Archives for February 19, 2017

Day 50 – The mountain grown Quinoa of Lluvica

Day 50 – The mountain grown Quinoa of Lluvica

Of this town of 60 families about 12 reside there full time.  Others live in Uyuni and Chile – where they work in the informal economy of Calama, an inland mining town.  Chile has open migration laws and it’s easy for the Bolivian children to attend school college and their parents to have work and a safe, dignified life there.  Year ago, Chile granted amnesty for the thousands of Bolivian migrants living within its borders and many took advantage of that, but not all.  Some, like Miguelina’s daughter, did not want to mix her Bolivian identity with Chile so she travels back and forth across the border in a semi-clandestine way, overstaying her visits to Chile where she lives full time as an undocumented immigrant.  Even so, she enjoys a good quality of le with steady work, a house, healthcare and children in public high school and college.


Miguelina of Lluvica – wiht her mountain grown quinoa and the salt flats in the distance.

Miguelina, a 75 year old, robust quinoa farmer and our host, remembers walking with her father and his llama trains as a young child.  Usually three families would leave together – the dad and some children and about 50 llamas in total, laden with blocks of salt and sacks of quinoa for trade for fruits and other goods.  There was no currency in those days.  They simply traded, picking up different products on the way there and back.  It would be a three week journey and the children would sleep out under the stars with their dads, eating dried llama meat (charkey) and ground toasted quinoa (pito).  A highly nutritious combination of proteins and minerals which made for a very healthy, balanced diet.

Miguelina would wear handmade alpaca sandals made by her dad.  He would tan hides by soaking them in mud a few days and then fashion the sandals from the skin, putting three layers for a sole – which was slippery when climbing rocks!  Their clothes were woven or knit of alpaca hair.  Women wore dark woven skirts with heavy woven shawls and men wore white woven pants and heavy wool ponchos.  None wore socks or tights, even when the temperatures ducked down below freezing.  Our feet neve got cold explained Miguelina.

Miguelina remembers trading the quinoa for pears and other delicious fruits which would be brought back to the community.  Other times her father would travel east to Argentina, trading quinoa and salt for flour and tubs, bowls, dishes, utensils and other hard goods and manufactured items.  Tupiza, Bolivia trade to the south would bring in corn.  Every direction had their goods and season when the trades would happen.


Lluvica farmers disucss what sustianbility means to them in our talking stick workshop.

Today, the people of Lluvica still maintain their llama herds – but use them more for food than travel.  Burros help carry harvested quinoa and grain down the mountains today, they can carry more than the delicate llamas and are easier to tether and work with.

The mountain quinoa is grown in a different way than the plains quinoa.  Since there is no tractor, there is no reason to remove the stones and boulders that litter the mountainsides – the quinoa is simply planted around them.  The soil is made up more of course pebbles than sand and sits firmly on the mountainsides.  The mineral content here is so high that the first time quinoa is planted in a new area, about half of the crop is lost because the strong minerals “burn’ the plant – providing so much nutrition that it is overwhelmed and turns yellow.  The second year, the soil is left open to rest and the following year, he soiled is ready for a robust crop.  The quinoa grows well here   It does not have the effects of the drought and insects like the quinoa of the plains has. The natural pest control method of fumigating with tola smoke in the early morning is effective.  On the average the community produces 44 tons of quinoa a year.

Hand grown quinoa is hard work.  The fields are a two hour walk (or 20 min. drive) from the tiny mountainside town nestled in a crease of the Cordillera Real mountains range where a natural spring flows and apple and pear trees grow. To prepare the solid, steep mountainside plots of three to nine acres are hand hoed with surface soils scraped up into long rows in preparation for the spring planting in September.  Families often camp out at their mountain fields for weeks getting the soil ready.  The weeds are left to decompose and llamas and vicunas roam the plots depositing their rich manure.  Tractors on the other hand, can till three acres of quinoa in just a few hours.

Unlike other quinoa growing communities who keep their llamas out for several nights in a row, Lluvica llamas are brought in each night and kept corralled up.  With herds ranging from 60 to 100 llamas, this is a lot of work.  The Andean puma however is a predator of the llamas, and will attack unprotected herds at night.


The troublesome Islancha plant – what is is?

What is Islancho?

But even more bothersome than the llama is the islancho plant – an plant that recently appeared in the area most likely brought about by grazing llamas who ate the plant and defecated its seeds in the quinoa fields.  This small ground plant has purple flowers like a potato plant, deep roots and spread via rhizomes – deep underground roots.  It affects the soil making it impossible to grow quinoa here.  Though local agronomists have bene alerted to the menace of this plant, – there are now at least 10 acres of unusable land due to he impact of this plant and now that it’s established, its spreading even faster.  However, there has been little research done as to why the plant is affecting this region like this.  Or even to more scientifically identify the plant. Interestingly, I observed this plant growing alongside quinoa in other regions without any noticeable ill effect.  In addition farmer’s from other regions recognize the plant but do not consider it anything more than an annoying weed.


The Mountain Quinoa Kitchen

Mountain quinoa is carefully hand harvested, mature seed heads selected as they come into ripeness, some with variances of weeks – from the same plant.  The quinoa kitchen is just as carefully calculated and used.  Varieties such as the yellow Toledo, rose-white are used in soups.  The rosy Irampo is used for pisanqu’allo – a quinoa rice-like dish of toasted, boiled grains.  Black volcanic rocks called kalapari –  known for their high carbon content are heated in fires and used to toast quinoa and give a special flavor to thinly sliced llama meats.  In addition a finer soil, the pojera, is also used for quinoa toasting and preparation. The saruna is a deep stone bowl that is used to thresh the quinoa – to step on the quinoa and separate the seed from the chaff.

DAY 49 – The soccer championship of Puerto Lluvica

DAY 49 – The soccer championship of Puerto Lluvica


Game over. The Puerto Lluvica soccer field at dusk.

The salt flats were still flooded from the rain two weeks ago and could not be crossed by bus.  It is amazing how quickly the ancient sea that once was the salt flats can re-create itself so quickly and maintain that memory of what it once was for so long.  It’s as if the ghost spirit of the sea exists in the salt and lays resting, waiting for that single rain drop to bring it back.  So to get to Lluvica, the far away mountain-grown quinoa community at the edge of the Bolivia/Chilean border, we needed to take the rickety old local bus around the salt flats – a three hour drive past huge coral formations, salty seas and vast desert lands dotted with wild vicuna herds.

Quinoa grower and agronomist, Monica Cayo had invited us to Lluvica.  When meeting with Jancito in what seemed like years ago at the APQUISA quinoa growers cooperative headquarters in Challapata, he had mentioned Monica’s name.  I spent weeks trying to hunt her down – finally our paths crossed at a SOPROQI meeting in Uyuni.  We exchanged information and when a spare moment opened after our Anzaldo visit in the valleys, I jumped at the opportunity to travel back up to the highlands and come out to Lluvica and see the last outpost of truly traditional quinoa growing in Bolivia.

Historically quinoa was grown on mountainsides while llama herds grazed on the tola bushes in the plains below.  But with the introduction of tractors and semi-mechanized production, farmers moved their fields down to the flat plains – tractors could not work in the mountains it was too steep for them.  But the people of Lluvica maintained their mountain growing traditions and hand produced tons of hand grown, organic quinoa each year.  This quinoa – the same Royal Quinoa varieties of kaslala and Toledo, chimirir and white quinoa real of the plains – is mixed with the plains quinoa and sold in the world markets as simply “white, red or black” quinoa.  I suspected that this hand grown mountain quinoa has value in its production and should be purchased separately at a price of $.25 more per pound to the farmers and sold to consumers as a premium, hand grown, organic mountain quinoa at $1.00 more a pound.  Bu I needed to see it to be sure.

Traveling to Lluvica to meet Monica and her community will help me to understand better what Mountain Grown quinoa was and to document its production and properties.  We stayed with Monica’s aunt, Tia Miguelina, her husband and visiting daughter and granddaughter from Chile.  The bus does not go to LLuvica – the road is too narrow, long, bumpy and hardly anyone lives there anymore. So Tio met us in his SUV at the regional soccer Championships taking place at Puerto LLuvica and drove us the 45 minute route home late at night, after all had finished celebrating the annual event.

The soccer championship included teams from all the neighboring towns around the salt flats – San Juan, Chuvica, Santiago, Cholque K, Lluvica and more.  They had been paired off in showdown matches all day and now it was down to the final four teams.  After a few hours of high speed soccer played in the blowing altiplano sands at the edge of the salt flats, the Team Bolivar from Gladys’ community, Chuvica were declared the winners. Celebrations ensued including a guest appearance by the parish priest from Uyuni who opened the town church for a misa – with songs in Spanish Quechua, he guided the 30 or so people present through the mass and communion.  Then folklore music was played on pan flutes and llama skin drums.  Two tola bonfires were lit and people danced about the fires in slow circles.  A group of tourists who were staying in the salt hotels on the outskirts of town joined in the celebrations much to the towns folks humor.  The sight of a large gangly blond haired male in dreads decked out n various forms of Bolivian artesenia – sweaters, ponchos and chewing cocoa – arms flailing and heals kicking to the beat of the drum – will quickly attract a cluster of laughing Bolivians who enjoy the wild antics that are so different from their quiet, communal way of celebrating.


The winding rutted road to Lluvica…

After the traditional dancing and torchlight parade through the cold windy adobe village, we settled into the “local” or town meeting hall where a young electronic band from the city of Potosi was set up with was of speakers.  The 5-piece ensemble quickly donned matching uniforms tight pants, leather jackets, mirrored aviator sunglasses and began in choreographed unison to sway and belt out the popular cumbias for all to dance to.  The music was deafening, the base drum latterly shaking the windows and doors of the packed room.  Grandmothers, teens, some with babies, and all in between were there to watch the band.  This was not a dancing crowd.  Beer and cocktails were passed around and people left and returned milling around the dark village visiting with family and friends, all in the for the long weekend before school started that Monday – kids back from college in Oruro, work in Uyuni and migrants returning from Chile for the summer holidays.  It was a warm, friendly festive time.