Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Sitting on the warm sunny patio of Hotel Suk’arani, Thunupa, Neives and I spoke over glasses of “refresco” a sweet, ground toasted wheat drink which needed stirring each time a sip was taken. Thunupa was named by his mother for the volcano which dominates the Salinas landscape and is the beloved mother of so many folk lore tales.  Both Thunupa and Nieves had graduated from the Salinas high school a few years apart from each other.  Each chose to marry, raise families, and live in Salinas while working in their ancestral quinoa fields, Nieves’ being to the north and Thunupa’s being in the south.  This is where their similarities ended.

Thunupa quietly followed in his families’ footsteps growing quinoa as they always had, though with the additional help of a tractor now and as a member of the local APROQUIR producer group. He had 2 hectacres in production since prices were so low and with light fumigation, produced about 20 quintales of finished quinoa per hectacre which provided a supplemental income for the family and a health food source for his children.  He invests about $12 in fumigation, using natural pesticides, and earns about $3,000 a year (before paying membership fees for his growing group) with his quinoa production.  This is enough to cover basic costs but not provide much for investment or savings. “It’s for maintenance, nothing more,” explained Thunupa, referencing his small quinoa earnings.

Nieves was a much more active producer.  Since a child she was enthralled with organic quinoa production and has always been interested in nutrition, organic eating, and organic production.  She is a member of PROQUIRCA, another Salinas quinoa group with an organic certification from IMO-Cert that costs 3,000Bs ($428) per hectacre to maintain.  Nieves grows her certified organic quinoa in the community of Chayuquota and plants it both inside and alongside a vast crater left by a meteorite thousands (maybe millions) of years ago.  I asked if the quality or characteristics of her quinoa changed whether it was planted inside or outside of the crater and she said it as the same.  I had thought perhaps some special space minerals left from the meteorite would favor the quinoa inside the crater!  She takes much care with her quinoa investing into prevention applying more expensive, certified organic insecticides almost bi-weekly in the early growing season of the quinoa.  She talks eagerly of the different quinoa varieties she plants, psaqalla for puffed quinoa, chilpi to make ground toasted quinoa with for beverages, and the pantela and toledo used in soups.  She also produces black quinoa toasted and used as a chocolate flavor.  Nieve’s certified organic quinoa fetches a 15% – 20% higher market price than Thunulpa’s non-certified production.  However, as many producers point out, the costs in money and time for organic production, do not cover the extra they earn in the market.  Never-the-less, they maintain their certifications anyway, largely because of the commitment they feel for producing heathy food and caring for the earth.

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Since 2015 I have been traveling to Salinas, the world quinoa capital and the site of some of the earliest evidence of cultivated quinoa, 5,000 years ago.  I’ve stayed at military bases and Quinao Research Centers and felt I knew the tiny town well, tucked into a corner of the high Bolivian altiplano, fed by fresh springs and guarded by the Thunulpa volcano to the south and the vast salt flats to the east.  However what a surprise I found when this time when I was invited to stay at Hotel Suk’arani, a combination of the Aymara worlds, Suka Rani,“always full.”  This gem of a hotel, which had been in Salinas for 10 years, was tucked away into the mountain skirts above the hospital where I had last held meetings with the women quinoa growers – under the leaking room of the unfinished emergency room.  I had never noticed the rustic hotel perched above the village offering amazing views of the volcano, quinoa fields and distant salt flats.

Enzo the hotel attendant and well-known tour guide was taking a year off from his hectic life conducting tours in La Paz and Uyuni to relax a bit in his own home town of Salinas, reconnect with the family, land and people, catch up on his own archeological research, and help to improve the tourism for Salinas.  A largely undiscovered gem from a tourism perspective, Salinas offers the quiet colonial town pace of life paced by the noon time ringing of the lone church bell, carefully placed by the Spanish in the adobe tower they built 500 years ago, and the 8am and 6pm honking of the bus horn signaling its departure to the city of Oruro, now just 4 hours away.  Other than that, the silence of the sturdy hills and vast flats is dotted with bird twitters, children’s laughter, the put-put of a motorcycle motor coming in from the neighboring countryside, and an occasional barking dog.

Salinas offers, besides a vast network of quinoa production and export – natural carbonated mineral waters which are said to be a cure for most any ailment, and a vast array of ruins from pre-inca civilizations.  Once called “The Machu Pichu of Bolivia” by the Peruvians, the largest of the ruins, Alcaya, was located a short 1 ½ hour walk away.  First I had meeting scheduled with Thunupa Garcia and Nieves Catari, two young quinoa growers in the region.  Later Enzo promised he would arrange for us to have a tour of Alcaya.  It was turning out to be a great day.

Hugo Lopez, a Bolivian folklore music professor at the city university and native of Salinas, built the hotel in 2006 as a way to invite guests to his hometown.  The hotel has native design features such as cactus wood doors and furniture, a round stone structure for its central rooms and tall, round thatched roofs.  Walls are made of adobe.  Floors are polished tropical woods.  Handmade art and woven tapestries add color to the muted tones of peach, sand and white walls.  My favorite feature was the array of handmade tables featuring glass overlaid boxes which housed a large array of local treasures such as pre-colonial ceramic pieces, hand knapped arrowheads and stone axes, minerals, and different types of quinoa seeds.    We were welcomed every morning to a smiling Enzo with hot coffee, yogurt, puffed quinoa and toasted bread.  He was a gracious host treating us to little snacks during the day and a hot tea at night before bed.   Used to roughing it on our own or staying with busy families, it was nice to be treated as such a special guest for a moment.

DAY 29 – Saying Goodbye

DAY 29 – Saying Goodbye


Tamara taking photos from the ruins of the Spanish mill.

It’s time to move on from Salinas to Quillacas this afternoon.  It is always a bittersweet moment when we transition from one quinoa growing town to the next.  Each has its own distinct personality and ways of being.  Once you are in its rhythm, it’s hard to leave, sort of like trying to get out of a rip tide at the seaside.  Once you are in the vibe of the town, so many opportunities and surprises start opening up.  We had to decline invitations to community celebrations next week, invitations to visit new places, invitations to present at local organizations, create more programs, film more events, participate in community ceremony.  It is always sad.  It makes me want to divide myself into a million pieces so I can be everywhere at once.

Our memories of Salinas lay in the humor and kindness of its people.  Always a smile and hello from strangers we pass in the street, our growing community of plaza market sellers whom we visit regularly to eat lunch with, interview, or chat about the day’s events. Our caseras (sellers) who provide fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs and goodies for our home kitchen.  And our host Alex and the Technical University of Oruro, who made their research center available to us – giving us space to explore, write, cook and help out on reforestation projects.


Me and my daughter, my research companion.

I think of the people we have met and budding friendships: Gladys Mayorga – the regional consejal who exports local quinoa throughout South America; Abad Huayllani – the lawyer from Santa Cruz, who also doubles as a quinoa farmer and now as Mallku in a one-year position as the region’s indigenous leader. Eloy Ignacio Mamani – a quiet quinoa farmer living in the tiny community of Soloja; Liboria Perez who cooks delicious soups for sale in her wheel barrel food cart – peanut soup, quinoa soup, llama caldo (broth) and more! Plus she toasts and grounds her quinoa into a delicious pito – a powdered, edible form of the grain.

And I think of my 13-year-old daughter’s bold act of citizen empowerment.  Noting the lack of flowers in the main plaza – while villagers all had lovely flower gardens at their homes – she wrote a letter to the town mayor in and English and Spanish asking him to plant flowers and suggesting he ask people volunteer their own flowers form their gardens if he did not have the funds to pay for flowers himself.


Florinda Consales – instrumental in helping to make the Salinas research site a success.

Our memories also lie in the amazing beauty and resources of this tiny colonial town located under the watchful snow-capped slopes of the Thunupa volcano at the edge of the Uyuni salt flats (Salinas – means “salty” in Spanish).  The ruins of the 500 year old Spanish grain mill, the naturally carbonated mineral water springs, the volcanic soils and crunchy lava stones, and the wild emus and vicunas that glide across the vast pampas of tola bushes and tall, stiff, grasses.

Finally we are grateful to the friendship of Florinda Cansales – whom I had met in 2015 when she was the indigenous leader, Mama Mallku, of the region.  Florinda has been instrumental in making our stay and research her so successful.  She works in local education development, farming quinoa and raising sheep and llamas on her ancestral lands – taking a break from the high-profile city life she was living two years ago.  Together we hope to develop a direct-sale, heritage quinoa project with the women of her community of Otuyo.  We will continue to keep in touch…

So, it is with bittersweet thoughts we get ready for the day – a final walk out to the flooded salt flats, a final lunch in the plaza, and the women’s sustainability workshop I will deliver this afternoon with our host, the local hospital.  Then it’s on the bus – and off to Quillacas, a looming hillside community, an hour away – the site of a colonial miracle and within view of the supposed location of Atlantis – the lost undersea community of long ago.

DAY 25 – Cash flow in the quinoa lands

DAY 25 – Cash flow in the quinoa lands


Florinda’s house in Otuyo – neither a estande nor a residente – Quinoa farmer and leader, Florinda Consales, likes to call herself a doble domicilio (2-homes) person because of her constant presence in the quinoa community.

The quinoa villages are quiet, children away on school vacations – visiting family in the cities, or city children coming in for a weekend in the town with their family.  Most quinoa communities are now made up of 25% estantes (full timers) and 75% residentes (residents).  Residentes are weekenders (or less) who grow quinoa on their family lands, participate in community projects, celebrations and decisions but live in neighboring cities hours away.  Often these are professionals, such as professors, lawyers or developers, who bring important projects and resources to the community.

The community of Otuyo is a 30 minute ride by truck over a narrow dirt track that winds through volcanic mountain passes, past condor nesting caves, and into a long, smooth swath of salty lowlands extending far to the shores of the Uyuni salt flats miles away, is a typical quinoa community.  Their one-room school houses 12 students and one teacher.  The Otuyo community center is large enough to accommodate all 61 families though only 15 reside there full time.  The ones that live there farm the vast quinoa lands, tend sheep and llamas, and grow onions, beans, potatoes and herbs in their personal gardens.  The school has a large greenhouse that produces tomatoes and vegetables for school lunches.  Moms accompany the youngest children to school to help with the teaching of the younger grades.


Llama dung waiting for to be spread across a fallow quinoa field in preparation for October 2017 planting.

The residents are welcome into the community and participate in celebrations bringing important knowledge and resources from the cities.  Their children are in college.  Most own their 4-wheel drive trucks and SUVs, live in newly built build brick homes and enjoy shining new tiled bathrooms – compliments of a development project.

According to world standards these communities are impoverished.  The 2015 crash of the quinoa market, caused by massive production in Peru which flooded markets and drove down prices,  has produced positive and negative effects – though coupled with the recent drought, the negative is getting much larger and bigger.  The positive is a slowing down of Bolivian production.  People are now back to their regular bi-annual rotation schedules, families are farming much more manageable 5-8 hectacre plot instead of the 20+ hectacers they were racing to produce previously.  Many people from the quinoa region who had migrated the other countries in search of work and returned to grow quinoa, have returned back their foreign communities in Spain and Argentina.  People are feeling less pressure to produce and grow and feel that once again they can settle back down into their familiar family settings and work together in long term, meaningful production that benefits the community and protects the earth.


A robust quinoa plant in a private garden.

The damage caused by the massive quinoa production of 2011 – 2015 seen in vast areas of desertified lands.  Places cleared of native vegetation and plowed dry, becoming fodder for towering dust devils that rage through the quinoa lands in dry times.  In some places, wild animals such as emus and vicunas are entering into quinoa fields and eating the delicate plants.  Some producer associations such as APQUISA, certain Fair Trade programs, and the Oruro Technical University (OTU) are working on re-establishing these damaged lands and promoting more erosion-friendly farming methods, such as ringing 2 hectare fields with hedges of tola plants – whose 2- 3 foot height act as windbreakers and protects plants from frost.

With the fall of prices also comes the migration of the males in the family – in search of better work.  The women are left on the farms, it not being culturally appropriate for them to leave for work, in addition many of them are mothers and have children to still care for.  So woman are alone in the quinoa lands, often as they were before the boom that brought the families back and together again.  I will be studying this more as my work progresses.

As far as cash flow, every home I have visited has a storeroom filled with socks of quinoa.  Farmers say they are waiting for better market prices and orders before from their cooperatives before selling their quinoa.  Every once in a while when cash is needed, a sack of quinoa may be sold, or a sheep or llama killed and its meat sold.  The animals and grains become savings accounts and security for the farmers.

Day 23 – The electronics are only as good as the electronics…

Day 23 – The electronics are only as good as the electronics…

My room at the military base, Camacho, in Salinas.

My room at the military base, Camacho, in Salinas.

So why is is that you have not heard from me in so long and suddenly there is a ton of activity on this blog? It’s for several reasons. One is the limits of technology. As my charger died so did my access to the internet. Here in the small town of Salinas Garci de Mendoza (also known as Salinas Tunupa) located behind the watchful eye of the Tunupa volcano, on the edge of the vast salt flats, internet service comes once in a while. Twice when I visited the town’s only internet cafe on the corner of the Main Plaza next to the Mayor’s office, who runs the cafe, I was about to post a beautiful story of the Salinenitas Festival here that for four days has had people dancing in the streets all day and all night, with fabulous carnival costumes and children’s’ parades, when the internet cut out and that was it. Even with my faithful Mac laptop, my trusty Bolivian Entel modem did not work. So you will be receiving this on Wednesday, after I have returned to the city of Oruro where with a population of over 50,000, I have internet access, wifi and perhaps even someone who can fix my computer charger.


Children and carnival dancers get started in day 1 of the 4-day parade and festival.

Children and carnival dancers get started in day 1 of the 4-day parade and festival.

Meanwhile, today is Saturday, July 18 or 18 Julio as they like to write it here. As part of my ethnographic research, I’m obligated to include my own observations and reflections as part of the study. So this post will be about me. I’ve been working and living in Bolivia off and on since 1996 when I arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer. I’ve worked as a Small Business consultant and founded a rural monthly newspaper here too. I have a business KUSIKUY Clothing Co., that since 1998 has been producing hand knit alpaca sweaters in Bolivia for export. In addition, my two children’s dad is Bolivian and I have close ties to family members in many parts of the country. It is safe to say that Bolivia is like my backyard to me. I am here every two to three years. My children saw their Bolivian family more than their US family when they were young and also feel comfortable and free when in this country. It is always a joy for all to come to and be in BoliviBolivia also feels like a small town. The Bolivians are very gracious and always make me and my children feel at home. For example when my son was noisy and disruptive in a restaurant, the other customers asked the restaurant owner to hurry up and serve the boy, because obviously he was hungry and restless. It was suddenly the restaurant owner’s responsibility to calm my child, not mine! Over time people and places are known, things change slowly, customs are routine and people have a long memory. The children love the lax rules, no seat belts, children are free to wander the streets and countryside as they wish, and as of the age of 12 can pretty much come and go as they wish.

I feel fortunate here because it’s a place where I can relax. Things happen slowly and people speak slowly and softly. If one tries to speed things up, everything just stops instead. It is with calm and tranquility that things quietly move along here, and even when things seem they will never move along, with time they actually do. For example, I came here to Salinas to conduct the first part of my quinoa study of Andean women. My counterpart arrived an hour late and quickly whirled around the town in his truck introducing me to people and seeking out a place for me to stay. What he did not know, coming from the city of Oruro four hours away, is that Salinas was about the begin their town festival so no one was working, the Quinoa Research Center where I was to stay did not have any water and was closed for the week, and no one was in the countryside, they were all in the town for the celebration. We ate lunch, the festival was about to start and it was getting late. My counterpart was in a rush to get back to the city four hours away so he quickly contacted the local army base and arranged for me to stay there for the week. I was given two padlocks, keys and assured that no one would enter my room. My counterpart sped off with my children and their dad in tow. I stood alone in the darkening dusty street as the festival began all around me.

Davil dancers in the Salinas Parade.

Davil dancers in the Salinas Parade.

I know Bolivian festivals and I know the later it gets the drunker the men are. I enjoyed the beginning of the festival, laughing as a dancer in an elaborate devil costume carried me off to the parade route, making a parody of the devil and the foreigner being hand in hand. I played along with it dancing with the devil in the parade and eliciting laughs and photos from the townsfolk. “What a way to make an entrance into a new town,” I thought. Once we came to the parade end and the mayor was thinking everyone and all were invited to chew coca leaves, I slipped away to my military base, not wanted to make more of a spectacle of myself before even starting my research.

At the base, I found myself in a cold room with many beds and windows, and fortunately blankets. I quickly put blankets over the windows, which were partially painted white but offered little privacy or warmth. Then I discovered that the elaborate system of padlocks only worked from the outside and once I was in my room, there was no way to secure any door, even from the wind. With some ingenuity and wire, I was able to secure the front door and a desk and chair secured to door to my room. I was not taking any chances, plus it was cold and I did not want the wind blowing into my room.

At night I sleep under 7 heavy wool blankets with my coat, sweater, mittens, hat, long john and pajamas. I am sure it is about 40 degrees in my room in the morning. There is ice in the street until about noon when temperatures soar to the 60s and all melts away. This is winter in the Andes. Fortunately I am of hardy stock and take this all in stride, enjoying the cool freshness of the morning and the hot warmth of mid day. I am used to drinking a hot tea before going to bed at night but have not had much luck finding this custom here, so that is a bit of a discomfort.

Delicious quinoa soup in served in the fresh air of the Salinas Plaza.

Delicious quinoa soup in served in the fresh air of the Salinas Plaza.

Meals are taken in the plaza where women come with home cooked meals to sell during the festival. It is wonderful to eat a hot chicken, rice and chuno (dried potato) soup in the fresh air, outside in the plaza in the early morning with the sun just raising over the mountains. All of my meals I eat outdoors in the plaza. Today I had a breakfast of quinoa topped with a wonderful stew of dried llama meat, potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, cumin, and hot sauce, a ball of cooked ground quinoa, an orange and a chocolate bar for lunch (I forgot the name for the ground quinoa item), a snack of salchipapa, thinly sliced hotdog and french fries with ketchup, mayonnaise and hot sauce (llachwa) and a dinner of fried chicken with french fries and rice. Not the most healthy meals, but the day before I ate two chicken soups and a spicy noodle dish, so I felt ready fro some “junk food” today. Tomorrow I hope the person selling the api, a hot corn drink flavored with cinnamon, is still in the plaza because I want to get breakfast from her. As the festival is slowing down, so is the food being sold in the fresh air of the plaza.

I am here until Tuesday night when I return to Oruro and try to get my electronics back in shape and prepare for the next leg of my journey to Uyuni. Tomorrow I will hike to the nearby mineral water springs, fill my bottle, and do some watercolor painting of the volcano Tunulpa and the now quieting down town of Salinas. In the afternoon, I have my first workshop with the women quinoa growers. I hope many women show up and we have a successful exchange. I have another workshop with the women the indigenous leaders will bring in Monday morning and a meeting with the largest commercial quinoa exporter, Wilson Barcas on Tues. afternoon. Then at 5″30 I leave. The tie here is going fast. I already feel at home and the people here have been so helpful. APISQA has opened their doors to me giving me computer access whenever I want, supporting my work, surveying, and giving me meeting space for tomorrow’s meeting. Without their help and the help of the elected indigenous leaders (dirigentes originarios) all I have done and learned so far would not have been possible.

This last bastion of communication, my iPad now is also low on battery power. Last night it did not charge well. I hope tonight will be better and I will be able to continue writing information from the countryside. Farewell for now….