Caranavi, coffee capital of Bolivia

Coffee, long before it ends up in your cup

My destination after braving Death Road was Caranavi, coffee capital of Bolivia.  This was to be my first trip to the coffee production zone and my objective was two-fold.  The first goal was to accompany a visiting Canadian coffee roaster, providing logistical support and translation throughout the trip.  The second was to meet coffee farmers and scope out the various coffee communities in order to better understand the producers` needs for the marketing aspect of my role.

Las Yungas

The town of Caranavi is located in Las Yungas, which is a transitional area between the highlands (La Paz) and the tropical lowlands of the Amazon basin.  An entirely different climate than in La Paz, it was steaming hot and humid.  Most of the coffee producers live within the surrounding jungle area, a bumpy, dusty ride up into the hills.

I found myself content to be in the tropics, far from the traffic and pollution of La Paz  and it was sensory overload of the best kind.  Incredible panoramas greeted us everytime we jolted to a halt (transporting up to 4 passengers in the car boot at any time).  Sprawling hills of lush green vegetation spread for miles.

Coffee colonies, coca fields and fruit trees abound, boasting bananas, mangoes, avocados, mandarins, limes, oranges and papayas.  Butterflies of electric blue, violet and yellow are bigger than birds.  The air is heavy and humid, smelling of fruit and earth, and filled with the constant buzzing and chirping of birds and insects.  It was worth the unnerving journey, without a doubt.

Las Yungas

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Death Road

El Camino de la Muerte/Death Road

I am happy to report that I survived the first of many trips on El Camino de la Muerte (Death Road).  I feel like the journey is worthy of its own blog post, given it was so epic unto itself.

El Camino de la Muerte connects La Paz with the region of Los Yungas, the Amazon rainforest where the coffee production zone is situated.  Prior to renovation, it was once labelled the `World`s Most Dangerous Road`.  Although it has since undergone construction, with a new road bypassing the most treacherous section, I can well understand why it remains renowned for its perilous nature.  It was disconcerting to see several crosses adorned with flowers at intervals along the roadside.  There are various google images and YouTube videos that frankly I did not need to see!  After my curiosity got the better of me, I confess I was incited to add `write will` to my to-do list (somewhere between `tattoo` and `yoga`, though like those it got neglected in my pre-departure preparations).

A milder stretch of Death Road, stretching far into the distance

A long way down

Winding through the valley, El Camino clings to mountain gorges with hairpins turns, a steep drop on one side to the river below and rocky cliff face on the other.  At its worst locations, the road is gravel and only wide enough for one vehicle, yet it is a fairly busy, two-way highway.  Consequently, when the many cars, buses, lorries and trucks meet, negotiation ensues to determine who will have to reverse (often around corners) until there is a spot wide enough for vehicles to inch by.

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Cemetery celebrations on La Isla del Sol

* monster post – you might want to put the kettle on…

November 1st was Todos Santos/El Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead).  That meant a long weekend and I seized the opportunity to travel to La Isla del Sol.  This is an island on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake, which borders both Bolivia and Peru.

By incredible luck, I travelled with a delightful Bolivian family, who took me entirely under their wing and ensured I had an experience vastly different than travelling as a lone tourist.  After daily greetings with Rosa, the office cleaning lady and her 8 yr old son, José Luis, it transpired we were all heading to La Isla del Sol for the holiday weekend and suddenly I had instant travel companions.

We left at 4am (not my ideal departure time but well worth it for the good company) and travelled by taxi, minibus, boat, another minibus and finally another boat.  The final stretch of the journey involved catching a lancha (motorboat) from the town of Copacabana to the island.  As I was about to pay the tourist fee of 20 Bolivianos ($3) for the 2hr journey, Rosa intervened and sternly told the boatman “No es turista!  Es familia!”, ensuring I paid the half-price ‘community’ fee.  We were only just becoming acquainted at this point, but it was one of many remarkably generous gestures on the family`s part.  They insisted upon hosting me at Rosa`s father’s house and shared absolutely everything with me – I truly couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.

The family

Our group consisted of Rosa and her children Patricia and José Luis, Rosa`s sister Marcela and her children Omar and Monica (who is one of my colleagues, a nice surprise discovered en route), another sister Ericka and myself.

Marcela and Rosa, in their traditional Cholita dress

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In other news…

– Here in Bolivia, I am not short!  Bolivians, it seems, are shorter.  I am taller than most of my female colleagues and around the same height as all the men.  Note to self: stock up on trousers.

– Upon entering and leaving a restaurant, it is customary to say “provecho!” (“bon appetit”) to every single table you pass.  Bolivians are a courteous bunch.

– It is currently Bolivian summer, which is also the rainy season.  I keep hearing that you experience four seasons in one day here, and it turns out it`s no exaggeration.  Days start off hot and gloriously sunny, but at various points during the same day there can be heavy rains, flash floods and hailstorms.

– So far I am falling sick approximately every ten days despite being vigilant.  At this rate I will either have acquired a stomach of steel by May, or possibly a permanent parasitic infection (hopefully the former).  How easily we take drinkable tap water for granted in North America…

– Stay tuned for tales of my road/boat-trip to La Isla del Sol… the highlight of my trip so far!

Bowler hats

Aymará women who live in the city but wear traditional dress are known as `cholas` or `cholitas`. The typical dress consists of a bowler hat (black, brown or dark green),  an embroidered blouse and manta (shawl) and ornate pollera skirts, worn over several layers of petticoats.

Cholas` hair is parted in the centre and braided in two long plaits that are joined by a black woolen tuft called a pocacha.

Apparently this characteristic dress was imposed on indigenous Bolivian women by the Spanish king in the 18th century.



Oh the irony

Naively, I thought that while volunteering with coffee farmers, drinking top quality coffee would be a daily occurrence.  Not so!  The coffee available here is instant Nescafé.  The good stuff is exported since the price is better on the international market.  Besides, Bolivians tend to opt for drinking mate (tea).  Thus I find myself on an unexpected caffeine detox, missing my usual allongés, but happily developing a taste for coca mate.

Daily life

I wake to the sound of a hundred stray dogs barking, the noise of traffic (one of four rush hours) and the relentless cry of the local newspaper man touting El Diario (or rather “El Diaaaaaariiiiiiooooo!”).  At night, the sounds are the same, except that the newspaper man is replaced by a neighbourhood guard and his whistle.

View from my bedroom window

My work day runs from 8.30am-noon and from 2.30pm-7pm.  That makes for a 2.5hr lunchbreak, which is taking some getting used to!  Most people head home for lunch almuerzo (hence the 4 rush hours) which is the main meal of the day.  Breakfast and dinner are very light, often consisting of little more than a bread roll, but a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack are also common.  Already the local pastelería (cake shop) has begun gifting me cookies as appreciation for loyalty, which can only be a good thing.

Work is going well so far. FONCRESOL`s La Paz office has 10 employees and I am slowly getting to know my colleagues, making a start on my mandate and adapting to the different pace of work.  (My boss Gustavo took me for ceviche (raw seafood) and beer at 11am last Tuesday.)  This coming weekend I will make my first trip out to the coffee production zone which will help me get to grips with my fairly ambitious work-plan.

FONCRESOL`s office

My host family/guest-house set up is convenient and comfortable.  I pay a daily fee for my room, lunch and laundry (a luxury indeed).  Three generations of the family live under the same roof (common for young couples/families to reside with the husband`s parents), and so I find myself adapting from living alone to now sharing a bathroom with 6 or more people, depending on how many other guests are present.  The family`s housekeeper, Petronila, is Aymará (an indigenous group that makes up about 25% of the population).

My host family`s house

Petro, grinding hot peppers and tomatoes to make `llajhua`, a spicy salsa. The impressive outdoor mortar and pestle is called a `batan`.

La Paz

One month in, I am settling into life in La Paz.  It is, of course, vastly different to life in Montreal, and there have been a whole array of things to adjust to since my arrival.  For one, altitude!  La Paz sits at 3660m above sea level, and with the airport located even higher in the city of El Alto, it is the only airport in the world where planes need to ascend in order to land.  For the first two days I felt short of breath, had a splitting headache, and pins and needles in my face and fingers.  All I experience now is a humbling inability to power-walk as I tend to do, since the remotest incline has me out of breath as if I`m running.

The initial spectacular, panoramic view of the city, as you descend from the dizzy heights of El Alto (4100m) is quite literally breathtaking.  La Paz sits in a canyon, with houses built into the slopes, spilling and spreading for miles, and the snow-capped Mount Illimani looming in the background.

A couple of facts:

– La Paz was originally known as La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz (the City of Our Lady of Peace).

– La Paz locals are known as paceños (peaceful ones).

– Bolivia technically has two capital cities: Sucre is the main, constitutional capital, while La Paz remains the administrative capital.


It`s hard to believe that I have now been in Bolivia for one month.  I have experienced so much already and have met some wonderful folks.  Thus it seems timely to get this blog off the ground.  After procrastinating for all manner of reasons, it`s time to curb my Luddite ways and share some stories and photos.  Who knows, perhaps I will be inspired and have a FB and Twitter account by the end of this adventure.

I hope this blog will serve as a means to document and share some of my experiences and discoveries, as I navigate the delights and challenges of cultural immersion and volunteer work.  Join me on my journey and I will endeavour to provide interesting and entertaining insights into Bolivian culture and more than the odd reference to food.

Your comments and feedback are very welcome!  (I need all the help I can get during this daunting foray into blogging…)