Bolivian Cuisine


I forgot how delicious the food is in Bolivia. The housekeeper for the family Modesta, is from a small town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. She is an excellent chef and has been providing us with excellent and exotic meals daily during our holidays.

Mo’s specialty are dishes from the Altiplano, or Andean region. Pictured above is “Tunta.” It is prepared by harvesting a type of potato known as a Papa Nuki. There are over 8,000 different species of potato, and close to 3,000 in the Andes. Because they can grow in such a harsh climate of the Andes Mountains, Modesta’s ancestors domesticated potatoes thousands of years ago.

The tunta is prepared by first setting the potatoes outside in freezing temperatures overnight. The next day, they are peeled and place in a bag and dropped in a cold, mountain stream. They are left there for several months.

Modesta served them with chicken and they were absolutely delicious. I heard of the more popular freeze-dried potato, the “chuno” which is not place a river but in a freezer instead. For more on Andean potatoes, this pdf document is an excellent survey.

Also pictured below is a lowland Bolivian dish called “majao” which is ice and pork. I like the fried egg on top especially. It is served also with fried plantain, which is a good sweet contrast to the salty dish. .

Family Journal: July 9, 2011

Ocean and Ollie are shown above during their swimming lessons. The kids are taking lessons at Acqa Fit, a new pool here in Santa Cruz. Every morning, we pack up and take them over to the pool. They are feeling better about being in the water and both Oliver and Ocean are on the verge of swimming. It has been one of the best things we have done this holiday. The biggest risk of death for children is by accident, and we feel it is important that they can swim. I also love swimming, or at least cooling off in the water, and so this will give them a lifetime of pleasure derived from water.

The boys are also getting more and more into soccer. Owen actually wants to go to practice, instead of us having to convince him like at the start of the practices. It has been good for both to be in a smaller group so they get to handle the ball a lot and take a leadership position on the field.
Ollie Leaps High For the Ball

The holidays have been passing quickly. I am off he USA tonight for a week-long course at the University of Vermont.

I forgot how delicious Bolivian Cuisine is. Everyday we are feasting like kings thanks to Modesta, the long-time family domestic help. Dishes like majao,  tunta, cunape, etc. My waistline has expanded a bit due to all of the great food. Nadia is shown below enjoying a  ceviche, the famous Peruvian seafood dish. It is fish marinated in lemon, served with spices and sweet potatoes.

El Guembe BioCenter


Last week we spent the day at the El Guembe BioCenter. It is a 24-hectare environmental complex located across the Pirai River just outside of Santa Cruz.. They have a nice little reserve of tropical lowland forest and we spotted this sloth, high up in the trees. The sloths used to be in the plaza downtown, but as the city is growing, it was best to put them in a nicer place.

The owner has a really nice place and I recommend a visit! I appreciate their committment to environmental education. They have several museums, and their aviary / butterfly dome / orchid garden are the best I’ve ever seen! They combined it the standard tourist facilities and there is a nice hotel, restaurant, and swimming pool. It is a great day out for the kids and they keep wanting to go back. The nice thing about the winter season is we have the place basically to ourselves.

The center is the closest to what I would have if I was a multimillionaire. It really adds something different to Santa Cruz.

The Boys Approach a Macaw in the Aviary


Bill’s Take on Santa Cruz, Bolivia

An Andean Indigenous Immigrant Walking Through the Upper Class Suburb of Las Palmas in Santa Cruz

I just finished reading “From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales by London professor, Jeffrey Webber. The book gave me the opportunity to catch up on Bolivia since I last lived here (1999) and put some of my thoughts together in a coherent manner about life here in Santa Cruz. Although the book is geared towards academics, there is enough “real life” anecdotes and background to interest the non-academic who is already familiar with Bolivia. I recommend Webber’s book.

I also spent a lot of time with the book and thinking about Bolivia because Nadia and I are considering places for retirement. Bolivia is nice because it has much cheaper cost of living than the US and if we are on a retirement income, it will go further. The life is pretty comfortable here as well with tropical weather, low cost domestic help, and both Nadia and I love playing tennis and gardening. We do have friends and relatives down here as well as citizenship for her and our kids. There is a great private hospital here where both Owen and Ocean were born.  I also have a big interest in neotropical biology and with Santa Cruz being on the frontier of the Andes and Amazon, it is a paradise in that respect. The cons would be the crime, and the lack of intellectual and cultural stimulation and the question of the cocaine industry, and finally, an indigenous, socialist government in power for the foreseeable future. 

Bolivia is really two countries. There is the more internationally famous part – the Andes, and the lesser known eastern lowlands. My wife’s family is from Santa Cruz, the economic capital of the country and the unofficial capital of the eastern lowlands.

Bolivia overall is a very poor country. Close to 70% of the people live in poverty and  with a GDP of $974 per person, makes it one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere. It is a land-locked country in the center of South America and is one of the few indigenous nations, with almost 2/3 of the population declaring themselves as indigenous. Bolivia also has one of the biggest income differences between rich and poor, especially in land distribution.  For example, 400 individuals own 70% of the productive land while there are 2.5 million landless peasants. There are also no labor laws and the underclass is exploited with long working hours and little social benefits.

Those statistics do not show the differences, however between the two Bolivias. The Andean region consists of the western half of the country and is divided into 5 departmentos (states) which make up 2/3 of the population of Bolivia (6 of the 9 million total). The average indigenous population of the Andean region is 75%. The western Amazonian part consists of 4 departmentos, including Santa Cruz, which is the name of the state as well as the city. The 4 eastern states roughly form the shape of a half moon, hence they are sometimes referred the media luna. These four states have roughly a 25% indigenous population, with the majority being a mestizo (mix of Indigenous/Spanish).

The Media Luna states have been protesting and calling for more autonomy from the centralized Bolivia government headquartered in the Andean capital of La Paz. Hundreds of thousands of Crucenos the past few years have been gathering in the streets in the cause of this eastern lowland state autonomy. One of the biggest organizations in the autonomy movement is the Nacion Camba. The term “camba” was once a derogatory term for the eastern lowland indigenous tribes, but has changed to a self-appelation referring to the special racial mix of Spanish and indigenous blood. The people of the Media Luna States are known as “cambas.” Precisely, the Camba Nation sees autonomy as follows:

(1) the state control of 2/3 of tax revenues generated by the state

(2) the state control over natural resources  and

(3) the authority to set all polices except defense, currency, tariffs, and foreign relations

This has been a growing concern since Evo Morales was elected president. Amazingly, he is the first indigenous president in Bolivian history. It is amazing because 2/3 of the country is indigenous.  This shows the historical dominance of the mestizo/business community control of the country. When I was here in 1997-1999, Hugo Banzer, a Cruceno former military dictator, was the president.  Morales is an Aymara Indian originally from the Oruro Department. He grew up in extreme poverty and four of his six siblings died due to lack of access to proper health care. He ended up moving to the coca growing region in the Cochabomba Department and showed leadership skills to eventually lead the coca growers (cocaleros) union. With the election of Morales, and his political party, M.A.S. (Moviemento Al Socialismo) , there was a lot of concern that he would push the government in the Venezuelan model of Hugo Chavez.

Evo Morales has made many radical speeches in the international realm as well as speaking to indigenous crowds. However, his actions have not matched his words. Although he has political power, he has not taken on the business establishment of media luna, and has in fact, been very conservative in his presidency. He did strike a much better bargain with the international petroleum companies and increased revenue to the state up to 4 billion per year, by giving them a 50% royalty tax. This compares to the 18% “giveaway” negotiated by the preceding president, Gonzalo Lozado. Who by the way, was run out of country by protesting Indians in La Paz and he had to escape to Santa Cruz to avoid prison or lynching. A lot of presidents in Bolivia have been killed by indian mobs. He is exiled in the US and is wanted for corruption in Bolivia. Morales has not taken the extra revenue and put them towards social spending, and actually the percent of the government budget going towards health and education has dropped. He has invested in infrastructure and eliminated the budget. He is a darling of the IMF and World Bank! For someone with his background and the fiery speeches, I would have thought he would have tried to nationalize everything and route most of the GDP to the extreme poor like Chavez. But, he has taken a very moderate approach and with his upper class Vice President, is talking about putting socialism in place in 50 – 100 years. They also talk about an Andean-Amazonian Capitalism model, whatever that means. Morales won re-election in 2009, this was also a first in the history of Bolivia. He won with a 62% majority, the biggest in history for a presidential election. MAS also gained a majority in both the houses of congress and they have 6 of the 9 governorships. I guess he found the right mix of pleasing the capitalists with his policies and the indigenous masses with his speeches.

He should really take this majority mandate to do more for the poor. It pains me to see how good, working class citizens eke out a living. I am not only talking about subsistence agricultural peasants, but policemen, nurses, teachers, etc. Especially Evo’s strike busting stance with the teachers really disappointed me. The schools and hospitals are in a horrible state and average people, can’t make a decent living.

The big issue underneath all of this is the horrible economy of the Andean states. The mass immigration has caused problems for the media luna states, in addition to Argentina, Chile, USA and Spain. The Crucenos are characterized by many as being extreme racists. It almost feels like they are like the Boers of South Africa. They were identified with the Aparthied policies and were international martyrs. It is not quite as extreme here in Santa Cruz, but there are similarities. I’ve noticed that every time I come back, there are more Andean indigenous immigrants seeking jobs in Santa Cruz. This has generated resentment from the Crucenos. Since the 1950’s, the influx of Andean immigrants has slowly changed the character of the city.

The Crucenos are very different from the Andeans. They have an ethos of “ wealth, competition, fame, ostentatious living, with agro-industrial/petro at the top of social pyramid” according to Mr. Webber and that is in big contrast to the immigrants. These differences and the resentment it generates are manifested in many ways. The international media and the book portray the Crucenos as racist, but I don’t see them being any more racist than the Spaniards, Italians, or any other upper class Latin Americans.

The Andean immigrants are referred to as “shitty collas.” The term “colla” is traced to Kollasuyo, one of the five departments of the Inca Empire. Along with cholos and indios, all of these derogatory terms are common language with Crucenos. One anonymous elderly Crucena the other day thought that the Andean government was poisoning the fruits and vegetables to make the Crucenos sick. She said that the “indios” are not affected by the poison because they are so tough that nothing could kill them. Another example of this racism is back in the 1980’s, it was common for the upper class teenagers to get their thrills, they would go out and “patear cholos” which means to beat or kick poor indigenous immigrants. There is also some strong right wing groups, similar to soccer hooligans that formed in Santa Cruz to defend the rights of Santa Cruz and harass Andeans moving to Santa Cruz. Another joke is the statue of Christ that is located in the north of the city in the center of one of the big roundabouts. It was facing the west and it was basically saying, with his arms spread out forward, “no more cholos.”

I also think it is the same problem that affected Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia were the richer parts of the federation and much of the tax revenue went to the poorer republics like Kosovo and Macedonia. Basically, Santa Cruz and Tarija are supporting the country. Living in Serbia, I know it is possible to have very small countries, but is it ideal? I don’t know what the answer is, but it should be concentrating on figuring out why the Andean Departments are so poor and what can be done to reverse the migration trend.

UPDATE – In speaking with friends, one who works in the Cruceno government, he is quite pessimistic about the future of Santa Cruz. He sees the huge effect the narcotraffikers are having with many laboratories and fields in the department. He also hinted at the army controlling the cocaine trade and also he sees a stepping up of land reform to a Venezuelan level.

I would like to see the Media Luna states go independent and be called “Cambalandia.” This is a step further than the Autonomia movement has stated, but I don’t see a drastic change in the Andean states. Is there an organization here that promotes a break from Bolivia?

The Pleasure of Chewing Coca

Coca is a plant that is native to the Andes Mountains in South America. It is a small bush and the leaves contain alkaloids (chemicals) that protect the plant from being eaten by insects. The indigenous populations discovered this early and for generations, the leaves were chewed because the alkaloids have an effect similar to caffeine in that they energize the body and suppress appetite. Unfortunately after the Spanish arrived, modern people discovered how to concentrate the alkaloids through chemical processing to produce cocaine.
The chewing of the leaves in the traditional manner is legal in Bolivia. My father-in-law and I enjoy a bolo of coca leaves daily. Yesterday we went to a nearby market to purchase a fresh supply. The coca leaf industry is regulated by the government and there are officially licensed coca leaf venders in all the markets in Bolivia. According to my father-in-law, a license to sell coca leaves cost about $2,000.
In the Los Pozos market near the house, the 12 de Octobre Cooperative operates the market. Juana, a woman originally from La Paz was selling coca leaves in a small stall in front. She had two types of leaves, and we chose the higher-priced larger leaf variety. She said they were from Las Yungas, a region of lower elevation just east of the capital. We also purchased some packets of baking soda to go along with leaves. A kilo of leaves and soda cost around $4.

I pose with Juana at Los Pozos Market

Coca is a controversial issue here in Bolivia. The President, Evo Morales, besides being the first indigenous president, is a former coca grower. The US government’s war on drugs a few years ago, consisted in part of eradicating the coca fields in the Chapare region of Bolivia. When Morales took over as President, he immediately expelled the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency out of the country. The growing of coca increased dramatically to the point that today, there are more than enough leaf production to supply the legal market of the country. The excess leaf production obviously is going towards cocaine production.
I am glad that Morales kicked out the US government. I didn’t agree with the US policy of focusing on battling against drugs and “democracy promotion” which basically meant supporting the status quo of a white/mestizo (mestizo means mixed European and Native American heritage) dominated government. They should have been focusing on poverty eradication through improvement of health, education, and infrastructure. This is one of the major reasons why US influence in Latin America is at an all-time low. I was hoping with Barak Obama as president, there would be a change in policy, but I guess his attention is focused on the Middle East and Latin America has been largely ignored except for free trade agreements.
Coca chewing has its upsides and downsides. It is pleasurable and like a good strong cup of coffee, it perks me up, especially in the late afternoon. The bad thing is coca leaves have an odor slightly reminiscent of foot odor, which is disagreeable to some people, especially my wife. I made an instructional video on how to prepare and chew coca which I’ll post as soon as I can.

Miss Bolivia 2011

Miss Bolivia 2011 - Yessica Mouton Giarella

Beauty pageants are huge in Latin America and Bolivia is no exception. Last night here in Santa Cruz, they held the 2011 version of the Miss Bolivia competition. I’ve been seeing the 20 some “misses” being driven around the city on my runs. A Hummer limousine that is promoting the contest has been transporting them to the various photo opportunities and  promotional events. The local newspaper, El Deber, has a full rundown of the event here, although it is Spanish.

The event is absolutely hilarious and Nadia and I had a good laugh watching it on television. I can’t believe these girls take the event so seriously and put themselves through the ordeal. In the paper yesterday, they had the “lo bueno” and “lo malo” of each candidate like they were a soccer team. The writer or writers were quite blunt with the pros and cons of each candidate. For example, some of the comments were as follows:

For the winner, Ms.Mouton:

Lo Bueno – Beautiful. Without a doubt the best face in the competition. Her figure is in harmony (well-proportioned) and her hair is perfect. She is nice and active.

Lo Malo – She is about 4 centimeters too short.

Ms. La Paz:  Lo Malo – “She is missing fitness and has a few too many kilogramcitos”

Ms. Eastern Plains: Lo Bueno – “She displays a beautiful face, bust, and “behind”…everything in its place.”

Ms. Littoral: Lo Malo – “a forced smile.”

The winner was one of the favorites and all of the girls were quite attractive. If those things were written about my daughter, I would have a problem with it. I didn’t like the amount of make up the girls wore or the evening gowns and continuous smiles during the 2 hour+ competition. I also felt bad for them with the amount of steps they had to negotiate on the stage on high heels. The organizers should have taken this into account and done a better job with stage design. The format of the show was also very unimaginative and I would definitely improve entertainment value of the show by adding some different activities and adding some more video clips to the evening program.

It was an exceptional night of television viewing with not only the contest, but CNN in Espanol carried Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s announcement of his cancer treatment from Havana. Having lived in Venezuela for five years, I have some opinions on this topic but will save this for another post. It is so nice to be able to understand the language. I wish my Serbian was better so I could follow events in the country closer.

LIfe in Santa Cruz: Roving Fruit Salesmen



My father-in-law lives in a neighborhood in the north part of the city called “Las Hamacas,” which I don’t think needs a translation. We spend a lot of time in the park in front of his home and it has been very interesting for my children. One of the morning rituals is to wait for the call of the fruit salesman. This is a guy who sells fruit out of his taxi and drives up and down the side streets of the city, announcing his presence with a little song. You can here him at the start of the video as he is approaching me. He had a station wagon full of bananas, apples, papaya, among others. He prolongs the ending of the fruit which is hilarious. I didn’t stop him to ask how much fruit he sells in a day.

We also look forward to hearing the whistle of the neighborhood security guy. Everyone chips in to pay a private security guard to ride around on his bike and he occasionally blows his whistle to announce his presence to the neighbors and I guess the thieves that he is on duty and vigilant. A guard is doing this 24/7 and appropriately, he is known in Spanish as a “sireno.” Also yesterday, the kids pointed out a horse-drawn buggy.

Silvia Chavez Fashion

Yesterday we went to the headquarters of Nadia’s aunt, Silvia Chavez. She is a fashion designer here in Santa Cruz. Aunt Silvia is one of the big designers in Bolivia, and is still going strong at 75 years old. She grew up on a sugar cane plantation and ranch north of the city and was inspired at an early age with nature. She lived in the capital La Paz for 8 years where she was head designer for the diplomatic community, including a couple of presidents. She also worked in the USA for 25 years before recently coming back to Bolivia. She had a show “Volver” of her latest collection last spring at the Country Club. Silvia is known for her classic, feminine designs.

We stopped by the office to see her and her employees were quite busy. She took time out to show Nadia how to make a “rosca” her favorite Bolivian pastry. She always has time for us and adores the kids, especially Ocean.

Silvia Chavez talks with Nadia

Boca Juniors Winter Soccer Camp

We enrolled all three kids in the Boca Juniors camp taking place on the grounds of the Hotel Buganvilla, here in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Boca is the most popular professional soccer club in Argentina with 23 titles.Like their counterparts in Europe, they have developed a regional network of summer camps to develop a fan base. The camp is very low key, with only a few players this week participating. The Bolivian schools are still in session this week and they don’t expect bigger numbers until next week. It will give the boys something to do in the afternoons.

The weather has been as low as 8 degrees celcius (46 F) as June and July are the coldest months for the city. Santa Cruz is 17 degrees south of the equator and firmly in the tropics and much closer to the equator than Miami, but they do get these weather systems coming from Patagonia called “surazos” that bring a damp, cold to the city.
I lived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia from 1997-1999 when I worked as a biology teacher at the Santa Cruz Cooperative School. Coming back to the city always brings back great memories because this is the place where I fell in love with Nadia. We see the places where we first met, the gardens of the Hotel Tajibos where I proposed to her, etc. We have come back every few years since then, the last being in 2007 for the birth of Ocean. The big impression is the incredible growth of the city. The metro area is now up to around 2 million people, that is almost double from when I first arrived in ’97. Most of the growth is internal, as many people are coming from La Paz and Cochabomba. Santa Cruz is the economic capital of the country with lots of jobs in agriculture, petroleum, etc.
We have also noticed a construction boom fueled in part by the increased cocaine trade. The president, Evo Morales, is a former “cocalero” or coca leaf grower, who kicked out the US Drug Enforcement Agency and promoted the planting of coca. He says that coca has many uses including tea, bread, chewing the leaf, etc. Statistics show however, that three times as much land is devoted to coca than the market needs. All that excess coca might be going to illicit drug production and sales. In my opinion, the temporary boost to the economy is good, but with all illegal trade, the violence and crime will soon follow.
I am finally beginning to relax and enjoy time with my family. I’ll try to blog as much as I can about Bolivia and our holidays. Below is the photo of the kids at breakfast the other day.We are trying to improve their Spanish and enjoy the culture and food of Bolivia.