The witches of La Paz

Lucia didn’t look like a witch: early 20s, puppy fat, bored expression, tiny bowler hat. As I walked into her shop, ducking under a clutch of shrivelled llama foetuses dangling from the ceiling, her cell phone rang to the tune Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”. She studiously ignored me.

2011_0323Bolivia0104The shelves of her shop, in La Paz’s Witches’ Market, were stacked with a bizarre collection of goods: aphrodisiacs with names like “Come to me, come to me” and “Love Honey”; perfumes promising to improve your mood or attract a partner; potions for everything from upset stomachs to hair loss.

There were rows of incense, soapstone figurines, penis-shaped candles, clumps of feathers, stone llamas, and wads of miniature dollar bills. Small bags contained seeds, herbal teas, coca leaves, vitamins, and “extracts” of snail and shark. Baskets held dead and dried armadillos, birds, turtles, starfish and frogs.

The Spanish brought Catholicism to Bolivia, but it never completely supplanted the indigenous religious beliefs, which continue to find their expression in rituals requiring an exotic array of ingredients.

Drawn, eventually, from her phone call, Lucia began to talk: “People come to me to prepare [“white tables”], small packages, to burn on the last Friday of each month, and more regularly in August, the month of Pachamama, for good luck. Sometimes they come for , black magic, to cause harm to others.” She pointed at the little figurines: “Each one represents something different. The owls mean studying; the entwined couple, love; the puma, protection; the condor, travel.”

And then, because witches need to make a living too: “You need to buy some condors now, to bring good luck on your journey.”

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A stampede in Sucre

The world’s most paleontologically significant cement works is on the outskirts of the Bolivian city of Sucre. Some 5km beyond the colonial centre, with its whitewashed townhouses, churches and leafy plazas, a grey 100m-high cliff rises out of a limestone quarry.

Cal Orko
Cal Orko (c) Peter Collins

As an officious security guard shepherded me into the Parque Cretácico Cal Orko – a grand name for a small fenced-off viewpoint high above the quarry – a stream of heavily-laden trucks chugged past, while looming chimneys belched out plumes of grey smoke.

At first glance the mottled, 1.2km-long cliff-face was nondescript. But as my eyes slowly focused, two indistinct pockmarks gradually formed into a giant pair of dinosaur footprints, each one bigger than my torso. Then I spotted another pair, and then two more, and then more than I could count. In total, there are over 5,000 footprints from around 150 types of dinosaur. It is easily the largest and most diverse such collection in the world.

Palaeontologists believe the footsteps are a snapshot of a 65-million-year-old “chase and kill” stampede in which a horde of scavengers followed predators – including a baby tyrannosaurus rex dubbed “Johnny Walker” by researchers – in pursuit of a menagerie of cretaceous prey. Beneficial climatic conditions preserved them, and the flat earth was pushed up over millennia of tectonic activity until it formed a cliff.

Despite the site’s significance, and local attempts to secure UNESCO World Heritage status, conservation attempts are notable by their absence. From the confines of the Parque Cretácico, I could only get within 150m of the cliff. Meanwhile, in the quarry below, explosions sounded and burly tractor drivers passed within touching distance of the footsteps.

A Bolivian food revolution?

South American food goes from strength to strength. Peru leads the way, with Lima fast becoming the continent’s culinary capital and ceviche and pisco sours adorning menus across the world. Superstar chef Ferren Adriá, of Barcelona’s acclaimed El Bulli, has even declared that the “future of gastronomy is being cooked up in Peru”. Argentina produces the world’s finest steaks, as well as top-class wine. Chile has equally good vineyards, plus outstanding seafood. Time magazine, meanwhile, has named Alex Atala, chef at Sao Paulo’s much-lauded D.O.M, one of its 100 most influential people in the world.

(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez
(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez

But while its neighbours may be flourishing, Bolivia has remained in the shadows, its cuisine unable to shake off a long-held reputation for being stodgy and rather monotonous. Claus Meyer – co-founder of Noma, the two-Michelin-starred, Copenhagen-based restaurant named best in the world four times in the last five years – plans to change that.

His restaurant Gustu, which opened in La Paz in 2013 in conjunction with Danish NGO IBIS, assumes Noma’s locavore ethos, matching exclusively Bolivian ingredients with avant-garde cooking techniques. Meyer’s modest aim is to position Bolivia “as a leading tourist gastronomic destination”, and staff members – with a few exceptions, like a couple of senior chefs – are all Bolivian.

Recently I dropped into Gustu for lunch with my friend Nick. En route from our hotel just off Sagárnaga street, La Paz’s bustling backpacker hub, we passed some of Bolivia’s more traditional food options: lurid, whipped-cream-topped red and green jellies in plastic cups; baskets piled high with salteñas (similar to Cornish pasties); mounds of gnarled potatoes, a small fraction of Bolivia’s 200-plus varieties; and interchangeable traveller joints offering pancakes, pizzas and llama steaks.

The culinary and geographical landscape changed dramatically in the taxi ride to the swish Zona Sur district, the city growing steadily smarter – bigger homes, more green spaces, fewer people. Gustu is in the vaguely Californian Calacoto neighbourhood, just round the corner from a gleaming EU office, and some 500m lower than precipitously high central La Paz. I’d booked a table the previous week, but needn’t have bothered. The only other people in the light, spacious dining room – with an open kitchen and vast windows – were a French couple and a huddle of wealthy local businessmen.

The surprisingly varied menu takes full advantage of Bolivia’s biodiversity, with ingredients from the Andes to the Amazon: Lake Titicaca trout; exotic fruits like chankaka, copoazu and red bananas; gamey alpaca and llama; coffee and chocolate; and cactus and chuño (freeze-dried potatoes). Given Bolivia’s landlocked status, seafood is the only major absentee.

Gustu’s ingredients may be local, but its prices are decidedly not: a quick glance at the menu shows that the restaurant is way out of reach of most people in Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest countries. The 12-course “Bolivia Menu”, with a drinks pairing, costs 975 bolivianos (around £86/$135), with mains from 85 bolivianos (£7.50/$12). To put this in context, scores of restaurants across La Paz serve hearty (if rather less adventurous) three-course lunches for under two pounds.

(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez
(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez

As soon as the food arrived, however, any thoughts about the cost drifted away: it was imaginative, unusual and Michelin-star class. Highlights included: yucca fritters with coca leaf-spiked butter; melt-in-the-mouth duck confit with creamed Andean corn; intenseley-flavoured native potatoes (one of them gloriously purple) on a potato cream sauce scattered with wild flowers; a surprisingly unctuous dish of raw heart of palm “tagliatelle” with strands of alpaca charque (jerky) and an egg yolk; and a tangy, distinctly adult dessert of chirimoya (custard apple) ice cream with tamarind sauce and chirimoya wafers. Even the occasional misses – notably the promising but underpowered dish of bacon smoked with wild cocoa – almost hit the spot.

Drinks were also of a high standard: a gin, burnt mandarin juice and charcoal cocktail that somehow managed to be both refreshing and smoky at the same time; a quinoa beer from a microbrewery barely 50m away from the restaurant; and a fruity red tannat from Aranjuez, one of the highest vineyards in the world.

The service at Gustu was unfailingly charming if occasionally error-prone: the poor lad who brought out our first dishes was visibly shaking, and managed to drop a plate with a clatter; his colleagues in the glass-fronted kitchen were unable to contain their smiles as he hyper-apologetically cleared everything up. The incident highlighted another of the objectives of Meyer’s venture, which is to give around 30 young Bolivians from disadvantaged backgrounds – few of whom had prior restaurant experience – the chance to learn cooking, baking and serving skills in a professional environment at a linked culinary school.

Some twelve courses and four and half hours later, after a final limocello, Nick and I waddled satisfied to our taxi. Gustu has noble aspirations and genuinely ground-breaking food. Whether it’s enough to launch Bolivia as a “leading tourist gastronomic destination”, however, remains to be seen.

A version of this article was first published here.

Extreme bridwatching in the Salar de Uyuni

They may not look it, but flamingos are some of the toughest birds of earth. Sat at an altitude of almost 4300m in the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, the blood-red, ice-frosted Laguna Colorada was buffeted by gale force, bitingly cold winds. Even though the temperature was well below zero, the midday sun gave off a fierce glare, necessitating sunglasses and high-factor sun cream, all the while, the lake’s colony of James’s and Chilean flamingos – two of the three species found in the far southwest of Bolivia; the other is the Andean – seemed oblivious to the harsh conditions, picking contentedly through the reeds for algae and insects. Clad in several layers of Gore-Tex and alpaca-wool garments, we struggled out of our jeep, and through the whipped up waves of dust and grit and were able to get within a few feet of them, though our gloved fingers were so numb from the cold that it was struggle to use our cameras.

Flamingos at Laguna Colorada (c) Shafik Meghji“Flamingos are strong birds – they have to be to survive here,” our guide, Alvaro, told us back in the jeep, which gently rocked in the wind. “They can regulate their body temperature. Sometimes the lakes here freezes overnight, trapping their legs in the ice. But the flamingos just wait calmly for the ice to melt and then get back to their feeding.”

Severe weather meant that we reached Laguna Colorada a day later – and from the opposite direction – than our original itinerary for the Salar de Uyuni and Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa intended. Everything had started so well. On the first day my friend Nick and I were picked up early from Uyuni, a bleak town in the far southwest of Bolivia, and taken across the Salar, the world’s largest salt flat, a blindingly white, otherworldly, high-altitude landscape flanked by mountains and volcanoes. We visited an “island” in its centre populated by freakish giant cacti and a few grazing llamas, and stayed a night in the comfortable Palacio del Sal, one of several hotels in the region constructed from salt.

From the second day on, however, the weather deteriorated dramatically, shifting from menacing grey clouds to light snow flurries to golf ball-sized hailstones to heavy snowfall and an almost complete white-out in the space of just a few hours. Continuing on the classic Salar route – continuing over a 4000-metre-high pass to the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa – was impossible, so we missed out on some high-powered geysers, a series of hot springs and the strikingly green Laguna Verde. Most other tour groups gave up and headed back to Uyuni, but Alvaro was not so easily deterred and used the extreme weather as an opportunity to visit some less heralded attractions.

Snow-bound jeep (c) Shafik MeghjiThe first stop on our revised schedule was a cave a short drive from the salt-mining town of Colchani. After ducking inside, we found the 900-year-old remains of eight figures. Many of the ancient graves in the region have been robbed, but this one remained largely intact. Among the remains were three full skeletons, including a mother holding a baby, and a mummified puma hanging disconcertingly above the cave entrance. All of the human skulls had been intentionally deformed, giving them a distended, bulbous appearance.

“There are three theories about why they did this,” said Alvaro. “They did it to make themselves stand out, as religious and royal leaders; so that they were closer to the gods – the heads protruding up into the sky; or that they were aliens.” The tomb remained of local religious importance and the remnants of recent ceremonies were all around: coca leaves, miniature banknotes, coins, coloured streamers, and bottles of spirits and beer. One of the skulls even had a cigarette in its mouth, which is not the offensive gesture it might appear to non-Bolivians.

Our revised schedule meant an unexpected stay on the second night in the remote village of Mallca Villa Mar, where the guesthouse was rather more rudimentary than anticipated. Our spartan, heater-free room was freezing at 5pm, something not helped by a hole in the wall that had been bunged up ineffectually with a wodge of (thankfully unused) toilet paper. Temperatures plunged to minus 21 degrees celcius overnight, but we survived by wearing all of our clothes, burrowing down in heavy sleeping bags and wrapping ourselves in a couple of emergency blankets brought along by the ever-resourceful Nick, a veteran of New England’s frigid winters.

Black Lagoon (c) Shafik MeghjiThe following day we visited the Laguna Negra, west of the Eduardo Avaroa reserve, and accessed by a winding narrow path, hemmed in by jagged, overhanging cliffs. Surrounded by rocky crags, with gravity-defying boulders balanced ominously on one another and bogs populated by ibis and vizcachas (rabbit-like rodents), the lake felt like a Game of Thrones set. Once again the site was devoid of travellers – and indeed any sign of humanity. Enclosed from the wind, it was also wonderfully still and silent, save from the calls of a resident family of coots, which Alvaro told us give the lake its other name, “the laughing lagoon”.

On our final morning, after a more comfortable night in a heated hotel, we drove to the Lost City, a cluster of surreal rock formations that looked like skyscrapers and amphitheatres. It was an easy place to lose yourself in for a few hours.

A few hazards remained – including a semi-frozen river, which we crossed bumper deep – but the weather steadily improved and by the time we reached Uyuni it was a sunny, balmy day. After an eventful, unexpected trip I was left with some great experiences, an appreciation of emergency blankets, and a new found respect for those hardy flamingos.

A version of this article first appeared on RoughGuides.com.

Shopping at the Witches’ Market, La Paz

At first glance, the bustling market on a cobbled street a few blocks back from Plaza San Francisco seems much like any other in Bolivia: there are neat piles of fruit and vegetables, baskets of empanadas, and alpaca wool hats, jumpers, ponchos and socks for sale.

But take a closer look at the stalls and a strange – and slightly unsettling – picture emerges. Among the everyday items, are shrivelled llama foetuses, dried frogs, birds, armadillos and turtles, boxes of herbs, remedies and potions, multicoloured candles, smouldering sticks of incense, soapstone figures, and collections of amulets, charms and talismans.

This is the Witches’ Market (“El Mercado de Hechiceria” or “Mercado de las Brujas”) in La Paz, the world’s highest capital city at more than 3,800m above sea level. Although the Spanish conquistadores and missionaries brought Catholicism to Bolivia, it failed to completely supplant the indigenous population’s traditional religious practices, such as the worship of Pachamama (Mother Earth). Instead the two sets of beliefs blended together and today continue to find their expression in rituals that require an evocative array of ingredients.

The stallholders or “witches”, generally Aymara women clad in traditional Andean dress, which often includes tiny bowler hats, claim to cure almost any malady – and the methods they use have barely changed in hundreds of years. The llama foetuses, for example, are buried under the foundations of most Bolivian homes – they are an offering to Pachamama, an apology for digging into her.

Armadillos, meanwhile, are believed to dissuade burglars, while frogs are thought to bring about wealth. There are amulets and potions for those hoping for a happy marriage, to conceive or reinvigorate their sex life. Others promise good luck in business or protection against illness. For those with more complicated problems, or just a healthy sense of curiosity, there are even yatiris (spiritual healers) to be consulted – a memorable experience, whatever your beliefs.

The Rough Guide to Bolivia