To me, there’s nothing quite like La Paz. It’s one of the most unusual, bustling and chaotic cities I’ve ever visited. It’s a complete feast for the eyes and ears because there are so many people and so many things going on.
La Paz is located roughly 3,650 metres above sea level and looks to me to be laid out like a massive bowl. The bottom of ‘the bowl’ is the main city hub, and from there the city rises on all sides so that when going out of the main centre you are always walking up, steeply. Look up and you’ll see rows and rows of terracotta buildings that look half finished, rising one after the other for a great distance. In fact, La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world and home to Bolivia’s parliament (but not the country’s official capital which is Sucre).
Everything can be bought in La Paz. And I mean everything. The centre is shop upon, shop. One street sells only fridges and microwaves. Another sells Tupperware. Another sells only festival costumes, and so on. Street stalls sell everything from giant ornaments of cats and tigers to different kinds of cereals.
There’s also the famous Witches Market where llama fetuses and readymade ‘offerings’ for gods and idols can be bought. It’s not really a market, in the traditional sense, though, more a couple of streets with small shops.
The traffic in La Paz is horrendous. Comparable to what I’ve seen in Hanoi and Saigon, which is pretty atrocious. The narrow street pavements are just as busy, especially on Saturday mornings when everyone seems to be out doing their weekly shopping.
La Paz’s population is mostly Aymara, so almost everyone living in the city is indigenous.
Locals seem to eat mostly from the street. A round, plump Cholita will sit and serve some delicious looking roast pork with vegetables and rice out of a big metal bowl onto plastic plates to queuing punters who munch it on the side of the road. Another Cholita sits nearby selling ‘tragos’, drinks, of duranzo, ‘peach juice,’ and all other kinds of concoctions. I noticed this heavy meal is eaten quite early, at about 10am and then also later in the afternoon.
I also noticed that Bolivia is a sugar addicted nation. The locals drink sugar infused fruit juices out of plastic bags and seem to be constantly eating ice cream, or other sweet treats, and fizzy drinks are consumed over all others. Often, on tours for lunch you’ll be given no water but only full fat coke to drink. I have a theory that Bolivians’ addiction to sugar might be fuelled by living at altitude. I think altitude makes you crave sweet food, but maybe that’s just me.
La Paz is a people watching city. It’s addictive because of the way, the women especially, dress and the culture that is so different to my own. What fascinates me is that La Paz is about 23 degrees in the day and then about 5-10 at night but none of the locals seem adjusted to the cold weather. From morning to evening Cholitas will wear woolen tights, and layers and layers under their full skirts and a few tops and then often a cape pinned together at the breast. Or if they’re not in traditional garb they’ll be layered-up and wrap a blanket around their waist. In fact, a blanket seems to be a must have accessory in chilly Bolivia. Everyone has one (me, too, now) and will wrap themselves up in one as they wait for buses or eat.
As I said Bolivia’s parliament is located in La Paz. While we were there Plaza Murillo, where the Presidential Palace is located, was completely barricaded off from all four corners with each connecting road lined with a dozen or so policemen. To pass into the square we had to ask permission from the police who let us through easily.
In the square there were few people, only some Cholitas selling snacks, a few other tourists, and a kid joyfully feeding the pigeons, who willing swamped him for foods. We walked around the square and spotted water cannons. The Presidential Palace sat giant and stately looking over the square.
Upon leaving the square from another road we noticed colourful tents blocking off a road in the distance. Inside the tents were disabled people who had travelled from all over the country, by bus and foot, to speak to President Evo Morales to request that the government increase their state benefits. The police presence and water cannons were apparently for them. The Leftist Morales had decided to reject their demands and not speak to them, though the water cannons and police presence seemed a little strong.
Stay tuned for another blog on El Alto, La Paz’s poorer neighbour, where we watched Cholita wrestling and visited the fortune tellers, among other things.
You can also read about Death Road just outside of La Paz here.
For a blog on Sucre, Bolivia click here
For a blog on Uyuni and the Bolivian Salt flats click here
Tips for fellow travellers:
Food and nightlife: We ate mostly at The English Pub near our hotel which offered good Western food. It’s good for a couple of beers too but not a party.
For nightlife most people head to the hostels such as Loki Hostel or Wild Rover. Loki has a big upstairs bar that has a club like atmosphere and is full of Europeans and young Israelis on their gap year. There are a lot of Israelis in Bolivia who go there after they have completed their national service.
Accommodation: We stayed at Sol Andino Hostal which is decent enough but nothing special. The walls are quite thin and it’s cold at night but you can hire a heater if you want. The staff did let us leave our bags there for four days when we went to Rurrenabaque, even though we weren’t staying at the hotel afterwards. I do recommend the travel agency inside, the guy was really honest and helpful.
Safety: Most people worry about being safe in La Paz it having a very bad reputation as a city. The 2013 Lonely Plant describes it as actively not safe. One guy we met on our travels said he was so paranoid he kept thinking someone was following him and ducking into doorways. A bit over the top, perhaps. We never had any problems and we did walk around at night. I guess we are two so that helps, but just exercise caution, as in any big city, and have your wits about you. Only take official taxis. The only thing bad we saw was one drunk Bolivian throw an absolute monster of a punch in the face of a bouncer who refused to let him in. The two then had a very physical fight. So there are definitely some nutters about La Paz, not too different from Streatham Hill then I suppose.
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