Like Lima in Peru, La Paz was one of those cities that I just didn’t expect to like. There were aspects of it that intrigued me – primarily the city’s complex and sinister history – but on the surface I imagined it to be dirty, overcrowded, unattractive and dangerous; Lonely Planet warns that,
“there’s quite a bit of petty theft in La Paz, and violent attacks are on the rise.”
To a large degree it is all of the above (although we didn’t personally encounter any threats to our safety), but at the same time it’s a beguiling, unconventional, multi-faceted city with an infectious energy running through its streets.
The metropolitan area of La Paz is divided into two distinct areas. There’s the city itself, which is located within a steep valley surrounded by the high mountains of the altiplano, and then there’s El Alto (Spanish translation: The Heights) – once merely a suburb of La Paz and now a municipality in its own right, with its own flag and coat of arms.
El Alto is actually one of the highest major cities in the world, sitting at 4050 metres above sea level, and La Paz is recognised as the highest (3660m) administrative capital in the world. Whilst it’s not the official capital city of Bolivia (that title belongs to Sucre, where the government seat is held), it is the largest Bolivian city, and also the largest centre in the country for commerce, finance and industry.
If you only do one thing when you come to La Paz (with the exception of cycling down The World’s Most Dangerous Road; you must do that) then joining the Red Cap Walking Tour should be it. It’s free, fun, and will give you a greater insight into the complexities of this fascinating city, than any guidebook can.
The free walking tour covers all the major attractions in central La Paz, but we also paid for the extended tour (120 bolivianos) which incorporates a visit to El Alto. Much like Belén in Iquitos, we’d been advised not to visit El Alto without a guide if we wanted to take anything of value with us. The views alone from El Alto were reason enough for me to take my camera, so pay for a guide we must.
As well as being a very entertaining few hours (actually six if you combine the two tours), we learned a number of interesting facts about the city of La Paz.
The geography of La Paz reflects its societal hierarchy
Where you’ll normally find that anywhere with a view yields a higher price tag and therefore accommodates the more wealthy clientele – the penthouse suite, the rooftop bar or that restaurant overlooking the plaza – La Paz is one of the exceptions to this rule. Here the richest people live in the lowest neighbourhoods, simply because the climate is significantly warmer.
Macrodistrito Sur is recognised as the wealthiest neighbourhood in La Paz, whereas the peaks of El Alto are home to some of the poorest people in the city (hence the higher level of crime and thus increased risk of danger to those who live there or choose to visit).
Its political history is both violent and corrupt
Since Bolivian independence in 1825, the republic has endured more than 190 changes in leadership. Some presidents were driven out of office; others have been victim to fatal ‘accidents’. Generally-speaking, if the people of Bolivia didn’t like you, they’d find a way to rob you of your power and leadership.
As recently as 1946 then-president Gualberto Villarroel was publicly hanged in La Paz’s main square, Plaza Murillo, serving to prove that if long-life was something you craved then running for presidency was something to be avoided at all costs.
Despite the fact that Bolivia once appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the country with the most social unrest, the situation has become a lot more stable in recent years. Whilst the election of Evo Morales (the first Bolivian president to come from the country’s indigenous population) in 2006 was not without its opposition, the majority of Bolivians believe that he has been good for their country, working to combat illiteracy, racism and sexism, and reducing poverty.
It’s full of witches, sorcerers and soothsayers
Ok so these aren’t witches as depicted in horror films and children’s fairytales, but some of them are apparently quite capable of putting a curse on you, should you offend them in any way. Always ask before you take photographs!
The Mercado de Hechicería (Witches’ Market) in La Paz can be found along Calle Jiménez and Calle Linares, close to the Plaza de San Francisco. Although it’s smaller than I expected it to be and most of it has been taken over by handicraft shops selling alpaca jumpers, woven shawls, and leather goods, the witches’ stores can be easily identified by the llama foetuses hanging in the doorways.
Although llama sacrifices do still occur, the foetuses you’ll see here are apparently all the result of natural miscarriages. Priced between 180-250 bolivianos (depending on whether you want yours with or without fur), these llama foetuses are given as an cha’lla (offering) to Pachamama (Mother Earth) during a traditional ceremony held to mark the occasion of building or purchasing a new home.
At the Witches’ Market you can also find countless different spells, medicines, tonics and potions to aid or cure any physical, mental or emotional difficulties you may be experiencing. Much like Chinese Medicines, the concoctions available here are often made with some rather more unconventional ingredients (llama toenails, toucan beaks and starfish, to name but a few) that are expertly combined with local Andean plants and herbs.
Up at El Alto, a wander along Witches’ Alley is arguably a more authentic experience though. The street is lined with a seemingly endless number of identical blue booths, distinguished only by a number. Small fires burn in front of shaded doorways, and numerous sets of dark eyes follow you as you pass.
Our guide took us to visit one of El Alto’s Witch Doctors (known as Yatiris – Aymara for ‘someone who knows’), a smiley, well-fed, modestly-dressed local man who looked nothing like I imagined a witch doctor would. He led us through the doors of number 24 and into a darkened, candle-lit room that was barely big enough the five of us.
We were invited to sit down in front of a small wooden table upon which were laid several handfuls of dried coca leaves. The witch doctors use these in the practice of fortune-telling.
I declined to have my fortune told, not because I believe in black magic (I don’t) but because I do believe in self-fulfilling prophecy. The mind is a powerful thing, and all it takes is someone to plant a seed, and we sub-consciously act in ways to fulfil that prophecy. El Alto’s Witch Doctors do not always have good things to say. What if he told me I did not have a future in travel writing? Would I abandon my blog and give up on something that I enjoy immensely? What if he told me I was going to get sick? Would I worry myself about it so much that I’d end up actually making myself ill? or would I lose all passion and enthusiasm for the life I currently enjoy?
So I sat back and listened whilst the Polish girl in our group received her reading, attempting to interpret the odd sentence here and there whilst she confidently conversed with the witch doctor – in her third language.
Its prison is more like a microcosm of society than an incarceration facility
Notorious in Bolivia, San Pedro prison has become even more widely so since the release of Rusty Young’s Novel ‘Marching Powder‘ in 2003. It’s a novel I’ve not long started reading, and am thoroughly enjoying – if that’s the right word.
It tells the story of Thomas McFadden, a small-time English drug smuggler whose luck runs out when he gets busted at La Paz airport by an official he’d paid to help him. He subsequently winds up in San Pedro prison, and Marching Powder is the story of his survival.
Significantly different from most correctional facilities, San Pedro operates as a self-governing jail. Inmates at San Pedro must buy or rent their accommodation, and can also choose to pay for their families to live with them. Much like society on the outside, there are a variety of different neighbourhoods within the prison, ranging from the wealthiest ‘La Posta’ (where cells come with private bathrooms, kitchens and cable TV) down to the poorest, where prisoners lie on stained mattresses in tiny rooms with exposed concrete walls.
There are restaurants, shops and a pharmacy on site, run by the prisoners themselves, and you can usually buy whatever you want inside (everything works on a supply and demand basis) – for the right price. This includes alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana – and cocaine.
Whilst Thomas McFadden was imprisoned there, inmates didn’t even need to make contact with the outside world to obtain some of the highest grade cocaine in the whole of Bolivia; the prison operated as an efficient cocaine factory.
The fact that 85% of the prisoners in San Pedro were in for drugs-related offences, coupled with the fact that the guards were willing to turn a blind eye to pretty much anything for a high enough bribe, meant that this operation continued for many years. And
possibly probably still does now.
Traditionally-dressed indigenous women don’t weave in Bolivia; they wrestle!
Ok, so many of them do weave, but there are a select few (who form part of a group called Titans of the Ring) that become a fighting blur of flowing skirts and dishevelled hair every Sunday evening.
Cholita Wrestling can be observed in an arena in El Alto, and tickets (including transport to and from the location) can be purchased from most travel agents in the city. Unfortunately we weren’t in the city at the right time of the week to witness this bizarre spectacle, and I’m not entirely sure it would have been my kind of thing but, had I been given the opportunity, curiosity may have got the better of me!
Traditional colonial streets still exist within the city
Whilst we didn’t actually visit La Paz’s finest colonial street, Calle Jaen, as part of the walking tour (as it’s a steep 10-minute walk uphill from Plaza San Francisco), we were advised to definitely go if we got the chance.
Seeing as though Stu wasn’t quite as keen on the idea of giving his lungs as much of a workout at over 3660 metres above sea level as I was, I headed up there one afternoon alone.
This colourful, quaint, cobbled, traffic-free street is a beautiful and tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of the La Paz’s busy streets down below. It’s also home to four museums (my favourite is the fascinating Museo de Instrumentos Musicales), an art gallery, a few unique artisan shops, and a couple of alternative cafe/bars.
It’s home to The World’s Longest Urban Cable Car
Officially opened to the public on the 30th May 2014 (just over a month before we visited), the cable car (Spanish name Mi Teleférico) links La Paz with the neighbouring city of El Alto, a journey which is incredibly long and arduous by road.
Prior to the cable car’s introduction, the public transport system was struggling to cope with growing user demands, the traffic system was chaotic, environmental and noise pollution were at an all time high, and there was an ever-increasing demand for gasoline and diesel fuel.
The network currently consists of 10 stations, is 10 kilometres in length, and a ride from top to bottom (or vice versa) will take just 20 minutes and set you back as little as 3 bolivianos (27 pence).
A population of dancing zebras keep the traffic in order
Yep, you read that right – Zebras. Ok so as you may have guessed, these aren’t actually zebras but rather a selections of disadvantaged youths from the city who dress up in zebra outfits and control the chaotic traffic on the streets of La Paz.
They also help pedestrians (especially children) to cross the roads, and regularly hug and dance with passersby. Oh, and pose for photographs.
Should you choose to you can jump out of a window on the 17th floor of the President Hotel dressed as Optimus Prime!
This is all part of a new venture called ‘Urban Rush‘ where willing victims can abseil (or rappel as it’s often known) down the outside of the hotel walls dressed in a plethora of different superhero costumes. For the really brave amongst you, they also offer ‘Rap Jumping’ which is basically a head-first descent.
For those of you who read this blog regularly, you’ll know that – despite jumping out of a plane at over 12,000 feet above New Zealand’s Fox Glacier – I’m actually scared of heights.
Suffice to say that Stu jumped whilst I took photographs.
You can actually get some damn good food here
After our appalling culinary experiences in Copacabana, I assumed that Bolivia’s food scene was going to be fairly disappointing. Not in La Paz.
I ate one of the finest Indian meals in my life at Star of India, The World’s Highest British Curry House, enjoyed some quirky fine dining at Chez Moustache, and savoured some delicious salads and tasty craft beers at El Sol y Luna.
More on La Paz’s food scene in an upcoming post!