In October 2010, I spent 2 weeks in Bolivia learning about their food and agriculture. I ended up getting a lot more than I bargained for out of the trip, including learning why the rainforest is being destroyed, how eco-tourism might save it, how Bolivia fits into the drug trade (and what the US does to try to stop cocaine production), and how global warming has already impacted Bolivia.
On our tenth day, we woke up at the crack of dawn to go herd llamas. Then, after breakfast, we had one of the few moments of pure pleasure on our trip: we went to hot springs in Sajama National Park and chilled out. Then we returned to La Paz.
My trip was organized by Global Exchange and Food First. You can find out about future Food Sovereignty tours at the link.
I can't believe I woke up at 6am. I can't believe I got out of bed at 6am. I can't believe I got out of bed and didn't get back in bed once I realized it was about 25F outside. But I did. So did Tanya and Gabriel, the trip's guides, and one other guy. Nobody else got up and went out with us.
Another view of our room
The alarm cock
We got up for two reasons: to see llamas and to see geysers. I got out of the van to see the llamas, and took a nap in the van during the geysers. But I can tell you about the llamas.
The family who runs the hostel we stayed in has a "small" herd of 50 llamas. We were a little surprised to hear that 50 llamas equals a "small" herd, so we asked how many llamas would make a herd NOT small. She said 400.
Every morning, our host wakes up and counts her llamas. She recognizes them all by sight, even though they don't have names, and if one is missing, she can tell which one. The llamas basically do whatever they want and go wherever they want, but they know to meet her at the same place every morning and they do. She never puts them in a corral (an estancia) at night because she said there are no pumas here and the foxes cannot take down a llama. And three times a year she gives them injections with nutrients and a medication to treat or prevent parasites. All in all, raising llamas is a very easy job.
The flipside is that it is not very productive. Our host said that she maybe kills and eats a llama or two per year, but she does not sell them for meat. She said you would have to have 200 llamas in order to do that. Llamas have a long gestation period (more than 11 months) so they do not have babies very frequently. I think llamas typically only give birth to one cria (baby llama) at a time.
Llamas can live up to 10 years but you would not use them for meat beyond age 6 unless you were going to put them in a stew. A full-grown live llama will sell for 600 Bolivianos ($86). Llama meat used to be much cheaper in Bolivia, until doctors figured out that it's a very healthy meat. Then the price went way up.
In addition to their use as food, llamas can be pack animals and they can provide fiber. However, they cannot carry as much weight as a donkey or a horse, and you cannot shear them like you would a sheep or even an alpaca. You can use their hide or their fur once you slaughter them, and the people of Bolivia do.
Early morning in llama territory
Llama habitat - the fence-like structures made from mud, stones, and grass are "estancias," or corrals for the animals
Aww... look at the baby!
Baby llama kiss!
Llamas in front of an estancia
After our llama experience, we came back to the hostel for breakfast. The photo below is of a medicinal herb that grows near the hostel. It is called chachacuma and it is used to treat altitude sickness, which was still a problem among our group.
Then we went off to some hot springs. The locals had recently built a few dressing rooms and gotten some towels for people coming to bath... and started charging 30 Bolivianos (about $4.50) a person. Great idea, in my opinion.
By this time in the day, it was warm enough to comfortably wear a bathing suit without freezing to death before you get into the hot springs. But the hot springs felt great. They were the perfect temperature, like a a warm bath or a hot tub. And they smelled of sulfur. I took one picture before getting in, but I did not want to take a chance by playing with my camera while I was wet.
The hot springs
Near the hot springs... I think the white areas are ice
Another picture of the same area, but here the white is salt.
All around us, while we were in the hot springs, was a herd of llamas. I got a laugh when one llama spit at another one, who ran away, and then followed it to spit at it again. After a long soak, we got out and headed back to the hostel for lunch before driving back to La Paz.
In one of the conversations we had during this time, Gabriel told us of a Bolivian food called anticucho. Anticucho is made of heart meat, which is served shish kabob style on a skewer that is topped with a potato. Gabriel said that when someone's heart is broken, in Bolivia you would say that the person who broke their heart turned their heart into anticucho. Also, if a person is a real dope, you would call them anticucho because they are nothing more than meat, meat, meat, and a potato for a head.
As we left Oruro, Gabriel kept insisting (as he had for two days now) that we WOULD see some vicunas. At this point, I didn't believe him. But our bus driver had a good eye, and he spotted a few and stopped. So we saw our vicunas. Yay.
As we got closer to El Alto (the city just above La Paz) I had a thought and asked about it. When flying into La Paz, it looked like the city was full of buildings that were all made from bricks. On the ground, there are plenty of non-brick buildings (some that are quite pretty), but there are many that are brick. And El Alto is even more full of brick structures. Since adobe - which is superior for insulation compared to brick, but also made by hand and (over time) biodegradable - is what is commonly used to build homes in the Altiplano, is building with brick a status symbol? The answer was yes.
It's common in Bolivia for people to get some money, buy a few bricks, and start to build a house... then wait until they have more money, but a few more bricks, build a little more... and so on. And if you look at the homes you pass in the Altiplano, very often someone poor will begin building with adobe, then get some money and continue building with brick. I took a few pictures of homes like this:
The only other thing worth saying about the ride home is that there were NO BATHROOMS. Now, this is a problem in the Amazon too, but at least there you've got plenty of trees to hide behind if you've gotta go. Here... not so much. It was rough.
We got back to La Paz late, ate a little bit, and went to bed. The next day was our last full day in Bolivia, and it was a REALLY, REALLY good one.