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 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

DAY 43 – the Quinoa Tourism of San Juan

Salt hotel chuvica

A new tourism salt hotel under construction in the quinoa community of Chuvica.

When one arrives in Uyuni, the Potosi capital of the Quinoa Real, one sees a dusty, salty outpost with low adobe houses, a few cement and brick hotels, many salt flat tour offices and not much else.  This town of 10,000 people receives 60,000 tourists from all over the world, mostly European, Asian and South American backpackers – who are visiting the salt flats as part of a larger tour of Chile or Peru.  Tours take two to three days and cost more than $100 each.  The tourists are young, educated, have money and time to travel.  They are interested in the culture and natural environment of Bolivia but in Uyuni they are greeted with tourist restaurants serving beer and pizza, roadside food stands with fried chicken and thick cut French fries, Bolivian soups and dishes made of beef, rice and little else.  On the salt flat tours, tourists are served largely noodles. The tourist shops sell alpaca clothing, tiny trinkets carved from salt and little bags of salt.  No quinoa!  …Not even a plant in the plaza or a dried, decorative quinoa seed head in a hotel lobby.  These are young people who would love to learn about quinoa, eat it and then consume it in their home countries – where this is Bolivian quinoa for sale – becoming lifelong loyal Bolivian quinoa customers.  What an opportunity!

quinoa tourism - bells for meetings

The town crier rings these church bells to announce town meetings. Gladys’ niece poses for a photo- #quinoatoursim!

I was even more surprised to travel to the far away quinoa communities of San Juan, Santiago, Puerto Lluvica and Lluvica to find tourist hotels of salt, anthropology museums and tour vehicles arriving regularly, with no integration or participation with the quinoa growers themselves, who are literally living next door.

I thought of all of the agro-tourism we have alongside regular tourism in my state of Vermont, where we also have small, isolated, organic producers making largely artisanal producers – at premium prices.  I saw opportunities for tourists to learn to plan, hoe, and harvest quinoa.  To prepare quinoa for cooking in Bolivia’s many traditional ways – to have a quinoa culture center in each town where tourists can spend the afternoon thrashing seed heads, separating chaff, toasting grains over an open fire of tola plants, hand washing and grinding the grains with a stone and cooking soups, pito and pisaga.  They could herd the llamas, learn to turn the soil, even pack-up loads for llamas to carry and eat a lunch outside with the other herders. Harvest festivals and planting tours could be developed including separate quinoa tours that brought participants to the communities for several days.  Most communities had amazing pre-Inca ruins, cave paintings, and other natural wonders to explore as well – plus the community’s culture itself with ample festivals, music and traditions.

quinoa tourism - kitchen

My dughter Musi enjoys learning to cook with quinoa – Bolivian style.

Quinoa communities asked about tourism – all wanting to engage in it but not knowing how.  I told them the story of how I worked with the mayor or Mizque, 15 years ago, to develop the first Annual Fruit Festival there – which is still going on.  I helped the community of San Juan to map out their resources and see how they can work together more with the tourism industry and existing infrastructure to create a strong quinoa identity in the town of Uyuni and its surrounding communities. The communities were interested but still felt very detached from the tourists – who in one instance participated in a village festival by dancing and getting to know community members and in another instance wanted to know more about the quinoa seeds I had.  So there is interest.  The challenge is to bridge the communication and culture gap between the tourists and the Bolivians and more importantly the Bolivian tourism community and the quinoa farmers themselves.

An opportunity came by the other day when my American friend, Anna, who lives in Cochabamba and works on educational exchanges for Santa Clara students, mentioned an interest in doing more work in Uyuni.  I pitched the idea of students spending six weeks in the quinoa community of San Juan working with local people to develop a quinoa tour route and tourism.  Gladys the point person in the community was thrilled and so was my friend… we’ll where it all goes!