Food for thought part eight – Bolivia and Peru

Food at a Peruvian market

Bolivia isn’t exactly a culinary paradise, that’s not to say the food is bad, just a little bland. Peru on the other hand definitely wins the prize for flavour in South America, thank you Peru for finally bringing spice back to the table! Here are some of the regional specialities from this part of this trip…

Menu del día (Bolivia and Peru)
The menu del día is the cheap way to eat in Bolivia or Peru, it is typically a two or three course meal comprised of a soup starter (often a little watery), a main of some kind of flavourless meat served with boiled potatoes and rice or pasta (if you’re lucky this might be accompanied by a sauce, if not you can liven it up with the ever present salsa picante) and a desert of tinned fruit salad or jelly. All of this is usually washed down with an unidentifiable ‘juice’, essentially sugary water. It’s a pretty no frills affair but cheap and filling.

Chicken, I think, red sauce, and pasta

Salchipapa (Bolivia and Peru)
Salchipapa is the kind of dish you might concoct with what’s left in your cupboard, chips mixed with chopped frankfurters, sliced onions and peppers smothered in a tomato sauce.

Quinoa soup (Bolivia)
Quinoa is a small round grain sometimes used as an accompaniment similar to rice. It’s a nice way to bulk up the often thin vegetable soups served in Bolivia.

Quinola soup

Trucha (Bolivia and Peru)
I believe that trucha (trout) fresh from lake Titicaca is one of the nicest Bolivian dishes we encountered. It can be found cooked in all manner of ways, but my favourite was probably trucha grilled in a lemon sauce.

Chifa (Bolivia and Peru)
Chifas are Chinese restaurants of varying quality found throughout Bolivia and Peru (although probably more prominently in Peru). A refreshing alternative to the ubiquitous meat and rice (although you can of course find dishes containing both of these constituents, just with more flavour than usual!).

Fresh fruit salad from the market in Sucre, Bolivia

Ceviche (Peru)
The best dish I have tasted in months! I have to admit I was skeptical, I’m not a fan of sushi and to be honest the idea of eating raw fish doesn’t really appeal to me. Ceviche has definitely changed that! Ceviche is raw fish marinated in a chilli and lime sauce topped with raw onions and served with a side of sweet potato and giant sweetcorn (seriously -the sweetcorn in Peru is huge!), a dish packed with tongue-tingling flavour, definitely one not to be missed.

A dish of the gods

Rocoto relleno (Peru)
Another fine example of tasty Peruvian food, the spicy red peppers are stuffed with minced beef, onions, diced boiled egg and plenty of seasoning.

Spicy and stuffed, perfect

Cuy (Peru)
If you’ve ever had a pet Guinea Pig you may want to stop reading now. Yes cuy is roasted or fried Guinea Pig. Whilst the crunchy skin is nicely flavoured with herbs and spices, as might be expected there’s not a lot of actual meat to be had on this Peruvian delicacy!

Guinea Pigs are tasty food here…

Restaurant-style cuy

Pisco sour (Peru)
Peru’s most famous cocktail made from Pisco (grape brandy), lime juice, bitters, sugar and egg whites is a real treat and impossible to avoid!

Enjoying a pisco sour… and yet more ceviche!

With only four weeks left until we re-enter the world of cheddar cheese, marmite and salt and vinegar crisps (seriously, these are the things I miss!) I wonder what Colombia and Cuba have in store…


The birthplace of the Sun

Not the Aegean!

The Incas believed that Isla del Sol in the middle of Lake Titicaca was the birthplace of the sun, and it’s not hard to see why.

Basking in the high altitude rays atop the ridge running through the centre of the island, you can gaze at the shimmering blue water of the lake, with the white peaks of the Cordillas Real in the distance. Although touristy, once you get out of the small town, it feels like you have the place to yourself, walking past terraces and up stone staircases that have been there since the time of the Incas 500 years ago.

Inca Steps

We’re on the boat back to Copacabana now, having spent a perfect couple of nights on the island, walking, eating the local speciality of trout and soaking up the sunshine. It was a perfect way to recover from the exertions of climbing Huayna Potosí, and we’ve all got a tan too!


Sunset at the mirador, with shadows of Laura and I

La Paz

Government building in the main square

We’re leaving La Paz, a city with jaw-dropping views and lung-straining altitude. I’ve got a big smile on my face as we’ve just had our final view of Huanya Potosí, one of the stark white peaks that overlooks the city, and where we were at the summit only 26 hours ago.

The guidebook had warned us to be in for a memorable sight as we arrived in La Paz, and it certainly didn´t disappoint. The city clings to the edges of a wide canyon, and as you come in from El Alto, the sprawling metropolis on the flat above, you´re treated to an incredible vista across the valley. I think everyone in the bus actually gasped when it first came into view!

We´d been warned to expect a busy, congested nightmare of a place, but ended up pleasantly surprised – yes, there was a lot of traffic, but down every one of those roads was a glimpse of the terracotta city heading up the hillside behind, or the incredible snow-capped peaks of Illimani which towers over the sprawl.

Street with a view

We spent a couple of days wandering around, soaking in the altitude (which wasn´t a big deal for us since we´ve been around this height for a few weeks now), eating tasty pizza and admiring the unique mix of cosmopolitan suits and government buildings set against the colourful traditional dress that many still wear. One distinctive sight is that of the shoeshine boys who occupy every corner and kindly offer to polish even the most travel-worn fabric sandals (not today thanks). Many are students earning some spare cash to support their education, but interestingly all cover their faces with balaclavas because of the shame of being associated with such a lowly side-job.

Shoeshine boys - note the covered faces to hide their identities

We also took the chance to drop into the Coca Museum, which provides an informative and balanced viewpoint on the Coca industry. Bolivia is the world´s largest Coca grower, with the vast majority of the crop destined for cocaine in America and Europe, and a battle that´s been raging for decades about how to best deal with the problem – fuelled in large part by the US DEA´s policy of destruction at source that has largely failed to realise an economic solution for the impoverished farmers trying to make a living.

The museum made a strong case for the benefits of chewing coca – common in South America for generations as a antidote to altitude. This is a very different effect from the concentrated cocaine highs people seek in the west, and is legal in many countries here – in fact we had Coca tea at breakfast this morning! There´s good scientific evidence to show its benefits for improving worker stamina (which the Catholic church recognised some time ago, rescinding their ban of the plant when they realised their slaves were much more effective when chewing the stuff!); it was really only when the western world turned it into cocaine and started exporting the stuff that the trouble started. The point is well made that in addition to the raw plant, the process of refining Coca into Cocaine is largely dependent on large quantities of imported chemicals – and you can guess which western nations they come from, in contravention of Bolivian import laws!

The exhibition also touched on the fascinating tale of Coca Cola and its chequered history – essentially originally including cocaine as its stimulant, and happily bragging about it on the packaging! Amid ongoing discussion about drug policy in the UK and across the world, it´s easy to see the problem as being cleanly divided into rich drug baron suppliers and western consumers, and a solution being destruction of the crop at source. It was certainly interesting to see things from the other side – the problem from Bolivia´s perspective is the huge demand from the west which has corrupted a practice that has existed for centuries and – as is also the case in Afghanistan also – can´t simply be solved by burning fields of crops.


Huayna Potosí

Huayna Potosi

Part 1
I’m writing this from a refugio at 5200m, on the side of Huayna Potosi. It’s a peak that looks over La Paz, and at 6088m is just over the magical 6km mark. It is also said to be one of the easiest places in the world to scale a peak this high, given the headstart you get from La Paz being at 3500m. However, as my co-climber Simon (yes, it is a little confusing!) put it, its a bit like saying ‘a slow Ferrari’ – it is still high, and cold, and our attempt at the top tomorrow will involve leaving at 1am, donning crampons and ice axes and climbing for 6 hours in the dark to hopefully reach the summit at sunrise. It’s too dangerous to climb during the day as the ice and snow melts and makes it treacherous.

Yesterday we had our first practice on a glacier, which should be fairly representative of the conditions as we go up – compact snow and ice. We have these huge boots which are double-layered like the ones you’d use for skiing, and to the bottom of these you attach ice climbing crampons – jagged metal things with points sticking out in all directions to grip the ice. The ice axe itself is a strange thing to be tottering along with; I’m not sure I would normally opt for a serrated axe to steady myself when walking, but it seems to do the trick!

Walking on the glacier was fine with the crampons on – we learnt the techniques of keeping your whole foot against the ice so all the points dig in, and crossing your feet as you slowly make your way up the incline. We then got to the ice climbing – to say it was a tough challenge would be a massive understatement! We initially thought the guides were joking when they threw ropes over a 10m high section of ice complete with overhang. But no, with two ice axes and on a safety line, we each attempted to scale the vertical cliff, summoning energy to hurl each axe into the deep blue ice, haul yourself up on the few centimetres of purchase they appeared to have, and then kick your boots into the wall for all their worth to try to get a grip ahead of the next round. Absolutely exhausting, and we’d only climbed 5 or 10 metres! It was with some nervousness that we asked the guides how much of the ascent tomorrow would require this technique. We’ve had some different answers – somewhere between 10% (so 45 minutes) and 5 metres. I’m certainly hoping for the latter!

Practicing ice climbing - this was hard!

A long way up! That's me at the top

The refugio here has got fantastic views to the neighbouring peaks, emerald green lakes and the swirling clouds forming around and spiraling off the nearby mountains. It’s also consequently a bit exposed – sitting here in the early afternoon I can hear the wind howling over the roof, and without any heating, I’m still a bit cold in three pairs of trousers and three fleece layers!

The walk to high camp

In 24 hours time it’ll all be over, we’ll have made the summit or not and hopefully be on our way back to a hot shower and warm bed back in La Paz. But for now, we’ve got a few more hours to kill (we’re going to try some high altitude frisbee!) before dinner at five and bed at six in preparation for the final part of the adventure.

High altitude frisbee!

Part 2
Well, we knew it was going to be tough!

It’s pretty hard to sleep at altitude as it is, and even more so when you’re in a cold room with 20 other people squeezed onto mattresses and a howling wind tearing down the mountain making the building shake. Needless to say, we didn’t get much rest before we got up at midnight!

After a light breakfast of stale bread and jam, we donned all our layers and headed out into the darkness with crampons, an ice axe and a head torch. For safety we were roped together, the guide at the front, then me, and finally (the other) Simon at the rear. You hold the rope in one hand so you can feel when the person behind is slowing, and in the other, your ice axe as a walking stick.

The journey to the top was a long trudge on compacted snow, winding our way along a well established track up and around the mountain. The tiredness, altitude and reality combined to create some strange sights: the beautiful star-filled night sky above, and below, thousands of twinkling lights too as our head torches reflected in the snow crystals; and when you lifted your head from the monotony of watching the boots of the person in front, you could see the procession of identical triplets of lights making their way up the mountain from those in front and behind. Without any moonlight, it was the only way to get a sense of progress amid the blackness, and a sense of what steepness lay ahead. We were fortunately towards the front; we later spoke to those at the back who said that every time they looked up, the lights high above were an ominous indication of how far they still had to struggle on.

As the night wore on and we climbed higher, it got bitterly cold and even the bottles of water we had inside our coats froze solid, making dehydration an issue. We tried to eat some of the peanuts and (frozen) chocolate bars we’d brought with us but we were both feeling a bit sick from the exertion and altitude – and our bodies no doubt confused at being force-fed in the middle of the night! At one point we decided to put up our hoods as a final layer of warmth in addition to the balaclava, hat, scarf and helmet we were both wearing. The strap for my helmet wouldn’t do back up, and I spent an agonising five minutes with hands steadily going blue desperately trying to fix it, before the guide deftly sorted it out for me. Unable to feel anything in my hands and with the knowledge that we still had an hour and a half until the warmth of sunrise, I was pretty tempted to turn back, but the guide encouraged us on, and so the slog continued. We were both feeling the altitude, and the pace was slowing, but we were still moving – and faster than the other groups we passed who were pausing for breath every minute or so. I think spending the past few weeks at altitude must have done us some good!

We looked up at one point to find our first view over the surrounding peaks to the yellow lights of the metropolis La Paz and El Alto some 20km away. We could even make out the white lights of the airport runway. It was a real sense that we were getting somewhere – and we were finally walking on the high part of the mountain we had seen when leaving the city a few days before.

The lights of El Alto - you can see the airport runway in white

Finally, after some easyish ice climbing up a steep slope, we hit ‘polish ridge’ from where we could see the summit above us and an impossible view the other side of the ridge to the lights El Alto. I say impossible, because I couldn’t look – it was utterly terrifying. (Mum, you might want to skip this bit and go forward four paragraphs!)

That path is about a foot wide!

The ridge is named after a Polish soloist who fell to his death from here in 1994, and it wasn’t hard to tell why. On one side, a steep slope of 200m at say 60 degrees, down to snow and rocks the way we’d come up. On the other, that view to the city, a 1000m sheer drop, and a strong wind. To get to the summit, we had to edge along the ridge for 100m or so. Oh, and did I mention that this icy ridge was less than half a metre wide in places?!

Inching our way along, we didn’t get off to a good start. I had the cord on the wrong side of me, and as I tried to step over it, the guide moved off, pulling me off balance and prompting some frantic shouting on my part! After sorting things out, we set off properly and I think we both had the same thing on our minds – what to do in that quarter of a second if you feel yourself slipping or hear someone else go? The idea is that at least one of the other two people on the cord will be able to anchor themselves sufficiently to hold the weight of those dangling, but there wasn’t exactly much in which to get purchase with our ice axes, and it seemed like it would very much be luck rather than certainty. Later, Simon comically suggested that perhaps the better strategy would be for someone to throw themselves off the other side of the ridge as a counterbalance, but I’m not sure what our guide would have made of that!

We were perhaps halfway across when we realised a horrible reality – there were people coming the other way, as this was also the return route from the summit! Unfortunately for those we passed, they had to take the slightly more exposed upper of the foot-wide tracks in order to squeeze past. In normal circumstances, it might have been a time to high-five those victorious from the summit; I’m not sure our sense of balance could cope so we just exchanged weak smiles instead!

We scrambled up a snowy bank to find ourselves at last on the summit, the pre-dawn sky giving us just enough light to admire the incredible view. At 6088m, it’s the fifth highest mountain in Bolivia, and higher than any point in Europe, Africa or North America (except Mount McKinley, which is 100m higher). We were exhausted but pretty pleased with ourselves! From the top, we could see Lake Titicaca to the west, and the Cordillera Real mountain range stretching south east and below us. The mountains clearly divide Bolivia in two, with the high and dry altiplano to the west, and the humid and low amazon rainforest to the east. As if a perfect example of geography, one had low cloud stretching as far as the eye could see, and the other was barren and clear.

Kazoo at the summit

Simon & Simon at the summit. We're on a slope, I'm not a dwarf really!

We had brought some Scottish whiskey in a hip flask to help celebrate at the summit, but with the ridge awaiting us – and this time in a slightly more tricky downhill direction – we decided this wasn’t the time to induce even more wobbling that normal!

As you can tell by the fact you’re reading this, we made it down alive and mostly well – although I think that’s probably the first and last high mountain climbing adventure for both of us!


Sunrise over the mountain

The peak casting a shadow in the early morning light

Hiking in Quime

Walking into Quime

We’ve just had a fun few days in Quime, a small town in the mountains that is well and truly off the tourist trail. I’m writing from a smelly bus heading to La Paz, our next destination.

Quime isn’t listed in any guidebooks – some friends of ours found it on WikiTravel and thought it sounded like fun, an escape to the countryside for hiking and home-cooked food.

Getting there was a bit of a challenge, requiring us to get our bus from Sucre to La Paz to stop at a small town at 4:30 in the morning and let us and (after some insistence on our part) our bags off. The Bolivian altiplano is at altitude, and its vast planes are notoriously cold, so we had a slightly chilly few hours sitting on a wall next to the only open shop playing cards and waiting for sunrise and feeling to return to our hands. It was then a short two hour shared taxi tide (£2.50) to the town, including a half hour wait while bulldozers remade the mud road on the mountainside before us (road works Bolivian-style!). After a 20 minute uphill slog we finally made it to the guesthouse where our friends were also staying, just in time for breakfast!

The town itself is a ramshackle set of mud brick and red brick buildings, with a couple of small squares and a sewage-laden river running through the middle. A recent resurgence in Tungsten mining has apparently meant it has doubled in size to about 5,000 in the past few years.

Local woman in traditional dress

The five of us were the only white tourists around, necessitating much staring from the local kids, and warm calls of ‘buenos dias’ from their parents as we wandered round. Our host Marco came here from Alaska 30 years ago to study moss with funding from National Geographic, fell in love with the place and never left. Over that time, he’s built his house overlooking the town and valley, using pre-inca techniques including the first arches in any local architecture for generations, and now with various guest rooms to welcome travellers passing through. It was very much being in somebody’s home, and a lovely break from hostel after hostel.

On the first day, we hiked up a river with a machete in hand to cut through the undergrowth and find a suitable spot for Marco to set up some stone huts as part of an eco-reserve he’s working on. On the way, we could see in the distance the ‘Devil’s Slide’, a 1km high landslide of red rock that has been seemingly impossibly sliding downhill for years, kicking up swirls of dust as it goes.

Elena crossing a bridge

Yesterday, I headed off for a full day’s hiking with our friend Simon (yes, a confusing name; he’s also a computer programmer from England!). We’d heard about the Naranjani glacial lake up in the hills above town, and fancied a bit of an adventure to see the glacier caving off into the water. After wading through an ice-cold river and following the trail up a hillside past landslides, we reached the lake, with a couple of ruined stone buildings we think were once forts perched on a ridge overlooking the valley below. Unfortunately, as we were to be told later, climate change has long since melted the glacier, so just the lake was left, with peaks towering around it.

The weather unfortunately was fairly cloudy, and as we kept on up the trail, we found ourselves in them, limiting the views and our visibility for finding a different route back. High up in a gully we came across an abandoned cave which we think was once carved out as a test mine. We pushed on up, and eventually reached the end of a canyon between two rock faces, where we could go no further. Our GPS told us we were at 4850m, some 1.7km above the road were we’d started!

A canyon near the peak of the mountain

It’s no wonder that our host had originally come here to study the mosses; we were amazed at the variety of vegetation on the apparently barren hillside. Lichens cling to rocks in vivid reds and a brilliant white so strong we initially thought it was snow. The ground is covered with a furry bed of greeny-yellow moss that comes off in clumps as you step and slip on it, and strangest of all are the pineapple-like plants growing in exposed spots between the rocks. We even found stinging nettles, perhaps a reminder that this damp, cold climate isn’t really too dissimilar to back home!


Lichen making the rocks bright red