15 Times I Said “Wow, That’s a First!” in Bolivia

Lake Titicaca with Bolivian Flag

A Month Of “First Evers”

At the age of forty, experiencing something fresh is rare. Yes, you might say, but you’re traveling to new places. Granted, but Bolivia lobbed remarkable new experiences at me at a rate unparalleled in my travel through other Latin American countries. The last time I encountered new things so frequently, I was probably a toddler. 

I intentionally capped the list at an even fifteen. I had several more I could have listed — attending at a military parade in person (it was right outside our apartment), seeing and touching ancient Incan ruins, and of course visiting all the places we visited for the first time — but I wanted to keep people’s interest and save myself some work.

Not every new experience was a welcome one. Most of the experiences on this list were not intentionally sought out. All of them were an opportunity to pause in wonder, remind myself how much I have yet to see, and learn something new about the world.

#1 – Got Turned Away at a Border

What!? An American can’t just show up unprepared at any Latin American port of entry and waltz on through? Sorry, Bolivia. We’ll do better next time.

What made this experience difficult is that it caused us to miss our connecting bus on the other side. To make matters worse, they were celebrating Carnaval, and there wouldn’t be any more bus tickets for days. You can read the full story here.

La Quiaca - Illicit Border Crossing
Some people decided to skip the whole visa business altogether and cross illegally… in plain view of the border officials.

#2 – Got Bitten by a Dog

That came out of nowhere! We were walking back after a nice evening in town and BAM! A white bull terrier sunk its teeth into my leg. Didn’t even bark to warn me in advance. It was a total sneak attack.

I found out later its name is Bastard. How fitting. You can read more about it here.

A photo of the dog taken from a safe distance.

#3 – Drank Milk Straight From the Cow’s Udder

Well, don’t take that one too literally. I didn’t actually have my mouth on the cow’s teat.

Some friendly neighbors let us watch the milking process (by hand). When they finished, they dipped a little jug into the five gallon bucket and let us drink as much as we wanted. It was warm, but otherwise tasted just like milk you buy at the store.

Our oldest son even got to try milking. It’s harder than they make it look.

#4 – Made Bread and Cinnamon Rolls in a Wood Fired Oven

I have been honing my skills as a baker while on the road. I’ve dealt with some pretty basic appliances, but this beat them all. This was an oven made from a metal box, with a layer of bricks on the outside. The bottom was lined with clay. To heat it, you burn sticks and firewood.

The first batch of bread came out black after only ten minutes. It was still dough on the inside. But with using my baker’s intuition, I put the bread and cinnamon rolls on the bottom and put a large tray on water on top to attenuate the heat emanating from the hot metal. It was a success.

Cinnamon Rolls in Wood Oven
It wasn’t the best I’ve ever made, but not bad given the circumstances. I also found out that goat cheese makes a decent substitute for cream cheese.

#5 – Had a Kid Get Severe Altitude Sickness

Poor Oliver. At first we thought he was just carsick. But once we arrived at the Bolivian border, we knew it was something else. I felt short of breath and wondered if it might be the altitude. I had Liuan look up the elevation. We had started the day at 3,800 ft and ended at 11,300 ft. That was almost a mile and a half rise in elevation!

Oliver got off the bus seeing black spots. He looked ashen. We laid him on our luggage in front of the bus station wondering what to do. After several minutes we took him to the hospital to get oxygen on the advice of a local. It took him a few days, but he got over it.

You can read about it in Oliver’s own words here.

Altitude Sickness at Bolivian Border
Oliver lays in front of the bus station unable to go on while we try to figure out what to do.

#6 – Chewed Coca Leaves

Coca leaves are sacred in native Bolivian culture. Chewing coca is said to suppress hunger and keep you alert. It is also said to give you the will to work hard. Sounds like the jungle farmer’s version of coffee.

Another main use: it alleviates altitude sickness. (Wish we would have known about that earlier!)

Coca, of course, has a bad reputation, especially in the U.S. But Bolivians make a distinction between the way they use it in its natural form and the way it is abused abroad as a purified and potent narcotic, cocaine. They have a saying that roughly translates as, coca gives the Bolivian the will to work, but makes the American stupid.

My own personal experience? The wad of leaves made my inner cheek numb. If there were any other affects, they were so mild that I didn’t notice them.

(For more information on chewing coca leaves, read this.)

#7 – Was Surrounded by Conversation in an Indigenous Language

We took a trufi from Sucre to Aiquile, the first leg of the journey to our ultimate destination, Mizque. A trufi is an old van that is pretending to be a bus. They are super cheap and require no booking ahead due to their abundance.

On the three hour drive, we heard people talking to each other. As we tried to listen in, we realized we couldn’t understand any of it! Besides a word here and there in Spanish, they were speaking in a language that was unrelated to anything we’ve ever heard before. They were speaking Quechua.

It is estimated that over half of the Bolivian population is indigenous. Many of them speak their native Quechua or Aymara as their first language, which they use around the dinner table and in their communities.

Though most people don’t book trufis ahead of time, we always did since we take up half the seats.

#8 – Got My Shoes Repaired

The sole of my right shoe was rapidly separating from the leather. Each day, I walked out the door to do farm chores and my sock would instantly soak with the morning dew. (I detest wet socks.)

I tried buying a new pair of shoes at the market. But the largest size they sold was an American size 7. I’m a size 12.

My last resort, which should have been my first, was to try the shoe repair man. With an ancient but robust sewing machine made for piecing rubber and leather, he fixed my sole in about five minutes. He charged less than a dollar.

His service was so good, cheap, and quick I gave him my other shoe, which had formed a little hole on top. We continued to hand him several of the boys’ shoes until every shoe was restored to mint condition.

#9 – Got Served a S’more for Desert at a Fancy Restaurant

Actually, the whole dining experience at Gustu was a first. It was the kind of dining that goes way above and beyond the practical pleasure of a high-end steak or fancy ethnic food. In any other country, the price would simply have been too high. But this was Bolivia, where our average family meal almost always totaled less than twenty bucks.

It was a ten course meal with tiny ornate morsels on big ostentatious platters. It was more like dining on art than food. That’s why I had to laugh when the first dessert course (plate number nine) was a perfectly roasted s’more! Dessert number two was a popsicle.

#10 – Made Plaster From Mud, Sand and Horse Manure

I got to participate in some bioconstruction while in Mizque. The waterproof finish coat was three parts sand, one part clay mud from the ground, a handful horse manure (the fiber prevents cracking), and a handful of Portland cement. It was hydrated with slimy fermented cactus water, which supposedly adhered like glue when dried.

#11 – Saw a Large Turtle Fossil in the Wild

We were told to look out for a turtle fossil. On our hike up the river canyon to a towering waterfall, we never spotted it. We played in the waterfall, took a nap, and headed back after about an hour.

A hundred yards into our return hike, I commented that we never found the fossil. As I said it, I took a quick glance downward, just in case. There it was! Right under my feet!

Maybe I’ve seen a small shell imprint before. But never have I seen a large animal fossil outside of a museum.

#12 – Shopped for an Entire Grocery List at a Traditional Market

Sure, I’ve bought veggies at farmers’ markets and browsed open air markets. But those instances were more play than practicality.

In Cochabamba, however, there was no supermarket nearby. The traditional market, with independent sellers in tiny stalls, was the neighborhood supermarket. That is how I ended up going to the Mercado 25 de Mayo armed with a full shopping list.

Despite the appearance of chaos, it was a breeze! Every category — fruit, vegetables, meat, dry goods — clumps their stalls together, making them easy to find. Then, imagine each aisle at a grocery store armed with five or more assistants eagerly — no, desperately — wanting to help you find what you’re looking for. And then paying them cash on the spot rather than waiting at the checkout line.

Grocery shopping was never so easy.

Cochabamba - 25 Mayo Market
Easiest grocery shopping ever.

#13 – Spent More Than a Few Hours Above 11,000 feet

Elevation of La Paz: 11,900 feet. Spent 5 days there. Elevation of Villazón: 11,300 feet. Spent three days within a stone’s throw just across the border, trying to get our visas. Even Cochabamba and Sucre were a decent 8,400 ft and 9,200 ft respectively.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been above 11,000 feet even for a short amount of time. Airplanes don’t count.

We all felt terrible at the border (adjacent to Villazón). But the headaches, nausea and shortness of breath eventually wore off. By the time we got to La Paz, the symptoms were minimal (maybe because we had learned to drink coca tea like the locals).

La Paz - Valley and Skyline
View of La Paz from a cable car.

#14 – Watched Live “Cholita” Wrestling

It was weird. Unsettling at times. Cringeworthy. It was staged professional wrestling, but performed by indigenous Bolivian women (cholitas, as they’re called). They wrestled while dressed the way they do in the streets: billowy bright-colored skirts and undersized bowler hats.

In our defense, no tourist worth their salt could have resisted the brilliant marketing flyers posted all over the city. You had no choice but to see the thing.

The women wrestlers, some of them clearly in their mid-forties or older, were indistinguishable from the women selling fruit in the streets. But lest you think that backflip takedowns, acrobatic tackles, and swan dives from the ropes onto the cement floor outside the ring are the domain of swollen-muscled he-men, these women nailed all the stunts.

#15 – Had to Duck to Get Into My Hotel Room

We found a great deal. A two bedroom apartment with a kitchen inside a boutique hotel right in the middle of the colorful Witches’ Market. It was the best of both worlds: the space to house and feed a family that you get with a vacation rental, and the twenty-four hour front desk service you get at a hotel.

Everything was exactly as listed, except one strange detail: the door to the apartment didn’t even reach my shoulders.

  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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