A sprawling city, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. At 3640 metres above sea level it really does take your breath away! Technically the capital remains Sucre but as the Bolivians love rankings much they still manage to claim the top spot.
After spending a few blissful days of relaxation at Colibri Camping, I booked a taxi to the take me the 30 minute drive into the city centre. There was a lot of traffic as you would expect, but the old school buses caught my eye. And traditional ‘Cholitas’ still maintained their dress even amid the busy streets.
My hostel was basic but ok, I checked in and went to find the free walking tour that Rolando had recommended to me. The meeting point was outside San Pedro prison, a notoriously corrupt establishment in the city centre, where inmates live with their families, and those with money afford very comfortable living quarters, produce and sell their own cocaine and offer tours of the prison. Rumour has it you can bribe your way into the prison but exact details of how to get out again are scarce. I declined the offer of a tour as stories of stabbings, rapes and disappearance of tourists had already reached my ears. It is a prison after all.
After that dramatic start, we were shepherded around the city, calling at various markets, and stopping off to admire St Nicholas Church, which was built with the help of the indigenous people in the hope that they would feel more attached to their new place of Christian worship. The result is a traditional church, with indigenous influences in the stonework and decoration which makes for an interesting mix.
The most entertaining market was the Witches Market, where locals buy everything they need for offerings to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). Although the vast majority of Bolivians report to be Christian, the blend of indigenous religion still remains. Offerings are made when a new house is built, a new car is bought, and for most similar occasions they request the blessing of Pacha Mama. Offerings include sweets, herbs, coca leaves, burning candles, and in the case of new buildings, a dried llama fetus buried in the foundations. Apparently these llamas aren’t slaughtered in the womb, but are those who die (quite frequently) of natural causes early after being born or are miscarried due to the cold weather in the mountains.
Our guide also told us of the urban legend which requires human sacrifice for large constructions, and Pacha Mama just won’t accept the teeny llama for this. There apparently have been stories of missing homeless people, disappearing before the construction of large bridges, roads etc. And of human remains found while excavating old building sites. Spooky.
At the market I bought a stone carving of a condor, said to represent safe or happy journeys – quite apt I thought. Sadly I broke it somewhere along the trek to Machu Picchu, but hopefully superglue won’t damage its potency!
The food in La Paz that day was average to say the least, a normal hostel breakfast of bread and jam, lunch of a papa rellena (stuffed potato) and a quite unpleasant curry, I can’t wax lyrical about the delights of La Pazian cuisine. The following day, I joined my Dragoman Overland tour group and we enjoyed a dinner that evening, and I tried my first alpaca steak which was delicious!
That afternoon before we met officially for the trek meeting, my new room-mate and I went to investigate the newly built Mi Teleferico cable car, a network of lines pushed for by the indigenous president Eva Morales, in a bid to unite the outskirts of the city with the centre, and enable the people from the poorer communities such as El Alto to commute cheaply without braving the notorious La Paz traffic. There is some debate about the effectiveness of the project and benefit to the locals, but they do make for an excellent tourist attraction, offering stunning views of the city as you soar above. We took the red line which was closest to our hostel, and for just 3 bolivianos we reached El Alto in around 15 minutes, instead of the 45 minute journey (or more) in the choking traffic below.
After dinner with the group, we all retired early to prepare for our first day on the road the next morning.
Find other things to do in La Paz
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