Getting high on La Paz
If I told you there is a city that will give you a headache which causes slight dizziness, a place that leaves you (literally) gasping for air when climbing its many steps and that will also force you to risk life and limb (with said headache) running to cross its crazy streets. And in this same city you will have to be ultra-vigilant for scams aimed at tourists (yes, that means you and in this case, us!) you would probably say you would never want to visit that city. To be honest, I wasn’t overly excited about visiting La Paz. I had a heard a few horror stories from friends who had passed through about the chaotic, dirty streets and a friend of mine even got scammed. But we felt we owed it to Bolivia to form our own opinion and see for ourselves what this city was really all about.
We ended up falling for this city, seduced by the chaos, colors and of course, the food. It is truly a dizzying city-located up 3,650 m (that’s almost 12,000 feet!) and you will most certainly feel light-headed and out of breath if you are arriving from sea level. Sucre may be the official capital of Bolivia but La Paz is the administrative capital and is home to president Evo Morales. Other governmental offices are also located here. Apart from the church and a few colonial buildings, it does not sport amazing architecture nor does it have sites of its own to visit. Most of the people who come through La Paz only do so to do participate in one of the many adventure activities on offer. So what makes this city special and why did we fall in love with La Paz?
The city is essentially located in a bowl shaped valley, surrounded on all sides by the gorgeous mountains of the altiplano including the highest one in the Cordillera Real, Illimani, which proudly sits up at 6,400 m (21,000 ft). The best views of La Paz are from the top in an adjacent city, El Alto and also from Valle de la Luna.
The city has this chaotic, infectious rhythm to it that is all its own. The traffic is completely crazy bedlam and most of the time you are crossing the street sans traffic lights. So you are basically forced to run for your life at a time when you think it might be relatively ‘safe’ (and that’s when a bus comes careening around a corner to make your heart beat out of your chest!). Crossing the street almost gave me daily panic-attacks. But it was part of the fun and part of what gives La Paz its energy.
The streets are very crowded in La Paz, you are often dodging around the various street vendors selling everything from dried corn snacks to luscious looking fruits to scary looking meat. You will also find the indigenous women everywhere choking the streets. The cholas (or cholitas as they are locally known) wearing their traditional dress of pleated skirts which cover their rotund shapes and topped off with bowler hats placed perfectly on their head. The look of these traditionally dressed women against the modern backdrop of the city is an unforgettable image-especially when you see them talking on cell phones-modern technology has certainly infiltrated.
The dress of the cholita has it’s own fashion and culture. The entire ensemble includes hat, pleated skirt, petticoat, shawl, pins to hold the shawl, jewelry and special shoes. The skirts and shawls are often made of silk and so the outfits can cost upwards of $2,500 (US dollars!!) or much more!
I was absolutely amazed to discover they don’t even use pins to hold the hats in place! It remains a mystery to me how the hat stays that way. These hats were brought to Bolivia in the 1920’s for the European workers constructing the railroad but they were too small for them. Instead, they were distributed to the locals and now this iconic piece is worn by almost every chola.
Often these women are seen carrying a baby (sometimes two) on their backs wrapped in colorful blankets and are often seen lugging heavy bundles as well. Bolivia is indeed a poor country and these women are often walking miles and miles bringing fruits or things to sell in the city from their local villages (campesinos).
There are several parts to the city-some of which are very different. The main touristy area is located around the plaza San Francisco with a church of the same name-one of the rare outstanding facades in the city. The church was originally built in the 1500’s but collapsed under the weight of heavy snow and was reconstructed in the 1700’s. Around the church you will find narrow cobble-stoned streets jammed pack with markets selling traditional Bolivian handicrafts-many scarves and hats made from alpaca or llama as well as some nice silver jewelry.
The area around the witches market is where most gringos end up staying-lots of crappy eateries and hostels surround this area as well as the witches market itself which sells everything from llama fetus to all kinds of teas and potions to help you with whatever ails…whether it be lack of love, money or health-you can find a cure here! The llama fetus is supposed to be burned and buried in the ground when purchasing a new home for good luck.
Here you could find typical La Paz dishes such as ‘Plato Paceño’ or ‘Choclo con Queso’. You could slide into any one of these places for about $2 US and get yourself something both filling & tasty (although not fancy).
The president is fairly popular, especially among the indigenous Aymara people whom Morales is one of. The rainbow colored Wiphala (flag of the Aymara) flies in front of the legislative palace and on special occasions, they drape the entire house with it.
The Aymara people are deeply connected with the earth and often make offerings to pachamama (mother earth) or the sun god Inti. They have their own language and often times, don’t even speak Spanish. Coca leaves feature prominently in their culture being used for medicines or as offerings.
The use of shamans is common practice and the shamans often use coca leaves to read your fortune. Shamans can also be seen, especially as you ascend higher into the poorer areas of La Paz, performing ceremonies for people seeking help for various reasons.
In El Alto you will see huge fires lining the streets with wax sculptures placed inside. Inscribed into the wax are various symbols for money, health, love or other wishes. Burning these desires into the fire is said to make what you want come true.
I found the Aymara culture & people intriguing and beautiful, even though they are notoriously shy with tourists (understandably so). They are the true backbone of La Paz and a big part of what makes the city special.
Up in El Alto, we found narrow streets and a much poorer population. The class structure is directly related to the altitude, the higher up you go, the poorer the people and El Alto sits at the very top. From the top, you can gaze into the amazing valley that is La Paz and enjoy the stunning views.
In sharp contrast to El Alto were prosperous neighborhoods like Sopocachi or even more posh-Zona Sur. These parts of the city were located at the very bottom of La Paz (therefore the richest). Some of the bars and restaurants in these areas look like they could belong in Manhattan instead of Bolivia. I have to admit, we enjoyed indulging in some of the ex-pat owned restaurants! Very good quality and 4 times less expensive than what you would pay back home. French, Swiss, German whatever you fancy, these neighborhoods will deliver.
Speaking of food, one of the most interesting dishes we ate was the La Paz classic-‘Fricasse’. This is perhaps the quintessential dish of La Paz. Although the dish is sauteed and then braised, it’s different from what you normally think of when you think fricasse. This is a hearty soup-stew made with tripe, chicken and chuños (dehydrated potato). It looks rather ugly bearing an odd shade of yellow (from the aji amarillo chili pepper that is used) but it tastes delicious with that yellow broth being especially rich. We went to the Miraflores neighborhood to the local favorite ‘La Riel’ to try this special dish.
Getting around the city is also rather chaotic, much like the city itself. There are taxis but it’s far more fun (and cheaper) to take the collectivos (shared minibus) or the ancient looking-revamped school buses (they are actually unwanted school buses imported from the US). The collectivo or the bus will cost you about .50 cents and take you all over the city and are fairly easy to use albeit sometimes very cramped. It was great getting around like the locals.
After about a week in La Paz, it was time to move on. The city was infectious though, despite it’s dirt, smog and general disorder. It was sunny, dry (sometimes too), colorful and bright. We did not get scammed by anybody, instead we found helpful locals and a city that had a contagious energy, even if we were out of breath half the time!
Laurent decided to bike the death road (which is a narrow, windy, dirt road covered in holes the size of cars that goes down a mountain) to Coroico which was a little paradise of a town set in the cloud-forest in Bolivia. Careening down a narrow mountain getting mud-soaked is not my idea of fun. So while he biked, I rode inside the van behind him. If you think this was a peaceful ride, think again! Laurent said it was probably worse for me in the van than for him on the bike! Passing the other vehicles (especially the trucks) on this narrow passage-sometimes with the van literally teetering on the edge had me white-knuckled most of the time.
We spent 5 days here in a little slice of heaven at an eco-lodge called Sol Y Luna. I talked Laurent into getting our own little cabin complete with an outdoor kitchen (which I will forever love and now want one of my own someday)and a fire pit!
We spent most of our time cooking outdoors and eating, lazing in the hammock and building fires at night . In the mornings, we woke up to the sound of the birds and the sunrise through the clouds. I know, tough life.
Nearby was an animal sanctuary called SendaVerde where they rescue animals that were either unwanted or hurt. They allow the public inside during specific hours of the day and they also need volunteers for a minimum of two weeks. You can even spend a night or two here but we didn’t know that before we visited. If you are planning a visit to Coroico, I highly recommend a night or two here or a volunteer stint, if you have the time. It was an amazing experience to be so close to monkeys and exotic birds. Not to be missed!
It was very difficult to leave the cabin and the cloud forest but we had sufficiently rested (probably more than we needed!) and we were ready for our next big adventure-a 5 day raft into the jungles of the Amazon! Stay tuned!