Bolivian Coco Leaf: The Red Bull Of The Andes

Hoja Sagrada (Holy Leaf)
We’d decided to take the overnight sleeper bus from La Paz to Sucre, given our somewhat rushed itinerary and desire to save time and the expense of a hotel room. We nestled into our reclining seats and went through our overnight bus checklist. Bag locked and secured to the overhead rack…check. Bottled water and toilet paper handy…check. Earplugs secured and bandana fastened over eyes…check. We settled in for a 12 hour bus ride along the Bolivian cordillera.

Overnight bus trips in the Andes always make me a little nervous. The amount of bus crashes in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador that share a disproportionate amount of headlines in the South American International Herald Tribune’s website, caused us to jokingly refer to that site as “Andean Bus Crash dot com.”

We all snoozed as we made our way southward. Every time the driver pumped the brakes to slow down, a part of my brain -- while still asleep -- registered the motion, ready for anything that might follow.

After a somewhat fitful night of semi-sleep, we arrived at 8:30 a.m. in Sucre. We collected our belongings and drowsily made our way out of the front of the bus. Before I turned right and down out of the bus, I looked over to the driver’s area. Below his empty seat were dozens of broken bits of coco leaves scattered over the floor. Now that we’d achieved safe passage to Sucre, I knew that my well-being had been insured by the hoja sagrada, the sacred leaf that has been used for medicinal, cultural and religious purposes in the Andes continuously for thousands of years. It’s been used as a protection against altitude, hunger and cold and in our case, it was a stimulant to keep our driver awake and us alive.  Thank goodness for the Red Bull of the Andes.
The Red Bull of the Andes


The La Paz Witches' Market

Llama fetuses outside a shop in the Witches Market
As I glanced through my Lonely Planet guidebook to Bolivia, I scanned the sights for something that looked interesting until I came to the following: El Mercado de Las Brujas…the La Paz Witches’ Market.  Out of all the sights in the world’s highest capital city, the Witches Market instantly soared to number one on our list.

We walked down the main thoroughfare and followed our map, which was unclear and not helped by the location description in the text.  After a few false alarms, we found Calle Jiminez and Calle Linares and knew we were in the right place when we saw lots of dried llama fetuses handing from shop windows.

We stopped at one shop and a middle-aged woman looked at us as if sizing us up.  I wasn’t sure if she was gauging our interest in buying or surreptitiously seeking signs of good or bad fortune.  She sat behind a table that displayed toad talismans, coco leaves, amulets, soaps, many different types of plants, owl feathers, totems, candles and dried snakes.  I wondered if her business from people who felt they really needed her products were now outweighed by people like me, who just want a souvenir to show someone back home. 

Inside the store, was a colorful collection of boxes that addressed many illnesses and health problems.  Usually looking at the cover of the box told you what it was for: a vigorous soccer player suggested more energy, a sultry woman advertised erectile enhancement, a picture of two kidneys targeted renal help and a full head of black hair unmistakably offered a solution to baldness.

The cure for what ails you
We walked from shop to shop but they all seemed to have the same merchandise.  I wanted to get some pictures so I awkwardly snapped some pictures while pretending not to.  I was careful to hold the camera to my waist which is why the photos here are cropped so poorly.  The last thing I wanted was an angry witch casting a spell on me.


Surreality In Bolivia

The Salar de Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia
The area around the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat in southwestern Bolivia, is an other-worldly landscape of hallucinogenic visions and poses some difficult questions. For example: How did 10 billion tons of salt get here? Why is that lake green? Why are there thousands of pink flamingos living more than two miles above sea level? Why am I looking at steaming geysers and bubbling mudpots while freezing my butt off? Why is that lake red? But the question that I’m struggling with the most is: How is it that I am navigating an island of petrified coral, covered in cactus, in the middle of a sea of salt…at 12,000 feet above sea level?

The Salar de Uyuni is the remains of prehistoric Lake Minchin, which lost all its water via absorption and evaporation over 40,000 years ago. As the water disappeared, it left a perfectly-flat layer of salt covering 4.085 square miles, roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the U.S. state of Utah. As the Andean altiplano was pushed up by the forces of plate tectonics, the Salar reached its present-day elevation.

Laguna Verde
We took a 4-day jeep safari starting in Tupiza and ending in Uyuni, the town that shares its name with the Salar. The first day was spent riding through the Lipez, a desert-like area in the farthest southwest corner of Bolivia, that resembles many areas of the U.S. southwest. We passed silver, gold, tin and antimony mines amidst thousands of roaming llamas, alpacas and vicunas (and one Andean ostrich). We also saw an odd animal called a viscacha, a rabbit-like creature with a long curly tail. The second day we passed hundreds of pink flamingos traipsing through lakes of swampy ice and borax. Three types of flamingos are indigenous to the swamps and marshes of the altiplano: the Chilean, the James and the Andean flamingos. By late morning, we arrived at Laguna Verde, a lake sitting in the shadow of a volcano, which keeps it’s green appearance due to the high arsenic content of its waters. After lunch and a dip in some thermal hot springs, we passed more volcanoes and flamingos and arrived at Sol de Mañana, an area of intense geothermic activity with steaming geysers and bubbling holes of mud. We carefully walked around the perimeter of the area but had to quickly retreat to the jeep due to the intense wind and cold. We spent that night on the shore of Laguna Colorada, a large lake that gets its red color from the profusion of algae blooms in the water. The third day we traveled past more snow-capped volcanoes and stopped at the Stone Tree, an eroded volcanic rock in the shape of a tree 25 feet high. We spent that night in a salt hotel, an inn made primarily of blocks of salt. Our beds were platforms of salt and the dining area boasted dining tables and block seats made from salt. When no one was looking, the kids and I licked the walls of our room to verify their saline content (trying not to think about how many previous guests had done the same).

My legs form a very long shadow at sunrise
We woke at 6:00 am on the fourth day and drove out to the middle of the Salar to watch the sunrise. The kids and I took pictures of our extremely long shadows, which stretched hundreds of feet to the west. We ate breakfast on the “shore” of Isla Inca Huasi, also known as Fish Island for its fish-like shape. Inca Huasi is an island covered with petrified coral and cactus that was once in the middle of ancient Lake Minchin and now sits in the middle of the Salar. The cacti are relatively new; we’d heard that they grow about 2 centimeters a year, so none could be much more than 1,000 years old. We climbed to the top of the island to see white salt and blue sky in all directions.

Any land of coexisting extremes like this one -- hot, dry, swampy, steamy, salty, windy, cold -- is bound to raise questions. Our 4-day jeep safari through the Salar answered some of them for us.


Lunch In Uyuni, Bolivia

Humorous signs are everywhere in South America and this one is from Uyuni, Bolivia, where we sat down for lunch after completing our 4-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni.

We wondered if the restaurant only catered to men upon reading "We Offer Him the Specialty of the House."  We did not try the second item, called "Pasture," so we still have no idea what that was.  The heading after the second row of items, "Plates National Meat of He/She Calls or Head" was quite puzzling and looking at the first two plates listed below it confused us more: "Chop Male" and "Mounted Loin."

We decided to go with pizza, figuring that there could be no miscommunication about such a widely known dish and although the taste was not the best, we knew what we were eating.


Travel And Kids: No School For A Year

Pondering the Temple of Artemis in Turkey
Both our kids have missed an entire school year and our daughter studied under the auspices of the district’s independent study program the previous spring. The three most common questions that we’ve heard from friends and acquaintances were “Will they let you take the kids out of school for a year?”, “Won’t they get behind in school?” and “How do you know what to teach?” As we started to tell our family and friends about our plans, these three questions cropped up more than any others. (One of the more amusing questions we heard was from an administrator at the kids’ school: “How will you carry all those textbooks?” Answer: “We won’t.”)

The first question is an interesting one: "Will they let you take the kids out of school for a year?" All school districts are different, but we had surprisingly little interest or concern from our kids’ middle school. No one from the school, the school district or the State of California has stepped forward and said that we couldn’t do what we planned to do. The school was much more concerned about the minutiae of our daughter’s independent study for the final trimester than for missing the entire next year. The independent Study program allows “distance learning” under a teacher’s remote supervision for a period of up to 60 days. Our daughter’s teachers set up an independent study curriculum with scanned pages from her math, science and language arts textbooks, as well as research reports on both the Andean Condor and the Andean ecosystem as well as a research paper on The Beatles.

The second question, “Won’t they get behind in school?” is a fear that many parents share. It helps that both our kids are very good students so there is no “catching up” or learning issues to deal with. Both my wife and I both think that there is not a lot of learning going on in middle school. It is a time when kids are going through drastic physical and emotional changes and middle schools’ resources are overtaxed just to keep kids from falling off the deep end. Additionally, the time required to homeschool two kids ought to be much less than the time required to teach 20 kids in a school classroom. Finally, when we did a 6-month sabbatical through Central America and Spain in 2005, both kids missed the final trimester of that school year and did not miss a beat upon returning in the Fall.

The third question, “How do you know what to teach?” is easy in theory but hard in practice. The California education standards for each grade are listed in detail at the State of California’s web site. The blueprint is right there on the World Wide Web and all you have to do is print it out. In practice, the act of coming up with problems, exercises and projects that will teach the standards has given us a deeper respect for the teaching profession. Last week both our kids finished 500 word persuasive essays on the question: The Monroe Doctrine: Good or Bad for Latin America?” This week they are writing a 750 word dual biography on the twin liberators of South America: Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin.

Most of this blog entry has been about “keeping up”, but there are many things that they are getting from travel that their classmates aren’t. They are already intermediate-level Spanish speakers and they are acutely aware that most of the world is nothing like the privileged place they call home. They have learned that many simple things that they have taken for granted are luxuries in the developing world. They are much more open to new and different people, foods, customs, experiences and points of view. Perhaps most importantly, they will have a broader view of their responsibilities as global citizens when it comes time to choose their careers. It may be a cliché, but it also happens to be true: “Travel is Broadening”.


Lonely Planet's Blogsherpa Program Produces Its First Photo Ebook

HOT OFF THE PRESS: Today (May 3rd, 2011) the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa group launched their first photo e-book.  AlpacaSuitcase is one of the 40 featured Lonely Planet bloggers.  The following is directly from the Lonely Planet website:

In late 2008, Lonely Planet launched its experimental ‘Blogs We Like’ program. We picked our favourite bloggers around the world and featured their content on the Lonely Planet website.
Since then, those bloggers have banded together to form a community of expertise, showcasing the best travel blogging has to offer. We are pleased to feature their ebook, Around the World with 40 Lonely Planet Bloggers, and to support them on their blogging journey. Here’s what Todd Wassel, the book’s project manager, has to say:

The concept is simple – put 40 experienced travel bloggers together, shake and see what pops out. The result is the first ever Lonely Planet Blogger Photo ebook, which explores our beautiful world from street level through the eyes of travel bloggers.

This eclectic group, whose tales range across voluntourism, family travel, expat life, long term backpacking and more, was born out of Lonely Planet’s effort to broaden its content. Lonely Planet wanted to shine a light on the very best travel writing and photography on the planet.

Around the World with 40 Lonely Planet Bloggers is the first book produced by Lonely Planet’s ‘Blogs We Like’ program and introduces readers to the world of professional travel blogging. Lonely Planet knows what it takes to produce amazing travel writing and photography, and these bloggers are producing up-to-date live content from around the world while still managing to travel.

We also know that the internet, like the world, is a big place and it can be difficult to sift through the thousands of journal type travel blogs out there. Lonely Planet has done the work for you. From adventure travel with The Planet D, to family travel with Alpaca Suitcase, to the life of an international conflict management specialist at Todd’s Wanderings, there is something for everyone.

The new ebook shares a collection of stunning photos and descriptions that captures the essence of travel. It walks the reader through almost 70 countries and 40 unique ways of experiencing the world. It lets you research your next destination from a variety of perspectives, depending on your own interests and needs.

I could go on and on describing the book, but it’s better to just dive into 88 pages of colour, excitement and passion for travel. So download the book now!

Don’t forget to visit the each author’s travel blog, and check out the other blogsherpa contributions in the ‘Blogs We Like’ section of each destination page.

Happy travels and see you on the road.

To go to the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa page where the book is offered click here.