Monday, August 31, 2009

Hiking La Paz

July 30, 3009

As all mornings following an overnight bus, Thursday started super-early with our 5:30 a.m. arrival in La Paz. We dropped our luggage off at the hostel and went to a 24-hour cafe (Cafe Ciudad) to wait for the city to awaken.

As we entered the quiet restaurant, a woman in a corner table yelled, “Hello, Ladies!” We looked, she waved, and we dismissed her as drunk. I went to the bathroom, and came out of the stall just as a man entered.

He looked slightly disoriented, and I wondered if he could really be lost enough to have missed the men’s room right next door. He started talking to me, and it appeared he’d followed me into the restroom. He held out a folded paper, which I presumed contained his number or a message, and said “Bienvenido a Bolivia,” I accepted it, assessing him to be around 50. “Es muy buena,” he said. Odd.

He finally left and I opened the paper. It contained a fine white powder. Scenes from a dozen different movies where tourists are set up on drug charges passed through my mind, and I quickly deposited the packet on the sink.

I made it back to the table and noted he was seated at the table with the woman who’d yelled to us when we entered. A minute later, he came over and introduced himself. He was a congressman. “How was it?” he asked. “I don’t know yet,” I answered carefully, not wanting to risk any problems.

Luckily, just then the waiter ushered him away. He receded to the back of the large restaurant, by the bathrooms and I regretted not throwing his “gift” away. Surely he’d enter and see the abandoned gift. I avoided the bathrooms as we killed time in the restaurant, but Tammy was so unnerved we didn’t stay long.

At one moment, he sat at the table next to us to make a phone call, and she was done.

El Pardo (The main strip)

We started the Lonely Planet walking tour (which is really more an exercise in map reading), praying the sites of interest would be open by the time we walked to them.


Iglesia de San Francisco, La PazWe visited another Iglesia de San Francisco, with a very detailed mestizo facade and an interesting altar with random, indigenous faces popping out. Angels?

Next, we headed through the artisan alley (which was mostly closed) to the Mercado de Hechicería (Witches Market), a couple blocks of stores selling traditional medicines, charms, and lucky llama fetuses.

Mercado de Hechicería, charms and offerings.

Apparently, the dried membranes are considered a sacrifice, and buried for good luck. (Fotos available.)

Our visit then took us to the “black market” which we never really lcated, but also didn’t feel compelled to invest much energy or time on.

We found the Mercado Lanza, which was like a drugstore cosmetics counter, set under market tents, and then visited the Museo Tambo Quirquincho, which mostly displayed prints of their featured artist’s work. However, the building was nice and for one boliviano (15 cents), the price was right.

Next, we wandered over to the Plaza Murillo and enjoyed ice cream cones and people watching. The plaza was full of pigeons and the kids alternated between chasing them, and feeding them seeds sold by vendors in the plaza. We were too bus-lagged to realize we were surrounded by the presidential and legislative houses until hours later.

Winter Vacay

Once noon hit, we made a beeline for lunch at Yussef’s, a Lebanese restaurant where we shared the sampler platter: hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, dolmas, rice pilaf, tabbouli, pita bread, and a cucumber tzatziki salad. After a year without, the food was fabulous!

CocaMuseumIn the afternoon we stopped by the Coca Museum, which was interesting and informative though not put together in a very coherent/objective manner.

TammyJournals Finally, it was time to clean up and chill out. We both enjoyed hot, uninterrupted showers and some quiet time. Then, it was beer time!

We headed upstairs to our hostel’s brewpub, where a pint turned into a pitcher turned into their Mexican buffet. Excellent, but way more than I needed! Diet, tomorrow!

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Potosí, the silver city

July 29, 2009

Thursday morning started early as promised. We arrived in Potosí at 10:30, as all the buses were running much more quickly than predicted.

We booked a tour of the infamous silver mines with Andes Salt Mine Expeditions and I grabbed a quick empanada on the plaza as we headed toward the Casa Nacional de Moneda (the mint). The empanada from the street vendor was amazing! 1 boliviano (15 cents) and filled with a perfectly spiced mix of veggies.


Unfortunately, the mint (which only offers 2-hour tours) was closed for lunch and wouldn’t re-open before our mine tour. However, we got to see some adorable girls in costume for a perfomance, and then visited the mestizo church of San Francisco, with its famous facade of moons, suns, and the bounties of mother earth (Pachamama ).

Iglesia de San Francisco, Potosí

We entered during a service so we didn’t have a good look inside. Then we went to lunch at Kaypichu, noted for having healthy, vegetarian lunches. I ordered the Pizza de Verduras, which ended up being whole-wheat English muffin pizzas. Four flat rolls topped with veggies.

Next up: the long anticipated mine tour. Rough. Dangerous. Shocking. Important. The Andes Salt Expeditions office gave a better (more detailed, selling) sales pitch than the equally reputed Koala Tours, so we went with Andes.

The infamous mine

However, our guide left a bit to be desired. She was not an ex-miner as we were lead to believe our guide would be, and spoke mostly in harsh, reprimanding English. It was unclear whether this was due to a serious lack of mastery of the language, or her own personality. Explanations were sparse, and she seemed more interested in hooking her buddies in the mines up with the gifts we were encouraged to buy them, than educating us about the mine.


Therefore, the tour was a bit more like a spelunking expedition in an active mine. We started out being lead from the bright, friendly office through the city to the back room an anonymous building several blocks away. There, we were given yellow suits, boots, and hard hats.

Tammy entering Cerro Rico. HeadingDown

Our guide with miner's alcoholThe guide was brash from the start and offered no introduction or explanations as she led us to the van. Our first stop was the “miner’s market” which was actually just a single storefront where she explained the importance of various supplies such as pure (96%) alcohol, coca leaves, dynamite, and these exotic, hand-rolled cigarettes filled with nutmeg, cloves, coca, and some tobacco.

Then we were “left” to buy gifts for the miners, while our guide kept a careful inventory of our gifts.

Miners pushing 1 ton cart out of the mine.In the mines, we were lead down a puddled path, and occasionally pulled to the side as a trolley of ore passed. We climbed a bit, and due to her sharp, nonspecific instructions, we slid in a lot of mud.

25 year old miner, son of mine's owner.The miners were friendly, which was probably helped by our generous gifts and the owner’s son was happy to speak with us at length regarding our questions about his work.

A British couple bought dynamite at the miner’s market (because “that’s the whole point of going on a mine tour, to make explosions”), and our guide helped them detonate it after leaving the mine. Tammy took a fabulous photo of me holding the live dynamite. My camera was already on the fritz.

Jenn holding live dynamite--really!

The explosion was fun, identical to a movie, but with more oomph. The three Brits enjoyed it immensely, answering Tammy’s question after reading about the detonations in the brochures, “Really? Do people care?”

So, while I found the experience emotional in the sensitive material being covered so blithely by an inadequate guide, it wasn’t as personally shaking as I had expected. The miners seemed well adjusted to their fates.

After the intense (and dirty) tour, we washed up at the coffee shop, Cherry, which focused more on pastries than coffee. However, we needed to have an early dinner before another overnight bus ride, so we didn't get to sample the goods.

We had an early dinner at 4060, a restaurant/pub where I once again got my Mexican fill with Huevos Rancheros, which appeared rather soupy in their tomato sauce, but tasted fabulous with the restaurant's homemade salsa.

Our bus to La Paz was overwhelmed by Brits, but otherwise incredibly comfy, giving each of us thick, warm Bolivian blankets.

Bolivia Itinerary: Villazon, Tarija, Sucre, Potosí, La Paz, Santa Cruz

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sucre—Here we go again!

July 28, 2009

Despite consuming a copious amount of alcohol the night before, we got to bed at a reasonable hour and intended to have a full day on Tuesday. However, those plans came to a quick halt as we dealt with the hotel’s finicky shower. (You must turn the knob as slow as possible for it to trigger the hot water, then listen for the humming in the wall, to know that it worked.)

We ended up accomplishing everything, making a convoluted trip to the bus station (our guidebook instructed us to hop on a bus, and for a good reason—their maps were totally useless!), then catching the Dino Wagon, just as it was pulling away from the curb.


The first attraction of the day—dinosaur footprints at the Cal Orck’o Parque Cretacico. Apparently, they were big, we weren’t allowed within 2,000 meters of them, but we did get some photos. Rather unimpressive from this angle, they measure over 1,000 meters in either direction. Yes, people are just a speck within them.

dinoprintsafar dinoprints (2)

We lunched on pasta at the Bibliocafe then went to visit the Iglesia La Merced. Charging a hefty 10 bolivianos to enter, the church had a beautiful rooftop terrace, and an interesting altar featuring syncretism. We were first made aware of this phenomenon at the Pajcha in Salta. The indigenous people who were conscripted with the construction of churches often incorporated their own traditional beliefs in the buildings, much to the dismay of the Catholic church. Pregnant angels (symbols of fertility), hearty crops, and sacred animals are particularly prevalent in the north of Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.


After soaking up some rooftop sun, we headed to an internet cafe for a bit of research, then did a bit of shopping. I found a fabulous handmade alpaca sweater for my dad.


We had some wine in the plaza and then headed to dinner. The restaurant we were looking for wasn’t there, so we opted for the equally touristy-looking joint in its place. The only vegetarian option was a “Mexican lasagna” which was only Mexican in its use of tortillas in place of pasta. However, it was tasty with eggplant and goat cheese. Once again, we called an early night for the sake of our early morning.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Sucre—Day 1

July 27, 2009

We arrived bright and early Monday morning and set out for breakfast. We found the tourist-oriented Joy Ride Cafe, which offered some eggs-and-toast American options, but I opted for the Bolivian sampler plate. There was a great cheese empanada, a ground beef empanada (oops!), a mil hojas cake (similar to those in Argentina but with a lot more cake and less dulce de leche), and a rock hard roll that was salty with cheese. And coffee and juice.

It was a ton of food, I would have been good with just the first empanada, but it was fun. Fortified, we hiked up to the mirador and Iglesia and Museo de Recoleta.


The view was great, but even more interesting was the central plaza filled with foosball tables. It seemed they were setting up a fair/carnival and these tables were first out.

This plaza was filled with foosball tables!

The museum visit came with a guided tour, which was nice, and featured the property’s 1,500-year-old massive cedar tree.

Next up, gluttons for catholic relics, we visited the Cathedral and Museo Cartedralico. The museum was interesting, featuring an incredible quantity of silver and jewels, but filled me with some typical catholic-style guilt in having paid a church $20 bolivianos ($3.30) to see their riches, as people slaved outside for just one single boliviano to buy a bit of food.


We lunched on burritos at Locot’s (I tried to order a traditional fried egg and potato dish with peanut sauce, but they were all out). The burritos were delicious, though unconventionally shaped.

In the afternoon, we visited the Museo de Arte Indigena (Textile Museum), part of a fabulous anthropological project aimed at revitalizing the art of weaving in indigenous groups in Bolivia. Lead by scientists, the weavers were educated in the more sophisticated weaving techniques employed by their ancestors while encouraged to create new works using their own personal experiences and interpretations of beauty.

bolivia2 bolivia1 bolivia3

Then, we returned to Joy Ride for cerveza. At 7 they were showing the film, “The Devil’s Miner,” a film about the silver mines in Potosí—which is where we were headed next! We figured the film would give us a great for our Wednesday visit.

However, during the film, we downed 2 more pitchers of beer and were in no shape to go anywhere else for dinner. I enjoyed a delicious Joy Ride Salad (yes, even after two pitchers, I was trying to watch my pizza and burrito-bloated figure), which was an enormous mound of lettuce, carrots, radish, bell peppers, croutons, and cheese topped with a honey mustard dressing. Did I mention we’ve been eating well?

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tarija and Sunshine

July 26, 2009

Sunday was designated a day of relaxation. The daytime weather in Tarija was fabulous (i.e. not freezing), nearly everything was closed for the day, and our overnight bus for Sucre didn’t leave until 6 p.m.


We woke up around 11, and checked out of our hostel, then headed to a Mediterranean restaurant on Plazoleta Sucre for lunch. I had vegetable-stuffed cannelloni covered in a delicious mushroom sauce (mushrooms, another food that’s difficult to find in Argentina).


Then we strolled up to the mirador Loma de San Juan, and spent some time chatting in the sunshine, looking over the city.

Ice cream, coffee,  whiskey, what more could I want?A little later, we headed back to the main plaza, where I gave into temptation and ordered a sinful coffee/whiskey/ice cream drink.

The bus ride to Sucre was fairly tame in comparison to our previous run. The seats were more conventional, as were our fellow travelers. There were also fewer random stops, and most of the road was paved.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tarija: Wine and Culture

July 25, 2009

Saturday morning we woke up to confusion. Tammy and I both had different understandings of our itinerary for the following day and too many blanks in our research to figure out which route was a better option.

So, we made phone calls, trekked around town, and finally decided to stay another night in a cheaper hostel and go on a wine tasting/trekking excursion with Viva Tours.

The guide was nice, though terribly inefficient in both English and French (our tour group consisted of us and three French men), and didn’t attempt much as far as explanations: “These are the vines.”


The trek was short, but nice, the wineries were something else. Far from the state-of-the-art Argentine bodegas, or even the scenic tranquility of the Peruvian ones, these vineyards had no official opening hours for visits nor manufacturing facilities to show off.


At Valle di Vino the owner showed his vines, spoke of wine being a sacred beverage, then had us bless the vineyard while sucking new wine through a 2 meter hose.


The three French openly expressed their discontent.

TarijaWineCaveThe second bodega we visited, Casa Vieja was slightly more refined, offering wine for sale and a drive-thru tasting of about eight different wines, all in proper glasses (though shared glasses, we each took a sip and passed the glass to the next person). Unfortunately, most the wines were syrupy sweet, with one red, which was not a dessert wine, and instead lacked any flavor, whatsoever. (High altitude wines are typically sweet due to being closer to the sun, and rapid growth due to the additional light.)

After sipping and wincing at the sugary wines, we were served singani, the Bolivian grape brandy, similar to pisco or ouzo. We sipped, then sampled grapes marinated in pungent alcohol. And quickly checked it off our Bolivian to-do list.

We left, empty-handed, and with my faith in Bolivian wine nearly crushed.

That night we dined at the Taverna Gattopardo where my eyes immediately zoned in on the tacos with lettuce, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and black beans. I ordered it without the chicken, which apparently prompted them to double the portion sizes of everything else.

The feast would have easily served 2-3 people, with authentic guac and pico de gallo, something that I haven’t found in Argentina, and aside from being unfortunately over-salted, it was delicious!

After dinner, we hit a bar, La Candela, for some Huari beer, where we met a really nice Chilean and a REALLY drunk Bolivian.

Ignacio, the Chilean, was in Tarija to offer his expertise in viticulture, and offered some valuable insight into the horrible wine we’d tried:

Both wineries are family establishments, carrying on family traditions, as opposed to commercial vineyards selling a product. They lack the benefit of educated experts and share their vineyards out of their love for their family roots, without an end goal of making a profit. Seen in that light, Tammy and I felt a far greater respect for the juices we’d swilled. It’s still not good wine, but the experience wasn’t about good wine, it was about Bolivian culture.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Entering Bolivia via Villazon

July 24, 2009

Crossing from one of South America’s richest countries to its poorest offered surprisingly little contrast.

Friday morning we saddled up our luggage in preparation to cross the footbridge leading from La Quiaca, Argentina, to Villazon, Bolivia. Upon arriving at the border, we left Argentina with predictable ease and entered the Bolivian border patrol station to fill out visa applications and our $135 fees, in cash.

The little immigration room was unheated, and I was seriously concerned for the well-being of my toes by the time our papers were processed.

Once our money was inspected and approved, we trekked on to the bus station in search of 11 a.m. tickets to Tarija. Like most border towns, Villazon is best used for crossing the border, and moving on. However, there was nothing leaving before 7 p.m. We bought our tickets and the bus company kindly stored our luggage for us, and we set out to kill the next nine hours.

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Villazon is fairly tranquil for a border town, but aside from selling lots of basics for less than half the price of the other side of the border, it doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. We had a light breakfast, caught up on internet tasks, lunched, wandered the markets, and finally had a light dinner, all the while pondering our night’s bus route along a “spectacular unpaved road.” Spectacular leaves quite a bit up to the imagination.


Even so, we were totally unprepared for the reality. Our luggage was stored on top of crates of juice, toilet paper, and other nonperishables under the bus. We boarded, finding the bus teaming with short, round Bolivian women in their brightly colored native dress, packages of produce, and bundles of goods (including babies) spilling out in every direction.


The headrests on the seats hit the top of my shoulders, so I slouched down to get comfortable. Bolivian music pumped over the sound system, only occasionally drowned out by the engine of the bus struggling up a hill.

The unpaved road at times massaged our back with its vibrations, but overall wasn’t as bad as I had feared.

We arrived in Tarija at 3 a.m. (despite being told we’d arrive around 5 or 7 a.m.), and headed to our hotel. Tammy admited she couldn’t remember how she’d ended up choosing something so fancy, but we both enjoyed our shiny, modern bathroom before moving out into a hostel in the morning (or rather, later the same morning).

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Arriving in La Quiaca

July 23, 2009
Thursday morning, after nothing more than a 3-hour post-peña nap, we arose in the dark to catch our 5:30 a.m. bus to the Argentine border town of La Quiaca.

It was an icy morning as our arrival in Jujuy (pronounced Hoo-Hooey)attested: the city known for its perpetual spring-like climate was covered in snow. We passed through Tilcara, a beautifully unique little town in the desert, where we’d originally planned to spend the night, before getting behind in schedule.

Leaving Tilcara, we passed through the breath-taking Quebrada de Humahuaca, even more colorful than the Quebrada de Cafayate, and continued on to the very Bolivian-feeling city of La Quiaca.


We found our hotel fairly easily, but had to wait with the lunch rush at their storefront diner before checking in. We then set out to find our own lunch. We found a dog herding a pig along the way.

A couple of people sent us in the direction of the “Tourist Hotel,” once our guidebook’s recommendations left us dry, but after sitting for 30 minutes watching the one, extremely inefficient waitress carry out plates and utensils, one at a time, for other guests, and still not get around to bringing us the menus, we decided to move on. (Three other tables also vacated during our wait, apparently not having been served either.)

Our second try, the Restaurant de Buen Gusto was more efficient, thought also 10 degrees cooler. From there, we headed to the local market to hitch a ride to the nearby colonial town of Yavi .


The town is almost entirely made up of mud-brick houses and dirt roads. However, it features a nice church from the 17th century, a museum, and some surprising funky cafes.
A cold wind had been blasting us for the past few days and refused to let up as we navigated the dust storm of a town.

The region is at an altitude of 3,400 meters above sea level, which exhausted our sea level dwelling bodies after just a couple of hours. We were instructed to wait on a deserted corner (the whole town appeared more or less deserted in the sandy weather), to find a car heading back to La Quiaca.

We waited for about half an hour, being whipped by the wind and pelted with sand, wondering if anyone would pass before dark and the temperature started to really drop.

Finally, we piled into a tiny sedan with 4 others and headed “home.” It took a coffee at our hotel restaurant to warm me up enough to start feeling uncomfortable with the quantity of dirt covering my body, and I was off through the cold night air to our hotel’s shared showers.

Tammy followed suit, and we headed back to our hotel’s restaurant for dinner. We were both craving veggies and ordered the super salads with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrots, green beans, potato, beets, and a hard boiled egg. Still chilled, we followed the salad with a hot Spanish tortilla.

With extremely satisfied bellies, we fell asleep nearly the moment our heads touched the pillows (under an assortment of heavy blankets).

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