Annie and I returned to La Paz determined to find the prettier side of this rather gritty city. We reserved a room in a what we thought was to be a nice hostel called Hostel Republica, which turned out to not be the case. Unlike the friendly greeting we received in Sucre upon our early morning arrival, the receptionist at Hostel Republica was neither prepared nor willing to let us into our room until their 1 PM checkin. Strike one for La Paz. Undeterred we pressed onward and headed for breakfast at our favorite La Paz hangout, a delightful cafe owned inexplicably by a strikingly beautiful swede. We enjoyed muesli and yogurt and porridge with fresh fruit and waited for the tour agencies to open so we could arrange for a guide for our next trek. After an hour and still no agencies (I think we mentioned that Bolivians are not a morning people), we strolled the streets and came upon the Rodriguez market-street after street of stalls selling everything from fresh flowers and produce to home goods and cleaning supplies. Things were looking up. We walked for an hour and half admiring the various wares for sale and bought some veggies for our first dinner on el Choro. We then returned to the tour agencies to learn more about apolobamba.
We visited several tour agencies up and down the main tourist drag, calle sagarnaga, and fleshed out our options. Apolobamba is approximately 120 kilometers and 10 hours away from La Paz. Most agencies quoted a guide at around 35 US dollars per day and everyone assured us it was at least a 7 day ordeal to and from the city. These facts stole some of our enthusiasm, but several operators mentioned Condoriri as a more accessible high- altitude excursion. In the same breath they also included tackling Huayna Potosi along the way. Armed with more info and sone serious deliberations to make, Annie and I decided to discuss things over lunch before signing on with a tour.
The best restaurant in Bolivia is called Gustu. It is located in the Zona Sur, a ritzy neighborhood to the south of the city center where the rich can live far removed from the dirt and poverty of everyday Bolivian life. It looks for all intents and purposes like a sunbelt city in America (think Phoenix or Tucson). Gustu is the brainchild of Claus Meyer, the cofounder of Noma in Copenhagen, currently number two on the list of world's best restaurants. Meyer is at the forefront of hyper-local food and was attracted by the diversity of Bolivia's foods and flavors. Everything on the menu is uniquely Bolivian but with a decidedly haute cuisine twist. The restaurant, barely a year old, also serves as a school and training ground for young Bolivians and everyone from the waiters to the chefs are students eagerly learning and honing their craft. As such it lacks the polish one might expect at a fine dining establishment but more than makes up for it by the quality, creativity and originality of its dishes and the earnestness of its young staff.
We had to take a long and harrowing cab ride to the south of the city. Our taxi driver aggressively nosed his car in and around other cars heedless of any lanes or of oncoming traffic. After half an hour or so we arrived and our gastronomic journey began. We were greeted at the door by the restaurant manager, a recently transplanted Coloradoan from steamboat springs who guided us to our table and through the menu by explaining some of the more exotic items. Deciding to go 'all out' we began our meal with cocktails-this would be rare for Annie and I at any time but especially while traveling (we can count the number of drinks we've had over the past two months on one hand). Annie enjoyed a BOLIVIANA DE AVIACIÓN made with Distilled Andean botanicals, lavender, cherry and grapefruit while I sipped on a distinctly Bolivian old fashioned made with Daroccadorado, api, homemade clove and cardamom bitters. We're still unclear about the exact ingredients but they were very tasty. With our cocktails we nibbled on complimentary starter - The most beautiful and exotic potato chips you are likely to encounter. As a snack we shared crispy pork skins with rhubarb. This was Annie's first time with cracklings. Did I mention that they served complimentary sparkling water? That alone sets Gustu apart from every other restaurant. For our appetizer, we ordered Soft Poached Rabbit With Citric Choclo Cream And Lemon Grass. Choclo is corn and the confited rabbit came in the most delicious ' corn gravy' imaginable. Even the bread was wxceptionabld being accompanied by 3 herbed butters including a Coca butter tasting strongly of that illegal-in-the-US plant. For our mains, Annie chose Lama With Citric Yogurt, Achacana Cactus And Honey. It would never have occurred to us to accompany grilled steak with yogurt and honey but the sweet creaminess of the sauce went perfectly with the grilled lama and the Achacana cactus proved earthy, toothsome and provided a touch of bitterness to balance the plate. I chose Lamb Tail, Chuño, Blueberries And Blue Potatoes. The lamb tail had been confited and shredded and was plated with chuño an earthy tuber with a delicious blueberry sauce. For dessert we decided to share Iced Chirimoya On Aji Fudge With Flakes Of Tomatillo. Chiromoya is a fruit that tastes vaguely of bubblegum and again we were pleasantly surprised by the combination of sweet, fruity sorbet with the tartness of tomatillo which was made into candied crisps.
Throughout our whole meal we were impressed by the flavors and superb presentation of each course. It was a gustatory adventure, by far our best meal of the trip, and a highlight of our time in Bolivia. Plus when you consider that we are unlikely to be able to dine at Noma and our bill at Gustu was scarcely 80 dollars US, it was an excellent opportunity to experience world class cuisine.
Thus fortified, we headed back to Sarganaga to book our tour. Over lunch we had decided to do Condoriri and Huayna Potosi rather than Apolobamba. We've booked a guide through a highly reputable organization called Adolfo Andino. Adolfo spoke great English and took the time to talk us through all of our options. We are going to solo hike for 4 days and 3 nights along the condoriri trail and meet up with our mountain guide at the base of Huayna Potosi. In the afternoon we'll practice a little ice climbing and the next day we'll tackle the mountain. It will be an EPIC ending to our Bolivian adventure.