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.
The city 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 steeply uphill. 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 bursting with shop upon shop. One street sells only fridges and microwaves. Another sells Tupperware, while somewhere else they only sell festival costumes, and so on. Street stalls sell everything from giant ornaments of cats and tigers to different kinds of cereals. Don’t ask me why shops near each other all sell the exact same thing.
La Paz is also home to 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.
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, much like back home.
The city’s population is mostly Aymara, so almost everyone pounding the streets are indigenous natives and not only do they bustle about they seem to take all their meals from the street also. 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, in particular, dress and the culture that is so different from the West. What fascinates me is that La Paz is about 23 degrees in the day and then about 5-10 degrees at night but none of the locals appeared 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 (including me now) and will use it to wrap themselves up when waiting for buses or eating (on the street, of course).
La Paz is home to Bolivia’s parliament. While we were there Plaza Murillo, which houses the Presidential Palace, 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. We walked around the square and spotted water cannons.
Then, upon exiting it, from another road we noticed colourful tents blocking off a street in the distance. Inside the strangely-placed tents were disabled people who had travelled from all over the country, by bus and foot, to speak to President Evo Morales to request the government increase their state benefits. The police presence and water cannons were apparently for them, though they didn’t seem like much of a threat. The Leftist Morales had decided to reject their demands and not speak to them.
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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