Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Street Food in Bolivia - The Chola Sandwich

The chola sandwich (I will explain more about cholas later) is my favorite street eat in Bolivia. Roasted pork, pickled vegetables, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, mayo and hot sauce on a bun. These things are lethal, both for the stomach and the arteries.  The one I ate in Santa Cruz may have been hanging out in the sun for several hours but it was delicious. No regrets. I just wouldn't eat before getting on a long bus ride.

A chola preparing a chola sandwich

 There was no fat trimmed off this sandwich. My heart doesn't like it when I eat these.

This sandwich also came with some fried pig skin 

Roasted pork sandwiches sold from a small street stand- Its good thing

More Salar Photos

Fun Fact - The English word jerky (as in beef jerky) comes from the Quechuan word charqui (which means meat dried in the sun). In Bolivia and Peru charqui is eaten everywhere, especially llama charqui.

Laguna Hedionda

Sally (England) B (Peru) and Shola (Nigeria or America, depending on who he is talking to)

The majority of our three day trip was spent in the car. Traveling from spot to spot took anywhere from 40 minutes to 3 hours. When we weren't getting made fun of for being American or making fun of England, we would talk about the profound beauty of the passing landscape. 

The Red Lagoon
Red sediments and the pigmentation of the algae give the lagoon its red color. The white spots are clusters of borax. Most of the year the lagoon is full of flamingos that come to feed on the algae, (which makes the flamingos pink, duh!!!!).  There are not many people swimming here.

Flamingos in the Laguna Colorada
The photo was stolen form here -  Luca Galuzzi - www.galuzzi.it 

No one is swimming here either

Fish Island
Named by locals who say the island takes the shape of a fish from a distance.  Lots gigantic cacti, petrified coral rock and sun. We spent a few hours walking around the island while our guide made inappropriate comments about the shapes of various cacti.  The dictionary says you can use cacti or cactuses to pluralize cactus. I went with cacti because I like saying cacti. I think of George W. saying it in that little twang of his. Cacti. Just sounds right.

These cacti are thousands of years old

Laguna Verde
Laguna Verde or the Green Lagoon is a salt lagoon that sits at the foot of the volcano LicancaburIts colour is caused by sediments that containing copper minerals.  A pretty consistent wind stirs up the sediments.

A three day salar trip is on every backpackers to do list while in Bolivia. The three day trip is well worth the hundred dollars (very cheap), even if you have no intention of taking goofy photos of yourself . In the end you will want to swear off cars and salt for a few months but that's ok.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Salar de Uyuni

 The salt flats of Uyuni are otherworldly. Everyone says that. It is true. It doesn't feel like earth.  Shola and I talked about drugging a friend from the U.S, flying him down to Uyuni blindfolded and letting him out in the middle of the salt flats, just as people dressed up as aliens are sacrificing a llama. A good way to shake a man up. I imagine mars to look something like this. 

The Salar de Uyuni is impressive. It has been a hotspot for adventure tourism in Bolivia for years and gringos from all over the globe come to see the blindingly white salt flats, green and red colored lagoons, cactus islands and flocks of brightly colored flamingos.  They also come to take stupid photos (examples below). I had seen the photos of a few friends who visited the Salar before me and knew that taking photos of your friends sitting on wine bottles or fighting toy dinosaurs was part of the deal. I didn't know that huge chunks of time were devoted to the taking of these photos.  If you google Salar de Uyuni photos you will see thousands of photos of people in goofy poses, usually jump kicking or holding giant cigarettes to their mouths. And then there are those salt flats in the back.  I still don't know how feel about this. I've been watching to much Bourdain lately, he's making me a negative traveler. 

Click the first link to read a great article on the salt flats, lithium dreams and Bolivia under Evo Morales. Lithium Dreams - New Yorker Article

 The salts flats of Uyuni are the largest in the world, they cover a distance of  4,086 sq miles and sit 12,000 ft above sea level. 

Our tour group - Notice Jeff's mean air guitar

Jeff, Shola y Yo

We spent three day packed in a land rover driving through deserts and mountains and salt.  It was well worth the visit. Photos of the Laguna Verde/Colorado and Flamingos to come.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Potosi II - The Mines

Mining methods have changed little over the years. The miners still toil from dawn till dusk. Generators pump air into tunnels so they can breath. Children still wriggle into tiny places where adults cannot go. Working sometimes for 10 hours or more a day in extreme temperatures, the miners keep going by chewing coca leaves. Two-thirds of the population have respiratory ailments.
Amalia Barron, "Potosi's Silver Tears"

Long before I set foot in Bolivia I watched the movie, The Devil's Miner.  The documentary follows the day to day of a 14 years old boy who works as a miner in the Cerro Rico, the mountain that eats men. The movie is depressing. Entering the mines themselves is even more depressing. I don't know how the mines of Cerro Rico became a tourist attraction but each year thousands of backpackers come to Potosi to see what working in the mines is like (for two hours, without actually doing any work). I recommend watching the movie, I wouldn't recommend going inside the mines unless you like shaking yourself up.

Around 9,000 miners still work in the mines of the Cerro Rico, including  hundreds of children.  These days the mines of Cerro Rico aren't producing the quantities of silver of the past and the state run programs of the 1980's are long gone.  Only the "scavengers of Cerro Rico" continue to navigate through a labyrinth of over 20,000 tunnels, looking to chisel out every last scrap of valuable material they can find. No big equipment, no safety standards.  The life expectancy of the average miner is around forty years old. Most miners meet their fate through Silicosis because of the high amounts of dust within the mines.

The children, who put their lives at risk, earn the Bolivian equivalent of $3 for a 12-hour workday. As seen in the film, it takes two months’ salary just to purchase the necessary uniform and supplies to attend school in the region.  In a remote region with no sustainable economy, Cerro Rico looms over the city of Potosí like a god that both gives and takes away life. Without it, the people of Potosí would have nothing; with it, they’re able to eke out a basic existence. But every time they go deep into the earth, they’re never sure if they’ll come out again. 

They tell you the tour is not for wimps or claustrophobics or asthmatics or reasonable people.  And even though the mountain has claimed around 8 million people since they began mining it in the mid-1500's, you justify your participation in the tour because thousands of other tourists have done it before you.  Silicosis takes years to accumulate in your lungs. Stalactites covered with arsenic only affect you after long term exposure. The miners currently trapped in Chile have Ipods and newspapers to keep them happy.  All the guide books say entering the mines is an eye opening experience. Somehow, prior to actually entering the mines, I knew that crawling beneath thousands of tons of heavy rock, breathing hot, dust filled for ten hours a day was similar to a visit to hell. The tour reinforced these beliefs but I'm still debating if that reinforcement was necessary.  

Our Mining Crew - Tom, Jeff, Shola and Ben.

The trip to the mines begins with a group gear up. While throwing on a miners suit and helmet looked quite gimmicky at first, the value of the uniforms was revealed the first time I found myself crawling on my stomach, bashing my head on the mines sharp ceiling. After the gear up our group of six was paraded through a small market where we bought gifts for the miners.  Although guides were paid to take us to the mines, we were also asked to buy gifts for the miners, kind of as a token of forgiveness/entrance fee. The work inside the mines is brutal and having a bunch of gawking tourists standing in your way doesn't help the mood, so to stop the miners from taking a pick axe to the face of  each tourist, every group that enters the mines is asked to bring gifts of coca leaves, soda pop and dynamite.   

The entrance to one of several mines in the Cerro Rico

The easy part. After a 10 minute walk were I could almost stand up straight our group descended through a tunnel the size of a tube slide in a Ronald McDonald's playland. It was not comfortable. Instead of landing in a ball pit we found ourselves deeper underground, where the ceilings were lower and the air much hotter. At our lowest point in the mine the temperature reached almost 100 degrees.  I could barely just from the crawling. The altitude and the dust made it hard. I had to concentrate not to flip out and cry. We watched miners drag, pull and carry mineral filled rocks back and fourth.  By the end of our time inside the mines our lungs and eyes were burning.  The tour inside the mines lasted for two hours. I am not cut out to be a miner.

Ben and I in the mine shaft.  My mouth is discolored from the large amount of coca leaves I was chewing. The leaves, which all miners chew habitually, are supposed to help with breathing and give energy. More than anything the leaves helped me to not think about the possibility of large rocks raining down on us.

Giving thanks to the Devil

Hundreds of statues of the devil (lord of the underworld, hades, Glen Beck, etc.) can be found within the mines of the Cerro Rico.  While the majority of miners are Catholic the majority also believe that God has no presence within the dark depths of the mines. Only the devil or El Tio, as the miners call him, can offer protection within the mines. Each mining group makes offerings of coca leaves, booze and tobacco to El Tio in the hopes that he will protect them while they work. Sitting next to El Tio in the deep shafts of the Cerro Rico, while gasping for air and sweating profusely, made for one eerie experience. If I had to work the mines in the mountain that eats men, I would be making offerings to the devil too.

If El Tio is not fed, he will take matters into his own hands and feed on human flesh. But for many of Potosi's citizens, El Tio is more trustworthy than their own government...
- Aaron Roesch, "Unearthing Potosi: The Enduring Plight of Bolivian Miners"

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Potosí is one of the highest cities in the world, sitting at an elevation of 13,500ft. You can feel it in your bones. Walking up a small flight of stairs will leave you gasping for air.  Combo that with over a months long vacationers diet (heavy on the friend chicken) and you'll be taking breaks on that middle stair just like me. Potosí is known historically for the Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) that looms over it. Established as a mining town in the mid-1500's, Potosí sprang up as one of the largest (200,000) and wealthiest cities in the world by the mid-1600's. Over a period of 200 years 45,000 tons of pure silver was mined from the Cerro, of which 9,000 tons went directly to the Spanish Monarchy. 

Visiting the mines of Cerro Rico is one of the main reasons backpackers come to Potosí. I'll write about that hellish experience in the next post.

The Cerro Rico

A narrow street

Like Sucre, Potosí has great colonial spanish architecture and churches on almost ever corner. Literally every corner. During its boom period Potosí had around 90 churches in order to ensure that the souls of each and every indigenous person would be saved. 

Jeff trying to spot a Burger King amongst the numerous churches

Catching my breath after walking up several flights of stairs

Jeff, Shola and I in the Bell Tower of Potosí's main cathedral

Potosí and the Cerro Rico at night

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sucre II

Traditional dress from the Virgin de Guadalupe fest. Bolivians like colors, lots of colors.

The Salon de la Independencia. In this room the leaders of Upper Peru (as Bolivia was then known) met to draw out plans for Bolivia's independence. Although Bolivia declared independence from Spain in 1809, the Republic wasn't actually established until 1925, after 16 years of war.  

I'm not sure what this building is and I'm to lazy to google it, so instead I'll give you another fun fact. Bolivia is named after Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan who helped liberate Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela and Peru as well. The George Washington of South America to some

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sucre, Bolivia

I like Sucre a lot. It's a small city (around 220,000 Sucrences) with a very present Spanish colonial style. Colonial Andalusian architecture says wikipedia.  Sucre held title as the capital of Bolivia until La Paz took the reins in 1898.  The city still serves as the constitutional capital and the Supreme Court is located here.

   The city center is clean, the locals are incredibly friendly and it seems as if there is a bar or church on every street in the town center. Two great options to cater to your mental state. Sucre is also home to the Universidad Mayor Real & Pontificia de San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca, which is one of the oldest universities in the Americas.

  Luckily our loosely planned itinerary landed us here during the Virgin de Guadalupe festival. The festival consists of endless parades, bands, traditional Bolivian dance/dress and  South Side Irish Parade levels of consumption.    


San Francisco Church - One of several churches in Sucre

The Virgin of Guadalupe Shrine

The parade started at around 8am and went well past midnight. It was intense. The traditional dress, marching bands and lively locals were the highlights of the night.

My next Halloween costume

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Puerto Busch to Santa Cruz

Puerto Busch is a small army outpost on the Rio Paraguay. The port is in the middle of nowhere, several hours from the nearest town. It was the first place in Bolivia we would see.

We paid a friend of one of the 5 Bolivian soldiers stationed at the port to drive us to Quijarro, where we could buy our Bolivian visas and officially enter the country. On the way we nearly hit several Nandu Guazu or Rhea. Our driver liked to beep at the fleeing, terrified birds.

Below: Welcome to Bolivia - the sign you would see entering from Brazil.
Our first go at Bolivian street food in Quijarro. After two years of Paraguayan food it was a nice change of pace. Below is a typical Bolivian dish of boiled corn, potatoes, and chicken covered in a hot salsa. Coming from a country were hot food is basically non-existent it was nice to eat something that burned the crap out of your mouth.

Below: Llajua or llajwa pronounced (ya-hua). The sauce has a slight resemblance to a mexican style salsa but less flavorful. It is made from hot chili peppers, tomato, onion and a Bolivian herb called kikina. I've been slathering it all over fried chicken (which is very big here) and french fries. Yeah, real healthy.  

Below: Milanesa (Bread Fried Steak) Bolivian Style - soon to be slathered in in llawja.

Quijarro is a border town that doesn't offer much for gringos looking to see things. After eating a few unhealthy but delicious street meals we spent the night in a classy hole in the wall (for about 4 dollars) and jumped on the Death Train to Santa Cruz.

Above: Tim and I people watching during one of several train stops.

The “Death Train” travels between the border town of Quijarro and Bolivia's biggest city Santa Cruz. There are three possible reasons as to why it has its current title.

1. The train ride is so long and bumpy that you will want to kill yourself before the trip is over. 2. The train has a history of derailing and killing its passengers.
3. The train once transported the bodies of Yellow Fever victims.
I have no sources for any of these explanations.

The trip took 18 hours and no suicidal thoughts were had during the ride. It was a bit shaky but I feared more for my stomach than anything else after slamming so much fried chicken in Quijarro. I arrived to Santa Cruz mildly rested and thankful I didn't have to test the Death Train's bathroom situation.

Santa Cruz
From Wikipedia: Santa Cruz de la Sierra was founded on February 26, 1561 by Nuflo de Chavez who gave the new settlement its name, which means "Holy Cross of the Hills," in honor of his beloved native city in Extremadura, Spain. It has a urban population is 1,545,161 (2008 official estimate) which makes it the largest city in Bolivia.
Above: street view from our hostel.

The central plaza in Santa Cruz - 24 de Septiembre