva 2006 Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon; a Bolivian wine, before leaving La Paz.

The trek to Isla del Sol began with a three hour hour bus ride. I looked out the window to the terrain and saw pine trees, piles of wood, endless rocks, llamas grazing, groups of sheep. I began to see the immense, sapphire-blue Lake Titicaca; the largest lake in South America.  The western part of the lake is southern Peru, the eastern side is Bolivia. At one point everyone was told to get off the bus as a boat would take us across to save another hour drive on the bus. The man in charge asked if we had our passports. We weren’t told to bring them so four of us did not. He said we’d have to stay on the boat, while it was put on a barge to cross and we would have to pay a fee. I argued that I paid $135 for a visa in Los Angeles. He wanted $50 U.S. but we settled on ten Bolivian dollars. It turned out to be a lie and a way for him to make some extra cash off non suspecting foreigners. ¡Benvenidos a Bolivia! Welcome to Bolvia. Each person he took money from was volunteering their services so the boomerang of karma will be going back his way shortly.

We arrived to Copacabana, a quaint town on the Bolivian edge of Lake Titicaca. The Aymara word for cota cawuaña means: to overlook the lake.The Spanish transformed the word to Copacabana. Copacabana has a bit of a beach feeling with all the boating and fishing. We had fresh trout for lunch then visited The Church of Copacabana. Then the 1.5 hour boat ride to Isla del Sol. I’m not a boating girl. I don’t like to even bob because I get sick sea so easily.

The Sun figures prominently as the greatest of all the gods of the Incan people. This island was a part of the mythical capital of Incan heritage. It was a link in the chain of the supernatural, just as Macchu Picchu in Peru.

You have to give yourself a liberal dosing of sunscreen while crossing to the island and while there. Because of the high altitude you end up burning quite easily.

The arrival to the island with its raw beauty made the boat ride seem like a distant dream. There are no cars on Isla del Sol or any paved roads. Just indigenous people with their llamas, burros, sheep. There is a tranquility there that made the bus, boat and walk up the stairs worth every step of the sojourn. Enjoying the bottle of Bolivian Campos de Solana was the perfect way to watch the setting sun.

The La Puerta Del Sol hotel is at the top of the island. I hired a young boy to carry my backpack up the path. I simply couldn’t lift all the weight in the pack because of my rib injury. Here are photos of the view from the top. The magnificent views make up for dealing with the hombre at the crossing and the boat ride.

On the way back at the Estrecho de Tikina I was able to photograph the baby vicuña. This creature is so soft and smooth that it’s like petting something 100% softer than a cuddly American Shorthair cat. I wanted to bite his head.

Extremely rare; they have been exploited because of their soft coat which is said to make the best wool in the world.  Even though they have legal protection they are still being poached from the few reserves where they still survive. The vicuña’s wool is almost as fine as silk which unfortunately is what caused the poaching. Their soft and fuzzy hides make them sought after. This reduced the vicuña’s numbers from two million to 10,000 by the middle of this century.

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Witches’ Street, La Paz, Bolivia. El Calle de las Brujas

Bolivia is exotic and mysteriously beautiful. How can a country bordered by Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile be anything less with mountains, rivers, valleys, trees. But it reminds me of India in the sense that in order to see the magnificent and subtle beauty, one must overlook the glaring poverty. The capital of La Paz, along with the high-altitude varying from of 10,000 to 13,450 feet, has a compelling blend of indigenous and modern cultures. You can buy a llama fetus or batteries for your computer on the same block.

Coca leaf is chewed everywhere. Nothing is more emblematic of Bolivia than coca. I’d like to bring this controversial little leaf home but it’s illegal. Which of course, makes it more tempting. I love to break silly rules but I’ll pass on breaking this one. I drink the tea nightly to help with my stomach and altitude sickness. The people who chew the leaf say it provides a sense of energy, power, confidence and well-being. It’s a mild stimulant to combat hunger and tiredness. You can chew coca leaf or do Kundalini Yoga; same result. You don’t get the euphoria or psychoactive effects that cocaine users experience from chewing coca. At one time, Bolivia was the single biggest importer of coca but the Bolivian government has eradicated a lot of the crop. That has not made the indigenous farmers happy who relied on it as a source of livelihood.

One of the best parts of my first walk in La Paz, Bolivia was the several blocks of the Witches’ Market or El Calle de las Brujas. It’s rough around the edges and filled with the smell of various incense burning, people bargaining in broken spanish, indigenous women in layers of clothing to protect them from the cold in their makeshift stalls. They sit whether it’s cold or raining, selling their various gels, soaps, oils, herbs for fever and flu, potions, amulets, candy, owl feathers, dried snakes, dried turtles, candles, wooden statues. Dried frogs are for prosperity. Of course they are! The Bolivian armadillos are meant to be a Chubb alarm. If one is put above the entrance to the house, thieves won’t enter. There are ceramic couples embracing to help get yourself married and naked ceramic couples to improve the sex life. They’ve got it all plus more.

I bought another simple bracelet of saints similar to one I had bought in Guatemala. I love the feeling of protection of various saints around my wrist along with the pendants I wear hanging off my neck like St. Francis of Assisi and La Bocca della Veritá. (The Mouth of Truth from Rome, Italy).I love the scene in Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn at the mouth. But I digress.

The magnificence of ancient churches take my breath away. Walking ten minutes from the Calle de las Brujas is the Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco)  Construction began in 1549. The facade has stone carvings of chirimoya, pinecones and tropical birds. This church represents all three of Bolivia’s great cultures: Tiahuanaco, Inca and modern.

The chirimoya is a yummy tropical fruit grown in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. It’s juicy white inside with big, bean-like seeds. It’s like eating a banana, strawberry and pineapple in one luscious bite. They can also be found in the south of Spain. I kept the seeds in hopes of being able to start a seedling at home.

I bought pieces of the Palo Santo wood which comes from the ancient sacred trees that grow in the Amazon of Peru. Palo Santo wood been used since ancient times by the Incas and the indigenous people of the Andes for purifying and cleansing. It is believed to cleanse a space of negative energies. Shamans use it in sacred plant spirit ceremonies. It has a piney, citrusy smell when it burns, leaving a nice aroma in the air for hours.

What struck me hard was the plethora of llama and sheep fetus which I saw at nearly each stand. That was disturbing. So disturbing I couldn’t stop taking photos of them.  Before anyone goes into judgement, let me say these are not pulled from the mother. Because for some reason or another the baby animals came out dead. Perhaps it was too cold, the altitude being too high, not enough food, many reasons. The Ayumara believe before you build any building there must be a sacrifice into the ground of one of these fetus and that way the building will be good and healthy. It is estimated that 99% of Bolivians have a dried llama fetus that is under the foundation of their house for luck. If the llama fetus is burned this will ensure luck for a new business venture. Llama fetus plus plenty of cement = strong foundation.

Next stop will be Isla Del Sol off Lake Titicaca. More to come.

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