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.

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.

Pedestrian day in La Paz

Once a year, La Paz has a ‘pedestrian day’. Cars are banned (although not non-existent) and everyone takes to the streets to enjoy not risking their life when crossing the road. Although not as quiet as census day (when no-one is allowed out of their house), it is a lot more relaxed and quiet than the normal pace of La Paz.

This video was made by my super cool landlord, filming from the building where we live. If you like the music, also check out San Pedro Estudios.

Bolivian Food: some of our favourites

Bolivian cuisine is not exactly world famous. With the opening of a restaurant in La Paz by Danish chef Claus Meyer, this might change. But I’m not interested in fine dining. I’m interested in the cheap eats you can get in barebones restaurants. So here are some of our favourite dishes that we used to order when we lived in Bolivia.

SOUPS – Bolivian soups are hearty and filling. Although served as a first course, the portion sizes are sometimes big enough to make it a whole meal.

Chairo

Image from Jornadanet.com

This murky green-grey soup is made of onions, carrots, beef, wheat kernals, choclo, potatoes and chuño, as well as a bunch of herbs I can’t identify. It sort of reminds me of scotch broth.

Sopa de Mani

This soup uses ground peanuts which gives it a thick, creamy consistency but not really a peanut flavour. It contains pasta and vegetables, sometimes with a chunk of beef.

MAINS – Usually heavy on the carbohydrates and meat, light on vegetables. Like soups, the portion sizes can be huge.

Aji de Fideo

Image by simodoodle

This pasta dish is similar to a bolognese, but with a greasy, meat-based (rather than tomato-based) sauce. Oh, and some potato for good measure. We are in the Andes after all.

Chuleta de Cerdo

This is another type of roast pork, chancho a la cruz, which involves more meat.

A pork chop, cooked in the oven, and sometimes rubbed in a sweet-spicy sauce. It’s usually accompanied by roast potatoes and cooked banana.

Trucha or Pejerrey

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Trout and kingfish are farmed in Lake Titicaca. They are usually served fried with rice and ‘salad’ (onion and tomato). At the street stalls in Mercado Rodriguez, your order of fish comes with two kinds of potato, yucca and oca – tuck in with your fingers and try to get through even half of all those carbohydrates.

Saice

Saice is a mix of minced beef, peas and potato, served with rice or pasta, and salad. It’s one of the few dishes that’s light on meat.

Queso Humacha

Image from eldiaro.net

Although I’m not entirely sure of the ingredients, I think this is the only vegetarian dish I’ve seen in Bolivia. It’s a sauce of yellow aji (non-spicy) with pieces of cheese, onions and habas (broad beans/ fava beans), served over potato and choclo. It’s mild tasting, but the salty cheese is my favourite part.

Sajta de Pollo

Chicken, peas and potato in a rich, slightly spicy sauce made from aji. Served with double carbohydrates, of course.

SNACKS

Pasteles y Buñuelos

These delicious fried dough products are served in the morning as a breakfast snack, often accompanied by api. A pastel has a small amount of cheese inside, whereas a buñuelo is just plain dough (much like a chewy doughnut). Both are sometimes dusted with icing sugar or drizzled in a sweet syrup.

Tucumanas & Salteñas

Various forms of empanadas, which I wrote about here.

Sandwich de Chola

Image from saveur.com

These sandwiches are full of deliciously juicy roast pork (scratchings and all) and escabeche. Accompanied with whichever sauce you like, my favourite being llajua.

Anticuchos

Image from cochabamba.gob.bo

The ultimate late night snack, these kebabs of beef hearts (which taste like the tenderest steak you’ll ever eat) are served from street stalls that advertise themselves with a bright burning flame next to the grill. Add potato and spicy peanut sauce and you’ve got half a meal right there.

Zoilo Flores 1334 to 20 de Octubre 2315

A click as the apartment building door closes behind me, and I’m out on the street with the dog from Autopartes Lopez barking at me for no reason. I run across the cobble-stone road to get away from it, and wonder if it spends all night outside in the cold. That’s probably why it’s so grumpy. Even though all the shutters are still down, I smile at the sign for Jhoncar, another spare parts shop, and imagine the cartoon crocodile bodybuilder tearing up that dog instead of a tyre.

At the corner sits the sandwich lady, slicing tomatoes in one hand as she prepares her wares to sell to morning commuters. She’s bundled up against the cold in shawls and layers of skirts and I know I must look woefully unprepared for the 3°C temperature. But later in the day it’s going to be T-shirt weather and I’m willing to sacrifice some warmth now in order to not carry my coat around later. I make do with a scarf wrapped around my neck, which also acts as a shield against the traffic fumes that chug out into the cold, dry air.

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Turning again at Plaza San Pedro (from here it’s one long, straight walk), I pass San Pedro Church with its ornate sandy-coloured, stone-carved exterior, and a hand-stenciled sign for Alcohólicos Anónimos. A man opens the entrance to the Hotel Osira next door (which I remember serves a nice set lunch) and shakes out his broom. A shoeshiner walking past offers his services and I glance behind me for a second as he sits in front of the extended, leather clad foot and begins taking out his polish.

The prison rests on the opposite side of the street; tall, windowless, leaking some kind of liquid from its lower parts. With watchtowers at its corners, it looks like a medieval castle, but one that would wash away in the rain. The straw and mud facade on the side facing Avenida 20 de Octubre looks so flimsy to me. I think of all the prisoners inside escaping through a hole in the wall after a storm, carrying their huge stereos that I’ve seen relatives bringing them as gifts, and their cocaine processing equipment that apparently keeps them employed, even behind bars.

On the corner, a man is washing the paintings on the ugly pebble-dash surface of Animalandia (a vet, pet shop and dog hairdresser all in one). From the nursery opposite, a scarily deformed Dora the Explorer and Spongebob wave at passersby – clearly Animalandia employed the better muralist. Ahead a woman pours api and quinoa milk into small plastic bags, straws sticking out the top, to sell to people in a hurry. Those with more time can stand and drink from dubiously cleaned glasses. My favourite piece of graffiti looks down on us; a pigeon lying as if on a dissection table, chest opened with delicate organs and bones exposed. It’s so much more beautiful than the real pigeons that run between our feet to peck at pastel and salteña crumbs, too lazy or too hungry to even fly away until people step into them.

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The streets are getting busier and I have to stop and wait for a chance to run across the roads in between taxis and microbuses full of people. I sidestep and try to ignore the man slumped in the doorstep, rocking himself, with a pile of fresh vomit at his feet. Two paces ahead a well-manicured father tries to flag down a taxi while his equally well-dressed son stands daydreaming. His perfect little uniform is the same grey-black colour of the greasy stains left from rubbish bags piled in the street every evening

As I keep hurrying, I get stuck behind a cholita moving slowly. Her long black plaits are caught under the stripy pink and purple cloth that ties a baby to her back. The too-small bowler hat rests miraculously on her head, as with each step her pea-green, satiny skirt swishes and a toddler is pulled along by her free hand. I lose patience and step into the road to go around her. Though from behind her dumpy shape had made me think she was old, I see she’s not much more than a teenager.

I stride across yet another road (and you have to stride here otherwise you’ll never make it if you wait politely for traffic to stop for you). The pavement in this spot, where Avenida 20 de Octubre meets Calle Ecuador, is particularly treacherous. The slope, combined with the age-worn smoothness of the paving slabs, sends me slipping every time. I’ve gotten used to it now and know exactly where to tread if I want to slide but not fall. The guy in front isn’t as aware as me and he stumbles momentarily.

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A puff of exhaust makes my nose tickle. I know I need to blow it but I don’t have any tissue and I hope I can last until I reach work. I’m just passing the flamboyantly baroque building of Mujeres Creando, an anarchist-feminist group, which houses a radio station, cafe and hostel for women. The shabby, deep pink building always seems to have sunlight on it at this time of the morning, and the giant painted woman on the facade glitters in her silvery nakedness.

The pavement here is less steep and less worn down. Sopocachi is full of fancy restaurants and cafes (by Bolivian standards). I pass Sweet Shop Chocolaterie, Swiss Fondue and Ja Ron (with a logo very reminiscent of Hard Rock Cafe). For some reason the Cuisinart shop sells office chairs and a single box of gold Christmas baubles, in addition to some expensive outdoor barbecue sets.

I see the metal gate across the road, open and waiting for me. As I press the doorbell to be buzzed in, I feel in my bag for my thermos. It’s one of those days – days that don’t even give me enough time to eat properly – so coca tea is going to get me through until this evening when I head back up the hill to San Pedro.

Waste disposal and recycling

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This sign on a bus in Ecuador says, ‘Don’t vote for trash out the window.’

[Obviously it’s supposed to say ‘Don’t throw trash out the window’, but despite Spanish being one of the easiest languages to spell, I often see people mixing up votar and botar. But that’s another story.]

While it might seem like common sense, or at least common courtesy, not to throw rubbish out of a moving vehicle, it isn’t in Bolivia, Peru and, to a certain extent, Ecuador. But at least Ecuador puts up signs like this one and provides bags for rubbish on bus journeys. And since I’ve only seen someone throwing rubbish out the window once, I’ve got to assume it’s working.

This behavior seems incredibly selfish and ignorant to me, and I get really mad when I see people doing it. However, the other side of it is that people make a living sorting through rubbish and recycling salvageable material. If someone is always ready to go through your waste for you, then you don’t really have any need or incentive to do it yourself, let alone think twice before littering in a public place that will get cleaned up quickly.

If you’d like to find out more about recycling and the informal economy, this interesting article explains about the system in Lima (which is very much like that in La Paz). For a look at Uruguay’s recyclers, see our blog post.

Las Pampas of the Yacuma River, Rurrenabaque

On the first day, cloudy as it was, we spotted at least one alligator, as well as a few capybara, dozens of squirrel monkeys and strange birds. At night, we went out on the boat and saw the unsettling red reflection of the gators’ eyes everywhere we looked. The next day, when the sun shone bright, hardly thirty seconds would pass without spotting an alligator or caiman. Pink dolphins occasionally flashed their rounded fins, more like humps, out from the murky water. The anaconda was harder to find, and took a whole group’s eyes, struggling through thick mud and rotted wood. If you go on a Pampas tour in Rurrenabaque, you WILL see animals.

Can you spot the alligator in this picture?

We went with Fluvial Tours, 550Bs per person for 3 days 2 nights. The price was the same as other companies providing budget tours and the standard was good for a backpacker choice.

See also our post about the journey to Rurrenabaque.

Flying La Paz to Rurrenabaque

There are two airlines that fly the 45 minute La Paz-Rurrenabaque route. TAM is slightly cheaper than Amaszonas, but they have fewer departures. You also have to go to the military airport, which is next to the normal airport in El Alto (a 20Bs taxi ride from outside the civilian airport boundary fence or a 50Bs ride from within). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but TAM was like any other airline. Actually, it was better because we were given a sandwich and drink, which American Airlines has failed to provide on a five hour flight! The plane was small, but nothing compared to the tiny 19-seater that I returned on with Amaszonas. Before taking off, pigs had to be chased from the grass runway.

I met a guy on our jungle tour who’d had his flight turned back just before landing because of bad weather in Rurrenabaque. In his words, “it was like a cheap sight-seeing flight”. Take off begins at 4,000m and it’s all down from there. But first you have to cross the Cordillera Real and the views are spectacular. I’ve never flown at the same height as a mountain peak before!

Unfortunately my TAM plane did not look like this.

We were greeted to a rainbow after a delay due to weather conditions.

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Mount Illimani towers over El Alto, the largely indigenous town (and site of La Paz’s airport) which sits above the city on the altiplano.

For information about what we did in Rurrenabaque, see our blog post.