Saturday, July 20
We got up early and headed to the airport to fly to La Paz. I couldn’t see Lake Poopo because there was a cloud bank over it. Poopo and Titicaca are what everyone remembers from elementary school South American geography. What is not made clear, is that the lakes of the altiplano are arranged in an order. Titicaca flows into Poopo which empties into the Salar de Uyuni, just like the Rye Patch Reservoir in Nevada drops into Humboldt Sink.
As we drove away from the airport (another day, another car and driver) after arriving in La Paz, we stopped at a little observation point and looked at the city, with millions of houses covering slopes of hills, with even higher snow-covered mountains in the background. It had snowed in town a couple days earlier, but there was no sign of it by the time we got there. Things get ritzier and ritzier the further downhill you go: at the top, by the airport, is El Alto, a city of essentially millions of poor people. As you go down into La Paz the buildings get fancier. We stayed at the premium mediocre “Ritz Apart Hotels All Suites”, in a room which was definitely not a suite. It looked like people booking directly can only get suites, but tour companies can put people in ordinary rooms. It’s nice but I’d worry about it in a fire; the stairway is in the atrium and would become unusable in minutes.
The guide is from La Paz and he would finally get some time at home briefly between the tour with us, and a two-week trekking tour he would go on a few days later. We took it easy in the afternoon, doing some dinner research, and found Gustu, a restaurant further downhill from the hotel. It was started by one of the cofounders of Noma, the celebrated best-in-the-world restaurant in Copenhagen. And while it was quite expensive for Bolivia ($100 per person including drinks) it was still way less than anything similar in San Francisco would have been. We made a reservation for the only time available, 9:30, and signed up for the two-hour 15-course tasting menu.
Every course was tiny, and almost all of the ingredients were unfamiliar. Imagine Benu on an exoplanet. It was all delicious. We were definitely full by the time it was over.
We really are animals, not souls, and you feel it when we’re presented with a stack of unfamiliar inputs. The next morning, my digestive system was bewildered. Gustu is challenging in a way El Bulli is not: chemically. Adriá changed physically everything. But the chemicals were the same as what you’ve been eating all along (rabbit brains, again?) and liquid nitrogen and calcium alginate don’t change what your stomach enzymes see. The Amazonian vegetal bestiary of Bolivia is a whole nother ball game.
Gustu is also a bar. Bar food! we were eating bar snacks! The music was not Mos Eisley however. It was interesting; we had to shazam some of it. We ordered one drink. Having a drink in front of you is like having a tour guide in Bamako: it’s there to keep the bar people from hassling you to buy a drink.
Sunday, July 21
The guide was scheduled to do a city tour with us including the Gold Museum, but we decided, gold, meh, let’s take the two-hour drive out to Tiahuanaco. (The first hour was getting out of La Paz, including driving through El Alto.) Tiwanaku is an archaeological site displaying buildings of a culture which imploded around 1000 A.D., and the farmers scattered. Drought? Dissension? A museum showed the timeline and many artifacts, and then the pyramid and Sun Gate had some remarkably intact carvings outside in the adjacent desert. My favorite bit was a wall with carved faces in it, all individuals. The stonework was exceptionally fine — no mortar, in the Machu Picchu style. The Incas had good role models when they started being civilized again a couple of centuries later.
The site was of course looted by the Spanish, among others. It has been deduced, from Spanish descriptions and physical evidence, that the stones of the pyramids and gates were all covered with metal, which must have been quite a sight in the blazing Andean sun. But the metal plates were all pried off, melted down, sent to Spain to be part of Virgin icons or armor. You can see the pry marks on every stone block.
After a delightfully small buffet lunch, we returned to La Paz, and took it easy. For dinner, we took a taxi to Luciernaga (“firefly”) and had good food with a gracious host, who came here from the Netherlands in 2009. Besides a soup, we had charque, the same idea as the dried llama we’d had in Uyuni, but this time with beef. Basically, very flavorful machaca. Again on a bed of hominy, with potatoes. It was a bit too much for us, but we took the rest to go and finished it in the morning.
Monday, July 22
Another day on our own.
We showed up at St. Peter’s Square at 11am for the Red Cap Walking Tour, which took us through several places in the center of La Paz. The guides had many interesting stories to tell about the places we went, starting with the prison next to the square. It was built to hold 400 and now holds 2000, including families of some inmates. Essentially, there are no guards or cells in the prison; it’s like its own little city, with rich and poor. Inmates have phones and run businesses, including extrajudicial execution and producing cocaine. No different from any other prison. Occasionally a packet of cocaine is ejected onto the street, and our guides warned us if that happened, to just leave it alone. Coca Cola has a soft drink monopoly inside, just as they do in many places. For awhile there were “tours” inside the prison, which featured rowdy parties. Eventually, after many problems, they were shut down. Anyone offering tours now is a scammer and we were sternly advised to avoid them as it’s basically kidnapping and once in a prison how do you get out?
The tour continued up through a tourist market, and to the “witches’ market”, where lamb fetuses and dead baby lambs are sold for ceremonies used to get Mother Earth’s permission to build on a site, according to the guide’s story. For big buildings, they still sacrifice human beings. The guides warned us not to pass out drunk on the streets — it’s the same ritual as described in the museum in Salta.
Many other “medicinal” herbs and spices are sold as well. The little sugar loaf icons are used in ceremonies requesting boons from Pachamama. The icon represents what you want.
The historian Kenneth Clark once said, of the Apollo Belvedere: “It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.” I couldn’t say how many actual Bolivians know these stories, but every tourist hears them. But we heard the tour guide version of the Bolivian Bowler Hat (introduced by English in 1920’s as a result of overstock), the standards of beauty (another poor country where Fat is Beautiful because it means you can survive famine), and traditional courtship (throwing pebbles at girls — I’d rather be whistled at).
Oh, and the sacrificial baby llamas are supposed to die by natural causes. I bet that nature gets a hand, given the number of them.
More stops on the tour included the square outside San Francisco church, and a stop to buy fresh juice or snacks. We bought juice. (Cultural note: one isn’t supposed to bargain for food by price; the formula is to ask for “la yapa”, a little more food for the same price. The word “lagniappe” derives from it.) We visited Plaza Murillo, a square next to the main government buildings, where stories were told about history, and about protests and coups and exchanges of gunfire which had happened there. Finally, we went to a nearby cafe, where the guides told us what they really thought about Mr. Morales (“he’s done a lot of great things for the people of Bolivia, but he’s a bit erratic, and he’s subverting the democratic process by running for a fourth term”). It will be interesting to see what happens in October: in the countryside, “EVO SÍ” was painted on almost every rock.
We walked through a handicrafts market where we didn’t buy anything, and then back to the hotel. There was an artistic T-shirt I came close to buying, but then “$30 for a t-shirt? That’s ridiculous” kicked in and I didn’t bother. Although it’s less than the shirt not bought in Kiev, by a factor. We decided just to eat at the hotel on account of the early departure tomorrow; the trout poke (from Lake Titicaca) was quite good.