Do you know what 11,000 feet of altitude feels like? Not just conceptually, but the feelings and effects you discover as your blood struggles to deliver precious oxygen to your pounding brain and nauseous stomach, or as you find yourself gasping for breath while walking at your normal pace? Do you know what to expect? Most likely one would imagine mountains, snow, majestic views, perhaps a cliff or two, and so on.
Of course, pretty much the last thing you rationally expect to encounter is an urban area upwards of a million people. Then you come to La Paz-El Alto.
Arriving to the city of Nuestra Señora de La Paz, cramped into a bowl of a valley, demands traversing through Bolivia’s third-biggest (and youngest) city, El Alto, before cresting the edge of the high plain (altiplano) that runs the length of the country and down into the valley through mountainside eucalyptus forests (“to clean the air,” they say), submerging into the busy collection of drab Lego brick-like houses that creep their way like boxy ivy up the valley walls. Inevitably it invokes vague feelings associated with epiphanies. All the more so when you descend at dawn with the sun peeking over Mt. Illimani’s shoulder in the distance and into your face and bleaching out your view.
Such was my first time coming to La Paz, albeit prefaced by a disheveling 16 hour overnight bus ride up the Andes in the largest and most reclined seat I’ve ever traveled in, and my neighbor vomiting from a potent combination of altitude and the self-imposed dehydration that comes with a locked bus toilet. That particular trip was hardly the smoothest (it gets better with experience); we started in the lowland, tropical city of Santa Cruz in short sleeves and a muggy evening in February, killing time at the bus station with thousands of other travelers hoping that the blockades paralyzing the country’s main roads at that moment would lift in time to leave during the evening. Nobody was particularly worried–you see, Carnaval started the next day, and with it a universal truce that seemingly transcends all social conflicts.
Carnaval is not to be trifled with here; Bolivia has lost wars because their neighbors took advantage of everyone’s
inebriation celebration, and Santa Cruz recently inaugurated a five-kilometer long “cambodrome” up a radial in the northeastern side of the city for the sole purpose of Carnaval float parades. That night we killed time waiting out the blockades being offended by the backpacker who latched onto us and had nothing but contempt for Bolivia after the two days he’d been there. Eventually the call went out that the blockades had lifted and everything got under way. By the time we passed the fourth ring of the city, most people were asleep in the slow heat of the night.
Bus travel through the Andes is a multi-faceted experience. After years of living here, I still haven’t actually been awake for any significant part of the trip because almost all long distance road travel takes place overnight, which means that a midnight mudslide in the valleys can cause 12-kilometer long traffic jams until sunrise allows the nearest bulldozer to meander down and clear a path. It’s odd to think that a small city’s worth of people can suddenly cluster around heretofore relatively uninhabited stretches of dark, winding highway. Then the sun does come up and suddenly you’re reveling in a view straight out of Romancing the Stone, when Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner go tumbling down mud chutes into thick jungle after a shootout with a mustachioed colonel. Of course, this prompts the secondary thought that perhaps the real reason buses drive through the night is that their passengers would spend 16 hours mortally afraid from their second-story viewpoint overlooking sheer cliffs.
Somewhere in that winding route up the Andean valleys, around two a.m. or so, you wake up from sleep to find the windows fogged over with all the hot air from 40 sleeping passengers and you realize you’re freezing, and it’s time to layer on all the clothes you brought with you in your carry-on bag. (Still, that’s better than the return trip, when you wake up drenched in sweat under three layers too many of fleece.) Half an hour later, you’ve just dozed off again when the bus pulls into a gravel parking lot filled with other double-decker buses in the middle of who-knows-where, the lights flicker on and an attendant yells something about 30 minutes. All the Bolivians get up and wander off and you’re left wondering why everyone’s taking a walk at three a.m.
It turns out it’s a bathroom break: pay a boliviano and receive a wad of TP that would take you days to actually use up, but you can also grab a snack of fried chicken, juice, or fresh fruit. Just don’t miss your bus. Eventually you fall asleep again and wake up perhaps to daylight, a barren, brownish-gray plain with a few modest mountains lining the horizon, and the inability to take a satisfyingly full breath of air. Welcome to the altiplano.
But I’m getting off track. My first arrival to La Paz made for a weird epiphany, but a revelation nonetheless. Of course, head-pounding and dehydrated is not quite a state of mind that screams for beer. Nonetheless, we headed for what to any beer-minded person was the promisingly-named Adventure Brew Hostel, although the cranky oldhead lurking in me was a tad wary. The Adventure Brew promises a free draft beer every night, free breakfast, and the best view of La Paz from the balcony of their rooftop bar. That’s mostly spot-on; although once you arrive to La Paz you realize that a good view is plausibly claimed just about anywhere from 15° up the valley and on.
The free beer indeed exists, and flows well. On tap in the rooftop bar are the Dorado (a Kölsch), Ambar (American Pale Ale), frequently the Negra (Dunkel Bock), and sometimes seasonal brews. Of course, drinking beer anywhere in La Paz is an experience unto itself as well. After your first day at 11,000 feet, huffing and puffing to slog up a half-flight of stairs, wondering if every half-queasy feeling that washes over you is altitude sickness, and pounding the dank, vegetal coca tea because it’s supposed to help, a nice cold one is really not the first thing that one craves. Although perhaps that’s why they put the bar four flights of stairs up, to ease any guilt over caloric intake. The altitude factor is even worse when coming from balmy Santa Cruz and you end up spending your time in La Paz with hands gloved and firmly pocketed. In these moments a scotch-spiked hot cocoa or a Jägertea sounds appetizing, little else.
So that first taste of the Ambar was memorable mostly for the chill it set off down my spine and never let up the rest of the night. That, and the biker who invited himself to sit down and see if anyone was up for riding with him to Lima. He and a buddy had started a few weeks before in Buenos Aires, but the friend had to take pit or vomit stops every five kilometers up the Andes and jumped on the first plane to Miami once they got to La Paz. Anyone up for a ride to Lima?
These are the kinds of people that seem to pass through La Paz, but it’s an isolated segment of the city. Muy gringo. But Saya Beer, the brewers connected to the Adventure Brew Hostel, as well as most small breweries in Bolivia, probably makes most of their money off foreigners like this. It’s a population with a more open palette for different beer styles, but most of these small Bolivian breweries know how to keep things accessible to the Bolivians for whom “craft” is not a known category or label.
This is why Saya’s flagship Dorado Kölsch is such a good beer. To begin with, it’s beautifully pale with a billowing head. Smooth and mellow, the malt comes through at the end; it is inoffensive but still notably different from the lagers and weak pilsners that Bolivians know as beer. If what most people think of here as beer were milk chocolate, the Dorado would be akin to 45% dark chocolate–a subtle shift in a new direction, not a leap. Ready to move up, and mirroring the path I took to appreciating beer, the Ambar starts to push things a bit more, with a memorable aroma of green apples or tart fruits, and then a more malty taste that’s a tad sweeter and with more body.
Not that I picked much of that up the first time I sat down with these. No, I was cold, the beer was cold, the view was nice but cold, and you know…it was cold. And that’s perhaps a fundamental irony when it comes to interesting beer in Bolivia. Almost all of the smaller, artisan breweries in Bolivia are located in the highlands or valleys that attract most tourists, who are a boon for the market. Unfortunately, most Bolivia buildings are constructed with cement and rebar—no insulation—which means that when it’s cold, you do not escape the cold until you’re snugly under the covers in your bed. In North America, it might be 40° F outside, but inside with the heater on it’s a comfortable 67°. Not so much here in Bolivia; you never really escape the cold until you’re tucked away under 10 pounds of wool blankets at night. So the thought of sitting down with a winter warmer is great, provided there’s a fireplace nearby to complement the heat going down your esophagus.
By your second day in La Paz, things are usually better; and really, it’s only the first visit when you spend your second day miserable in bed, gulping down ever more coca tea and wishing that the wisp of nausea would commit to vomit or lay off. But once you’ve overcome that first introduction to altitude discomfort, your mind strengthens and no longer are you beset by such pains. To quote Mates of State, “it’s aaaa-aaaa-aaaall in your head!”
I’ve been to that city many times since, for work and for play. One of the more enduring memories involved finding dinner after a conference, hosted by some gracious colleagues. La Paz is a city divided between north and south, as well as up and down. The general rule of thumb is an inverse relationship between location and wealth: the further south and physically lower you are, the richer you are, while those in the north and pushing up the valley rims are poorer. La Paz’s wealth is concentrated in the Zona Sur, an enclave almost cut off from the rest of the city by impressive and stark geographic features of compacted mud that invoke something between alien landscapes and the Dakotan badlands.
Weaving your way from El Alto down to the Zona Sur is a journey up the economic ladder, starting among the plain brick and cement facades of the valley walls, into the tourism-centric historic districts, a brief jaunt past skyscraping hotels and the remnants of old money—German and Swiss-style alpine houses now home to various embassies, before dipping down into a long stretch beneath canyon-spanning bridges and cable cars before arriving.
Not that the Zona Sur is a spectacle of wealth and conspicuous consumption to the tune of an oil-rich Gulf state; it pretty much just looks like the suburbs of Lima or a more walled-in Southern California. But really, no one at that meeting actually remained in the Zona Sur. As soon as the symposiums wrapped up we all trekked back up to the main city for dinner, drinks, and bed. It was the end of one of those conference days when I was taken along for dinner at the nondescript Club 16 de julio restaurant. We were meeting El Profesor, the co-worker and former university professor of a colleague—in the Bolivian professional world, everyone has either worked with or gone to university with pretty much everyone else. In a country of 10.5 million people, it’s always a very small world.
Club 16 de julio won’t show up in any guidebook, ever, and finding it is nigh impossible, given its location on the sixth floor of one of any of the anonymous office buildings located on the Prado and the rickety, old, life-evaluation-inducing elevator that takes you up there. Smokey, dingy, and with about three food choices on the menu, it’s where I first tried Huari, a flagship lager of the AB-InBev-owned Cerveceria Nacional Boliviana that El Profesor and a fair chunk of Bolivians swear up and down is the best beer ever.
What makes Huari special is the water of Oruro, where it’s brewed. For the life of me, I’m not sure what exactly is special about the water; given the proliferation of mines and the attendant pollution from their tailings, boiling it might kill the microbes, but the minerals surely remain. Maybe that’s the key: Oruro is Bolivia’s Burton-on-Trent. In fact, it’s probably related to some local history of the purity and beauty of the mountain spring water.
Of course, Bolivians—nay, South Americans—are oddly devoted to the water of their native home. In Santa Cruz, you drink the tap water, they say it’s the best on the continent, but that you should never drink it anywhere else in the country. In Sucre, they talk about how terrible the tap water tastes in Santa Cruz and how we should never drink the water there, but isn’t it lovely and smooth here? Go to Bogota, go to Lima, go to Santiago, they’ll tell you to drink the tap water, it’s the best in South America! Quickly a comical pattern develops, but it’s a pattern to celebrate: potable tap water is always a good thing. If the best water is your water, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Anyway, CBN isn’t exactly forthcoming with detailed recipe information on formulation of their products, and asking most Bolivian consumers what exactly makes Huari the best yields something along the lines of, “it just is…” To be fair, the taste tests I’ve participated in mostly confirm Huari as Bolivia’s premier light lager, crisp and clean and with a whiff of noble hops, among many similar peers. A perfect pairing to the quintessential Bolivian dinner of pique a lo macho. A good pique is a dish to share: a heaping plate of fried meat strips, sliced onions, french fries, sausages, tomatoes and mouth-searing locoto peppers. Huari is there to cool you off and wash it down.
With their water, as with their food: ask any Bolivian where pique macho is from and if you’re in Santa Cruz they’ll say, “Santa Cruz, of course.” In Cochabamba, “Cochabamba, of course,” and so on. Bolivians are very committed to place. Each department does in fact have dishes original to them, but there’s obviously disagreement over pique. For my part, it seems pretty suspiciously like a Peruvian lomo saltado; then I encountered the Chilean curanto al hoyo (the seafood riff on the dish), and at that point, you realize that maybe just cooking a conglomeration of meat, starch, and some vegetable in a pot/frying pan/hole in the ground is just a continental institution.
CBN puts out a number of other beers with what I’d say is slightly-more-than-average diversity for beer in a country not known for it’s plethora of diverse beer offerings. But still, their 7% Bock is malty and leaning towards sweet, even if it’s popularly known as “that really strong beer,” and the dark, cloying, malty, 3.5% Bi-Cervecina El inca is a baffling part of a well-rounded Bolivian breakfast shake. CBN is everywhere in this country.
But pretty much everywhere in Bolivia, CBN also faces an upstart local brewery (or faced one before they were bought up, such as is the case with Cochabamba’s Taquiña and Santa Cruz’s Ducal, among others). Potosí has Potosina, Sucre has Sureña, and their strength is customer loyalty to their beer. The drink of their place. Sureña told me as much directly. How long these will be able to compete, especially since their lineups are virtually identical (one to four pale lagers and a sweet dark beer), is another question.
Coming back to La Paz, it’s a city that hosts many tourists, and with it their tastes. And their tastes in beer often provides a market for the more interesting breweries to tap into. Besides Saya, La Paz’s most recent addition to the beer market with reference points to “craft” is Cerveceria Kushaav. Based in the Zona Sur and little more than a garage, Kushaav is putting out some extremely high quality, delicious beer that I first encountered in the especially cold lobby of the Lion Palace Hostel. Coqueta, a porter, is all malt and chocolate, and more importantly: balanced. No candied raisins to be found anywhere, immediately making unique among Bolivian-brewed dark beers (for the moment). El Salar gave me pause given its name and billing as a quinoa beer—gimmicks rarely turn out well—but blew me away by how surprisingly dry it is, with hints of apples and pears, and a delicate-yet-harsh mouthfeel that brings to mind farmhouses.
But Aleksandra (named for their head brewer?) is the real star of Kushaav’s show, and easily the best pale ale in Bolivia. Again, balanced, with a honey-like malt backbone highlighted by unmistakably citrusy hops. Ask brewers in Bolivia about bitter beers and IPAs, and they’ll tell you that Bolivians hate bitterness and if not’s malty, it should be sweet. This is a remarkably one-dimensional understanding of what hops have to offer. Sure, the average drinker isn’t going to jump headlong into a DIPA, but then who among us started drinking interesting beer with a tongue-stripping dank brew (and actually enjoyed it)? Aleksandra hits a unique chord—distinctly hoppy, yet balanced enough to add something new without being too exotic or offending too many palettes. This is a first step on a road that eventually leads to “bolder” as one eventual destination.
But Bolivian brewers will do well to look within for inspiration as much as to the outside. This is a country with rich culinary and gastronomic traditions whose surface is only beginning to be scratched and discovered. Breweries like Kushaav and Saya are signs that Bolivian brewers can not only produce consistently high quality beer, but also approach it with an inventive spirit that does not simply default to dominant motifs of North American-driven creativity: “bolder!” “more bitter!” “sourer!” Over time, and as more Bolivians discover the creative possibilities offered by beer, it will be fascinating to see how the identity of this country expresses itself through drink.
Just as arriving in La Paz requires a descent, the only way to leave La Paz is to go up. Up through the valleys out to the Cumbre (summit) of the “death road” or up through El Alto and back onto the Altiplano. Or, up and out of El Alto on a plane, where you’re treated to an incredible view of the stark geographic contrasts below, along with odd hexagonal, seemingly spider web-inspired urban planning under the glaciers of a nearby Cordillera range. Up into the ever thinner air, but always worth the journey.