It wasn’t love at first sight – La Paz, Bolivia
Ambience, colour, lively, chaotic all at a dizzying height. After hearing other travellers rave about La Paz are my expectations too high?
Bumpily, the bus bounds from Uyuni into the world’s highest administrative albeit de facto capital, La Paz. Arriving at dawn on a Saturday, the city is already buzzing as locals prepare for the morning trade.
Built in a canyon, buildings cling to the high mountains of the altiplano, the lower you are the more affluent the residents. This unique and quirky city is 3,650 metres above sea level making it the world’s highest administrative capital and one of Latin America’s largest growing cities.
Despite being the middle of winter the days are surprisingly warm.
Wandering around for the first time I am confused by the passion other travellers have expressed. The hub of the city, Plaza Murillo, named in the honour of Pedro Domingo Murillo who famously said, “that the Bolivian revolution was igniting a lamp that nobody would be able to turn off” a statement that formally marked the beginning of the Liberation of South America from Spain. Murillo was captured and hanged here in 1810.
A huge cathedral and colonial buildings mark the plaza. Today this area is overflowing with locals preparing for a festival, the one that celebrates the anniversary of La Paz. The hurried vibe spills out into the narrow, exhausting steep cobblestoned paths.
The colourful markets are a huge attraction for locals and tourists. Dispersed across a large area, ladies sell everything from fresh fish to llama fetus.
After days in a desert surrounded by great vastness perhaps it’s too overwhelming. Walking uphill and away from the frenzied city life I find a quiet street to sit and reflect. A local who is struggling to carry her groceries decides to converse with me in Spanish. After a lot of hand gestures and nodding of the head she leaves me with her shopping, after about five minutes she returns, I have no idea whether I was minding them or suppose to carry them up the steep steps.
ONE WEEK LATER
A travel hiccup, a mix up in flights has forced me back to La Paz. Preparing for an early morning disorganized flight from the tiny tarmac in Rurrenabaque there is no guarantee of a departure, my tiny aircraft is often delayed due to low cloud over the nearby mountains. Fortunately today all is clear.
The forty-five minute flight rates as my second most favourite scenic flight in the world. Kathmandu to Bhutan just holds on to number one. Below me the Amazon jungle and white snowy peaks. The morning sun bounces off the Cordillera Real de los Andes. It’s snowing! With fresh morning powder on the mountains I am delighted to be back in La Paz.
It’s an icy arrival. In one week the city has transformed. Stopping at the newly installed cable car for a few morning snow shots I am intrigued about why I didn’t embrace La Paz the first time. Setting out on a walking tour I begin to see the city in a whole different light. Graffiti depicts the shame felt by shoe shiners who wear masks to disguise their low status. In the historic part the guide explains the political and social situation, the frequent changes. Bullet holes are a reminder of the 2003 rebellion and the loss of lives that led to another change of government and as predicted by my tour guide Juan Evo Morales Ayma was recently re-elected for his third term.
Stopping at a park across the road from the infamous San Pedro Prison. This is one of the most bizarre prison’s in the world because it is more like a compound that allows you to own property, earn an income and live with your family.
For those that have read Marching Powder by Rusty Young you will understand why I am intrigued by it. Although it is illegal to buy the book in Bolivia my guide is well versed and believes the majority of it is true. Although tours were abolished it’s believed if you encounter the right person in this very park you can still enter the prison.
I have to admit I am nervous and a little scared. The entrance is busy as people come and go. Sitting on the roof are two inmates, waving at us. This prison was meant to close last year following the rape and impregnation of a twelve-year old girl. Authorities are still trying to close the prison down.
Strolling through the gigantic markets I get a deeper understanding of the traditionally dressed and colourfully layered Aymara ladies. With their long plaits and bowler hats these women venture down from the slopes to sell their wares. Here you will need to ask before taking a photo and like most markets around the world, negotiation is not a dirty word.
I try a fruit, as the sharp taste touches my tongue I pull that sour face. Fortunately its followed by my new-found favourite fruit, Pachio. Peel away the skin and the inside looks like an overgrown passionfruit. It is sweet and delicious.
My guide takes me back to the witches market. I am still freaked out by the varying sizes of llama fetus hanging nearby the shop doors but here in Bolivia it is a tradition to use them to protect your house and are buried under the foundations, dried frogs are said to bring wealth. These markets also sell miniature wants and needs, such as a couple embracing this signifies you want to get married, buy a miniature house to increase your chances of owning a real house. I leave the souvenirs for another day!
Boarding the chicken bus or local bus I brace myself for a jam- packed ride. At a cost of one Bolivian this is not the time to suffer from claustrophobia it’s a tight squeeze and a challenge to let people get on and off.
The grand finale of the tour is the spectacular 360-degree view from Mirador Laikakota. The landscape is incredibly large, building upon building, tier upon tier all set in the midst of a mountain range. I look out Illimani, the highest mountain in the Cordillera Real. The temperature has vastly dropped and the wind chill is below freezing and just like the start of the day a light snow begins to fall. It’s time to battle my altitude adversity and climb the four flights of stairs back to my hotel room.
Despite the strong gasps for breath I now understand what makes this city so interesting. It’s the blend of so many things including the history, people, culture, colour even the chaos but most of all the uniqueness of its geography.