Fourteen years ago, on June 6, 2000, I stood with my family at the Canadian cemetery by Juno Beach. We had arrived at the commemoration ceremony partially by accident; unable to find a camping spot, we’d parked our VW Westfalia in the cemetery parking lot, and awoke the next morning to find ourselves surrounded by armoured vehicles, teary-eyed veterans, and soldiers with machine guns. I have no doubt that it was being there, along with coinciding visits to Vimy, Verdun, and numerous other WWI/II sites in northern Europe, that taught me the importance of remembrance.
10 months + 12 countries= 861 meals.
From llama to cow intestines to ceviche to guinea pig to a LOT of rice and boiled potatoes, Latin America introduced me to a lot of new gastronomical challenges. Some were successes (I love alpaca!), while some left me feeling queasy (spit-roasted guinea pig is not a delicacy for me), but all reminded me that the secret to understanding a culture is through their food. Here is just a taste of what South American cuisine is all about.
Also, for a more detailed look at Peruvian cuisine, don’t forget to check out my post on the most typical Peruvian dishes.
There’s something wonderful about seeing the world in black and white. Maybe it’s because nothing ever is just that. Black and white is not our reality. We are forced into a world of colour, of multiple dimensions, of scents and smells and tastes. Yet once in awhile, we need to step and look at the simpler side of things. We need to see things in shades of grey.
Here of 50 black-and-white photos from South America. They look at the land, the cultures, and the people that I met along my journey.
Like any country, Bolivia has its quirks. Here are some things I noticed during my month in Bolivia. Scroll down to check out the rest of the photos from this beautiful country!
- Bolivians Love Gelatin: Although this is also a trend in Peru and Ecuador, it was in Bolivia that I noticed it the most. Take a walk around any public place in Bolivia, be it a bus station, market, or busy street, and you will see women carrying cones piled high with white, blue, or pink sugary goodness. At first it looks like a regular ice cream cone, but look closer and you’ll realize that it’s nothing but whipped gelatin. It’s one of the most popular and cheapest street snacks. Another way of serving it is as plastic cups filled with jello with the whipped topping on top. This leads to number two…
- Dental Hygiene is a Hot Topic: Partially because of the gelatin obsession, but probably also because “gaseosas” (carbonated drinks) are served with every meal, Bolivians don’t have the best dental records and gap-toothed smiles are the norm. That being said, the government is working hard to increase awareness of dental hygiene. While on a bus to Oruro, a health representative boarded the bus and gave a half-hour demonstration on how to use a toothbrush. I’ve also heard PSAs about minimizing gaseosa consumption.
- Prince Royce Reigns: Everywhere I went, I heard people blasting Prince Royce (bachata music). Taxis, stores, cleaning ladies, guys on mopeds. The funny thing is, Bolivia is the one place where I couldn’t find a good dance scene.
- Winter Really Means Winter: When you think of a South American winter, you probably imagine a balmy 10-15 degrees. In Bolivia, I went to bed in tights, two pairs of socks (one woolen), pants, a tank top, two sweaters, and, on a few occasions, a toque and gloves. Indoor heating is almost non-existent, and it gets bitter cold at night. On our salt flats tour, one night it was -25 Celcius.
- Littering is the Norm: The main roads and highways entering each city are covered, truly covered, in garbage – to the point that you can’t see the ground. On bus rides, I would see people open the windows and toss out their trash onto the road, even as we were passing signs asking people not to litter! It certainly takes away from Bolivia’s natural beauty.
- Lunch is Cheap and Filling: A three course lunch special in Bolivia will cost you around $1.50. All come with a soup as the starter, and normally, the dessert is — you guessed it — gelatin. However, if you want a drink, it will cost more than the entire lunch!
- Gender Roles are Holding on Strong: Tour guides are exclusively men, and the cooks on the tours are always women. Signs outside hotels and restaurants ask specifically for a “young boy” for labour jobs or a “female cook” or “cleaning lady.”
- Bowler Hats Haven’t Gone out of Style: If there is one place where indigenous fashion is still extremely common, it’s Bolivia. Since the 1920s, Quechua and Aymara women have sported the bowler hat. According to Wikipedia (so take it or leave it), the hats were sent to South America for Europeans working on the railroads, but they didn’t fit so they were distributed to the locals and quickly became part of the female “Chola” style in La Paz.
- There is Only One Popular Haircut for Men: Although posters of 90s hair models fill Bolivian salons, every male seems to favour the same style. Slightly long (by male standards) and parted down the middle. Think Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.
- Headphones are a Foreign Concept: On an eighteen-hour bus ride, there was a couple who decided to blast music from their phone, changing songs every ten seconds. This continued for several hours. This is a very common occurrence. I can’t remember the last time I saw a local use headphones in South America.
Landlocked between countries with big reputations, Bolivia is like the little brother who knows he has some big shoes to fill. Borrowing elements from the older siblings — the rainbow mountains and desert of northern Argentina and Chile; the snowy Andean peaks and adobe-brick cities of Peru; and the lush Amazon rainforest and tropical culture of Brazil — Bolivia manages to mix everything together in an intoxicating blend of urban chaos and foreign landscapes that’s sure to leave you questioning just which planet you’re on.
Because I have so many photos of the country, and almost entirely landscapes, I’ve decided to break them up into two posts. (Photos from the Pampas are separate — see here). Here’s part one:
One of my few regrets about my time in Southern Brazil is that I didn’t make it to the Pantanal, an enormous tropical wetlands area that is known for its abundant wildlife. After Lauren left me in Buenos Aires at the beginning of June, I debated detouring back into Brazil on my way to Bolivia. Time restraints and costs led me to a compromise — flying into La Paz, and then traveling north to visit the Bolivian version of the Pantanal, the Pampas. Although smaller in size (the Pantanal is half the size of France), the Bolivian Pampas offer the same array of wildlife and natural features at a fraction of the price.
It took me 15 hours and three connections to get to La Paz. After a couple days exploring the tangled street markets and recovering from mild altitude sickness, I was ready to move northward to Rurrenabaque, the gateway to both the Bolivian part of the Amazon jungle and the Pampas.
There are two main options for getting to Rurrenabaque from La Paz: bus or plane. The bus ride is an 18-hour journey through gorgeous mountain scenery, and only costs around $10 USD. However, Bolivia is notorious for its poor roads and long-distance bus conditions, so the vast majority of budget travelers choose to take a 45-minute flight. Feeling quite broke after Argentina, where an 18-hour bus ride costs $120 USD, I opted for the cheaper option.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I took the bus with Katja, a German girl that I met at my hostel in La Paz. We left in the early afternoon, and arrived in Rurrenabaque at seven in the morning the following day. I can break the journey there into three parts:
1) La Paz to Coroico: The newly-paved road through the mountains recently replaced the infamous Bolivian “Death Road,” and is now a pleasant-enough trip with beautiful views.
2) Coroico to Caranavi: This section is a dirt road that winds around the mountains in dangerous, blind, hairpin turns. Descending buses (such as ours), have to drive on the outer edge of the road and do not have the right of way. Because the road is only a few meters wide, any time an oncoming vehicle approached, our bus had to back up until there was enough room for the ascending bus or truck to pass. At times, this meant that the front or back of our bus was hanging off the edge of the cliff, and Katja and I were staring down at straight drops of several hundreds meters. We were grateful when the sun set, because it meant we could no longer see all of the close calls.
3) Caranavi to Rurrenabaque: A few hours after Caranavi, we reached flat land. From this point on, the dirt road was filled with endless, gigantic potholes, which the bus tore across as if it were a 4×4.
Moments after we got off the bus in Rurrenabaque, it began to pour. We were determined to find a tour for that morning, so we started agency-hopping and haggling. In the end, we spent 600 bolivianos ($86) for a 3-day/2-night tour. [NOTE: this price does not include the 150 boliviano park entrance fee!]. We booked with a company called Hoatzin Tours, but, because it was low season, they ended up sending us on a tour with their more-expensive partner, Indigena Tours. This worked out great for us, because we got better service at a lower price.
Our tour group consisted of seven people: from Japan, Spain, Germany, and England. To get to the Pampas, we first had to spend three hours rattling around in the back of a 4×4 on a muddy, mess of a road, and then we took a two-hour boat ride that wove along parts of the Yacuma River towards our lodge. We stayed in a simple, wooden lodge that was raised above the water level. The beds and washroom facilities were extremely basic, but the food was fantastic.
After we arrived on the first day, we visited a bar for a view of the sunset. In the evening, we went out in our motorized wooden boat with headlamps in search of caimans. When the light hits the predators’ retinas, their eyes appear to glow red. The night boat ride was incredible. Countless stars filled the sky, and fireflies illuminated the trees around the water. Far away from the chaos of La Paz, the only sounds we could hear were those of crickets and frogs.
We woke up the next morning to hunt for anacondas in the Pampas. Because it was the end of June, the water level was low, but we still needed to put on knee-high rubber boots to wade through the grass and muddy water. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were vicious, so we had to wear long sleeve shirts and pants, even though it was at least 30 degrees out. Two and a half hours of searching only resulted in spotting some cows and a Great-Horned Owl. Apparently it’s much better to visit the Pampas in August, when the water level is at it’s lowest and caimans and anacondas abound.
In the early afternoon, we went swimming right next to our lodge. It was refreshing, but we certainly got a shock when we later went piranha fishing, and our guide took us by boat to an area just 20 metres away from where we had swam!
The second evening was meant to be relaxing, but we spent most of it hiding under our mosquito nets and itching the hundreds of bites we had gotten. Luckily the mosquitoes there are only active during the evenings and only mornings.
On our last morning, Katja and I woke up early to battle the bugs in order to see the sunrise. (We were the only two in our group brave enough to do so, and it paid off, because we also ended up seeing a toucan!) After a marvelous start to the day, we ate breakfast and headed off in the boat to go swimming with the famous pink river dolphins. The ironic thing was, our guide told us that the dolphins sometimes bite, so, even though we all wanted to say that we had swam with the dolphins, we ended up mainly huddling together in the water to ensure that they didn’t get too close.
In the afternoon, we took the boat back towards the town. Along the way, we saw a lot of wildlife. Some of the highlights of the three days include: a sloth, toucans, caimans, howler and spider monkeys, a porcupine, birds of paradise, and hoatzins.
Right before we arrived back on land, we stopped on a small bank to look for capybaras. We didn’t see any, but what we found instead was an anaconda, which I just about stepped on! Then, as I tried to get back in our boat, I slipped in the mud, and fell into the shallow water – with my camera bag! (Luckily everything was fine). Still, I had to end the Pampas trip by jumping fully-clothed into the river to wash off.
After the tour ended, Katja and I decided to spend another two days in Rurrenabaque. We ended up meeting up with Luis, one of the Pampas guides, who took us on a motorbike tour through his nearby village and out to a deserted lagoon. Overall, it was a wonderful week and the two of us hopped on the bus late Friday night re-energized and happy to head back to La Paz.
Little did we know, that was only the start of what has proved to be the biggest adventure (and scare!) of my trip so far — a 30-hour bus ride from hell that left us terrified and praying for our lives…
[Part Two – Coming Soon]