Steve stared sadly at his food. It was a skinless chicken leg sitting in a puddle of water in the midst of a vast white plate. It looked as though it had been boiled.
But it was all his fault—the only food word in Spanish he had mastered was “pollo,” or chicken, and he hadn’t been able to distinguish between the ten types of chicken listed on the menu. I would have tried to help him with my limited Spanish, but he was tired of asking for assistance, and he had rashly pointed to the first chicken dish listed on the menu. “Pollo,” he said to the waiter, who smiled and repeated, “Pollo.”
We’d been in the resort town of Copacabana for a couple of days. Located on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the town serves as a jumping-off point for boat trips to the historic ruins of Isla del Sol and a getaway from the giant city of La Paz. We took a bus from La Paz to Tiquina Strait, crossed on a rickety ferry while the bus was barged across separately, then reboarded the bus.
While we waited to get on the ferry, we strolled around a square that featured a statue with a rather dramatic painting on the side. I believe the subject is the bitter war fought between Bolivia and Chile, which the latter country won, ensuring that Bolivia would remain landlocked. Bolivia still has a navy that symbolically reflects its aspirations to have a coastline—we saw the navy marching in a parade.
When we arrived in Copacabana, we climbed the Cerro Calvario as part of our acclimatization program before we set forth to climb some real mountains.
In the high, thin, dry air at 12,000′, it was easy to get hungry but not so easy to find something good to eat. All of the Copacabana restaurants featured the “trucha,” or lake trout, but we didn’t want to have that at every meal. Gastronomically speaking, the safest choice was pasta in one form or another. We tried all the major restaurants available at that time (1999), discovering that for some mysterious reason, several of them played Cat Stevens tunes from the 70s on their piped-in sound systems. Maybe some influential expat residing there was a big Cat Stevens fan.
For lunch one day, I ordered hamburger. When I took a bite, I realized that the meat was not beef. What it was, I do not know. I worried that it might be guinea pig, a common dish in the Andes.
Once back in La Paz, we resorted to the McDonalds a couple of times. I’ve since learned that McDonalds pulled out of Bolivia in 2002 because of its poor profit margins, ceding the territory to Burger King. According to an article I read, some Bolivians felt “deceived and betrayed,” while others said, “Good riddance!” The McDonalds menu was too expensive for most Bolivians to afford.
Bolivia is said to be the poorest country in South America, a nation more inclined toward potatoes, cold cuts, and sausages than fancy gourmet cooking.
But Bolivia boasts scenery that is beyond compare, and that makes it all worthwhile. More on Bolivia in future installments.