Friday, May 24, 2013

Cocha Cuisine

Santa Cruz may be a pleasant place to spend a few days, but it's not the "real" Bolivia. The real Bolivia is all about mountains, thin air, pan-pipes, woolly ponchos and llamas. So I left the lowlands and headed westwards and upwards. My intermediate goal was Cochabamba. Not just because the city has one of the best names in the world, but because, sitting at a major transport crossroads in the country it is the most important market town in Bolivia, the gateway between the mountains and the lowlands. At "just" 2500m altitude the weather is mild all the year round, making the surrounding countryside particularly rich and productive, and able to churn out up to three harvests a year. Historically this was also the frontier of the mountain Inca empire, and the valleys leading east to the plains are host to important archaeological sites that protected the kingdom from the jungle barbarians below.

The ruins at Incallajta are the largest Inca-era remains in Bolivia. They're not particularly impressive, but their location in a remote valley that can't be reached by public transport (the nearest you can get is 9km before you have to start walking) make them worth visiting.

Cochabamba though is all about the markets though ... and eating. People converge from all over the surrounding areas to buy and sell making it an ideal place to people-watch. The women are especially colourful in their traditional garb. Matronly saleswomen, usually as wide as they are tall, skin weathered walnut brown by the powerful mountain sun, sit hawking on the streetside or pavement, their skirts billowing out beneath them and providing some cushioning, curled up in a blanket tapering towards their heads, making them look like small, human pyramids topped off with a dainty hat. Hats being the easy way to distinguish between the two major ethnic groups: the Quechua, who live in the valleys, have wide-brimmed hats, whilst the Aymara of the high plateau wear small bowler hats, often set at jaunty angles, that seem to resist falling off in defiance of the laws of physics (I've come to the conclusion that each hat contains a guinea pig that clings on to its owner's scalp keeping the hat in place - any critters that fail in their duties go straight in the pot). Female clients slalom between stalls, bright shawls tied across their shoulders harbouring either a swaddling babe or their weekly shopping.

Quechua lady with toddler strapped to her back walking through Cochabamba market.

Virtually anything can be bought in the tightly packed passageways of Cochabamba's myriad markets (a sure sign of a great market), but the real delight is the abundance of different foods from Bolivia's larder, especially fruits and vegetables, many of which are totally unknown in Europe. My favourite find, thanks to the incongruous vegetable appearance yet fruity taste, was pacay pods, its seeds enveloped in a sweet, cottony pulp (hence its English name of ice-cream bean). Then there are the numerous varieties of corn and potato, of all shapes and sizes (the Andes are the cradle of both so the variety, of size, shape, colour and flavour are mind-boggling), that worm themselves into pretty much every dish, from hot breakfast drinks based on corn, to the small, black potatoes whose taste and consistency make them something of an acquired taste. Add to that hearty, two-course set lunches for £1 or less and I was slowly replacing the pounds lost to Brazilian-imposed austerity. After a few days of gorging I was ready to climb even higher and bought my overnight bus ticket to La Paz.

Some of the many different types of potatoes on sale in the Andes.

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