Dawn in the Andes can be icy, but by mid-morning the sun may be hot on your back. After sundown the temperatures drop again, until your hands and feet are numb. The Andean Altiplano is a landlocked depression lying between the eastern and western ranges of the Cordillera, and it slopes from around 9,000 feet above sea-level in Peru to around 13,000 feet in Bolivia. Altiplano means “high plains,” but the Altiplano is not nearly as flat as its name implies. The atmosphere on the Altiplano is thin and the air is dry. The sky overhead is deep blue by day, and by night it is jet black and sparkles with majestic drifts of stars. When I visited Bolivia I was impressed by the snowy peaks that surrounded me, but outer space seemed infinitely deep— and very close. I went out star gazing at night and felt dizzy, as if I was more in danger of falling off the planet than of tumbling down the mountains.
The daily extremes of temperatures in the Andes have prompted a number of different plant species there to evolve tuberous habits. A tuber is a swollen, underground stem that stores up energy so that if a “killing frost” burns off all the foliage above the ground, the plant still has enough life protected under an insulating mantel of soil to sprout again. The concentrated sugars and starches found in tubers have made a number of tuberous Andean plants important food crops for people. The sweet potato, for example, is a tuberous morning glory from Peru that’s now cultivated all over the world. There’s also a tuberous oxalis, called oca, that is a common food on the Altiplano, and of course everyone is familiar with the tuberous plant from the nightshade family known as the potato.
Potatoes evolved in the Andes, and they’re still cultivated there in great profusion. While we find just few varieties of potatoes on our supermarket shelves, an average farmer’s market in Bolivia will display potatoes of every imaginable shape and color heaped up for display. Little marble sized potatoes are piled up next to long, skinny ones and big round ones. Colors ranging from blues, reds and purples to yellows, whites and browns. The variety of potatoes for sale helps to make up for the relative scarcity of other foodstuffs in the highlands.
The harsh environment on the Andean Altiplano means farming is a risky way of life. Bolivian farmers have turned the extreme climatic conditions they must contend with to their advantage, and they use mother nature’s mood swings to preserve their harvests for the hard times they know lie ahead. Fresh dug potatoes are cut into pieces and laid out on rocks under the sun to dry, while the resident farm dogs prowl and bark any marauding crows away. At night, any residual surface moisture that sweats out from the potato chunks is frozen into a spiky beard of ice crystals, which evaporate in the morning sun. After a few days of this treatment, the potato slices are essentially freeze-dried. These black leathery potato chips are called chuño, and can be kept without spoiling almost indefinitely. Chuño is an acquired taste, but when you get used to it, it’s earthy and satisfying in stews and broths.
Besides potatoes in all their myriad forms, the people living on the Altiplano depend on beans, chiles, corn— and Guinea pigs. Each of these crops is enjoyed fresh during its brief season and then dried for future use. Guinea pigs, or cuy, are native to South America, and they occupy the same ecological niche in rocky peaks of the Andes as the marmot does in our High Sierra, but they’re raised in captivity by farmers too. After the slaughter, cuy are skinned, gutted, butterflied, and given the chuño treatment. Guinea pigs have so many tiny bones that removing them would be tiresome, inefficient— and wasteful. Much of the protein and minerals would be lost if the bones and marrow were discarded.So the cuy are set out spreadeagled on the rocks, just like the potatoes. In the mornings, after the rime of frost has evaporated from the drying flesh, the guinea pig carcasses are gently pounded with a wooden mallet. Little by little, the rodent’s tiny bones are pulverized and the flesh is dried and flattened until the cuy resembles a crisp, meaty, pancake. These cuy pancakes are stacked away and stored until called for. Dried cuy can eaten like crackers or crumbled into soups and stews to give them more flavor and “body.”
Life isn’t easy on the Andean plateau. It seemed to me like half the people I met in Bolivia dreamed of making their way to Miami. But among the traditional people, it is still considered polite to thank the earth goddess, Pachamama, for the blessing of food. Before taking a drink or swallowing a bite, a splash of the beverage or a piece of the food is always spilled on the ground for the goddess. “A taste for Pachamama, a taste for me,” murmurs the grateful diner. I heard this phrase so often as I traveled around Bolivia that I began to notice the people who didn’t give thanks for what they had. This practice of spilling drinks and food makes for sticky floors on buses and in public places. In the absence of any SPCA, giving “tastes” to Pachamama may be the only national institution that keeps skinny stray Bolivian dogs alive. Bolivia can be a tough place to live, but this common, everyday habit people have there of saying thanks gives an otherwise hard and austere country a grace even affluent countries can aspire to.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin