Bolivia campaigns to legalize coca

Four Loko, meet Coca Colla. CNN reports that Bolivia has launched a campaign to legalize coca, a native plant that has been used for medicinal purposes and as a mild stimulant by the indigenous peoples of the Andes for thousands of years. And yes, coca does contain trace amounts of cocaine. The leaves are used in purified forms of the narcotic, which is what led the United Nations to ban coca in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. The Bolivian government would like the ban amended to make coca a controlled, but not illegal, substance.

Coca leaf is considered saced amongst Andean peoples, and historically has been used to combat everything from altitude sickness to rheumatism (it has anaesthetic properties). The leaves are also used as a digestive aid, and to suppress hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Coca is traditionally chewed or used or as a tea, but now, coca-infused energy drinks are taking the market by storm. Las year, Coca Colla was introduced; it was such a hit that a new beverage, Coca Brynco, debuted this week.

Bolivian president Evo Morales–a former union leader for coca growers–is on a mission to convince the rest of the world of coca’s legitimate non-addictive uses. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca has embarked this week on a tour of Europe, hoping to convince EU leaders to support the campaign. The U.S. is not onboard the coca train, and filed a formal objection to legalize it on Wednesday. January 31st is the deadline for all UN members to cast their votes.Bolivia is the third largest coca producer in the world, after Colombia and Peru. If legalized, it could provide a signficant economic, uh, stimulus to the country. In addition to energy drinks, Bolivia hopes to use coca in toothpaste, and even flour (I don’t understand that one, either).

I’ve chewed coca while trekking in the Peruvian Andes, and it definitely helps ease altitude-related symptoms. Quechua porters on the Inca Trail (who are employed to haul all of the gear) chew coca incessantly. I have no doubt that, in addition to genetic adaptability, coca aids their miraculous ability to carry loads nearly equal to their body weight, at high speed, even when barefoot. It’s said that coca is what enabled the Incas to build Macchu Picchu.

There are certainly pros and cons to lifting the coca ban, but hopefully world leaders can overlook the stigma long enough to evaluate the medicinal value of the plant.

Peruvian adventure travel and agritourism on Lake Titicaca’s Isla Amantani

While I sat at the table with her young son, Ayun, I watched Imeliana Calcin stuff wood into the stove. Although she’d greeted me at the boat dock in a skirt and faded t-shirt, she’d changed as soon as we arrived at her family’s tiny adobe house. Now, clad in the intricately-embroidered white blouse and headscarf for which the women of Isla Amantani are famed, she was preparing sopa de quinoa for our lunch.

I was on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the
unfortunately-named, highest commercially navigable lake in the world. Amantani, like neighboring Isla Taquile, is a small, natural island (not to be confused with the famous, totora reed “Floating Islands” elsewhere on the lake) populated solely by subsistence farmers like the Calcin’s.

Since the mid-eighties, agritourism has helped provide income to the islanders. Visitors stay in modest guest rooms, or share a dwelling with families, joining meals and even helping with seasonal crop harvests, if they so desire. The islanders hold frequent dances to provide visitors a chance to interact with the communities, and learn more about Amantani’s culture.

Otherwise, there’s no other real tourism infrastructure on Amantani-no restaurants, bars, or shops, although the locals sell their embroidery at the dock. The farmstays are arranged by tour operators in the lakeside city of Puno, or through adventure travel agencies such Northern California’s Bio Bio Expeditions, the company I booked with.

The residents of Amantani and Taquile speak Quechua, the language used by various cultural groups throughout South America. The islanders, however, are more closely related to the Aymara people of the Altiplano of the Central Andes. The approximately 800 residents eke out an existence by growing quinoa, trigo (emmer wheat), corn, potatoes, and oca (a type of sweet potato); and raising sheep, chickens, pigs, alpacas, and cuy (guinea pigs, a typical indigenous dish throughout Peru). They make a mild, salty queso fresco from the milk of their cows, and sun-dry part of their potato crop to make chũno, which can be reconstituted in soups and stews for sustenance throughout the harsh winter.
I first heard about the island the previous year, while running Chilean Patagonia’s wild Futaleufu River on a Bio Bio trip.

I was really impressed by Bio Bio’s genuine regard for preserving the ecological and cultural integrity of their host countries. After learning of my interest in agritourism, Peruvian guide Piero Vellutino told me about Amantani, and suggested I visit the following summer, during the dry season. Piero-whose family is famed for their whitewater expeditions and first ascents- is National Peruvian Kayaking Champion, and an all-around badass. He and his wife, Patty, are also the Peruvian base outfitter for Bio Bio. Their company, Terra Explorer Peru, is based in Cusco, and together, the companies offer customized cultural extension trips such as cooking classes and market tours, because, Piero explains, “that’s what makes places special and distinct from one another. Water is the same everywhere.”

I booked a trip with Bio Bio to run the Apurimac River and walk the Inca Trail, then added two days on Amantani-which has excellent sea kayaking, and plenty of walking trails. Due to time constraint, I was unable to sea kayak, and instead opted to focus on food. That’s how I ended up in Imeliana’s kitchen (which also happened to be her famiy’s dining and living room, as well as bedroom). Ayun and I snacked on choclo, boiled native corn harvested that morning by his father, Esmael. When he’s not tending to his crops, Esmael can be found down by the boat dock selling blended fruit juices from a collapsible table. Entrepreneurial spirit is a necessity to support his and Imeliana’s six children, but they were genuinely sweet, gracious hosts who made me feel a part of the family.

The Calcin’s live in Colquercachi community, the largest on the tiny island. Through sign language and rudimentary Spanish on both our parts, Imeliana taught me how to prepare the soup, and described typical meals- primarily some type of grain-based soup or stew, rice and boiled potatoes, and corn. When lunch was served-brothy soup augmented with greens, potato, carrot, and onion, accompanied by fried queso fresco, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes- several of the children straggled in from school to pick up their lunch. Imeliana portioned their meals onto aluminum plates, wrapped them in cloth, tying the ends into a handle, and sent them on their way with a dazzling smile. The meal concluded with muňa tea, a mint-like herb prized for it’s medicinal properties.

After lunch, I hiked to Pachatata, the highest point on the desolate, nine-kilometer island. I passed women harvesting potatoes in brick-red dirt fields, and men carrying sheaves of trigo upon their shoulders. At the “summit,” there is a small temple used for private rituals and feast days. Spread out beneath me in all directions lay terraced farm plots, divided by low rock walls. Far across the lake, the snow-covered Bolivian Andes were visible. Amantani is wild, and lonely, and emblematic of a way of life that-for better or for worse- has changed little in thousands of years. It’s not a luxury holiday, but it’s a rich experience that helps preserve a globally vanishing way of life.

If you visit Amantani or Taquile, it is appropriate to bring a house gift such as fresh fruit, which is difficult to find on the island, or staples such as rice, sugar, or flour. Donated clothing for the island’s children is also appreciated.

LAN offers flights from Lima to Juliaca, which shares an airport with Puno (one hour by minibus). Alternatively, you can take a coach from Arequipa or Cuzco (five and six hours, respectively). If you’re traveling alone to Puno by bus, be sure to book a trip that gets in at a reasonable hour. I ended up arriving at 4am, and the Puno bus station (or any bus station, really) isn’t somewhere you want to be, alone, at that hour.

Sopa de Quinoa
Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes since approximately 3,000 BC. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and is a complete protein (meaning it has all the essential amino acids). Substitute it for couscous or rice in soups and salads, or as an accompaniment to meat or vegetarian dishes. This recipe is actually one I obtained from a dairy I visited in Ecuador; it differs from Imeliana’s in that it contains…dairy. But it’s so unbelievably delicious, especially when made with pasture-raised eggs, and good-quality milk, butter, and cheese, that I had to include it.

Recipe courtesy of chef Jose Maria Pumisacho, Hacienda Zuleta

Serves four

2 cups quinoa
6 cups water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 scallions, white part only, sliced
1/3 cup heavy cream
½ cup of milk
yolks of two large eggs
½ cup of grated, semi-firm cheese that melts well, such as Gruyere
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Put water into a stockpot, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer, add quinoa, and cover the pot, stirring occasionally. Cook quinoa for approximately one- to one-and a half hours, or until the grains are soft.
While quinoa is cooking heat an eight-inch frying pan over medium heat, add butter, and when butter is melted, add onions and cook until transparent. When quinoa is ready, add onions and half of the milk to the quinoa and bring to a boil for five minutes, then reduce heat and let simmer.

While quinoa mixture is simmering, add egg yolks, the remaining milk, cream, and cheese in a blender, and process for one minute. Add this mixture to the soup right before serving, and stir it into the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Inca Trail sold out? Take an alternative tour with Zephyr Adventures

Peru’s Inca Trail is, without a doubt, one of the most popular treks in the world. The four day hike takes adventure travelers on a wonderfully scenic walk through the Andes, along a route that was once used by the Inca themselves, culminating with a sunrise arrival at the mountaintop fortress of Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail tour is so popular in fact, that the Peruvian government had to start issuing permits a few years back in order to limit the number of people on the trail at any given time. Those permits are nearly impossible to come by at the moment, thanks in no small part to the fact that the trail was closed for much of the early part of the year, leading to pent up demand.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to the classic route, such as the Royal Inca Trail Trek offered by Zephyr Adventures, a small travel company based out of Montana that has been offering tours to adventure travelers since 1997. Part of the appeal of this trek, besides the fact that it doesn’t have the same permit issues as the classic Inca Trail, is that it is also much less physically demanding. The Royal Inca Trail follows the Urubamba River along a different route to Machu Picchu, which helps hikers to avoid some of the more demanding climbs and other issues that come along with altitude. This route is also seldom hiked by anyone other than Zephyr’s groups, which means the trail is mostly empty, and generally shared with just the local Quechua Indians who inhabit the area.

Zephyr offers this adventure as one of their pre-arranged group treks several times a year, but it can also be booked as a private trek as well. If you go with that option, you’ll be able to pick dates that best work for you, although you’ll need at least one other person to join you. Should you choose to make a private trek, there are two intineraries available. Zephyr’s Airport-to-Airport option, will have the guides greeting you upon your arrival and you’ll spend nine days completely in their care. But should you go with the Ala Carte Trek, you’ll be on your own getting to and from Cusco, and spend only five days just doing the trek itself.

All in all, this looks like a great alternative to the regular Inca Trail, which can be quite daunting for many travelers. It is physically demanding, adds the sometimes unpleasant element of high altitude, and is very crowded during the high season. All issues you won’t have to deal with on the Royal Inca Trail.

Susan Sarandon offically reopens Machu Picchu

As predicted, Machu Picchu reopened to the public on Thursday, with Oscar Award winning actress Susan Sarandon on hand to welcome visitors back to the monument for the first time in more than two months.

Back in January, heavy rains washed out portions of the railroad tracks that run from Cusco to Aguas Caliente, the nearest town to the Inca fortress. The severe flooding that followed caused a great deal of damage throughout the region, and even resulted in the closure of the Inca Trail. With Peru’s biggest tourist attraction shut down, the local economy has suffered greatly, which is why the reopening was seen as such an important event. Repair crews worked overtime to complete a crucial 17-mile section of the railway, in order to meet the April 1st deadline.

Like a microcosm of the past two months, opening day began with a downpour, but later the skies cleared, and the sun shone through, allowing the first visitors to enter the ancient city. In honor of the reopening, locals performed an ancient ritual asking for a blessing from Mother Earth to protect the site and keep the visitors safe.

During the high season, Machu Picchu sees upwards of 2000 visitors per day, and with a lot of pent up demand, those numbers are expected to swell even higher in the months ahead. Most tourists planning a trip to Peru in the weeks ahead are just happy to have the opportunity to see one of the most spectacular ancient ruins anywhere on the planet.

Inca Trail to remain closed into late April

Last week we received the news that Machu Picchu would be reopening on April 1st after being closed for much of the past two months following heavy rains and flooding in the area. Peru’s top tourist destination is generally accessible by two methods, a train to the mountaintop fortress or by making the four day hike through the Andes along the Inca Trail. While the train is set to return to service on March 29th, the Trail will remain closed until late April.

Machu Picchu itself received no damage from the heavy rains that washed out the railroad track in late January, and stranded hundreds of tourists for several days. It has taken weeks to clear the debris and rebuild the tracks, which is why the ancient site is ready to reopen finally.

Unfortunately, the Inca Trail didn’t fare quite as well. The torrential rainfall washed out several sections of the route and it has taken longer than expected to get it repaired and safe for trekkers once again. Traditionally, the Peruvian government closes down the trail for maintenance in February, but due to the rain damage, that was extended through March as well. Now, travel insiders are saying that the trail should be ready to go in a few weeks time, and bookings are currently available for May. In the meantime, they suggest taking one of the several alternate treks, which offer similar experiences, and are less crowded, but don’t have the big payoff in the end.

As the reopening nears, the tourist industry in Cusco and around Machu Picchu is preparing for an influx of visitors. Many of the locals earn their living directly from tourism, and it has been a rough couple of months, economically speaking, for the region. April 1st is seen as a light at the end of the tunnel at long last.