After a 2+ hr flight from Buenos Aires to Salta (Argentina), an overnight bus from Salta to the Bolivian border town of Villazon, an 8-hr bus from Villazon to Potosi (Bolivia), and another overnight bus from Potosi, I finally made it to Cochabamba, Bolivia, a city known for good weather and great food.
What did I do for just over 5 weeks in Cochabamba, the gastronomic capital of Bolivia? I made some wonderful new friends, improved my Spanish, explored the city some, trekked a little, and ate lots of delicious Bolivian food.
I arrived in town in time to hang out with Milena and Eric (friends from San Diego) for a few days. They were in town to visit Milena’s family whom I also met. After they left, Milena’s parents, Kato and Steve, graciously hosted me for about a week afterwhich I started a 5-week homestay set up by Milena’s sister, Daniela. My homestay hostess, Magda, a Cochabamba native, provided me with a lovely room overlooking the garden and three meals a day, including delicious lunches (the primary meal of the day). Along with providing room and board, Magda helped me improve my Spanish, as it was our only common language, and in the process, we became good friends. She also introduced me to her wonderful family: her mom Celia, her four sisters, Celia, Kathia, Magaly, and Elia, and their families. I got to know this wonderful family during the weekly lunch held at Senora Celia’s house each Thursday. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and made me feel like part of their family.
In addition to practicing Spanish with Magda and her family, I also took private Spanish classes with Ester, also a friend of Daniela’s. Ester is an excellent teacher. As part of my language lessons, she also taught me about Bolivia’s various indigenous communities and about some of the events that shaped Bolivia (i.e., the War of the Pacific in the late 1800’s during which Bolivia lost its coastal territory to Peru) and Cochabamba (i.e., the water war of 2000 protesting the attempt to privatize municipal water). And as if to provide additional subject matter for my education about Cochabamba, she also explained the history resulting in the student protests that occurred while I was there, one of which we watched from her apartment during class. While commonplace for the residents, this was the second protest I’d witnessed since arriving in town (the first being on the day I arrived) and I was a bit unnerved by the constant sounds of fire works and shouts from the marching protesters, the police presence, and the use of tear gas to disperse the march. Of course, protest as a means to call attention to an issue occurs worldwide but this was my first experience witnessing a protest in a foreign country. All of this made Spanish lessons with Ester even more interesting and educational, and overtime, my ability to speak and understand the language improved. And as an added bonus, Ester and I had fun during class and became friends.
So what did my typical day in Cochabamba consist of? Waking up early, writing in my personal journal (English) and my Spanish journal, finishing my Spanish homework from the day before (if needed), having breakfast with Magda, going to Ester’s house for a 2-hr Spanish class, returning home for lunch with Magda (and on Thursdays, with her family), taking a siesta, working out in the garden, working on my Spanish homework for the day, chatting with Magda, playing with Frederico (her cute dog), chatting and texting with friends and family back home, then chilling for the night. On several occasions, Magda and I did morning yoga together in the living room (following a Spanish video on YouTube). Magda also introduced me to “Las mil y una Noches”, her favorite evening novela (soap opera). So, many nights, we were two ladies absorbed in the latest drama unfolding on the small screen. Classic! I couldn’t understand all that was said during the novela, but with the dramatic music, the hand gestures and facial expressions, and Magda’s explanation, I got the jist. I was amazed at how tired I was at the end of the day, especially for the first two weeks or so. Total immersion into the Spanish-speaking world takes a lot of brain power and energy. Thankfully, afternoon siestas are a normal part of the culture, because I took a lot of them!
Thankfully too, eating good food is also part of the culture, because I ate a lot! As Milena explained to me, Cochabambinos don’t eat to live, they live to eat. So, to embrace the culture, I tried as much of Bolivia’s delicious food as possible, including (but not limited to): humintas (like a tamale), saltenas (like an empanada filled with beef, potato, peas, and spices), anticucho (grilled beef heart on a stick), silpancho (thinly sliced beef steak topped with a fried egg served over rice and potato), pata de vaca (cow foot), sopa de mani (peanut soup), sopa de chuno (soup with freeze-dried potato), pastel (a fried, cheese-filled, puffed pastry topped with powdered sugar), boiled and baked banana, api (a sweet warm corn drink), mocochinchi (a sweet dehydrated peach drink), monja (a sweet toasted corn drink), and………cunape (a delicious “bread” made of yucca flour and cheese). I also enjoyed delicious local fruits including pacay, chirimoya, and the sweetest papaya ever!
Along with practicing Spanish and eating, I did get out of the house some and explore the city. I went on a couple of fun bike rides with Daniela and her friends, including a Critical Mass ride to raise awareness of biking as a healthier, cleaner mode of transportation in the city and an adventurous roughly 15-mile night ride to a small town outside of Cochabamba. I also visited Kato and Steve several times and joined Kato’s family to celebrate a family member’s birthday. I enjoyed some local music too. Magda took me to a classical piano concert and Magda’s friend, Freddy, took me to an acoustic guitar concert. On several occasions, Magda and I went to La Cancha, one of the largest markets in Latin America. It’s a fantastic place to walk around as you can buy almost anything imaginable and eat a variety of interesting foods. There are whole sections of gorgeous fresh fruits and veggies, breads, cheeses, raw meats, cooked foods, homemade ice cream (yes, a whole section of just ice cream), fresh flowers, household goods, clothes and shoes, etc. It’s simply amazing. I also got to hang out for a day with my friend, Chris (England), who’d I’d trekked with in Torres del Paine (Chile). He had a stopover in Cochabamba in route further north. We had a great time walking around the city, riding the teleferico (gondola) up to and walking the 1,250+ steps down from the Cristo de la Concordia, the tallest Christ statue in the world (44 cm taller than Rio’s), and eating Bolivian food.
On my last weekend in town, I finally ventured outside of Cochabamba and went to Parque Nacional Toro Toro with Ester’s friends, Delphine (France), Violeta and Benjamin (Cochabamba), and Carlos (Brazil). Toro Toro is Bolivia’s smallest national park but encompasses “high valleys ringed by low mountains whose twisted geological formations are strewn with fossils and dinosaur footprints.” The park also contains the Umajalanta Cavern, part of the largest cave system in Bolivia and home of blind fish; Toro Toro Canyon; and pre-Incan ruins. Our tour guide, Gregory was very knowledgeable of the geology, ecology, and history of the area. He also treated us to several traditional songs accompanied by flute-like instruments, adding to the mystique of the beautiful landscape surrounding us. We spent two full days exploring the park, enjoying interesting rock formations, dinosaur prints, the caverns, and the deeply-cut canyon. Along with great memories of the park, I also unfortunately brought back a bad stomach, perhaps due to the egg sandwiches I had from a market stall or the untreated water I drank from a waterfall (the guide said it was ok!). Whatever the cause, I was laid up for several days, delaying my departure from Cochabamba. Magda was a saint and took great care of me, taking me to the doctor for antibiotics, making me stomach-friendly food, and making sure I didn’t run out of crackers. After 4+ months of traveling, I guess it was time, and thankfully I was “home” and not on a bus. I lucked out!
On the day of my departure, Magda and I went to La Cancha one last time then to an Argentinean restaurant where they were celebrating a national holiday with music, dance, and traditional Argentinean food. It was kind of a funny way to spend my last day in Bolivia, celebrating the Argentinean holiday, but also the perfect way to spend my last day in Bolivia, hanging out with my hostess of 5 weeks and friend, Magda.
Cochabamba is a large, modern city (population 630,000+) located in a valley in the beautiful Andes mountains. Unfortunately due to its location in a valley and the large number of cars & buses in town, Cochabamba’s air quality is poor. However, this is overshadowed by the lovely natural surroundings, delicious food, amazing shopping, and wonderful people. For me, Cochabamba will always be a special place because of the wonderful new friends I made while there and the experiences we shared. It’ll also always be in my memories for all of the delicious food I ate while there, including my new favorite fruit, chirimoya! Thanks Cochabamba, from now on, I will live to eat good food!
Here are a few pictures. Click the link too see the full photo album: https://goo.gl/photos/Tf2KFHpNvGN7C95A6
Travel notes: try all traditional Bolivian foods, including, but not limited to, those mentioned above; the tap water in Bolivia is NOT potable (must be treated).