Max Ronald’s

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There are no McDonald’s in Bolivia. They haven’t been banned or anything, they’ve just failed. Too expensive perhaps, though Burger King survives in a few locations in La Paz.

And, of course, the completely original Max Ronald’s thrives in Tarija. Observe Max and his sidekicks stepping in the blood of their enemies.

A Cheap Beer Tasting in La Paz

It was Friday night, and we were feeling too lazy and too broke to go out, but wanted a reasonable excuse to drink. So we came up with the idea to have a cheap beer tasting.

There are nice beers in Bolivia, Saya to give an example, but we opted for what was on offer at our local Ke-Tal supermarket.

I don’t really know how to write about beer. I googled, “How to write about beer,” and did my best with the sometimes esoteric adjectives provided. After each beer, I got a little more tired, and my palate a little less precise.

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Here are the results.

Bock
Alcohol content: 7%
Color: anemic golden hue
Taste: slightly sour and earthy
Carbonation: fizzy
Mouthfeel: pretty smooth once the bubbles die down
Did you like it?: Meh. The sourness is a bit cloying and the body is weak. Not disgusting, but not an altogether pleasant experience.

Huari
Alcohol content: 4.8%
Color: clear, yellowish-greenish hue
Taste: a bit hoppy, gentle body, minimal scent
Carbonation: low
Mouthfeel: very smooth
Did you like it?: Yeah. Not bad. I’d recommend it to people who don’t really like beer. It’s not especially flavorful, but it’s inoffensive, despite its odd color.

Paceña Pilsner
Alcohol content: 4.8%
Color: standard golden
Carbonation: fizzy
Taste: dry, weak finish, slightly malty but hardly a pilsner
Mouthfeel: light and dry
Did you like it?: Not so much, but it’s better than the Bock. In fact, it’s like a less tart version of it.

Paceña Dark
Alcohol content: 5%
Color: black
Carbonation: soft
Taste: sweet, too sweet in fact
Mouthfeel: sticky
Did you like it?: No. This is dark like Batman is dark… in the Adam West TV series.

Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina “Eduardo Avaroa”

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We’re ascending, higher and higher in this desert landscape, to cross from Chile into Bolivia. I’m so worried about getting sick in the thin air that the altitude has become an obsession. Fortunately, nothing worse than light headaches and shortness of breath is in store for me.

The border station is a shack at the edge of nothing. The “toilet” is a place to stand or squat behind an old rusted bus. Processing is quick, and I’m told I should buy my visa in Uyuni when we arrive two days later.

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Sometimes place names are remarkably literal. “Altiplano” means highflat and it’s just that. In this atmosphere blue-brown snowcapped mountains show off, with no foliage to obscure their grandeur. And wind-sculpted sedimentary rock statues display impossible curves against a backdrop of blue sky.

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Laguna Colorada’s deep scarlet and rusty hues are formed by algae, but I like to think it’s the Earth secreting some essential life-giving fluid which these ethereal flamingoes, from some distant tropical paradise, come to feast on. I don’t actually know where flamingoes come from, but I’d always thought of them as tropical birds whose flamboyant pink could be linked with carnaval and other debaucherous occasions. We give these elegant birds the respectful distance they deserve, but all too soon they fly off to who knows where.

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Sol de Mañana geyser field might attract more visitors if it were renamed “Death Field.” Like the old “Death Road” from La Paz to Coroico (which tourists happily cycle down nearly every day the weather permits) this collection of bubbling pits, which also lacks guard rails, has its own share of death traps.

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The locals probably think we’re idiots, following a group of llamas through this barren town, trying to get the perfect photo. Imagine a group of foreigners enraptured by a herd of cows in a farm near your hometown, and you get the idea

No Robar, Me Colgaron

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“Don’t steal. They hanged me.”

In a city where the police are often accused of being ineffective at best, and corrupt at worst, effigies like this warn would be thieves what awaits them. Most of these can be found in the poorer slums of El Alto, where graffiti also threatens that criminals will be burnt to death. This photo, however, was snapped near the cementerio area of La Paz.

Chacaltaya

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On top of Chacaltaya, Aymara for “cold road”, there once sat a glacier. With the accompanying snow, it was Bolivia’s only ski resort, and at roughly 5,400 meters above sea level, the highest lift-operated resort in the world. With global climate change in conjunction with El Niño, what was left of the glacier finally disappeared in 2009. Besides the loss of skiing, a more serious problem is that the people of La Paz and El Alto depend on the melting snow for their water supply. Only a few scattered patches of snow can still be seen.
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We booked a tour to the old resort. A two hour hike took us a short distance to the peak of Chacaltaya. Even though we were accustomed to the height of La Paz, it was slow going at this altitude. But every time we stopped to take a breath, we took in the 360 degree views of misty peaks, sheer cliffs, and fantastical lagoons; so fantastical that I thought a dragon might fly over them. When it’s totally clear, which it wasn’t, La Paz and El Alto are also visible.
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The green lagoons contain copper, the orange and red iron and the dark blue lead. Algae mixes with some of these, giving the palate an even richer green.
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Much of the terrain is covered in loose slate, giving the impression that a massive explosion has just gone off.
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Huayna Potosí is also visible from Chacaltaya and the road leading to it. Despite our guide’s boast, it is not the model for the Paramount Pictures logo.

How to get there: Several agencies in La Paz, along Sagarnaga and Illampu, offer day trips to Chacaltaya and Valle de la Luna for between 75-85 Bs.

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The £3 Haircut

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This is what a three pound haircut looks like. To be precise, £3.12 or 35 Bolivianos. It costs slightly less than a meal out in a ‘nice’ restaurant and slightly more than my hourly wage.

Peluquerias are everywhere in La Paz. I chose this particular hairdresser’s by a process of elimination. There are five places within five minutes of my house. The first two happen to sit on either side of a canine peluqueria. For some reason this rather put me off. The next place looks like this:

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I never made it to the fifth place because the fourth place was empty and I figured it had to be better than the previous three. Its windows are covered in cutouts of American celebrities. I figured if they could cut paper so precisely, they could probably cut hair well enough too. I’m not fussy.

And that was it. I showed the hairdresser a picture of me with the short, feathered cut I had last year. She wrapped a silver cover around me – which handily had holes for my hands – and plonked a celebrity magazine on my lap. Then she was off. With a spray bottle of water, scissors, a razor, and thirty minutes she transformed my shapeless, tangled mane into a nice textured bob.

I have to say, it was one of the best haircuts of my life. No, it didn’t include the head massage I used to get from my Taiwanese hairdresser, nor the vibrating chair in my London salon that massaged me while my hair was washed. But for the speed and efficiency with which she worked, and the £3 price tag, I don’t think it can be beat.

Here’s some before pictures, so you can really appreciate the workmanship.

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Corea Town

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I spent three years in Seoul, South Korea, during which time I took for granted what is probably the heartiest food on the planet. I miss galbi (갈비, barbecue) gimbap (김밥, Korean sushi), boiling stews (찌게), dolsat bimimbap (돌솥비빔밥, rice and vegetables, still cooking, served in a hot stone bowl) and having kimchi with every meal. Fortunately there’s a proper Korean restaurant in La Paz.

Corea Town, located on 2132 Avenida Arce, is the most authentic Korean restaurant I’ve eaten at outside of the Republic of Korea. You will pay for this authenticity (around 60 bolivianos for a stew or bibimbap) but if you’re going to splurge, it’s worth it.

Every detail, down to stone bowls, is just right. A generous helping of typical Korean side dishes is served with the meal. Only the tiny potatoes remind you you’re in Bolivia. The chopsticks are wooden, not metal, but it’s nothing to get worked up about when the rice, vegetables and soft tofu are prepared faithfully. Most Korean favorites, such as nengmyeon (냉면, cold, spicy noodles), jaeuk (제육, spicy pork) and samgyeopsal (삼겹살 , strips of fatty pork, barbecued and eaten with rice and lettuce or sesame leaf) are available. There’s even soju (소주, sweet potato liquor) if you’d like a real Korean hangover to go with your meal.
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Prices start from 30 Bolivianos for a main dish.

Looking for more Asian food? Try Chifa Dragon and Vinapho.

A postcard from Mirador Killi Killi

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Built inside a canyon, La Paz is a city of stunning views. Illimani sits in the distance, much more majestic than any George Lucas CGI’d triple waterfall. It never fails to be a source of awe when it pops into view as you step out from one of the city’s many narrow streets. It’s no wonder the indigenous people have worshipped it for thousands of years (I didn’t actually look that up, but it’s probably true).

One of the best places to get a view of the mighty mountain and a 360 degree view of the city itself is Mirador Killi Killi.

Killi Killi is also the site from which the Spanish controlled city was monitored during the siege led by Tupac Katari in 1781. Don’t worry though, because he died a long time ago and the siege is over.

Located in Villa Pabón, the site is free to visit and and has bathrooms (for a small fee) and a playground for your hyperactive children.

Bolivia te espera

This new ad for Bolivia successfully shows the country’s stunning beauty. No, there aren’t really new age dancers on the Salar de Uyuni, but it really does turn into the world’s largest mirror when it rains. Laguna Colorada is even better in reality, and La Paz is a jagged and dramatic city. Of course, there’s more grime and freezing cold overnight bus rides than the video lets on, but it’s a price worth paying. I will gladly suffer leg cramps on a long bus ride to see more of this beautiful country.

High Altitude Geysers

Geyser El Tatio, Chile 4,320m

Below your feet, the earth bubbles. Vapor seeps and liquids spew out of shafts and cracks, while the freezing air bites at every bit of exposed skin. It bit at my skin, at least, as I was unprepared for the chill at 4,320 meters before the sun rises. I was so focused on waking up at 3:30 a.m. for the ride that I hadn’t even thought of bringing a hat. I did bring my swimsuit, however, for a dip in the high altitude geothermal spring once the sun rose and the plumes of vapor began to slowly dissipate.

Geyser El Tatio, we were told, is the highest active geyser field on earth. This came into doubt when we toured an even higher geothermal field in Bolivia two days later.

Nonetheless, the ghostly mist is quite a sight before it gets warmer and the steam becomes invisible.

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Sol de Mañana, Bolivia 4800m

Unlike El Tatio, where little circles of stones delineate where it’s safe to walk, Sol de Mañana is a collection of festering, boiling and bubbling mud pits and gas vents. It’s easy to get close to the action here and wander between deadly pits of hot grey sludge, as the melting earth clings to your shoes. One could fall in, if so inclined, or so delirious from the altitude. It’s a spectacular and odd experience to meander among solid, melted and melting minerals, high from the lack of oxygen to the brain, taking pictures with other tourists and wondering if anyone’s going to fall in.

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