Wednesday, May 30, 2007

La Comida Tipica de Bolivia

I hesitate to claim that this section accurately represents the typical food of Bolivia because unlike in other countries I didn't have much advice from locals. I also didn't eat many sit-down meals, preferring to try my luck on the streets. So, this is really just what I encountered along the way.


The only real sit-down meal that I had in Bolivia that qualifies as "comida tipica" is fresh trout from Lake Titikaka. I've never really had trout before and I can say that when fresh it's incredible. I had some later on in Cuzco that was not as fresh and not nearly as good (I want to describe it as "fishy" although that strikes me as an exceedingly strange way to disparage fish).

Here's a pic of my trucha de ajo, or trout fried with garlic. It was absolutely delicious--one of the best meals I've head on my trip.

Street Food

Pretty much the rest of what I ate in Bolivia came from the street. The street food in La Paz in particular was plentiful and cheap--and luckily I had a willing partner in crime in Dennis (Natalie and Lexi were less enthusiastic).

Here's some pinapple and chorizo bought on the street and at a stand respectively.

Here's "arroz con leche," rice with milk served sweet and hot.

This was probably my most adventurous piece of street eating to date in Latin America. I know it's pork, but that's about it. There appear to be ears in there:

Here's the bowl it came from:

I ate several times at these identical stands all serving exactly the same thing. Here's the dude cookin' up the shit:

Here's a close-up of what's on offer, basically burgers or carne with or without fried egg, french fries, onions, and peppers--you know, health food:

Here's the dude serving me up a sandwich:

And, here's what my meal actually looks like (you gotta buy the cold Coke from a different stand, but it's worth the 10 step trip):

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lago Titikaka and Copacabana

From La Paz, I took a short bus ride to Copacabana, which is not in Brazil, but a small town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titikaka. At this point I was still traveling with Dennis and we were joined by Natalie (from the 4x4 trip) and her friend Lexi. Here's a picture of the four of us:

We arrived on Sunday afternoon. We couldn´t get a room at the hostel we´d heard a lot about, so we checked into Hotel Utami for one night, bought some booze and started drinking for Lexi´s birthday. We tried to go out around 11:30, but the whole town was closed down. It was Sunday night and not prime tourist season.

The next day, we checked into a truly awesome hostel/hotel called La Cupula. For $32/night we got a 4 person room. The hostel was beautiful with great views, hammocks, and even a nice restaurant upstairs. Here's the view from the front of the hostel.

Then, we got a good lunch--I had trucha al ajo, fresh trout from the lake and it was great. It was still Lexi´s birthday, so we started drinking at lunch just before noon. Then, we rented a peddle boat and went out onto the lake for a couple of hours with a bottle of rum. Here are some pics from that little adventure:

We drank for a while more in the hostel, climbed a big hill to see sunset, showered up, went upstairs to the hostel restaurant for a few beers, and then tried to go out for dinner. Here's a pic from sunset:

We went to 4-5 restaurants at about 9pm and they were all closed or not serving food (or one had only one person doing all the cooking and serving and it would have taken hours). Mercifully, we were able to order a pizza to go, ate it on the street and headed to the popular bar, Waykay´s. It was pretty mellow, and after a shot of tequila and a few beers we headed back to the hostel.

Copacabana is not so much a party town--and operates on a slightly different schedule then, say, Buenos Aires.

La Isla del Sol
The next day, we went to La Isla del Sol, in the middle of Lago de Titikaka. This is the place the Incas say is the birthplace of the sun. We woke up early, took a 3 hour boat ride to the north side of the island, got a guided tour of some inca ruins, hiked 3 hours to the south side and then caught a boat back. Here are some pics from that adventure:

This pretty much wiped everyone out, so we had a nice dinner (trucha al diablo--spicy and good, with two suprisingly good pina coladas) and then had a mellow night back at the hostel.

The next day Dennis and I caught a bus to Cuzco, Peru.

The World's Most Dangerous Road

Yesterday, I had one of the best experiences of my life--mountain biking down the "world's most dangerous road" in Bolivia.

The road tracks the side of the mountain and on the left there is a sheer drop of hundreds of meters. Because the cars need to hug the mountain (they can't see how much space they have), we ride our bicycles on the left, right on the edge. Thankfully, they opened a new road for cars, trucks, and buses a mere 5 months ago. This meant that there wasn't much traffic on our road. Before they opened this new road, 300 people would die every year from trucks and buses going off the edge.

Here's what the edge looks like:

And, here's the spot where many of those trucks/buses have gone over:

We started out with breakfast at 7am and by 7:40 we were on the road in a microbus to the start. We drove out of La Paz in the chaotic rush hour and into the mountains. The first two hours or so were on asphalt, mostly down hill, but with one somewhat difficult uphill section. It was also pretty cold high up and early in the morning. Here are some pics of our team at the start:

And here's a nice shot of the asphalt part of the road:

Then, we got to some gravel and finally the starting point of La Calle de Muerte, or The Road of Death:

Here's a video of us trucking down the gravel road:

Our guides were Israel and Gonzalo, who were great. Israel was the guide earlier this year when an Israeli guy went off the edge and died. Apparently he was racing a friend and they crashed. His friend fell right and he fell left, off the cliff. Israel also finished second in the last race they had down the road, two years ago. His time was about 1 hour and 15 minutes, 5 seconds behind the winner. We took 3-4 hours to do the whole trip. They don't do the race anymore because there were too many accidents (although no deaths).

Riding down at near full speed was exhilirating. You don't really need to peddle at all, just brake--so your hands actually get sore and there's a lot of pressure on your upper body. We spent the first part riding through a cloud, getting wet. Looking off the cliff to the left, all I could see was mist. Then, as we got lower we came out of the clouds and the sun came out. The scenery was spectacular and I was torn between barrelling down full speed and slowing down to look at the mountains to my left (doing both at once seemed like a bad idea).

Here's some video of us riding through a waterfall:

Towards the end we got to ride through a small river. Here's a still shot of me going through:

And here's video of us all. I'm first:

Luckily, the only time I fell during the whole ride was when I was standing still--reminds me of skiing.

At the end of the road, we pulled into a small village and had a few beers. Here's our team at the end:

We then took a bus to Hotel Esmerelda in the town of Coroico where we enjoyed a dip in the pool, more beers, a shower, and a buffet lunch. The hotel was beautiful and costs only $7/night.

Finally, there was a 3.5 hour busride back to La Paz. Overall, a great day. And, the whole trip cost $35 which included breakfast, all equipment, two snacks, lunch with time at the hotel, a t-shirt, and a CD with pictures from the trip--a real steal.

La Paz, Bolivia--The World's Highest Capital

The Bus Ride

From Uyuni, I caught a bus northwest to La Paz, the capital city, with my new friend Dennis from the 4x4 tour (on the right).

We had heard all kinds of scary things about Bolivian buses--mainly that they are freezing cold and don't have bathrooms, so bring a blanket and a piss bottle--so we were sure to ask lots of questions at the bus station before we began our 12+ overnight journey.

We were told that we would be changing buses in a town called Oruru, 15 MINUTES away and that our new bus would have a bathroom and comfortable seats.

We boarded the bus armed with whisky, water, snacks, and (of course) a piss bottle. As we got underway, we quickly realized that given the incredible bumpiness of the unpaved Bolivian roads, pissing in a small bottle was not a realistic option. We had to hope our next bus would truly have a bathroom as advertised.

As we rolled passed the twenty-minute mark without stopping, we began to wonder. Then 30 minutes; 45 minutes. There were two gringo women sitting behind us, so I turned and asked them if they were going to La Paz. Yes. Did they know anything about changing buses after 15 mintutes in Oruru? No. They hadn't been told anything about changing buses.

OK, well I guess we're going straight to La Paz.

Well, not really. Sure enough, 8 HOURS after leaving Uyuni, we arrived in Oruru and had to change buses. The women behind us were sleeping and had no idea. Had we not woken them up, it's not clear if they would have made the switch.

LESSON: Even when you ask all the right questions, you MUST be on your guard when traveling in Bolivia. You can never be sure you're being told the truth and it is usually fellow passengers, not official bus employees, that will give you the best info about changes, etc.

The Markets, I Mean Streets

La Paz is the most frenetic, chaotic city I've ever seen. The streets constantly sound of honking horns and people yelling out of the side of microbuses advertising their route and price.

Half of the economy seems to consist of people selling every manner of thing in stands or simply sitting on the street. Old women dressed in traditional clothing (a bowler hat and dress) are hawking everything imaginable and cooking full meals on the street.

They are all dressed alike and almost universally fairly large. I think this is because they spend pretty much all day sitting in the street surrounded by their wares and eating. I swear, it's almost impossible to catch these women NOT eating.

These women really do not like having their picture taken, so I stuck to subtle, far-away shots of street life:

The city is a shopper's paradise with everything available cheap--and a great spot for street eating. Walk around at 10pm on any weeknight and the open market is in full swing. I got lots of gifts for family there--mostly alpaca goods that are costly in the states but cheaper than I'd like to admit in La Paz.

Here are some more images of the street:

One thing I've found curious about Bolivia is that there are about 15 of the stands pictured above right next to each other--and they all sell EXACTLY the same food. No variety. Weird. This was similar in other places. The city nearest Machu Picchu, for example, has dozens of restaurants and as far as I could tell, 90% of them were bar/pizzarias offering the same drink specials and lousy pizza.

Another fixture on the streets of La Paz are the shoeshiners. These are often young men, but sometimes older as well. They all wear masks. This is not because it's cold. Unfortunately, it's because their job is considered shameful. Don't worry, I had permission to take a picture of this guy (it cost me just as much as getting my shoes shined--about 14 cents).

The View

As mentioned in the title of this post, La Paz is the capital city at the highest elevation in the world--3,600 meters. Interestingly, the capital in Bolivia is actually split, with the legislative and executive functions based in La Paz but the Supreme Court based in Sucre to the east. Anyway, here are some images of the city, situated within a snow-capped mountain range:

Our Hostels

For anyone planning to go to La Paz (and if you're in Latin America, you shouldn't miss it), we stayed in two hostels. The first was called Arthy's. It was very clean, has a great TV room and DVD library, and the staff was great (thanks again to Olivia for the rec.). The only problem was that it has a midnight curfew--not a place to be if you want to party.

After chilling for a couple of days we decided we'd want to experience La Paz's night life so we switched to the Adventure Brew hostel which advertises a free mug of their home-brewed beer each night. The beer wasn't that good (the dark is decent, the light nearly undrinkable) but it's a fun enough place to stay. Folks would gather at the upstairs bar each night and head out from there. Dennis and I had a couple of memorable nights out which y'all are free to ask me about offline.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Bolivian Desert by 4x4

At 8am Friday morning (after partying with locals the night before) I left the relative comfort of San Pedro for a three day tour through the Bolivian desert in a Toyota Land Cruiser with a company called Pamela Tours (one of 5-10 companies who run exactly the same route).

Inauspicious Beginnings

The trip did not start out well. Our group gathered and headed straight for the Bolivian border, where, in order to exit Chile, we were instructed to procure a small slip of paper we were given when we entered. Said piece of paper was, of course, in the bag that was stolen in Valpo.

Having passed that hurdle, we headed to the Bolivian entrance point to change cars. That´s when it became clear that it would be quite cold for the rest of the trip due to the altitude. I changed out of the shorts I had worn (thinking: desert + daytime = hot).

Here´s a picture of the border checkpoint. It reminded me of that scene in Blazing Saddles where they put toll boths in the middle of the desert to stop the bad guys from coming into town.

We then began our ascent, eventually reaching 4000 meters above sea level. Not having realized we´d be going so high, I was ill prepared. I drank too much alcohol the night before and hadn´t popped any altitude pills. I began to feel downright shitty.

At our first scenic stop, it became disheartenly clear that the picture above would be the last I would take on this trip. When I turned on my brand new camera, it said "lens error, restart camera," and promptly shut off. Of course, the manual featured no instructions on how to ¨restart¨the camera (powering it down and removing the battery did not do the trick).

This combination of events constituted a first-rate assault on my will. I was not excited to be "roughing it" in the Bolivian desert at this point. My mood was not lightened when I found out that our refugio for the night had electricity for only two hours, no hot water and no heat. In late afternoon I was freezing under three blankets. This did not portend well for ¨la noche.¨

Team T-Bone´s Frogos and A Turn for the Good

Things began looking up later that day. I laid down and felt a bit better. And, the more I hung out with my car-mates, the more fun I started having.

Our crew consisted of four Americans (really United States-ers because everyone who lives down here is also an American; but we don´t really have that term, so I reluctantly use American even though it´s not the ¨prefered nomenclature¨as Walter would say in the Big Lebowski) and two French guys. This combination was later described by a British guy we were beating at drinking games as ¨the two worst nationalities.¨ We were all between 23 and 30--with me, of course, dragging up the average age a bit. Along with yours truly, the Americans were:

Chris--a collegiate cycler and triathelete who studied vitaculture and plans to open a vineyard on his family´s farm in northern California.

Dennis--a UMass-Amherst grad from Boston who loves the Socks and the Dead.

Natalie--a Californian who went to school in Seattle, has a boyfriend in London, and handled her role as ¨la unica chica¨in the car admirably (she may have even enjoyed it, but you´d have to ask her).

The two French guys were a hilarious tandem of business students. Thibault (pronouced Tibo, but which I quickly changed to T-Bone) is a virtual encylopedia of knowledge about subjects ranging from European history to the Tour de France and the NBA. Francois exudes an obvious and contagious lust for life, has thought deeply about subjects ranging from philosophy to World War II, and has only two speeds--full speed and sleeping.

Everyone was really looking out for each other. From pooling resources (Cocao leaves for helping with the altitude, water, etc.) to letting me switch my chip into folks' cameras so I could have at least a few pictures, we really became a team.

The night wasn't even that cold.

Second day was fun. When we left the refugio, we were joined by a woman and her (as you can see to the right) adorable young son. He started out extremely entertaining, but sometime around the 8th hour he became quite annoying.

But the night was even better. We stayed in a hotel made of salt, had a nice dinner of llama meat and ended up playing flip cup against a bunch of British folks for the rest of the night. Everyone played. We even came up with a team name, T-Bone's Frogos (frogo is a combination of frogs and gringos).

Unfortunately, I don't have very many pictures of any of this yet, but will have to update this section when everyone sends their pictures around.

Sunrise at Inca Island

The next morning, after we all drank a fair bit the night before, we got up at 5am to catch sunrise at Inca Island. We almost missed it because at the appointed hour, our guide was nowhere to be found. I wanted to go back to sleep, but Francois would have none of it; and Dennis wandered the halls of the hotel yelling our guide's name and generally waking up the whole place.

It was well worth it. Inca Island is an island of cactus and other vegetation in the middle of a lake of salt. It is beautiful, and sunrise was a great time to be there. And, you can take cool perspective shots on the salt flats. Here are some of the pics I took with other folks' cameras:

We finished up our trip in Uyuni, a small desert town in Bolivia without much going on. We kept the team together for one last night--well, almost. Chris had to turn around and head back to San Pedro after lunch to ultimately catch a flight back to CA. Tibo and Francois left at 3am to continue their journey. Dennis and I got a bus to La Paz the next evening. And, Natalie stuck around waiting for a friend who was stuck in La Paz without her luggage.

When we arrived in Uyuni, Chris and I had quite an adventure trying to pay for the trip. Chris had paid half in San Pedro. The guy there had told me I could pay in Uyuni by credit card, no problem. Well, the problem was it was Sunday. They weren't able to accept a credit card payment and the ATMs were literally closed. After refusing to leave my passport (I had it stolen once, I wasn't going to part with it again) and driving around town for a while, we finally found a place that would accept our credit card. Ironically, the ATMs opened a few hours later.

Because of this last glitch (clearly poor planning on the operators part, yet they acted as if it was our fault) and the fact that our drivers were simply that--they didn't offer much in terms of guidance--I wouldn't give Pamela Tours a glowing recommendation. The trip, however, was well worth the $80 I paid for two nights, three days, and transport to Bolivia. There were some amazing sights along the way, but I feel incredibly lucky because the people on this trip and the team dynamic that emerged made it a highlight of my adventure.