We went to the airport, and took a short flight up to Medellin. The flight was smooth. “Some thunderstorms, nothing to worry about” said the captain. The flight path led over the western reaches of the Amazon jungle, which will look like West Texas within the lifetime of some reading this. Maybe even most.
At Medellín, we were met by our dear friend Tibi, who drove us through town, down the valley to Barbosa. We stopped for empanadas. Val and their son Marco met us there. Then he drove us up the hill he lives on.
We were introduced to Tibi twenty years ago when he was in high school in Silicon Valley, and stayed in touch as he moved around, finally settling in Medellin where he’s been for the last nine years. Several years ago he and a business partner bought a huge plot, and built a little cabin on it. After a falling-out, he bought another small plot (only 5 acres!), met Val, a beautiful woman (who was also an architecture student), designed a nice house (4 bedrooms, each with its own bath, party deck on top), and built it in a year and a half with the help of two of his neighbors on the hill.
About six months ago, Tibi and Val had a son, Marco, and this house gives them the space that they need. It was awesome, after all that touring, to just sit in this house, drink wine and beer and not aguardiente, smoke some homegrown, amuse ourselves with the antics of Marco, and their cat and dog, and relax. It was a vacation from the vacation.
Over the course of the three days, we did get out a bit. We went to a trout farm up the road, which had several ponds. There are sticks with fishing line and a hook, you put a blob of food on the hook, dip it in the pond, jerk up when there’s a bite, and put the resulting trout in a bucket. When you have enough, you bring the bucket to the staff, who grills the trout and serves it to you on patacones, which are essentially thick tortillas made out of plantain. Rice on the side, of course, and delicious salsa.
We also went to a neighboring house which grows coffee beans. After we arrived, Tibi’s friend poured 5 lb of coffee beans into a huller. After the hulls had been removed, the beans were put into a roaster. Meanwhile, they served some filling snacks. When the beans finished roasting, he put them in a bag, and I took them home.
Tibi’s next-door neighbor turned 77, and had a party. We went for awhile, but our little shot glasses were constantly refilled with aguardiente (made out of water, 29% alcohol, sugar, and anise), and we’re not really very good drinkers. Also, there was constant dancing with women of all ages, and we’re definitely not dancers. After awhile we went back to the house.
We went and saw the cabin on Tibi’s original large plot, which seems to cover half a mountain. He hasn’t actually seen much of it, it’s so large.
It was a most pleasant way to spend three days, and it was inspiring to see the life Tibi has created for himself. Traveling with Val and Tibi, I felt very explained. Passers-by saw: a pretty, very young looking girl with a baby, a slightly older handsome man, and whichever two guys were with them, wouldn’t have mattered if we were giraffes, we were all contributing to the ongoing social organization of the villages of Colombia, and there was nothing to doubt or object to or wonder about.
(When it’s just us and Tibi, we are dating so far above our level, that to discerning eyes, it must seem like a transaction.)
We were first off the bus, staying at Casa Fanning in the trendy Barranco neighborhood, south of the more-visited Miraflores area. It was pretty late by the time we got there.
Lima turns out to be a foodie destination. It has two of San Pellegrino’s “world’s best 50 restaurants”, and the Eater website has made a list of its 38 Essential restaurants. We took Uber down to the nearest Essential restaurant. (There were alternative services, but I would have had to get their app, create an account, etc.) It was too late to order food there, and we walked to a Nearby Open Now place which had some tasty basics like barbecued chicken gizzards. (One of the problems with Google and Yelp listing “business hours” is that the business hours for a bar/restaurant are the entire time the doors are open and drinks are served; kitchen hours are usually much more limited, but never listed separately. We have often been foiled by this.)
Thursday, August 1
Our hotel was two blocks from the Museo del Arte Contemporaneo, so we walked there and looked around. It turned out to be a rather tiny museum, but they had some cute things, especially a large wicker-and-water artwork that children were jumping around on. Most serious things are improved by jumping children, especially their parents. Other images in heavy rotation were ayahuasca-induced hallucinations.
From there we Ubered up to Huaca Pucllana, the ruins of an ancient Inca pyramid buried under a mountain. A quite elaborate structure was unearthed, and excavations continue. The bricks are laid next to each other upright, like books on a shelf. The people at this pyramid ran out of shelf space long ago, but have hectares of books.
We walked back from there toward the hotel, passing through the Indian Market which had that Shenzen look about it, even if it had been locally crafted. We stopped at an Essential sandwich restaurant. We then Ubered back to Barranco for a Free Walking Tour. It wasn’t nearly as professional as the one in La Paz; it was just some guy taking us to his favorite places, and talking about how the street art was influenced by ayahuasca. The street art was still pretty great. I’m glad he wasn’t starving. He had come from Cuba some years ago — I think I remember his saying that a girl figured into this decision, but even if I don’t remember it, it’s a good guess. As always, we ended up at a shopping venue. If you don’t pay for the product you are the product.
I only ever see the handicraft women at these places sewing hems. I bet the fabric is made elsewhere on giant machines by slave Uighurs.
We’d made a reservation at El Señorio de Sulco, another Essential Restaurant. We had ceviche, and also their version of an Ancient Incan pork dish made in a clay oven called a Huatia, and smoked trout causa, and purple corn pudding, and everything was quite good. The wines and Pisco were good too. Some of the wines we’ve had on this leg of the trip have been more on the Broadening and Educational axis.
We signed up for two tours suggested by Peru Hop. Peru Hop doesn’t actually conduct the tours. They have small liability swales to run the tourists through the riskier bits. The first was a boat trip to the Islas Ballestas (the “poor man’s Galapagos”) which did not involve getting off the boat. There were thousands of nesting Peruvian boobies and Inca terns, plus a few Humboldt penguins waddling around. We took lots of pictures, and after about 30 minutes, returned to Paracas. Some pelicans were happily accepting food from some tourists, which was fun to watch for awhile. We had some more lovely generic fried fish at a different restaurant.
A street seller approached the Peru Hoppers standing in front of the hotel with a little cart filled with green seed pods nearly as long as your arm. The Peru Hop lady bought some and passed them around, saying we had to try them. They are from the Amazon, and English speakers call them “Ice Cream Beans”. I took a segment, and ate the pulp, which tasted like ice cream in the Dairy Queen tradition, and ate the bean, which was crunchy.
And then the tour guide said I wasn’t supposed to eat the bean. I looked it up on Wikipedia (Inga edulis) and found the beans were Poisonous. Right. So here I am in a small South American town and poisoned. How can I do this? Eating food I’ve never heard of from a street vendor without even asking how to go about it? Wait, that’s what we do. But on the incomplete advice of a tour guide? So much for their avoiding liability by not personally conducting tours, but I am sure they have other ways out. What’s with poisonous plants named “edulis” anyway?
A poisonous locust named edulis
enticed both the careless and sedulous
This isn’t going anywhere. I did what anyone would do, I kept looking up stuff on the Internet, and eventually determined to my satisfaction that the bean was a protease inhibitor, just like Lima beans (and look where is the next stop) and it would only interfere with my digestion of proteins until it was used up. Who knows, maybe it’s a diet pill. Attention parents, Lima beans not only taste mealy, but you are poisoning your kid.
In the afternoon, there was a tour of the Paracas National Reserve, a large area of sand dunes with great views of the ocean. El Catedral, a natural arch which was one of the main attractions, fell down in an earthquake some years ago. It’s like that, on the coast.
Finally, we were back on the bus and headed to Lima. We took one diversion, to Hacienda San José where a complex of tunnels once used to smuggle slaves is now a tourist attraction. I wonder what the other tourists were thinking. You have to have some opinion about human indecency.
The bus to Nazca was scheduled to arrive at 6am, which would give us time to get to our 8am Nazca lines flight reservation. But once we were on the bus, the guide was concerned that there would be another blockade around 1:30am. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. It arrived just after 6am as planned, and we walked to our nearby hostel, who we’d warned that we’d just be using for a few hours during the day. For some reason, we were the only two people on the bus that actually got off at Nazca, everyone else continued to Huacachina (with a stop at a tower where they could view three of the Nazca figures). We took with us all the junk food that had been given to us by the bus company, that they had stockpiled in case there was a labor action and an arbitrary delay.
Aeronasca picked us up at the hostel, and took us to the little Nazca general-aviation airport. There must have been a dozen little companies doing Nazca lines flights. We weighed in, paid the airport tax, went through security, and got into a Cessna 207 with four other passengers. They gave us little maps, and explained that they would go over each figure in a right curve so people on the right could see it, then they would go back over it in a left curve. It was quite a delightful flight, and interesting to see not only the figures, but all of the other triangles and spirals that were out there. Definitely my favorite Peru Hop tour so far!
We went back downtown, and met at Mom’s Cafe to catch a shuttle Peru Hop had set up at 1 PM to take us to Huacachina. The bus driver had a favorite bpm. He played the actual “Beat It”. I think I had only ever heard Weird Al’s version, as with so many movies of the 1960’s that I knew only from MAD parodies illustrated by Mort Drucker. Disco is an OK art form, if you don’t hear it more often than once every fifteen years.
Somebody was fencing off the desert-paved desert. It’s hard to imagine what out there needs containment. Nothing for cows to eat.
It was nice to be in the tropics again. Three hundred meters, 15°S, and in the 20’s.
It took about two hours to get to Ica, and then maybe a half-hour to go the final kilometer to Huacachina, a crazy little oasis outside of town. There are big sand dunes with a lake in the middle, and somebody decided to build a bunch of hotels and restaurants around it. It was the day of parades after Peru’s Independence Day, and the area was teeming with locals in addition to the usual flow of tourists. People go walk on the dunes, and slide or “sandboard” or take buggy rides on them. They paddle board on the lake. What Lonely Planet was to Gen X, Peru Hop is to Gen Z, and this is their demographic and their chosen South America Experience.
I wasn’t optimistic about finding any good food, but as I walked around scouting restaurants I noticed a dish I hadn’t heard of, “calacabra con sopa seca”. We ended up going to Huacafuckingchina, the restaurant of the Sand & Lake hotel, and ordered that and anticuchos de corazon, the beef heart skewers we’ve often had at Peruvian restaurants elsewhere.
Tuesday, July 30
Our bus to Paracas wasn’t until 7pm, but we were kicked out of our room at noon, and there were no “day rooms” available. So we sat by the pool, blogging and writing postcards, our clothes drying in the sun. A bright orange little bird was flying around, which turned out to be a vermilion flycatcher.
The bus ride was fairly short, and we were picked up by our Airbnb host who took us to his businesslike condo configured as a full-time four-room Airbnb space. We went off to a lovely generic fried fish restaurant along the beach.
The Peru Hop bus to Arequipa drove over a high pass. There was ice on the inside of the windows. We arrived around 3:30 am. The bus sat there with the engine (and air-conditioning) off for two hours. Ray wrote and complained. They wrote back and said that their contract with the people who actually drive the buses, is that the air conditioning is always supposed to be on. Finally they took us to our hotel around 6am, where we had a delightful breakfast on the third floor with a view of some rooftops. Hotel Los Tambos is modern on the inside, although being only a half a block off the square, they are constrained to keep the original façade.
At every major stop that Peru Hop makes, we scheduled a tour. This is how you’re supposed to use a hop-on hop-off bus. In Arequipa, that tour was to have a look at the Colca Canyon. We chose a short tour — you can spend an arbitrary amount of time. There are trails into the canyon. But juggling everything that I wanted to do, a long walk didn’t make the final cut.
We left the big pieces of luggage in storage, and took the small ones as we got picked up for the 9am Colca Canyon tour.
The first day of the tour took us up into the mountains, with many volcanoes visible all around. One of them, Sabancaya, actually spurts ash and gas pretty continuously. (Another smaller one, Ubinas, had had an eruption a few days earlier, but nobody was concerned that it would interfere with getting to Arequipa to Puno.) We ended up in the town of Chivay, where we had a dumb buffet lunch. We did little in the afternoon, going for a walk around sunset, wishing that we’d have done it earlier. We had a minimal dinner since we were still full from lunch.
The plaza at Chivay, and even the smaller towns around, is decorated with large statues, brightly colored. If the country weren’t Roman Catholic, you’d swear they were pagan deities.
I’ve been taking lots of pictures of people taking selfies on this trip. It’s the last moment to do that. No, selfie people aren’t disappearing from style. The absence of them is disappearing, and to be ubiquitous is equally the cloak of invisibility. We will soon not be able to see them.
Two decades ago, in Australia, I was impressed by the vast quantity of signs there were, everywhere, advising the public that they were being surveilled by video. I took pictures of those, too, because it was obvious that cameras would be everywhere in the world, soon, and there wouldn’t be signs, you would just assume, everywhere you were, that you were being photographed.
Does being watched increase the incidence of suicide attacks? It seems that criminals would be more discreet if they thought they might get away with it. But the GINI for crime is doing the same as the GINI for money: there are billionaires and paupers, and there are mad bombers and terrorized petty-criminals-manqué. Involuntarily Law Abiding. Should be an identity.
Saturday, July 27
In the morning, we drove along the rim of the canyon, stopping at a little town. More statues, more dancers. The dancers, who were children in large part, didn’t get it. They scowled and turned away when you got out your phone to take photos of them. Frowning at the camera fits into a narrative, if it’s a native woman in a market in La Paz who only wants to sell her 12 varieties of potato and go back to their barrios, but these dancers wouldn’t even be here, if tourists weren’t taking pictures of them. They’d be home on their Playstations. I guess they didn’t want to dance at all, and weren’t getting any money from it, and were sabotaging the whole scene.
Our guide told us that church ladies are divided by hat color. He says. Black and white. Different churches. I bet he was kidding.
Pretty soon we stopped at a place where about a dozen Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) continuously flew around. At this point, the canyon started to get pretty deep. The stops continued at viewpoint after viewpoint, culminating at Mirador Cruz del Cóndor (there’s even a commemorating cross), where you may gaze 1200 meters down to the bottom of the gorge, or 15 or 20 meters in any direction, at the condors. If you look over the edge, you can watch them from above, as they soar against the backdrop of the black basaltic dropoff.
The condors have made their peace with the camera-intoxicated tourists. It is an exercise in co-evolution, or maybe just operant conditioning. The condors make dramatic approaches and swoops and aerobatics; the tourists follow them with their cameras over the cliffs, and the condors now have carrion to eat. The most photogenically performing condors therefore have the most food and reproductive success.
Colca Canyon is a pretty place but the only way it’s the biggest anything is by conflating the definition of watershed and canyon, pretending there’s a distinction. Except for a couple of gorges, it’s a broad agricultural valley. You might as well call the Amazon Basin a canyon. If you can’t afford to come to Peru, visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Bring an Andean Condor feeding puppet.
After a few hours we returned to Chivay for another lunch. Most people seemed to bail on the lunch this time, as did we — we split an Arequipa sausage sandwich in a little shop instead. The tour returned to Arequipa the same way, and we actually checked into our charming hotel, Los Tambos.
We walked to the Plaza de las Armas and were immediately accosted by a crowd of Venezuelan exchange students or tourists, in costume, and shouting “Selfie! Selfie!” They must have been students. Tourists don’t pack masks and furry suits and togas. All the photos they take must be on Facebook or Instagram but you can’t find them, for privacy reasons. Make up your mind what you want, people.
We walked a little around the plaza at sunset, past the chain stores on the walking streets nearby, and to a restaurant I picked out, Picanteria Benita de los Claustros. They have menus of eight or four dishes, somewhat scaled down, but the menus of eight were said to be too big for two people, and those of four didn’t have the things we wanted. So we ordered three things a la carte, two of them involving the local crayfish (a “soup” and a “salad”). The other dish was the local stuffed hot pepper. It was all delicious, and the menu described it as typical of Arequipa food. I always suspect that genuine local people go home or eat at Five Guys. Their loss, if they do.
Sunday, July 28
We set the alarm and got up in time for the 5:15 pickup for the bus to Nazca. We found out that the arriving bus had been stopped at a blockade, and received an email as we sat there informing us that the bus had been rescheduled to 8pm. (They also called the hotel. Peru Hop is extremely communicative, often replying to emails within minutes.)
That gave us a day to walk around Arequipa. We were able to move into another room at the charming hotel for the day, and to get another hour of sleep. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, and everything was closed (and it’s not a big museum town anyway). (It was also Independence Day, but we didn’t hear any anthems being sung or anything.)
We went to Yanahuara, a neighborhood said to have interesting architecture, and whiled away a bit of time. There was a glass platform up in the air with people wearing harnesses. We were hoping they’d jump or bungee down, but no, it was just an observation platform. A store nearby sold post cards of Old Peru that were too nice to send. A row of manikins representing historical figures was set up for people to take selfies with, together with QR codes to scan, for further information.
Back at Plaza de Armas, four more Venezuelan students wanted photos with us. They did not have costumes. The one who approached us was tall and extraordinarily handsome, and had two girls hanging off him while his mate had none and looked resentful in the photos.
Around 4 we started looking for dinner, and ended up at Victoria Panteria de Democratia, which is a sister restaurant of Benita. I was surprised it was open, since Google had said it would be closed, but the waiter said they changed that a month ago. I let Google know. So we had two more things a la carte from the menu of 8 things, a local salad, and “adobo”, pork in a nicely spicy sauce with an even spicier pepper.
The restaurant had a sign on the wall, among all the restaurant old stuff artifacts, slightly misquoting the French critic Eugène Viollet-le-Duc of the 19th century: “It is not to preserve it, to repair it, or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.” The original quote was about buildings, but I suppose they were thinking of making traditional dishes. There was also a copy of Hal McGee’s book, “La Cocina y los Alimentos”.
We returned to the hotel, and got picked up and taken to the bus.
Our friend Laura’s description of her Green Tortoise vacations had gotten me interested in that style of travel, so I signed us on to the Bolivia Hop bus from La Paz to Lima. It went to places that I wanted to see (Nazca primarily) and it would put us with different people than you meet on a private guided tour. You see the people who have your budget.
“They only want to drink Chardonnay at ten in the morning, and talk about their surgeries.”
— cousin Johan, describing Queen Mary Round-The-World passengers
Recently, Laura told us that Green Tortoise is in financial trouble because nobody wants to, or is allowed to, come see Trump’s America. They always had had a lot of foreign tourists.
Our guide met us in our hotel at 6am to take us to meet the Bolivia Hop bus at a centrally-located hostel. It was a pleasure hanging out with him in our trip through Bolivia, he spoke good English, and knew everything about Bolivia and all the birds and plants we saw.
The Bolivia Hop bus finally arrived, and took us to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. At one point, there was a strait that we crossed, people going on a little boat, and the bus floating across on a raft. A tour from Copacabana went to Isla Del Sol, getting there late and telling us we have to leave early.
Skip the Isla del Sol tour, even though Copacabana is a fat bore as well. If you take this trip you will see on the island:
Your own feet, one in front of the other as fast as you can, mounting rocks on the unmarked trail from where the boat leaves you off to where the boat picks you up.
There is no 2.
It seems this is a lovely little island, looking past the gauntlet of sellers of Chinese-made souvenirs. You cannot see it in forty-five minutes. You could not see your own front porch in 45 minutes. The recommended Bolivia hop boat leaves after 1300, arrives at 1440, and you must be at another place at 1530 in order to meet the boat which returns you to the bus at 1700. This is not an island tour. This is a boat ride and a high altitude sprint. Maybe this is what you want. Maybe there really isn’t anything to see in Copacabana. In the first two hours we were there, I didn’t see anything. (Reader responses are welcome. You know our addresses.)
We returned, got back on the bus, went 15 minutes to the Peru border, and said goodbye to the Bolivia Hop bus (They use a different bus from the Peru Hop. Maybe there is a problem with gauges and they don’t feel like swapping bogies).
We boarded the Peru Hop bus which took us up to the city of Puno, on the west side of the lake. We checked in to our hotel, after some dodging of street demonstrations in a shuttle (Peru Hop offloads you to a shuttle and takes you to your hotel), then had dinner at Mojsa, a nice restaurant overlooking the square, currently surrounded by blue tarps for renovation.
And so to bed.
Wednesday, July 24
We put the big pieces of luggage in storage, and took the smaller ones with us as we were picked up for the Island Homestay tour. That started with a visit to the Uros floating islands, where 4600 people live on 120 small islands made out of mud covered with totoro reeds, as they have for 3700 years. They have ceremonial boats made out of reeds, which they push with a little motorboat.
The islanders don’t like tourists much, but the ones closest to the shore appreciate the hard currency and conduct their PowerPoint presentations, with prefabricated jokes and facts such as: they can’t play basketball here because you can’t launch off the surface of the reeds.
Our guide speaks Aymara and Quechua after mother and father. Then Spanish, English, and Italian. But in December he will become a lawyer.
We then continued to head for Amantani Island, but at one point the tour guide was concerned by the wind on the lake, and we turned around to head back to Puno. Before too long we turned back around, and the tour guide said that it would be safe to go to the peninsula in front of the island, and that we could do our homestay there. So we did: we had lunch, and were assigned to a family who were in the process of building a little hotel. We had a private room with a bathroom, which missed only a toilet seat and a shower head. I’m sure they’ll finish it eventually. We walked around the neighborhood, saw a couple men making mud bricks for a building they were constructing, and watched some ducks. There were llamas and sheep all over, including baby ones.
One of the tourists was having a birthday, which gave an awkward excuse to dance. For this they passed out brightly colored Native Shawls which might not even have been made in China, since the wages are so much lower here. It was awkward. We did not dance. Introverts are kind of like Jesus; we feel awkward for the things that extroverts do that they ought to be utterly humiliated to be seen at. Dancing in native costume is the same as putting the skulls of your defeated enemies around your roofline, or wearing the skins of animals you have slain. Making the defeated culture participate is even more demeaning. It is blackface.
It’s cold at Lake Titicaca, as well. There wasn’t heat yet, in the hotel under construction. Nor electricity at all, after a time. The shawls helped with the heat. For all the lack of utilities, we hadn’t regressed to the neolithic: a car alarm sounded about three in the morning.
Thursday, July 25
In the morning, we were to go to Taquile Island. But the previous day high winds had overturned five boats there, and a captain had been injured. So the police said no, and we just returned to Puno. There were Titicaca Grebes to watch, when we were close enough to shore. They skitter cutely across the water. The captain goes slowly past the reed islands, because of reed mats in the water that might foul the blades.
When we got back to Puno, our guide told us that the whole city was on strike and we could walk to our hotels, starting with walking over four boats to get to the dock. Others had more suitcases than we did. But somebody rustled up a minibus. It wouldn’t have been that far a walk.
Strikes were a continuous problem in Peru. The miners were also striking, and one of their actions was to block roads. They were more serious about it than the blockaders in Bolivia. When a road was blocked, nobody went past, and a bus hasn’t the option of driving on the little dirt roads. As a result, many of our departures were delayed by hours, or threatened with delay, which requires the same amount of contingency planning.
We were able to get a “day room” in our hotel, Suites Antonio, allowing us a base to walk around as we waited for our 9pm departure to Arequipa. They must be used to this. It wasn’t expensive. The night room was $27.
We walked around Puno. Up to a viewpoint with a graffiti-covered statue. Peering into stores and cafes. It was warm. High deserts can be nice during the day during the winter. I bought a paper describing the winds the day before, with pictures of the wrecked boats on the island we couldn’t go to. Buying a paper seems as esoteric as buying an Andean hat doll. Far from normal life. Something only seen at the antipodes.
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.
We checked out and headed in the direction of Sucre, the old capital named not for sugar but for the other founder of Bolivia (i.e. not Mr. Bolívar), although French tourists like to come here for the name. Without counting, I thought I noticed more German tourists in Argentina and more French tourists in Bolivia.
Driving out of Potosí, you really notice how much it’s like a giant West Virginia. All tailings and chemicals. Economic Development always means destruction of the earth. Well-being for this generation of workers means death to their grandchildren. It’s the sort of conundrum that evolution takes care of in the very long term, as it did with oxygen pollution. We passed a big airport expansion underway. Runways at a high elevation must be long.
There were no roadblocks along the way. We stopped at a couple of miradors, including the Puente Sucre, a bridge that used to span the Pilcomayo River. It fell into disuse, was reconstructed, and then a couple of meters of the reconstructed bridge dropped into the river again, so now you just admire the towers and use the new bridge a couple of kilometers downstream.
We arrived at the hotel Merced, and walked to a dumb international restaurant in a nearby fancy hotel for lunch. Boeuf a l’orange on the patio with mashed potatoes that might have come from a box. Then we did a bit of sightseeing, walking around the Franciscan cathedral near the square, and stopping at a museum which should have been open, but whose owners had decided to take the day off. Furries were dancing in the road around the plaza. Evidently, a safety campaign, suggested by zebra striping in crosswalks in La Paz and featuring dancers in zebra costumes, has spread to other cities. In Sucre, there are orange and green crocodiles. Sucre is a university town, which must contribute to the availability of costumed workers. Students are a large part of the crowd, even outnumbering tourists when you get a couple of blocks from the main square.
The strongest public awareness campaign is against littering. It’s not just somebody ran off 100,000 No Tire Basura signs and that was it — there are zillions of handmade signs against littering, using different images and individual wording, and it must be that a ton of people are involved in this. I hope it works. There is trash all over the world. People haven’t really internalized the idea that modern packaging doesn’t decay the way basketwork of the last 200,000 years decays. it will be with us for a while. And one doesn’t throw things “away” on a round planet.
After that, Ray walked around with Julio, while I went to find a place to work. The closest hit in Google Maps for “coworking” was a spot around the corner called IDIF, Instituto De Investigationes Forensicos. That location was actually being renovated, and I walked a few blocks to where it had moved. It appeared not to actually be a coworking space, but they sent me to Metro Cafe, where there was actually fast WiFi. My main mission was to do a 3GB download of the latest version of Xcode. It failed after 45 minutes, but I got a good copy of it after another hour.
The walk with Julio took us to the Parque Bolívar, not far from the center of town. This park features a viewing platform which they affectionately call the Torre Eiffel, because it was designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1906, and is similar to his larger structure in Paris. It’s painted orange, like the Golden Gate Bridge. In the middle of winter, the park is a little tatty, plantwise, but the citizens were still there.
We had dinner at Pueblo Chico, a little place on the square.
Friday, July 19
On this day, we were scheduled for a tour out of town to a little village. I was prepared to skip the tour, but during the download the previous night I discovered that the work I thought I’d have to start on wasn’t actually necessary.
We started at a little viewpoint square at the top of Sucre for a visit we’d skipped the previous evening due to the angle of the sun. Then we continued on out of town, stopping first at the entrance to a village called Tarabuco. Tarabuco is famous for the ferocity of its native warriors. They trained by living outdoors for years at a time. Their signature move was ripping the hearts out of their Catholic adversaries and eating them raw.
The Christian historians don’t mention this, but despite their viciousness and economic and technological power, there are places they didn’t get to. “Uncontacted” tribes in Brazil, Baltic pagans, and a lot of redoubts in Bolivia. La Paz itself was divided between Spanish and Native controlled areas. And the guidebooks tell you that it’s not done to mention Christian gods in the mines of Potosí — that’s El Tío’s territory.
Tarabuco was such a place. Trade is still largely by barter.
Julio had retained two local guides for the trip to the hacienda. He was friends with the grandmother of the driver; the guide was a student majoring in tourism. When the conversation turned to barter, I asked the driver — as a humanizing gesture — how many generations it had been, since his family had conducted trade by barter. I can certainly give the answer for my family. Five matrilineal generations back, we were trading furs by the shores of Gitchi Gumee.
This effort at bonding failed. Nicolas was offended I should even say such a thing. Nicolas is a direct descendant of the couple who was granted the hacienda, married by the pope, given the title Prince and Princess (apparently without portfolio; nobody ever said what they were prince and princess OF) and here he is driving a car to show impertinent tourists the ruins of the weedy estate Candelaria, where the old blind caretaker (his grandmother’s babysitter) and her granddaughter totter around the courtyard with spiders and pigeons, keeping a couple of rooms habitable for overnight youth hostellers and preparing soup for day trippers, dusting off the family portraits, occasionally editing the Wikipedia entry.
After lunch, we looked at a room of old farm implements, which must be part of some “How to Write about Africa”-style handbook of small town tourism worldwide. We walked into the nearby town where we watched a woman making a weaving on a hand loom. We hope she will get paid handsomely for it since it will have taken her days and days to complete. The dyes are made from petrochemicals and come from China.
The guide’s father’s family was from Poland, before the war. I got Henri’s WhatsApp contact info, and wrote to him afterwards, that having a conversation with somebody about how his family came to Bolivia is worth visiting ten museums.
On the way back to the main road, we gave two boys a ride from their school to a football match. They were hitchhiking as a joke, I think. People here are used to walking. However, since Nicolas is technically from the village of Candelaria, it wasn’t that far-fetched a gesture. I am always fond of uncomfortable relationships. Let them feel what I feel around everyone.
After driving back to town, we returned to the museum which was now open, and saw its collections of paintings, colonial and “contemporary”, in other words, before and after 1900. There was a gallery of paintings of presidents of the republic; for some reason there wasn’t one of the current president (since 2006) Evo Morales. One item available in the gift shop was a deck of cards, showing a different painting from their Contemporary collection on each card, one of the best deals ever for getting a museum’s catalog.
The Classical museum had examples of criminal sexual perversion of the sort usually found in Catholic art. The virgin nursing St. Bernard and the Christ Child was one, and also the cockroot of the Baby Jesus. This manifestation of sagging — totally an attention-getting device — is usually found in bathroom mirror selfies by men who still think they might still run for office one day, or Paco Rabanne models doing testicular cancer awareness campaigns. I was in the middle of a meandering thread with Kent about the latter manifestation, and here it was in religious art.
Dinner was at a little place near the hotel called Azafran.
On Monday we had heard from our guide that there was a blockade between Uyuni and Potosí, our next destination. Rather than drive almost twice as far to avoid it, we proceeded up the road with the hopes that negotiation might let us through. Sure enough, within an hour of driving we encountered two buses sideways blocking the road. We sat there during an hour of negotiations between our driver and police and strikers and various truckers and their next higher-ups. The activists who had blocked the road became amenable to turning the action from agitprop to fundraising. So rather than run the blockade, it became a “fill the boot” drive, such as is held by the Sky Londa Fire Station. The only thing missing was trays of lasagne and plastic forks. And Jerry Lewis, of course.
They moved one of the buses and we continued. This sort of thing is apparently very common in Bolivia and Peru, and has been for years.
Potosí is a city built to serve a very old silver mine. It is surrounded by mountains and is very beautiful in the way that a million dead slaves can make an old town beautiful. We had lunch next to the hotel at an Authentic Bolivian Restaurant. They had nonstop videos playing Korean pop music. You expect them to listen to Bob Marley still? The food was similarly international. Potosí is a university town. Students are a large part of the crowd, even outnumbering tourists when you get a couple of blocks from the main square.
We were taken to the Mint House for a tour. The silver from the mine was used in the mid-1500s to make coins that were used all over New Spain. They were all hand-stamped, and there were no punches so they were never perfectly round. There is one functional silver working machine on the premises. If you were to hitch up four mules to it in the basement, you could press silver like pasta, just as was done centuries ago.
After the tour, we had dinner on our own at a nearby restaurant, eating Bolivian traditional dishes. One of them was pretty much meat and potatoes, all covered by a sauce that was almost entirely paprika. We encountered paprika in a lot of Bolivian dishes. Did it come from here, to Hungary, or was it returned from Hungary? Chili Peppers are a New World genus, but they have gone everywhere in the world.
The Sopa Andina was better than the last Lipton’s Cup-a-Quinoa I had. Not every place makes real soup stock.
We stayed in a pretty hotel, Hostel Colonial, with two courtyards, but the bathroom in room 116 smells bad, as if a turd or small animal had died there. I’ve smelled this in bathrooms before. Never chose to pursue the analysis scientifically. Null hypothesis is that they have mistaken the P trap for a ventilator fan.
Wednesday, July 17
In the morning we headed up to the silver mine for a tour. On the way we stopped in a shopping district for miners, where they buy shovels, pickaxes, protective clothing. The miners in Potosí are expected to purchase, either out of their own paychecks or through their co-operatives, everything they need to do their jobs. Coca leaves, foremost. Working class men in Bolivia generally have rodent cheeks bulging with coca and the various flavoring agents that you can chew with it, without which extended work at high altitudes is impossible. The main single-point mutation that Tibetans exhibit, increasing the efficiency of hemoglobin at high altitudes, has not occurred in the Andes. Other advantageous mutations have been identified. African slaves could not work here and were sent to the lowlands, after brief experiments in the colonial period. But mostly it’s coca.
The result is that there are old ladies running tiny shops on the streets leading up to the mine, where dynamite, fuses, blasting caps, boots, shovels, ammonium nitrate, hard hats, coca leaves, anise flavored paste, and the like, sit next to each other on the shelves with Fanta and toilet paper and cigarettes.
And ethanol. There is a native God, El Tío (Dios, but the Aymara language didn’t distinguish “d” and “t”) who protects the miners (not doing a great job: millions have died since the 16th century, and even today the life expectancy of a miner at Cerro Rico is 40 years) and He expects the miners to garland him with Carneval paper streamers, coca, cigarettes, and a few drops of 96% ethanol on His head, hands, feet, eyes, and enormous red penis, every time they get the chance. Pachamama, the Earth Mother, also wants you to pour one out for the homies.
On special days, llama blood and the head of the sacrificed llama, as well.
At the mine, we were issued a rubber jacket, pants, and boots, which we put on over most everything else we were wearing. A headlamp was attached to our hard hats, and we proceeded into the mine. The mine shafts have electricity and oxygen pipes running everywhere, and it was actually quite breathable. But one is constantly ducking under overhanging beams, pipes, and rock ceilings. We stopped to see the devil effigy, and then continued to a side shaft where a 17-year-old worker was moving a pile of ore, one wheelbarrow at a time, from where it had been broken up, to the spot where we were standing, next to the trolley tracks in the shaft where we had entered. I continued on a bit farther, but the height was such that I was walking pretty constantly bent over, and we decided that we had gotten the idea and headed back out into the daylight.
We had the afternoon to ourselves, and walked to a little church where we took the tour of the cathedral, the roof, and the paintings in the courtyard of the convent. It was all in Spanish, but one of the workers typed as much as he could into Google Translate, and showed us the results in English. It was very sweet of him. The observation platform at the top of the roof had a great view of the city. The tiles, similar to the ones in California, are called “musleras”, Spanish for “thigh”, because they were originally formed around the roofer’s thigh.
We met the guide for dinner at another traditional Bolivian restaurant. The food included llullucha soup and pique macho. Llullucha is a bacterium that grows in little green spheres in lakes. Very nice, hard to describe except in terms of spherized this-and-that which you might have found in very trendy restaurants a decade ago. As with many human inventions, nature got there first. Pique Macho is Bolivian for way too much food; also tasty and picante.
We continued along the highway to Uyuni, a dusty little town near the Uyuni Salt Flats. Apparently the ex-mayor is in prison for corruption; they are getting tons of income from tourists and salt mining, but seem to have little to show for it in terms of infrastructure. Typical. (You’ve heard the stories about lithium in Bolivia, with a huge proven reserve under the salt flats. They are doing their best to figure out how to get it out of the ground and into phone batteries, but it will probably be a decade before they succeed.)
We walked through the Sunday Market in Uyuni. It was a real market, not a tourist market, where the people in the villages surrounding the Salar Uyuni come to buy Star Wars t-shirts for their kids, or plastic spatulas.
The Bolivian lady stitching on the hem was in some other part of the downtown area, which is entirely tour agencies and souvenir shops. I haven’t been here long, but I’m thinking, they really do dress in that national costume, with the hats and the shawls and stuff. Answer: it’s cold. As soon as the sun goes down, or you step into the shadow of a building, it’s below freezing. The salt water puddles are frozen, in the mountains, Fahrenheit speakers take note. So you have a lot of fabric around you, and it might as well be cheerful and bright.
We visited the Train Cemetery, a place with hundreds of rusted old freight train cars and engines, these days mostly used as graffiti surfaces and climbing objects for kids. When industrial decay is artistic in its own right, you shouldn’t put graffiti on it. Graffiti is like medicine: first of all, do no harm. Leave the campground better than you found it. Dan Savage used that metaphor about sex. (There aren’t any metaphors not about sex.) Climbing kids, of course, improve everything, even the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Then we drove out of town, and out onto the salt flats for sunset. On the way, I asked the guide how deep the salt was. He said there was 10cm of salt, then a layer of brine, and then more salt, and more brine, down hundreds of meters. After we parked, we did see a hole under the truck with water beneath. The interesting thing though was that the driver decided that one of the tires was flat (didn’t look that bad to me) and went about changing it. We were worried that the jack would concentrate so much weight on the salt that it would break through. But no problem, it worked just fine. We had peanuts, potato chips, and wine, and took pictures. Tourist vans dotted the horizon.
The sun set, and we headed to the hotel.
Ray reacted badly to something, perhaps the peanuts or wine or just the altitude, but got immediately into bed when we arrived. I went and had the hotel dinner, which had a really nice masaco, a Bolivian croquette of some sort made out of plantain. I also braved fish, which was from Lake Titicaca, which isn’t that far upstream from Uyuni. Titicaca, Poopo, and Salar Uyuni are all the same watershed. Uyuni is the last stop.
Monday, July 15
Ray decided his headache was more likely from reading in a moving vehicle; he felt much better in the morning. We checked out (sad! the hotel was very nice) and headed back out onto the salt flats. We crossed them, going to a village beneath a beautiful but inactive volcano, visiting a little museum of old artifacts, and a quirky sculpture garden. After a short lunch in the middle of the salt flats, we went to Isla Incahuasi, a cactus-covered island, and climbed to the top for great views over the salt playa. Ray took a photo of a cactus that he later found on a post card.
Lately I read an article, probably British, decrying the tendency of tourists to take the same photo over and over for Instagram. Whatever. It isn’t that everyone wants to take the Instagram photo, it’s that it’s the only view left. There is only one angle from which you can now photograph the pyramids at Giza, that does not reveal that they are surrounded by a grimy Cairo slum, thrown up as Egypt attempts to manage 90 million people when they had a world empire with 1% that many. As it applies to Uyuni, there is only one photo they encourage: sunset over the salt flats. All other images reveal the horrific devouring of a world treasure: premium mediocre hotels at the north edge of the flat, clay and concrete metastasizing mining shanty towns surrounding them, housing desperately poor workers as the salt flats are dug up using every giant machine that China has to offer. The mining is done, starting from the south. A few traditional mines, with picks and trucks, also near Uyuní. It was the town industry, after all. There will be a great Instagram moment when the two meet: luxury hotels overlooking a pit.
In the middle of the flat, one may find stretches of untrammeled surface, and not see the edges on account of the round earth. The flats are 11,000 square kilometers in size. That’s 20 times bigger than the playa at Burning Man.
There is one Nat Geo shot of Uyuni that you have to work for. It happens every year a few times, after the rains have come. During the rainy season, the salt flats can be covered by as much as 50 mm of water, which evaporates at the rate of 6 mm per day. The really great images of Salar Uyuni, the ones that don’t look like the hard packed overflow parking lot in a ski area at the beginning of spring, happen at the instant when God’s Zamboni has scraped off all the tire marks. We are not here to post that photo. Eclipse chasers miss all the Rainy Season shots — the thundering waterfalls, the mating flamingoes.
After our drive across the salt flat, our guide checked us into La Petite Porte. This hotel would have been OK except that it was designed during the hotel design era when bathrooms were reconceptualized as performance spaces. (Rooms 3 and 4 were, anyway. Peering into the other rooms, which were open and unoccupied, it seemed that more normal western privacy sensibility prevailed. We really do want a video camera between our behavior and the people spying on it.)
We went around the block for dinner to Tika, where the hit was charque, a big pile of strips of dried llama, over a base of hominy with one of the 200 varieties of potatoes on the side.