Quinoa – A Perspective from Bolivia

Some of you may have caught wind of a news story in Canada back in January and February having to do with quinoa and whether its meteoric rise in popularity in wealthy countries over the past 10-15 years is now causing problems for people here in Bolivia (i.e., causing dramatic price increases that were leaving even growers unable to eat it). The media flurry began with an article published in The Guardian newspaper in the UK, followed by copycat pieces on National Public Radio in the US and the Globe and Mail, which ran a headline that said something like The more you love quinoa the more you are hurting farmers in Peru and Bolivia. These very quickly spawned blog posts and impassioned debates about the veracity of their claims and the motives or interests of those who were suggesting that eating quinoa might be unethical and/or defending it. CBC’s The Current aired a 25 minute story called The Great Quinoa Debate; and during one week alone my friend John Cameron (an expert on local governance in Bolivia) was interviewed 16 times on various CBC shows across eastern Canada.

All this was taking place just as we were leaving Canada but enough of it reached my ear to really pique my attention and give me some questions to ask once we got here. (What an amazing opportunity!) So based on what I’ve gleaned, I thought I’d write my own blog post just covering the what I’ve learned about the politics and ecology of this grain that has captured so much attention of late. (Oh, did I mention that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Agency had already declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa?)

So let’s begin with the basics. Quinoa is a pseudo-cereal (‘pseudo’ because it’s not a grass) that was used in the daily diet of the Tiahuanacu and Incan civilizations, the former going back at least 4000 years. There are 17 varieties of quinoa (or ‘quinua’ as it is spelled in Spanish). Some varieties are reddish, some yellow, some green (thus making up the colours of the Bolivian flag!); some are more pink or purple.

122The variety that is exported is Quinua Real (Royal Quinoa in English) and it grows only in the southern Altiplano in Bolivia. (This is the area around and to the south of the Salar de Uyuni, which I just blogged about in my last post.) This is in part due to the grain’s preference for high-altitude conditions; people here say that it doesn’t grow below 3000 metres or above 4000 metres (at least not the good-tasting stuff). In fact, the best stuff, with the biggest grains and most nutrition, grows only between 3700 and 4200 metres. It is well adapted to low oxygen and an arid environment – it thrives on as little as 20 cm of rain a year.123

The growing works like this: Villages (pueblos) have a certain amount of land which is held in common and allocated to families according to how much each family can produce; families who can grow more get more land on which to grow. All families work together on the quinoa at seeding and harvest time, with everyone helping on one family’s plot for a week then moving on to another family’s plot the next week.  (By the way, my source for much of this information is our driver, Flavio, who took us around the southern Altiplano for three days, and whose family are llama herders in the southern Altiplano.)

Quinoa is planted in late October to November, even up until December 15. It is harvested in April, with the whole plant being pulled up by the roots. In the intervening six months the ground is barren and exposed and very dusty. (Even when the quinoa is growing the soil is basically just like sand.)

After the rainy season has ended (in April) the quinoa is harvested by hand and spread out to dry on a tarp for about one week. Then the people cover it with another tarp and drive over it until the grains are detached from the husks (they’re actually more flower-like than husk-like but I don’t know a better word). 051 (2)Driving trucks over it is a huge energy-saver compared to doing it by hand as in the past. Then it is winnowed to separate out the grains and picked through by hand to remove any remaining impurities.

In the past 10 years, the volume of quinoa being exported from Bolivia has risen from something like 2,000 tonnes/year to about 250,000 and the prices farmers are receiving have increased about 8-10 times. This is the boom that is being called into question by some.

So what are its consequences?

Overwhelmingly, what people here are saying and writing is that this boom has been an extraordinarily good thing for farmers in the southern Altiplano because it is allowing them to move beyond a very meagre subsistence for the first time. In the past, quinoa growers would only live near their crop for about 30-45 days a year and had to go elsewhere and take work (e.g., in the cities) the rest of the time. Now they can afford to stay in their communities, which have been much improved in terms of livability with the addition of electricity, clean water, and access to fruits and vegetables which quinoa farmers can now afford to buy because of their cash incomes. (It is important to note that fruits and vegetables do not grow here, so it is not an option to just grow them themselves.) Diversifying their diets has improved their families’ health. Quinoa growers are now also able to afford to send their children to school, and buy trucks so they can take their grain to market. The importance of these improvements cannot be understated; the southern Altiplano is one of the areas of the worst child poverty in the country.

According to Flavio, people here understand full well that quinoa is a very nutritious, very important foodstuff. Quinoa growers here are still holding back enough of their crop to meet their own families’ consumption needs; they make it a priority to feed quinoa to their kids.

Even if that were not the case, an important argument being made by the quinoa growers is that they should be free to choose how much quinoa they sell versus how much they keep, and what they do with the money they earn. They have many needs that cannot be met without cash. In this sense, there is a certain paternalism to any argument that suggests that North American and European consumers should try to manage Bolivians´ development and nutritional status by indirectly trying to manipulate Bolivians’ choices by reducing international demand for quinoa. Any calls to boycott quinoa from Bolivia or efforts to replace it with locally grown quinoa (I’ve read that some people are now trying to grow it in Colorado, and also on Vancouver Island) just undermines Bolivian farmers and works against the success they have been trying so hard to achieve and have begun to really benefit from.

Is the rich world quinoa boom causing hunger or malnutrition in the rest of Bolivia?

No. While people in the southern Altiplano have been eating quinoa for a good long time – along with llama meat – it’s not a national staple, nor has it ever been (Incan times aside, and the Incan empire never included the Amazon basin). The country is so vast, so culturally and geographically diverse, that I think it’s fair to say that in most of the country quinoa is not that commonly eaten, compared to potatoes
and maize (the real staples), manioc (in the lowlands), chicken, beef, bananas, rice, and wheat, all of which are produced in Bolivia. (Wheat has been a staple for at least the past 50 years in part because it has been dumped here at below-cost prices by producers in the US often in the form of food “aid”, meaning that the price of wheat was artificially low and domestically grown grains, including quinoa, simply couldn´t compete with it.)

Bolivians also eat other traditional grains, such as cañawa and amaranto, as well as oats, and other types of quinoa which aren’t being exported. Here are some photos of crops that grow in abundance (along with quinoa, potatoes, and maize) in the La Paz-Lake Titicaca area, where the land is wetter and more fertile than in the southern Altiplano (and hence, more suited to a more varied, diverse agriculture).


From top left going clockwise are a kind of large green bean (sort of like a fava bean) and oca, shown first as it looks above ground, and secondly as it looks post-harvest. I first I thought these were carrots, but they are really more like potatoes.

If  Bolivians are eating less quinoa than they were in the past, this is not necessarily due to increased exports.  It is obvious to anyone just travelling through Bolivia as I have been for the past eight weeks, that western foods have high status, that supermarkets (with their expensive, packaged, highly processed and often imported commodities) are “in” for those who can afford to shop at them, and that junk food is everywhere (and cheap!). You can’t turn your head 90 degrees without seeing a Coca-Cola sign or an entire wall painted red in the Coca-Cola logo. Malnutrition has many causes, and the complex factors that lead people in developing countries to abandon traditional healthy foodstuffs in favour of what is being more aggressively marketed and is seen so often on TV cannot be reduced to something as simple as an increased foreign demand for one healthy crop.

It should also be noted that quinoa, coming from the southern Altiplano, is thought of by  many people here as a lowly grain, a poor person’s food.  When people outside of the southern Altiplano eat quinoa, it tends to be in soup or as a garnish, not as the centrepiece of a meal, at least not for middle-class people who have more options. The Bolivian government is promoting eating quinoa as part of its agenda of elevating indigenous peoples and re-valorizing native traditions, but I sense that this is a bit of an uphill battle.

It is important to understand also that export prices and domestic prices for quinoa are different, with domestic prices being far lower. Moreover, in response to the increase in domestic prices and as part of the strategy to use quinoa to enhance nutrition and promote rural development, the Bolivian government has recently announced a revision of prices, which I believe amounts to price controls or consumer subsidies for quinoa to make sure that everyone can afford to buy it. They already have similar policies for cooking oil and sugar. (I saw the announcement on TV on March 8 but didn’t understand enough of the Spanish-language news story to get any of the details.)

If anything, the international prominence of quinoa is potentially a boon to efforts to enhance nutrition among Bolivians. It was President Evo Morales who proposed that the UNFAO declare 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, his position being that this is a grain that represents decolonization, self-sufficiency and development for Bolivia. In that sense, the international attention is a good thing and should help the country to take better advantage of its own crop. According to my friend John Cameron (Dalhousie professor and Bolivian local governance expert I referred to in the beginning), this is really a public policy challenge for Bolivians, but a challenge that they are up to handling.

The real problem for Bolivia, John says, is that other countries (including the US, France and Denmark) have started to get in on the game, with some researchers in Colorado actually patenting a strain of quinoa, all of which means that Bolivia could lose its leading position and suffer a real bust after the boom. Here in Bolivia there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people working on the issues of quinoa politics and policy in Bolivia, and they are emphatically arguing “Buy quinoa!” and “Buy quinoa from Bolivia!”

To me, this means that, as much as we might value local food and want to support local agriculture wherever we live, there should be a point at which we ask ourselves whether growing other people’s local foods in our own backyards as an alternative to trading with them is really the ethical choice. In this case, I think it is not. Call it an example of “fair miles” if you will.

Quinoa has been called a “panacea” for rural development.

Another point in favour of quinoa is that it is one of the few income sources in the country that is not derived from either hydrocarbons or mining, and is also legal. No agricultural product besides coca earns as much. (Aside: Much of the country’s coca is being grown for the drug trade and also grown very unsustainably, since the demand is so high that cocaleros will now grow three crops a year, planting the coca plants too close together, using a lot of pesticides and depleting the soil badly. That said, I’m not suggesting that quinoa could replace coca, since they’re grown in very different regions.)

Quinoa can be ecologically sustainable, and in the southern Altiplano it really is not displacing other crops, as it is growing in places where nothing else will. In areas around La Paz and Lake Titicaca we saw numerous varieties of quinoa being grown, typically in small patches and/or co-planted with other crops. According to John, most quinoa production, even if not certified, is de facto fair trade and organic. Most of the sale of quinoa is organized and carried out by small-scale producers’ associations, which means that most of the income goes directly to growers. Particularly with exported quinoa, sales are also arranged through contracts, meaning that farmers get a guaranteed price. Finally, quinoa also keeps for a long time, so farmers have the option of waiting until prices are better to sell.

Some drawbacks, risks and limitations

As with any boom, there is a down-side, at least potentially. In this case, it lies in the possibility of social conflict and/or negative environmental consequences if pressures to increase export-oriented production of quinoa become too great.

According to Flavio, there is some pressure coming from at least two directions. First, Evo Morales is ordering local authorities to put more land into quinoa production. Secondly, some people who had gone to the cities in search of work are returning to the countryside and hoping to make a living growing quinoa.  Consequently some questions and challenges are arising having to do with property rights, since in the past, the legality of arrangements and boundaries on quinoa-growing lands was unclear. (The land in question was so poor and useless for growing anything else on that nobody cared much about title or tenure.)

But while it might seem (to a foreigner like me driving through the southern Altiplano) that there is lots of land available to expand quinoa production, this is not necessarily the case, for several reasons.

First, as I mentioned above, the soil is very sandy and nutritionally poor and quinoa only grows in it for about half the year. The rest of the time it is like a dust bowl. Local people do not want all the ground around them barren for six months of every year.

Secondly, ground not planted in quinoa has tola and baja growing on it, which are food for llamas. Llama herders do not want too much land torn up to plant quinoa. Also, the quinoa growers need there to be a lot of llamas around to provide natural fertilizer. Maintaining a balance between quinoa and llamas is important.

055 (2)

Third, the communities often don’t want to let the urban refugees have land. They know very well that low supply and high demand mean good prices and don’t particularly want to see market forces bring supply and demand into equilibrium. In other words, there is some active supply management going on here.

The land that belongs to each community extends all the way to the land belonging to the neighbouring community, so there isn’t any land that isn’t already claimed by somebody. Consequently, land allocations appear to be something that have to be worked out “on the ground” between communities.

According to John and to some Bolivians I have heard interviewed, social conflicts are being resolved, if not always perfectly (e.g., more successful families are accumulating more income and land, leading to a growing inequality). The point is that Bolivians are working on them and foreigners need to respect that.

Environmentally, the risks have to do with nutrient sustainability and genetic diversity. Right now communities organize their lands such that some are for use in the present and some are being saved for the future. Pressure to utilize more land for growing quinoa could actually undermine a tradition that helps ensure that the marginal soils can support this hardy plant. Similarly, if farmers choose to plant only royal quinoa (the export variety), genetic diversity may be diminished. These environmental concerns are legitimate, but the problems are not yet severe and there are capable, ecologically oriented organizations here in Bolivia that are strongly promoting and supporting organic quinoa production, and educating their members about the importance of ecological practices.


In regards to the debate that has raged in Canada and other wealthy countries about the ethics of eating quinoa, the argument I find most compelling is not found at either pole of the ideological debates that  have lately raged about food (i.e., pro and anti-locavore). It is simply an argument for equality and self-determination based on the understanding that quinoa farmers and Bolivians in general are not hapless victims of a food craze gone out of control, but capable actors who, like everyone else, face public policy challenges that they can deal with. It is not up to foreign consumers to step in and try to make policy for them, based on some excessive, misplaced or paternalistic sense of responsibility.

In saying this, I am not concurring with people like Pierre Desrochers or Doug Saunders, both of whom have used the quinoa debate to argue in sweeping terms for the inherent superiority of imported foods and in favour of unrestricted global trade in food in which comparative [cost] advantage reigns supreme, no matter what the social or ecological cost. Nor am I arguing from a purely defensive position (as one well might, given the almost delirious joy seemingly being taken by some writers at the chance to pull a plank from the presumed – or projected – self-righteous platform of vegans, “health nuts” and “foodies” in general). I am not a vegan; I am not anti-vegan. What I argue in favour of is food justice with a global conscience: a sensitivity to the importance of human development and self-determination in all places, especially marginalized ones; an awareness of the complex legacies of such historical factors as colonialism and international food “aid” (dumping); and an acceptance of what I believe are probably universal human tendencies, including desires for novelty, variety, and status, as well as pragmatism, all of which can lead people to make less-than-optimum nutritional choices.

One of the many, many writers commenting on this controversy in the Canadian media remarked that the quinoa debate was essentially about the “seeming incompatibility between it fulfilling the UN’s mandate to feed the world’s hungry and becoming a luxury product gobbled up by nutrition-crazed western urbanites”. After talking to people here in Bolivia, I don’t see it that way at all. I think they can indeed have their quinoa and eat it too and that we should be happy to be a part of it.



Flamingos, Vicunas and Llamas, Oh My!

Following our spell-binding day on the salar, we drove higher into the mountainous desert to the little town where we were to stay that night, with a stop first in San Cristóbal. A mining town which had long ago seen its boom and bust, San Cristobal was re-born a number of years ago when a new body of zinc, lead and silver was discovered – right under the town site. The Japanese-American company offered to move the residents to a new town site nearby and build them nice new facilities (school, marketplace, health clinic etc). The people were happy to accept the offer. The only problem was the 350-year-old stone church: they liked it exactly the way it was. So the company said, no problem, we’ll move that too. And they did, putting it all back together, every stone in the same place, or so it is said. It took 14 months to do it and it is quite pleasing to look at. (Photo shows  view from back side.)SC 8

A couple of hours farther down the road we arrived at our “shelter” in Villa Alota, a very very small town (think Bridesville, BC). Liz Rojas, our host and tour agent in Sucre had described this as a place she wouldn’t take her own kids but it really wasn’t so bad. Basic, yes, but we’ve suffered more going camping. These shelters exist to serve tour groups passing through all doing exactly the same thing. Each group gets a room with six beds and there are two bathrooms for everybody to share. There is a common room for taking supper and breakfast, and meals are made in the adjoining kitchen by the drivers, using food they have brought, and assisted by the owners of the shelter.  You wouldn’t want to stay long in a shelter, but the beds were satisfactory (real mattresses, not straw, and no bed bugs) and the bathroom – well, we’ve seen worse.

The dusty main street of Villa Alota was almost a full block wide, dressed up by a boulevard running down the centre featuring stone-capped pillars of piled-up rocks held in place by wire cages (see photo). You gotta admire the people’s creativity and determination to add visual structure to their main street; the unique aesthetic does work (just imagine the street without anything running down the centre).

Villa Alota

rock pillarVilla Alota 2

Walking that street the next morning I encountered no fewer than three young boys playing pan pipes as they walked to school. What an ethereal sound it was, so complementary to the tranquility of the early morning. (Photo on right shows Felix atop the stone “gate” at the end of Villa Alota’s main street.)

Villa Alota 3

For most of the next day we off-roaded, following tracks made by other  Land Cruisers, some of them just very deep ruts in the gravely sand. Given that the magical southwest corner (including the salar) is one of the top attractions in the country, with hardly any people living here, no public transit and no rental vehicles (not that you’d want to drive it yourself!) there’s no avoiding being part of mass-production tourism:  although not officially having anything to do with the other tour groups, we couldn’t help but be a part of the convoy of 11-12 Land Cruisers making the circuit.  It’s probably like this every single day.

As we trundled along, our driver, Flavio, explained everything in slow, clear language, which meant that instead of understanding about 10% of what was being said, we were catching about 90%. We noticed he spoke much more quickly with other Spanish-speakers, so this was definitely conscious on his part, one of the many facets of his manner that we appreciated. Other qualities that endeared him to us were his professionalism, care, good humour and attention to safety. He told us that of the 12 guides staying at the shelter the previous night, only three of them (himself included) did not get drunk and actually made an effort to get a good night’s sleep. Some reported having slept only two or three hours, and one group’s guide was still drinking beer at breakfast.

Flavio, bless him, drove a clean, well-maintained vehicle, wore a seatbelt and had made sure that all the passenger seatbelts were available and functioning (this a first for us since our arrival in Bolivia). He even stopped the vehicle to check his brake fluid before going down a hill where an accident had occurred last year. At one point  Flavio noticed that one of the other vehicles (one of the ones with a drinking driver) was leaking radiator fluid, so he drove ahead to cut in front of said vehicle and alert the driver to the problem. Driver:  “Está bien! Está bien!” (It’s fine! It’s fine!) Flavio: “No, your engine is about to be fried. You need to stop.” Naturally, said driver – let’s call him DUI – had no tools aboard his vehicle, but Flavio did (not only tools but coveralls too), so we and the passengers of two other vehicles sat and waited for about 90 minutes while Flavio and another conscientious driver fixed DUI’s vehicle for him. One shudders to think of worst-case scenarios here, but on the flip side is a lesson for budget-conscious travelers:  where safety is important (as in, you’re taking your kids into The Middle of the Middle of Nowhere for three days), go with the most reputable company you can find. Spend a bit more; you won’t regret it.

The main attraction along this part of the route was a series of small alpine lakes (“lagunas altiplanicos”) where flamingos are often seen. Indeed we saw MANY!  We have about 180 photos of flamingos now, most of them taken from considerable distance. Wanna see them? A few turned out well.


There are actually three kinds of flamingos: Andino, Chileno, and “Jututu” (a variety known as ‘James’ in English). Mostly we saw the Andino and Jututu kinds, which are both pink and have similar black and yellow bills but different coloured legs (yellow on the former and dark red on the latter).

We also spotted vicuñas, the smallest and most dainty-looking of the New World camelids. Unlike the more familiar llamas and alpacas, vicuñas are always wild and are, unfortunately, sometimes poached for their highly-valued wool. Llamas (shown in photo) are the largest and are generally domesticated, more for meat than wool, though their wool is used for coarser things, like rugs and rope. Alpacas are in between llamas and vicuñas in size, are rarely found in the wild, and are mostly raised for their fine, fine fleece, though I’ve read that people sometimes eat them too.


Valle de las Rocas

Animal sightings were a thrill for all of us, and we never tired of looking out the window. When there weren’t cool animals to see, there were bizarre and twisted rock forms, many of them giant droppings from ancient volcanoes.  (Guess who is hiding in the photo on the left.) One especially cool rock form has become a regular stop on the tour because it resembles a venerable old tree. It is called the “Arbol de Piedra” (Stone Tree) and it marks the beginning of a national park, though the only indication to that effect is a sign announcing the first bathroom in probably 100 km, the very existence of which seems almost comically incongruous, given its remote location   (see photo below).

Parque N. Ed Alvaroa

It is the vastness of this high-altitude desert that most takes your breath away (that and the fact that you are at 4000-5000 metres above sea level).  Almost nothing grows here. One could call it harsh, and certainly it is harsh in winter when there’s nothing to temper the bitterly cold wind save the contours of the hills. (Laguna Colorado is the coldest place in Bolivia. Temperatures here can plunge to -25 degrees Celsius in winter, and there is no insulation and no heating to speak of except for fires, but not much to burn except the smallest of shrubs and some animal dung.) But at this time of year – summer’s end – a better descriptor might be ‘stark’.


The destination that marks the end of Day Two on the circuit is the Laguna Colorada, a rust-blood coloured lake chock full of algae and plankton – the main food of the flamingos. Like the other lagunas, Laguna Colorada also contains high levels of minerals, primarily borax, deposited in piles resembling  snow banks. Other minerals in this lake include sodium, magnesium and gypsum.


Day Three took us over a 5000 metre pass to the ‘fumaroles’ – not quite geysers, but more like steaming, bubbling pits of boiling mud, 4850 metres above sea level , which emit an overpoweringly strong odour of sulphur. We were invited to walk close enough to look down on the bubbling pits, but advised not to get too close as the wet, cracked earth can sometimes give way, causing serious burns. Indeed, looking down we saw some footprints we took be those of a tourist more foolish than us: one print, two prints, one big concave depression (no shoes or clothing visible). We joked around, morbidly imagining what might have happened, in the process coming up with some alternate names for the fumaroles: The Pits of Despair; The Tar Pits of Troubled Times; Death Can’t Wait, etc.  Photo on left shows Jennie and the boys trying not to choke on sulphur fumes. Photo on right is of Flavio.

Sol de Manana (fumaroles)Flavio at fumaroles

Next we had a one-hour stop at a small, minimally developed hot springs with a sandy bottom through which the naturally heated water bubbled up. No ugly smell of sulfur here, thankfully.

Laguna Verde (4400 metres) was the southernmost point on the tour, only a few kilometres from the border crossing into Chile.  The lake, which lies at the base of a volcano (Vulcan Llicancahúr), used to be much more green but now really only shows its true colours when a strong wind whips up the water, bringing the minerals responsible for its coloration (arsenic, lead, sulfur and calcium carbonates) closer to the surface.  The minerals are so concentrated that at -21 degrees Celsius the lake still does not freeze! (No flamingos here)

If we our understood our guide’s explanation correctly, some years ago a helicopter carrying tourists from Chile crashed somewhere on Llicancahúr. High winds made it impossible to search for survivors on foot and too dangerous to do in a helicopter (at 5,868 metres the thin atmosphere makes it terribly hard for helicopters to get enough lift). Somehow NASA got involved and in the process of searching for crash victims discovered a small, very green lake in the crater at the top of the volcano, while also taking note of Laguna Verde below. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, NASA returned three times to study Laguna Verde, and the people say they took away some large very green rocks, leaving the lake more brown than green. A recent earthquake in Chile also caused rocks and soil to tumble into the lake and dirty it. Consequently, it was less than spectacular in colour, but the landscape around it was striking nonetheless. (Photo shows Llicancahúr with Laguna Verde below.)

Laguna Verde

For the remainder of the third day we high-tailed it back to Uyuni, exhausted from some very early starts and fully satiated by the remarkable sights we had seen. One final highlight en route was seeing fields of beautiful quinoa growing in the colours of the Bolivian flag. But that merits a blog post of its own…

Eighth Wonder of the World: The Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia´s 10, 582 square kilometre salt flat (salar) should be, unequivocally, the eighth wonder of the world. Then again, naming it such (which many people are actively trying to do) might bring so much attention to it as to destroy it completely, so perhaps it´s best that it´s not so well known. At the risk of giving it more publicity, though, we can´t help but share with you its magnificence and truly incredible splendour.

We started our salar tour from the magnificent salt hotel where we had just spent the night of Felix´s tenth birthday, in the little hamlet of Colchani on the edge of the salt desert. (The hotel, Palacio de Sal, should not be confused with the better-known but rather notorious one that is actually on the salt flat, and illegally so, because of its un-ecological wastewater disposal practices.) Beautifully designed and furnished, landscaped with artistically twisted dead wood (what else could you plant in salt?),and completely solar-powered, the Palacio de Sal was a work of art. We almost didn’t get to stay there because there were no rooms for four available, but we couldn’t give up on the thought of doing something so exciting and special for Felix’s birthday, so we took a double and the kids were more than happy to sleep on the floor. (For anyone wondering about the price, yes, it was a splurge – about four times as much as most other places we’ve stayed – but for $140 Cdn, you couldn’t dream of better.)


The hamlet of Colchani is home to about 80 families, all of whom are involved in salt extraction. Judging by what we saw of Colchani, salt mining not a very lucrative way to make a living. Nonetheless, the salt miners and their families persist in what is obviously very demanding work. Using a pick axe, they mark out squares on the surface of the salty terrain, each several metres across, and then proceed to loosen the top few inches of wet salt covering the marked area and shovel it into neat conical piles.  They can only take the top few inches of salt because below that it is too hard. The salt is left to settle in these piles for about 2-3 weeks (so the water drains out) before being shoveled onto trucks and taken into Colchani, where residents further dry it, grind it, bag it and sell it. About 25,000 tons of salt is extracted every year, 80% of which goes to human consumption, the remainder to animals. If you’re worried that the salt might run out, worry no more. The Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain 10 billion tonnes.


In the area where extraction is taking place, the salt is not perfectly white but streaked with brown, as a result of rainfall carrying very fine sediments and other particulates – i.e., pollution.  But as you head further out onto the salar, the surface becomes increasingly white, with just the occasional circular brownish soft spot, like a patch of slush over snow. Unlike snow, however, the salt is very sharp and crusty – great for traction, but it would really shred your knees if you fell on it. In some spots there are actually holes, which can be quite dangerous if you drive into them; the salt can be as much as 10 metres thick with water (ancient sea) way, way below.

227Before setting out we had been warned that as the rainy season was just ending, and the salar still covered in water in many places, we might not be able to make it all the way to the island in the centre of the salar. Salty water, as you can imagine, is death to vehicles, even seemingly immortal Land Rovers. One component of this salt in particular is lithium, which is very corrosive of electric cables and such. (As an aside, this is the very lithium that may be the future of electric cars, meaning that Bolivia is sitting on a veritable gold mine here.) Vehicles that are over-exposed to this salty water or are poorly maintained (e.g., not immediately washed down after leaving the salar, or not regularly checked for salt damage) risk suffering electrical short circuits, meaning that they might stop and not be able to start again. Then you´re good and truly hooped, since the island you are destined for is a full 80 km from shore and vehicles are not equipped with much in the way of communication devices (no GPS, or even two-way radios, as far as we could discern). As an aside, we learned that compasses don´t even work out here because of the magnetism of the salt!

Our lucky stars must have been smiling down on us that day because against all odds, and in spite of some rain the night before, our driver was able to navigate a dry route all the way to the island at the centre of the salar – la Isla de los Pescadores.  This was the first time he´d made it there since November 20!  Our vehicle was only one of three there at the time, the majority of companies not having ventured out that far or not having authorized their drivers to go there just yet.

Being on an island in the middle of a sea of salt would be incredible enough, but the island is made even more stunning by the giant cacti growing all over it and the fossilized coral covering its rocky base. We hiked here for about an hour and were utterly amazed by the views from the summit.


We had our picnic lunch on the tailgate of the Land Rover about 10 km away from the island in the middle of a blinding expanse of white salt. With nothing else around for miles, quite literally, we had a lot of fun playing with perspective (or the lack thereof).

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As we left the Salar de Uyuni we felt overwhelmed with gratitude, and at the same time almost stupefied, by the experience of having seen and experienced something so dazzling, so other-worldly, so stunning as this.

My Birthday (by Felix)

In the morning on my birthday when I stepped out into the courtyard of our hostel in Potosí, a mining city of about 241 000 people, I noticed some balloons and streamers in the dining room upstairs and thought it was some fiesta because there are a lot of fiestas. Then I went up to eat breakfast and realized that it was because of my birthday. After some presents and breakfast we headed down to the mint a few blocks away.

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We found out that the mint actually stopped minting coins and now is also a museum of anthropology. The reason that there was a mint in Potosi is because in 1544 a lot of silver was discovered there. There was so much silver in the mountain Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) that some people have estimated that they could have built a silver bridge to Spain and still have silver left over! In the mine in Potosi it is estimated that about 8 000 000 indigenous and African slaves died mining silver.

003 (2)010 (2)Our tour started out with seeing the first locomotive introduced to Bolivia which is named Pacamayo. Then we went to a room full of paintings by indigenous painters who were ordered by the king of Spain to paint scenes from Europe. The paintings were very good, but the indigenous painters didn’t know what horses were so the horses were given human-like faces and expressions. At the far end of the room there were also pictures from the Bible because in those days the Bible was written only in Latin and few people could read it so pictures were used to change their religion to Christianity. The originals of these paintings were actually painted in Spain by Spanish painters. Then because they couldn’t ship them over, they made engravings of the paintings and then shipped the engravings over to Bolivia where the indigenous painters painted the pictures from the engravings.

014 (2)Next we went to a room full of pictures of Mary in different stages of her life including one of her and Pachamama (Mother Earth) as the same and in the form of Cerro Rico. All the paintings in room had wood frames covered in 22k gold. At the top, in the center of the painting are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. In the very center is an Incan who owned many llamas, but he lost one so he was looking for it when night fell. He lit a fire and it melted the rock and the silver in the rock trickled down the mountain in lines. When the Incans started to mine the silver they heard a volcano erupt and according to the legend it was the voice of Pachamama saying “You do not touch this, leave it how it is”, so the Incans left it and when the Spanish arrived they took it all and sent it on llamas and mules to the Pacific Coast. Then it was shipped north to Panama City and taken by mule train across the isthmus of Panama to Nombre de Dios or Portobello where it was shipped to Spain on Spanish treasure fleets. In the center on the right is the Incan moon, and on the left is the Incan sun. At the bottom on the left are the Pope, a Cardinal and a Bishop, and on the right is the king of Spain and two other Spaniards. At the bottom in the center is Potosí in an orb as the center of the world because it was the biggest and wealthiest city in the Americas for many years with over 200 000 in population.

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Then we saw the first coins produced in Bolivia in 1574. These coins were 97% pure silver and 3% copper and were shaped by hand and then hammered with stamps on either side. The coins were rarely circular, partly because in those days weight mattered more than shape, and partly because people would sometimes break off little bits of the coins and keep them.

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028 (2)020 (2)Then we went to a room full of Spanish-designed machines made of wood shipped over from Spain because there were no trees around Potosí. The floors in the room were also Spanish design with wood from Spain. It took 14 months to ship all the materials over. These machines worked by having mules trot around in a circle for 10 hours a day. It had to be mules because horses couldn’t survive at that altitude (4 067m) and donkeys were too small to turn the shaft. The mules had to be bred somewhere else and imported. Working for 10 hours a day at that altitude not getting enough to eat, the mules only survived for about three to four months. There was also a slave to keep the mules trotting all day and occasionally feed them. The slaves also had to be imported because there weren’t enough local ones. The slaves hardly lived longer than the mules.

When the mules walked around in a circle, they turned a shaft that turned four big gears that turned a complex set of gears that made two rollers turn together for each big gear. Slaves fed ingots of silver into the rollers and when it came out the bottom the slaves caught it and slid the rollers a tiny bit closer together then fed it through again until the ingot had been through seven times and then they did the same with the next set of rollers until the ingot had been through all four and was the right thickness. Then the silver sheets were brought to another room and were punched into circles. With these machines the coins were made more circular and had lines on the edges so it was obvious if parts were missing.

021 (2)025 (2)These new coins were marked with PTSi for Potosí to mark where they were made. There were also mints for Spain in Lima, Peru and Mexico City, but they have not survived. Some people say that the modern dollar sign is based on PTSi.

In the next room there were all sorts of silver items because when the Spanish found the silver they wanted to have silver everything. There were silver teapots, crosses, platters, jewelery, goblets, decorative items and a dancing costume of thin silver.

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Next off was a room with lots of scales hanging on the walls and two lock-boxes that used to hold silver. The first one was used to hold precious items from a church and was quite beautiful but now the pictures on it have faded. It had 12 locks and one keyhole in the center on the lid that turned all of them. It also had a fake keyhole on the front and two loops that attached padlocks. The other other lock-box was more recent and had three complex keyholes and metal studs on the outside.

033 (2)034 (2)Then was the smelter room. In this room the silver was purified and poured into ingots. Before the silver was smelted it was ground to a powder and mixed with salt, powdered roast copper and liquid mercury. Then tethered mules walked around in a small circle of earth on which the powdery mixture had been poured. The pounding of their feet crushed the mixture into even finer grains. And finaly the powder disolved into the mercury. Then it was distilled and brought to the smelter to purify. In the smelter room there were two slaves working two giant bellows to keep the temperature in the fire at 960 degrees Celsius to melt the silver. Since there was no wood around Potosí the only thing to burn was bush and mule dung. When the silver was melted and purified a slave tipped over the pot and poured the pure molten silver into ingot molds.

048 (2)049 (2)Slavery was abolished in Bolivia in 1851 and the mint switched to steam power and then to electric in 1909. The mint minted its last coins in 1953.

After the tour of the mint we went to one of the dozens of “Pizzeria Italiana”s to eat lunch. Then after lunch we hopped in a car and our driver Don Elias drove us to our hotel in Colchani (near Uyuni on the edge of the salt flats). The drive was very scenic and we saw lots of llamas and a few vicuñas. On one stretch of land we saw thousands of llamas grazing! (all the dots in the photo on the left are llamas)


When we arrived at our hotel it looked fancier than I thought it would be. I went in and SURPRISE!!!!!! It was a salt hotel! This one was called Palacio de Sal (Palace of Salt) and we heard it was the best, well maybe aside from the one with a salt golf-course. It had salt floors, ceilings, walls, couches, tables, chairs and beds and even half of the stairs to the top floor were salt! Salt walls look a lot like plaster, the main difference is in how they taste. Every room had its own ceiling of salt bricks piled on top of each other like an igloo. The hotel was fairly new (built in 2003) so not every room had a permanent roof on the outside, some just had a tarp. With every room having its own dome shaped roof, on the outside the building looked in the future with separate pods. These salt bricks had brown lines on them creating a cool pattern. Hanging down from the ceiling were some stalagtites from humidity. The top floor was made completely of wood insted of salt. Guess what, the hotel even had internet and wi-fi!

139140We had dinner in the palace and we met a man named Ken (same name as my grampa’s brother) who grew up in Trail and went to highschool with my grampa! One of Ken’s brothers also dated my mom’s aunt! Then after we finished eating, our waiter brought out two slices of pie and said “Feliz cumpleaños!” (happy birthday!) We looked around and saw that no one else got pie so when we were finished we asked our waiter whose idea was the pie and he said the front desk. We asked the front desk and she said it was the hotel’s idea. I guess we must have told her that it was my birthday when we arrived. That was my Bolivian birthday-quite fine if I do say so myself.



Ancient life forms discovered…inside Quinn

When you´re travelling, your fortunes can turn on a dime. One day you´re flying higher than a kite, enraptured by one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. The next, everything seems to be falling apart. At least this is how it was for Quinn this past week.

First, he  got terribly sunburned  on the salar (let´s not re-hash that argument about who set down the sunscreen and lost it or forgot  it…)   leaving his face very sore and peeling, feeling like cardboard and looking like crumbling  Neopolitan ice cream. Then, due to a plumbing SNAFU in our hotel, he got scalded in the shower. In his desperation to get out from under the burning hot water he slipped, cutting his hand on the sharp, open top of the courtesy shampoo bottle, taking quite a gouge out of it.  We didn´t even have bandaids because they´d gotten soaked by an exploding bottle of hand sanitizer and we had to go to three pharmacies before we found decent  ones. (Cultural curiosity:  bandaids here are sold in strips of four, not in boxes, and in every pharmacy we went to we were only able to buy one strip.)

That night we  took an overnight train to Oruro. We´d been strongly urged to buy Executive Class seats (which cost twice as much  but recline much more) which we did. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the train station we found that our tickets  were only for Regular Class. Since we´d bought through an agency, we couldn´t change them and had to just go with the flow. The “flow” ended up being more of a lurch, as the train squealed, rattled, swayed and BOUNCED us (up and down, as if on springs) from midnight to seven  a.m.    Grumpy, short-tempered and irritable we spent the next 36 hours more or less spinning our wheels in the dreariest city we´ve seen yet – a place that most tourists  don´t even bother to go. And now we know why.

Then (bad luck comes in threes) just after  we boarded  the bus to take us from Oruro back to La Paz, Quinn started to feel very ill. First came the splitting headache, then the chills and fever, then the terrible unrelenting nausea.   The bus trip was supposed to take only 3 hours, but we encountered a bloqueo (blockade)  which prevented all forward movement for almost  two hours, and  on top of that a lot of rain, which meant that the bus was moving very slowly. It ended up taking six and a half hours to do the trip, most of which were pure hell for Quinn as he desperately wanted to throw up but  couldn´t. We had an available vessel but his body wouldn´t let go. Again (don´t I learn?) we had Tylenol with us for his headache and fever (though it barely touched it) but the Gravol was packed away in a bag stored under the bus.   He has never felt so sick in all his life.  When I took his temperature that evening it was 40.5 degrees. Quinn swore eternal vengeance on the bus company, though it obviously wasn´t their fault. But what´s a miserable kid to do?

The mass  exodus of body fluids from the other end  started  the next morning. We really wanted to get him to a clinic but between the D-word and his incapacitating weakness and exhaustion, we couldn´t move him until the afternoon. It was a good thing we were in La Paz as we could get ourselves easily by taxi to the best hospital in the country where he was seen immediately and given excellent care. They set him up with an IV drip right away and then proceeded to take blood and stool samples which were processed  in very short order in the lab down the hall. Through the IV they administered something for his fever and  within hours he was like a new man – still quite sick, but looking and feeling much better. The lab results showed the presence of Amoebas (parasites) as well as an acute bacterial infection in his stomach.  We were given ciprofloxacin to start him on and  told to return on Friday afternoon when they will have results from the culture  indicating which kind of bacteria he has (which will determine whether he should stay on cipro or switch to a different antibiotic). At that time he will also start the treatment for the amoebas, since the doctor didn´t want to throw everything at him all at once.

Today he is without fever or pain but feeling very weak.   He has no appetite (the doctor said that she didn´t expect he would for a few days). Fortunately, we have enough slush time in our ever-changing itinerary to allow for few days of recuperation  here in La Paz .  We hope to go to Copacabana on the weekend  because a visit to Lake Titicaca will surely be less taxing than heading off into the Amazon next week as we had originally planned to do. We still hope to make it to Rurrenabaque (Amazon) but need to give Quinn some time to fully recover first.

So send him some positive vibes for healing and cross your fingers for us that none of the rest of us discover ancient life forms in our gastrointestinal tract. They are definitely NOT welcome!

Scavenger Hunt at the Tarabuco Market

Tarabuco is the small town with the famous market that we stopped at on the way back from Candelaria, as [unnamed child] was making his miraculous recovery last Sunday morning. Along the road to Tarabuco, seeing all the adobe (mud-straw brick) houses that the local people live in, and passing men and women leading their donkeys to town, we felt as if we’d stepped back not hundreds, but perhaps even thousands of years in time.

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Arriving at the market at 7:30 a.m., we were astounded to see the cooked food stalls buzzing with activity as campesinos took their typical breakfast: overflowing plates of beef, noodles, potatoes and hot sauce (only 4 Bolivianos, or about 60 cents) Quinn ordered one of these breakfasts of champions and dug in with gusto.

We then wandered around taking in the sights and sounds of this all-indigenous market where bartering for produce is still common (heck, that’s common in Nelson too) and where the local textiles attract buyers and admirers from around the country. In fact, this market has become a really big draw for tourists; by 10:00 it was Gringo City. Seeing so many seemingly overgrown, overfed, and often very hairy whiteys walking around in packs, many of them haggling with vendors, was a tad unsettling for me – like looking in the mirror and not liking what you see. I mean, do you really need to haggle? That’s really not done here, you know. I mean, do you really think you’re getting ripped off buying a naturally-dyed wool wall hanging for $60 that some old lady probably spent 200 hours spinning and weaving? Do you just feel like a saavy traveler when you can talk someone into a two-for-one deal? Overhearing some people’s boasting about the deals they got left  us feeling a little uncomfortable in our own skins. For in many Bolivians’ eyes, how are we any different?

067 (2)064 (2)This is the first place we’ve been where we saw prices that were anything but fixed (the vendors too were playing the game: “That is 400 Bolivianos…..For you, I go to 350”) and the first time in Bolivia we have encountered hard-sell tactics, like putting the item for sale on you in an attempt to get you to buy it. It made us uncomfortable, but largely, I blame the tourists.

Aside from that, we encountered a number of fascinating and/or ironic  sights (like the woman in full traditional clothing with a cell phone on a cord around her neck) that made us think of doing a scavenger hunt. These would be the things you’d have to find:

1)      Large slabs of meat being sold directly out of wooden trolleys right beside a stall selling cell phones

2)      Woman in high heels carrying a live chicken in her purse

3)      Teenage Quechua boy wearing Harvard Business School sweatshirt

4)      Coca leaves being sold by the garbage-bag-full

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5)      Live baby chicks & ducklings for sale (1 and 2 Bolivianos respectively)

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6)      Man hurrying by, carrying squealing piglet(s) in a potato sack

7)      Cow’s heads for sale, eyeballs and hairy muzzles still intact (photo request refused by vendor)

There was also the large bloody statue of a triumphant indigenous warrior who has just killed a Spaniard  and torn out his heart (with his teeth?) – a terrible way to die, of course, but on the other hand, nothing compared to what the Spanish did to the native people. It was erected by the town council and stands in the main plaza. I am including the inscription below the statue for those who can read Spanish. Note the warrior’s attire, particularly his hat. This is a style characteristic of the area, which many people still wear, and one that the Tarabuco school has incorporated into the architectural design of its entranceway (see photo).

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So that’s it for Tarabuco, a fascinating place indeed.

Misadventure in Candelaria

or, Traveling with Kids Self-Test Question 6: Grit

Scenario: It is 4 a.m. You are sitting on a deep, cold, stone windowsill in the bathroom that connects your bedroom with your children’s, in a 18th century colonial hacienda (which you suppose was once very lovely but now shows signs of endemic decay) just outside a very small Quechua village two hours from the city. You were invited to spend the night here by the owner (the mother of your homestay host in the city), who gave you the keys and few directions. No one else is at the hacienda.

For the past two hours you have been a loyal presence beside your child, who has not left the toilet. Bravely, you have held his barf bucket for him while he violently spewed from both ends. He is afraid to go so far as his bed in case he does not have time to return when “summoned”. There is no running water. You have used half a bottle of hand sanitizer and all the precious scrivets of toilet paper you have squirrelled away all week to clean the mess off the floor. At the least the toilet has a seat.

As your brave, stoic child describes the loss of circulation in his legs and his near-total inability to stay upright, you improvise a bed for him on the windowsill, using a blanket and the sheets from your bed. You convince him to lie down and let himself drift into a half-sleep which he desperately needs. You promise him that you will not leave his side, and spend the next hour wondering how you could possibly have gone away overnight without bringing the entire contents of your emergency medical kit. Your plan for the morning had been to return to the city via a famous market town, by catching a camion (flat-bed truck) at 6 am with the campesinos headed that way. (Because it is Sunday, there will be a few of these, but at other times and other days, there is very little traffic out this way.)Without Immodium, your child is unable to be more than an arm’s length from the toilet. How can you possibly go? But without food, drinking water, or an alternate way back, how long can you possibly stay?

In the few days previous you have seen two movies: Love in a Time of Cholera, and The Impossible. If either gives you comfort now, it is only because of the knowledge that things could be so much worse. But then it gets worse.

At 5 a.m. your child awakens crying due to an agonizing pain in his groin. He thinks it is a lymph node, which makes sense, since his have been swollen all week thanks to a storm of attacking biting insects that left him looking like he should be in quarantine. It hurts him so much he swears he cannot move one centimeter to either side. As he describes his pain, you suddenly remember reading in your Lonely Planet Guide about some local, tropical peril that is characterized by “an exquisitely painful swollen lymph node, usually in the groin”. Slipping away from your child for only a minute you find the guide and look it up. Yes, here it is: plague*. At this point your knees start to shake and your stomach leaves you entirely. Time to wake up your spouse.

But what then? What will you do?

A)     Give your child a rag to bite down on for the pain (as in the Marquez movie) and carry him screaming to the camion, risking exposure to toxic bodily fluids by all aboard (not to mention the produce destined for market).

B)      Send your spouse out into the dark night to search for the caretaker of the property. (First you need to find out where he lives.) Beg the caretaker for the use of his cell phone to summon a taxi from the city. Order the taxi driver to pick up some Immodium from a pharmacy and pay him to wait however many hours are required until your child is fit to travel.

C)      Summon the caretaker and ask for the nearest traditional healer. Submit trustingly to whatever he or she recommends.

Answer: None of the above.

Your wise spouse, with the benefit of a few more hours’ sleep than you, suggests first trying Tylenol (which you did bring). Once the pharmaceuticals have worked their magic, the two of you pick up your child by his blankets, sling-style, and move him to a bed, thus achieving a minor (but previously intolerable) shift in his position. Pretending to have more answers than you do, you suggest that he try to assume a more open body position, telling him to think opening-type thoughts while breathing deeply. Miraculously, this works. Something shifts and his pain starts to abate. It is your child who will soon figure out the cause of the pain in his groin (some male readers might already be able to guess correctly): not a lymph node but another roundish body part in the same vicinity that had temporarily left its ordinary place of residence and migrated upward.

Immensely relieved that your child has not, in fact, contracted the plague, and buoyed by the two hours that have passed without any bodily fluids being expelled, you dare to contemplate returning to your original plan. By now the caretaker has arrived to wake you and his wife is boiling water for tea. They suggest a microbus, instead of a camion, as it will be more comfortable. One will be passing by at 6:30.  With little more than a prayer to Pachamama you embark on the micro which soon fills to capacity (you count 34 people aboard). Aside from the old man next to you falling asleep on your shoulder, it is an uneventful (and extremely scenic) trip.

By the time you arrive back at your homestay (looking like death warmed over) your child has regained all of his colour, appetite and energy, leaving you alone to crash into bed and sleep the whole nightmare away.

*absolutely 100% true. Look it up.

Photos: Walking through the little village of Candelaria on the way to the hacienda (just a moment earlier the women shown in photo had been looking and pointing after the kids); the dining room at the hacienda (note kitchen fire on left).

Top of post: scenery on drive back to Sucre via Tarabuco.

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Sucre (and happy birthday Felix!)

154 (2)March 5 (preamble)

It’s Felix’s birthday today – feliz cumpleano! But before we can tell you how we’re spending the day (okay, okay, we’re in Potosi, but we’re NOT touring any mines!! Too sketchy!) we need to get you caught up with what’s been happening over the past week. We haven’t had internet since last Friday and we probably won’t after today until next weekend, so I’m very quickly going to throw together as much of a post as I can, and catch up later with the rest (after the salar trip, which starts tomorrow!)

Feb 26 – Bye bye Cochabamba, Hello Sucre!

One overnight bus ride and whoosh! We felt like we’d been transported to Europe. Sucre is such a different city – and such a beautiful one. Known as the White City of the Americas for all its  whitewashed colonial-era buildings, it is surely the oldest and most well-restored city in Bolivia. Indeed it was in Sucre that the country was born in 1825. It is more than a little ironic, given all this colonial architecture, that Sucre stands as a symbol of liberation and independence.


Those uneducated in South American history could easily think that the city owed its name to the production of sugar, but sucre=sugar only in French, not in Spanish. In Spanish the word for sugar is ‘azucar’. In fact, Sucre was so named after General Antonio Jose de Sucre who led the final battle – the Aug 6, 1824 Battle of Ayacucho – for the liberation of “Alto Peru” (Bolivia was part of Peru at the time). Bolivia declared independence from Peru exactly one year later. Sucre remains the “constitutional capital” (as opposed to the administrative or legislative capital).


We are staying right in the heart of town, in a glassy modern upstairs apartment belonging to a woman named Liz and her 13-year-old daughter, Martina. (In her beauty, manner, voice, storytelling, jokes, and kindness, Liz reminds me totally of Allison Girvan!) They have two large dogs named Tobias and Sally – that’s a “check!” on the kids’ wish lists. Liz spent a year in Australia when she was a teenager and speaks excellent English, so whenever we’re in doubt about our understanding of something, we can just revert to English. All and all we’re feeling very comfortable here – life is easy.

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It looks like a lot of the tourism we’ll be doing while in Sucre is of the more genteel kind: museums, palaces etc. Europe indeed. Today we toured an old church and convent (San Felipe) which houses, in its basement mausoleum, the mortal remains of some of the earliest conquistadors. From up on the tiled and strangely undulating roof (see photo), we had a brilliant view of the city. We later hiked up one of the two hills that form Sucre’s backdrop (Erik calls them the “boobies”) for an even higher view, though mostly it was because we needed the exercise. (Photo shows the eucalyptus trees which cover those hills.)



Feb 27 – Some days are like that

Felix was sick today so the rest of us took turns exploring the centre of the city, finding it to be very compact, genteel, and tourist-oriented. We also entertained ourselves by going to the movies. Watching films with English audio that are subtitled in Spanish is actually a pretty good way to work on your language skills if you (like me) are the type whose eyes are compulsively drawn to words.

Feb 28 – Life: Bigger than life

Went to the Parque Cretacico today, a dinosaur museum and outdoor exhibit (with life-sized replicas) situated on the site of the greatest find of dinosaur footprints in all of South America. It was discovered by workers who were excavating the area in order to build a cement factory. The prints – some 5,000 of them, by at least 8 different species of dinosaur – are on a limestone wall that was once horizontal but was pushed forcefully upward by tectonic forces. Photos: 1) the limestone wall; 2) Felix standing under a life-sized Titanosaurus, 36 metres in length; 3) our tour bus (which featured parts of upholstered desk chairs welded onto steel frames)




In the afternoon, while Erik worked at writing a chapter for a book on community forestry, Jennie and the boys took a side-trip to a castle (sort of) just outside town – El Castillo de la Glorieta. Built at the turn of the 20th century by a couple of eccentric philanthropists, it combines Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, Mudejar, and Neoclassical styles and features three towers: one Russian-looking, one Arabian, and one a replica of Big Ben (pretty weird!). The owners used the place to house Bolivian orphans, and the Pope of the time later gave them the title of prince and princess on account of their benevolence.

March 1

Anthropology: Not for the faint of heart (and not to be shared with children)

Today we visited the museum of contemporary art and the museum of anthropology, the latter being fascinating and, at times, revolting. First, the fascinating: besides the ancient lithic (stone) tools and weapons, the museum has a simulated cave wall with replicas of the exact same paintings that are found in a few caves several hours from Sucre.


They also showcase (using dolls) some of the many many different styles of dress that typify different regions of the country. See this guy? Take a good look at him, especially at his hat. I’ll explain later.


Now the revolting: 1) the shelves full of skulls, some of which were purposely misshapen by certain cultural groups using banding and/or boards positioned in a vice-like grip on the back of the skull; and  2) the mummies in glass cases, several of which were real mommies, holding their little ones, dead in their arms. If these on their own aren’t enough to take your breath away, a closer look at their open chest cavities will reveal how they died: as human sacrifices whose hearts were ripped out while they were still alive. According to anthropologists, the practice of human sacrifice was not uncommon in ancient cultures, especially when bad things happened that the people could not explain. Typically, it would be those who were different who were chosen to be sacrificed. The mummified child in this exhibit was very small, yet had mature adult teeth, suggesting that he or she probably had some atypical condition or developmental problem. Yet one more reminder of our good fortune to have been born in the time and place and circumstances that we were.


March 2 – Turning Sheep into Hats

Today we visited a hat factory and witnessed step-by-step how the wool of a sheep becomes a fedora – or bowler, or felt cowboy hat. Felix may yet write up a separate post and go into detail about the process, so in order not to steal his thunder, I will only say that some of the jobs in the factory looked positively Dickensian!  In the end, the hats sell for a pittance really – 50-55 Bs (about $8 Cdn). We bought a few.

In the interests of trying to retain readers (who we fear we may have scared off with some of the longer posts), we are going to try to keep this and future posts shorter. Stay tuned for “Misadventure in Candelaria” and “Scavenger Hunt at the Tarabuco Market”…


Oh yes, readers in Nelson will appreciate this last image from Sucre:


P.S. A funny thing happened to Felix…

Post-script: A Funny Thing Happened to Felix

At dinner a few days ago, right after arriving back in Cochabamba, Felix suddenly turned pale and complained of a funny feeling in his head. Seeing that he was about to faint I took him first onto my lap in a lying down position, then, when he thought he might throw up, picked him up like a baby and carried him outside the restaurant where we both sat down on the sidewalk, Felix lying semi-prone against me for support, ready to heave into the gutter if it became necessary. We sat that way for several minutes before he felt able to lift his head, and when he did, we looked up to see a hunched-over, traditionally dressed indigenous woman holding out her hand to us, not cupped and begging, but holding a 2-boliviano piece, and offering it to us. Graciously but insistently we refused it, totally perplexed by the entire situation. As Felix started to feel better, we both started to laugh at the oddity of it all. Did she think we were begging? Did she think we needed change so we could use the public bathroom? Was she the woman we had earlier given money to and she had decided to return it? I teased Felix that it was because he looked so pathetic (green around the gills and covered in hundreds of angry-looking bug bites) – like one of those stinky, mangy, almost hairless dogs we’d seen in the Chapare. This coaxed a smile from him, bringing relief to us both that whatever had gripped him was passing. Over the next few minutes he gradually came to a sitting position, then stood, then returned to the restaurant and resumed eating dinner. Strangely, not ten minutes later, the same wave of faintness and nausea came over me and I had to lay my head on the restaurant table to keep from blacking out. It was a good 15 minutes before I felt ready to stand up and another ten before my arms stopped tingling. The only thing we can guess it was is a reaction to being back at altitude. Other guesses?

Blind birds, banana penises and…chickenpox?!

We’ve just returned from six days in or near Villa Tunari, a small town just 160 km from Cochabamba, but 2200 metres lower, in the Chapare region – gateway to the Amazon basin. To organize and remember our impressions we came up with a Top Ten in the Chapare list to share with you. We also have a Bottom Ten, just so we aren’t accused of only presenting the more presentable side of things here, but we’ll try not to elaborate on the negative stuff too much because it’s not much fun to dwell on.

Chapare Top Ten

  1. Monkeys – probably the main reason we went to the Chapare, and in this we were not disappointed. On Day One we walked to a wildlife refuge called Parque Machia (http://www.intiwarayassi.org) just across the river from Villa Tunari where we were staying. The multiple aims of the refuge include rescuing animals that have been taken from the jungle and sold inappropriately as pets or kept in captivity and/or abused, and rehabilitating them so they can return to the rainforest, though this is not always possible. Case in point: the spider monkeys which have been socialized through contact with humans to the point that they probably have no hope of ever being rehabilitated because they love human contact so much. As we hiked up a trail mildly reminiscent of the hike to Pulpit (near Nelson) – not counting the obvious differences in vegetation – we looked hopefully for wildlife but didn’t see any. Realizing this was not a zoo and that wildlife sightings could not be guaranteed, we started to reconcile ourselves to the possibility that a great view might be all we’d get. Arriving at the mirador (look-out) our jaws suddenly dropped as we took in the sight of a half dozen other tourists who were either petting monkeys or cradling them in their laps! PM 57 It wasn’t long before one of the monkeys clambered up onto Erik’s lap and threw herself down in a melodramatic fashion as if to say, “Pet me! Stroke me!” 072                                                                                                                                                                                  Another helped himself to someone’s water bottle, capably unscrewing the lid and drinking from it – with his feet. So gentle were they, and so habituated to humans, that we were able to stroke their long tails, the undersides of which feel just like the tough, smooth palms of their hands and feet. We were so thrilled – and incredulous – that we forgot about the humidity momentarily.    079   On the way back down the trail, just as we were wondering where they kept the other animals (e.g., sloths, wild cats, and the Andean bear) we ran into a couple of 20-something British volunteers who were out taking the puma for a walk! Actually, the puma was taking them for a walk, as he does every day, for most of the day. 088At this 092particular moment he had chosen to take a nap right on the trail so we tourists had to detour around him.   Just as we came to the bottom of the trail we spotted some capuchins, playfully jumping from tree to tree and hanging off of each other. In the following days we were treated to the sight and sounds of squirrel monkeys too, right from the rooftop of the place we were staying. They sounded exactly like they do in cartoons. Who would have guessed?
  2. Banana trees – For the kids, seeing banana trees was one more exciting first, and one that provided a fair bit of entertainment, since it is impossible not to think of penises when looking at a banana “tree”. (I say “tree” in quotation marks because they’re more perennials since you cut them down every year after the harvest and then they grow back.) But that phallic-looking part is actually the cover that protects the rows of flowers and peels back when they’re ready to bloom and be pollinated (or such is our understanding). It is the stems of the flowers that later swell up to become the bananas, which grow upward in semi-circles around the base of a major stem near the trunk.  087 (2)
  3. Grapefruit! The beginning of the citrus season meant we could finally find (and recognize) a safe, peelable fruit (other than banana) that both quenched our thirst and rectifiechirimoya_alcachofad (pardon the pun) the problems we were experiencing due to our dramatically decreased intake of fruits and vegetables since coming to Bolivia. We also tried – and liked – a fruit called chirimoya, which is green and scaly on the outside with very soft, white, creamy bits in the middle (like extra-large corn kernels) containing seeds similar to watermelon. Tastes a bit like vanilla pudding and also sometimes goes by the name ‘custard apple’. 116 There are other fruits here we recognize, such as mango, but it’s not in season. Papaya is good and available, and at our homestay in Cochabamba we have also enjoyed tumbo juice and tuna – not the fish, but the Spanish word for prickly pear cactus. These fruits are often sold out of wheelbarrows on street corners in the cities, but the rather unhygienic conditions at these stalls have left us a bit uneasy about buying them. Photo: Quinn face-to-face with a totumbo fruit hanging on a tree.
  4. Butterflies – So many! So colourful! So varied! One of the most thrilling kinds to see is a large, metallic blue one, which might be the same kind we saw in the natural history museum in C037ochabamba the week previous. (see photo) These very butterflies (‘ma017riposas’ in Spanish) are  sold to tourists as souvenirs (pressed between two layers of glass and framed) in the city, and if you oooh and aaaaah over one but express concern to the vendor that perhaps these would be better left alive in the jungle, you will be reassured that there are MUCHAS of the same in the Chapare and that you really shouldn’t worry your little gringo head about it. The second photo here shows a type of hummingbird that lives in the Chapare. We didn’t see it (except at the museum) but just had to share it with you because its tail is so astonishing.
  5. Parque Nacional Carrasco – Hiked here with an American and three Swiss students from the same language school we attended in Cochabamba. It’s a huge park (600,000 hectares), astonishing in its biodiversity: 614 species of plants, 120 trees, 300 orchids, 800 birds, 70 amphibians, 17 fish, and 118 species of mammals. Among its more infamous inhabitants are several venomous snakes, including the one our guide proudly introduced as the most deadly snake in the world. Not to worry, though, he says, as they only come out after 4 pm and we will be done our hike by 3. Just stay with the group and don’t stray from the path. (We did not.) The species the park is most famous for is not a snake but a type of bird called a guacharo, which is sometimes referred to as a blind bird because it lives in dark caves (where it actually can see) – it would be blinded by daylight outside the cave.  It takes its sorties into the forest at night. Large, with red eyes and an angry-sounding screech (like something out of a Harry Potter movie, I thought), it wasn’t the sort of bird I really wanted to get cozy with. It seemed to me that the guide led us deeper into the cave than was really necessary. 135Ditto for the bats in the other cave (though the kids don’t share this opinion). 058 (2) - bat cave We left the national park the way we had entered: by way of a cable-car contraption across a tumultuous river, powered only by the strong arms of our guide who pulled that cable hand-over-hand all the way across.
  6. Parrots – aka flockers of squawkers. What a thrill to see these in the trees in the middle of town! We may also have seen parakeets; the tops of the trees are so far up it’s hard to tell.
  7. Swimming – Our hostel had an outdoor pool, and we also swam in a couple of cool, clean, clear-water creeks with natural pools called pozas. Picking our way over the round river rocks from one pool to another we felt an odd, or unlikely familiarity with our surroundings, as if we were on a canoe trip somewhere in Canada, as long as we didn’t look up at the trees.097
  8. Sleeping in hammocks – More comfortable than we expected they’d be, these allowed us to sleep up on the top floor of the house where there were no walls and a faint breeze could sometimes be felt. We did have mosquito nets with the edges tucked all around us but we wonder what good it did… (see “bugs” on “Bottom Tenlist below).
  9. Riding on moto-taxis – These being the main form of public transportation in the small towns strung along the highway in the Chapare, we took them on a couple of occasions (Quinn and I on the back of one moto and Felix and Erik on the back of another). By the grins on their faces we inferred that the kids could get used to motorbike travel pretty easily.
  10. Surubi – One of the culinary specialties of the area, these fish are huge and their flesh is very tasty, especially when cooked up skillfully, as these were. A dinner of surubi – which comes with fried bananas, yuca (aka cassava or manioc) and rice – will set you back a full 30 Bs – twice as much as a meal of chicken or beef – but it was well worth the money (about $4.40 Cdn). For reasons we haven’t yet figured out, surubi is also the name of one of the types of vans used for public transportation in Cochabamba.


Chapare Bottom Ten

  1. Humidity – That’s one of those things about the Amazon that doesn’t go on postcards: this blessed humidity. Small indications of it are everywhere – like the salt that is served in bowls because it can’t be stored in shakers, and the Arrowroot-like cookies that bend in half instead of breaking, within half an hour of the package being opened. Not to mention that by the second day Jennie’s hair would have scared Medusa. It’s even worse than Toronto in July.
  2. Bad smells – dirty diesel exhaust, urine, substandard bathrooms, rotting garbage, mold/mustiness
  3. Stinky, mangy, nearly hairless dogs with open sores and parasites
  4. The fly-covered dead rat in the street in Chimore
  5. Garbage strewn everywhere
  6. Pounding headaches such as Jennie and Quinn had for the first two days of being back down near sea level.
  7. Noise – blaring TVs, blown-out speakers, transport trucks going by on highway at all hours and fans that scarcely cover the truck noise and bring scant relief to the sweaty (need we mention that A/C does not exist here?)
  8. Fluorescent tube lights – the main kind of lighting in the country, especially in poorer areas, these lights cast a very eerie glare over the plazas and squares (and in hostel rooms) at night.
  9. Taxi blockades – There appeared to be a turf war between the respective taxi companies of two highway towns (Shinahota & Chimore) that are 10 km apart and en route to wherever we wanted to go. At one point a taxi driver who had said he’d drive us to Parque Carrasco was confronted by a bunch of angry drivers from Shinahota wielding a large piece of wood with a couple hundred nails driven into it (points sticking upward) capable of quickly and easily puncturing all his tires if he proceeded to drive us to our destination. He capitulated and we switched cabs.
  10. Bugs! Initially we thought they weren’t too bad because we didn’t see many or even feel them biting, but by the second day, the evidence had started to show. Even though we wore long pants and shirts AND applied bug dope containing DEET when walking through the rainforest, by the time we returned to Cochabamba the kids looked worse than they did when they had chicken pox (when Q was 3 and Felix just a baby) – to the point of making us wonder if they ac124 (2)tually did have chicken pox. One certain someone who shall remain nameless counted 14 bites on his private parts alone! A fellow traveler said the kids looked like they’d been eaten by bed bugs but we don’t think this is the case because bed bugs really hurt when they bite and these didn’t. The woman who hosted us for two nights at her house (owner of the language school who also has a place in the Chapare which she invited us to visit) said the bites were from little bugs that are in the water as well as the air and are very small. It was at her place that we think we got all the bites, so she’s probably right. To our knowledge, those little bugs do not carry any diseases that we need be concerned about, so it should be just another discomfort to put up with.

Back in Cochabamba today we all notice how much more attractive, affluent, and COMFORTABLE it seems compared to just one week ago. Perspective is relative, to be sure. (We are loving the cooler weather now!) That said, going to the Chapare was a great thing to have done for a few days and a great way to prepare for a future excursion that we may choose to take in a few weeks’ time, deeper into the Amazon in the north of the country. For now we are heading south and west, to Sucre for a week and then Potosi. All buses for Sucre are overnight buses (10 hours), so tonight we travel and tomorrow we arrive – at 6:00 am. – ready for a new unknown.