While “chewing” is the popular term for it, the leaves should never actually be munched upon. Instead, they should be placed one-by-one into the cheek, forming a small saliva-generating ball which you just leave there. Because the stems of the leaves can hurt the inside of your cheek, you should remove them first. Some remove the stems by sliding the leaves between their two front teeth, while others use a lick-fold-tear method.
The hill at the northern end of Copacabana is called the Calvario, or Station of the Cross. The trail, leading past fourteen crosses, takes about thirty minutes to ascend, and at the top, you’re rewarded with a great view of the city behind you and Lake Titicaca, stretching out endlessly in front.
Though we didn’t enjoy our time in the city of Copacabana, there were plenty of interesting things to see in the immediate area. This was a place of extreme importance for the Inca Empire and pre-Inca tribes, and a number of centuries-old ruins still exist today.
The biggest tourist draw in Villa Tunari is Parque Machía, just across the river from the village. The park is home to a non-profit organization called Inti Wara Yassi, dedicated to caring for sick or previously captive animals. Our visit was a bizarre experience, as interesting as it was troubling, and has become a constant topic of conversation between me and Juergen. Rehabilitating wild animals is usually an inarguably noble endeavor. But with Inti Wara Yassi, we’re not so sure.
Pachamama plays a big part in the ancient Andean religions. The benevolent earth goddess is still worshiped throughout the highlands of Bolivia. She controls the harvest, and demands frequent rituals to be performed in her honor. For example, before drinking chicha, Bolivians spill a bit onto the ground. First drink goes to Pachamama. Llamas are also sacrificed and incense burnt in her honor.
A slightly-alcoholic drink made from fermented corn, chicha is a sickly-yellow beverage hugely popular in Bolivia, especially in and around Cochabamba. It’s always homemade, prepared in huge earthenware vats, where the corn mixture is left to ferment for several days.
Masks are an essential part of Bolivian celebrations, allowing dancers to adopt the personalities which populate the country’s myths and legends. Demons, dragons and angels join representations of real-world creatures like bears and beavers.
One of the most famous prisons in the world is the inmate-run San Pedro, smack in the center of La Paz. Yep, I said “inmate-run”. Authorities guard the gates, but within the walls of the block-sized facility, the prisoners run the operations.
We recently attended the famous Lucha Libre at a sports facility in El Alto. Bolivians are wild for wrestling. Posters of famous American wrestlers are everywhere, and you can’t go a block in La Paz without seeing seeing it on a curbside television set. Bolivia doesn’t have a professional league on the same level as the USA’s WWE, but El Alto’s Sunday afternoon Lucha Libre makes a solid substitute.
American Visa is one of the very few Bolivian novels to have ever been translated into English. A darkly humorous tale of crime and murder set in La Paz, it tells the story of Mario Alvarez’s increasingly desperate attempts to get a visa to visit his son in the USA. The picture it paints of La Paz is colorful and gritty, filled with thieves, transvestites and prostitutes.