Decent Beer in Bolivia

Beer is fairly cheap in Bolivia. It also tastes fairly cheap too, but there are a few exceptions. Here are three that I’ve found that I can recommend if you’re looking for something to celebrate with in La Paz this year.JudasIt’s not amazing, but it’s strong (7%) and has a bit of a bite compared to your typical Bolivia lagers. It really sits in your stomach though, so don’t drink too much of it. Available almost everywhere.

sayaNamed after an Afro-Bolivian dance, Saya comes in at least three flavors: dorada (golden), ambar (amber) and negra (black). Only available in higher end restaurants and supermarkets (in Sopocachi and Zona Sur), it’s more expensive and comes in smaller bottles than regular Bolivian beer. Agencies in Sagarnaga offer tours of the brewery for 80Bs.

lipenaLipeña is made with quinoa. It’s the best beer I’ve had in Bolivia. It’s low in alcohol (3.47%), so it could have been served at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. There’s a slight tinge of honey, and, well, if you read my last beer post you’ll know I’m not very good at describing beer, but trust me, it’s really good! It comes from Potosí, but we couldn’t find it anywhere there. It’s served at the restaurant La Coca, in Sopocachi, La Paz (great food there too) and we’ve seen it in some restaurants in Sucre, as well. If you do find it, cherish it. Or just drink it.

Other: Keep your eyes out for beers from Ted’s Cervecería in Sucre, too.

Happy New Year!

Picana boliviana

After the last post about cuy, here’s a traditional dish I enjoyed much more.

Picana is a slow-cooked soup eaten at midnight on Christmas eve in Bolivia. It is made with various types of meat, beer, wine, potato, corn and other vegetables (recipe here). We ate this one in Sucre last year and it was the perfect meal for a cold evening. The broth was rich and spicy and with all that corn and potato it was certainly filling. I barely had space for the buñuelos that came after for dessert.

Cuy. It’s what’s for dinner

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Yep, we ate that.

It’s one of those things that tourists do in South America. Local people also eat cuy – otherwise known as guinea pig – and have done for centuries in the Andean regions. We’ll try pretty much anything, and since there was an Andean food fair in Huaraz, we thought what better time to eat cuy?

First mistake: wanting the novelty of eating something with recognizable head and feet, we ordered the big portion, which set us back 20 soles. That’s quite expensive. Second mistake: this was the last one on the barbecue and consequently was over-cooked as it had been sitting there a long time. Third mistake: getting it as a take-away meant we had to eat it on a park bench with a plastic fork. This was not easy because of the aforementioned over-cooking.

It was tough. Incredibly tough. Impossible, in fact, to break through the leathery skin which was about a centimeter thick (why such a small animal has such thick skin I’ll never understand). Impossible also to rip the skin off the body to reveal the flesh beneath. This meant we had to turn the thing over – it was basically half a carcass which had been splayed out and cooked – to try to get at the meat underneath. Instead, this just exposed some charred innards, little rodent teeth and tiny ribs which seemed to have no meat on them. We managed to pick at the back leg and get some strands of flesh but it wasn’t much more than a mouthful. I’d like to compare it to rabbit, except I couldn’t really tell much about the taste or texture from this measly meal.

If we’d been inclined to attack it with our teeth and nails, we could have dismembered it a bit more and perhaps liberated more flesh. But honestly, it didn’t seem worth it. Instead, we ate the boiled potatoes and spicy sauce that came with it (really delicious sauce, I’ll add) and wished we’d ordered the soup instead.

If you’d like to know more about cuy cuisine, check out Infused Exposures, a travel food blog of South America.

Day trips around Huaraz

In order to acclimatize before attempting the Santa Cruz trek, we stayed in Huaraz and did a couple of day trips to Pastoruri glacier and the archaeological site of Chavín de Huantar. Both involved a lot of time spent on a bus, but the landscapes we passed through on the way to the sites were beautiful. For some reason, lunch was always served late, very late. Like 4pm late. I think it was a Peruvian disorganisation thing.

Water that’s always bubbling. The guide couldn’t really explain why, except that this land used to be a volcano.

Rock paintings on the way to Pastoruri.

Walking to Pastoruri. At 5,000m above sea level, some people choose to take a horse instead.

The glacier is retreating (although some people claim not). We met a Peruvian man who had visited in 2007 and said what he saw today was much smaller.

It may not look like much today, but Chavin was an important ceremonial centre more than 3,000 years ago.

The steps on the main temple are made half from black and half from white stones.

It’s thought that Andean cosmology has it’s origins in Chavin.

The underground chambers were built with double layers of stone to withstand earthquakes.

The tour to Pastoruri cost 30 soles, and to Chavín de Huántar 40 soles. There are a bunch of agencies in Huaraz all with the same trips, so shop around. Lunch has to be bought seperately and there are obligatory stops at restaurants for this purpose. It costs about 12 soles. Bring snacks because, like I said, lunch is served late.

Lima

Most backpackers we ran into told us they couldn’t wait to get out of Lima. True, it is sprawling and perpetually covered in a grey haze. But it also has a park full of cats, a pretty efficient transportation system, colorful street art, chaotic markets and one of the best Chinatowns in South America.

Thoughts on visiting the pampas and jungle in Rurrenabaque

Rurrenabaque sits on the edge of the Madidi National Park and Pampas del Yacuma protected area, on the edge of the Amazon Basin. It is one of the cheapest places in South America to visit both the rainforest and the wetlands (pampas) that eventually drain into the Amazon river. Needless to say, I was super excited to visit. I was also wary because I was curious as to how the tour would be carried out in terms of sustainability and ethics.

Pampas 3 days, 2 nights

Activities:
We spent a lot of time riding in a small boat down calm waterways, spotting lots of birds, alligators, caimanes, capybaras and pink dolphins. We tried to fish for piranhas but caught only two tiny catfish (later fried up as an addition to dinner). We also donned Wellington boots and waded through swampland looking for anacondas, as well as swimming with the pink dolphins.

Good points:
It was relaxing! I didn’t expect it to be, but there was very little physical exertion and not as many mosquitoes as I dreaded. We saw wildlife everywhere. I didn’t expect to see this much, nor this close. The food and accommodation were quite decent. I think because they’re used to cooking for foreigners, they served more vegetables than is usual in Bolivia.

Bad points:
While hunting for anacondas, the guides and some tourists were smoking and dropping ash, although they took the butts back with them. When we finally found an anaconda, it was passed around for people to take pictures with it. I’m no expert, but the snake seemed pretty pissed off by the end of this. At one point, we joined another group whose guide was feeding a black caiman – so regular an occurrence that it had almost become a pet around this particular location.

What I thought:
It’s clear that the guides judge their success (and thus their earnings from tips) on how many animal encounters they can give their tourists. But this is a self-perpetuating cycle.To expect no human contact with wildlife is somewhat naive. After all, people live and go about their daily lives on this land, as was evidenced by the fields and farmers we saw. At our lodge, the leftover food was thrown out and, quite naturally, animals came to eat it. Whilst I believe some behaviors (like those I mentioned above) certainly have a negative impact, I think the experience could have been more interesting if we had viewed ourselves as part of this whole ecosystem and been aware of our impact. But I guess that’s too much to ask for on a budget tour.

Jungle 2 days, 1 night

Activities:
Short hikes, including one at night, with a choice to go fishing which we declined. Learning the traditional uses of plants for medicine, dyeing etc.

Good points:
The ride up the river to the lodge was beautiful and once in the jungle it was surprisingly not as humid or hot as I expected. We didn’t see as many animals as in the pampas, but we did have a group of wild pigs come into our camp area and get very close. Learning about the different plants through demonstrations was interesting. It was much more informative than in the pampas.

Bad points:
Even wearing long sleeves and trousers, everything still managed to bite me (for some reason ants kept going for my knees). This was doubly unpleasant on the night hike. I also had a cockroach down my top and two days later found a tick on me. So yeah, lots of insects.

What I thought:
There are lots of different options for visiting the jungle and it seems to me that this might be a time to spend more money and go for one that gives you a higher level of comfort and/or a better context. None of our camp workers were actually from the jungle. Some ecolodges are located on the land of indigenous communities who act as guides and run the programs themselves. In two days, there’s very little you can do, so staying longer and getting to know the place more would be better if you are actually interested in the rainforest. If you aren’t, then you’ll probably agree with the girl in my group who said “I’m glad I came, but two days is long enough.”

I traveled with Fluvial Tours. Each tour cost 550Bs for one person and included all food, dorm beds with mosquito nets and transport. The guides spoke little English. Additional costs for entry to the protected areas were 125Bs for Madidi and 150Bs for Yacuma.

There is a Green Action programme promoting responsible travel in Rurrenabaque. They include a list of tour operators on their website who participate in the programme.

Have you been to Rurrenabaque or taken a tour in the Amazon? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Also check out our photos from the pampas and our journey to Rurrenabaque.