The flight from Buenos Aires to La Paz took roughly three hours. I arrived late into the evening, and I won’t lie, was a little anxious about landing, in the dark, into the world’s highest (and therefore one of the most dangerous) airport!
Luckily I survived the landing, but as soon as you step off the plane, La Paz tries to kill you again…. Want to be able to breathe easy somewhere? Well then, La Paz is not the place for you!
La Paz Airport (El Alto) sits at an incredible 13,325 feet above sea level which means the symptoms of altitude hit you the second you hit the tarmac. Literally. You can instantly feel a tightness in your chest and you experience a real difficulty in reaching for breath; it is the weirdest thing. I had read up about the altitude sickness in the city a fair bit before coming over, and ultimately thought that it was all a bit of over exaggeration…Well, I was wrong, and now I understand why everyone recommends you buy anti sickness tablets prior to visiting.
Having collected my bags and (slowly!) making my way out the airport I flagged down a taxi to take me into the centre of the city and down to my hotel; the Golden Palace.
Whilst checking in, I bumped into a Bolivian woman at reception who introduced herself as Laura, our tour guide for the next week or so. Laura asked me if I would like to join her for breakfast tomorrow to meet the rest of the group. I gladly accepted before carting my stuff up to my room; looking forward to getting a good night sleep.
Famous last words ‘good night sleep’ – I ended up being awake most of the night with AWFUL altitude sickness…
Having really not slept at all, surprisingly I woke up feeling pretty ok. It was about 7am and I made my way across to the breakfast room where I met Laura again, and a few of the other members of the tour. It’s always funny looking back at your initial meetings with people in tour groups like this; by the end of three weeks together you all get to know each other so well and the initial awkward meetings seems like such a hazy distant a memory!
There was 10 of us in the group in total however some had elected for a sensible lie in, whilst others had gone to tackle the famous Death Road. I did however meet Bec (a student from Esperance, Australia) Emily (a nanny from Belgium), Josh (a policeman from Newcastle, Australia) and his girlfriend, Georgina, a podiatrist.
Everyone in the group had either been travelling together the previous week, through Peru, or met the day before so I was definitely the newbie. That didn’t last long however.
As I was new to city, Laura very kindly offered that she would take me on a little tour and that she would point out some of the main sites and scenes. I gladly accepted however was very pleased to have an hour or so first to shower and get all my bits together!
Fresh and feeling much better, a little while later I met Laura in reception and set out for my first few steps in the incredible and vibrant city that is La Paz. I was instantly struck by just how culturally different this place was; the sights, the smells, the sounds. The truth however – I loved it. Instantly.
Just down from the hotel, we meandered down the cobbled streets through into a lane lined with open, brightly coloured shop fronts filled to the brim with colourful packages, interesting figurines, trinkets, charms and, erm, dead baby llamas strung from ceiling post to ceiling post. I’ll come back to those later….
‘Welcome to the Witches Market’ Laura announced.
I must admit, this is something that I literally could not wait to visit whilst in La Paz and I was so excited to learn more about this belief which just seems so foreign to me.
Bolivia is home to ‘Brujas’ (witches) ‘Kallawaya’ (medicine men) and ‘Curanderos’ (local healers of shamans). Some claim that magical intuition came to them after near death experiences such as encounters with lightning strikes, snake bites and illnesses (received) from time spent in the harsh rainforests. For others, spiritual prowess is a gift they received at birth; perhaps they were born in a standing position, or have ‘magical’ deformities such as extra fingers or webbed toes.
I’ll talk later about the beliefs and rituals practiced nowadays by the witches as we visited the proper witches market in the neighbouring city of El Alto the following day. The witches market in the centre of La Paz is really set up for the tourists; so if you want to see the real witches, make sure you visit El Alto which is a half an hour or so drive out of the city.
This market in the centre of town however is a fantastic place to begin opening your mind to the belief system of these mystical Bolivian practices…!
Laura took me into one of the little stores and showed me a few of the various spells available. She explained that an offering would be made to ‘Pachamama’ (Mother earth) where by you would ask for your greatest desires. Want a new car? Then offer Pachamama an image of a car. Want to ensure your coca harvest flourishes? Offer Pachamama an image of the leaves.
Laura showed me round the store, pointing out the various talisman symbols and charms. We soon arrived at an area selling boxes of spells for every ailment possible. Appendicitis? They have a spell for that. Diabetes? Of course, they have a spell for that too. Disappointing lover? You’ve guessed it…
Having left the witches market we wandered up into the main area of the city. Laura paused, just outside a large shopping complex building. Looking up she said ‘see that scarecrow, that’s a warning. A warning to thieves; if they’re caught they’ll be killed’.
‘Is that legal?’ I asked, shocked by the idea of it. ‘Oh no, not technically’, Laura said. ‘But this is Bolivia, and the police wouldn’t mind. It happens all the time’.
Wow. The more time I spent in Bolivia, the more I came to realise that law and order here really is unlike any system I have ever come to know before…
We continued walking and Laura asked whether I had ever tasted the Bolivian version of an empanada; a Salteñas. I hadn’t, but I definitely wanted to having heard about them before visiting. Our family friend Amy’s partner is from Bolivia and one of the things she said I must do whilst in Bolivia was to test out the Salteñas. Also, I won’t lie, I love a good empanada so I had no doubt I would be alllll over these.
We went to a little place called Salteñas Soliz on one of the main streets and went straight ahead ordering two of the meat varieties.
So what is a Salteñas, and how are they that different from the Argentinian empanada that I had grown to love? On paper, they’re both baked, savoury pastries filled with meat (normally beef, chicken or pork); however they really do taste very different. The Bolivian pastry, I found, was much denser than its Argentinian counterpart, and whilst the empanada is fairly dry inside, using just the moisture from the meat, the Salteñas is filled with a slightly sweet, spicy sauce containing olives, raisins and potatoes. Honestly, mine was so saucy I had half of the thing dripping down my hands and arms by the time I finished. It was though, absolutely delicious. If I’m being totally honest however I think, not being a particularly sweet girl, my favourite would still have to be the empanada… (sorry Diego!)
Having devoured the Salteñas, and utilising many many napkins to wipe of the excess sauce (much to Laura’s amusement) we continued walking and wandered into the city’s central spot – Plaza Murillo.
Plaza Murillo is the main hub in the city and is the open space most connected to the political life of Bolivia. Prominent buildings on the plaza include the presidential palace, the National Congress of Bolivia, and the beautiful Cathedral of La Paz (Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace).
Having kindly given me my bearings, Laura headed back to the hotel and I set off to really get exploring.
The first thing that strikes you in La Paz is the people. Still adorning their traditional clothes which are probably the same worn as the generations before them; it’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped into an area of South America which has really frozen in time. I LOVED it.
Bolivia prides itself on having one of the largest indigenous cultures in South America with an estimated 60% of the population claiming indigenous descent. Although many native groups make up Bolivia’s indigenous population, the most prevalent group living in La Paz are the ‘Aymaras’.
The Aymaras are known for their rich, highland culture, colourful handicrafts and traditional dress. The Aymara women, known locally as ‘cholitas’ generally are always seen dressed in their traditional clothes wearing their little bowler hats, several layers of ‘polleras’ (skirts), tiny shoes and beautifully embroidered shawls. They also generally wear a colourful handwoven blanket on their backs to either carry a baby or other items such as food or flowers from the markets.
Walking around the streets of La Paz, I was amazed to see so many cholitas dressed so colourfully, each one bringing her own unique charm. Most Aymaras are short and stout and purposefully wear many layers of skirts to make their hips appear larger. According to their culture, large hips are a sign of beauty and fertility. The women also wear their hair long and in plaits with coloured black wool and adornments at the end.
Interestingly, even though the women wear very similar clothes, there are certain tell-tale signs to look out for which will tell you more about the individuals. If the Cholita wears her hat centred on her head, that tells you that she is married. If she is wearing it the side, she is single, and in the case of many of the older cholitas, most probably widowed. You can also tell a lot about the ladies’ financial circumstances. Many of the cholitas have golden teeth which is a sure sign that they are from the richer strains of La Paz’s society.
As I walked around La Paz, it was evident that Aymara women make up the majority of street vendors, selling everything from vibrant traditional clothing; to scarves, shawls and blankets. Some women sell freshly made bread, hand squeezed orange juice or the biggest slices of watermelon I have ever seen! You will also see many ladies with large vats of liquid selling ‘Mocochinchi’; a traditional Bolivian cold drink made with peeled and dried peaches which have been soaked overnight and boiled together with sugar and cinnamon. Delicious!
The Aymara women are central to the family unit in Bolivia. Not only do most Aymara women work full time, they also manage the house, children, cooking, cleaning and finances. Girl Power!
Something that’s worth mentioning, be a bit careful when taking photos around the Aymara women. They believe that when their photo is taken, part of their soul is stolen. It’s therefore not unusual to be shouted at, or even have water thrown at you, if you’re caught taking a sneaky snap. I made this mistake on my first day in La Paz. Can you tell that the woman on the right practically charged at me after I took this photo? Safe to say I asked for permission the next time!
After having a little wander, I sat down in the Plaza San Francisco which houses its namesake; the Basilica of San Francisco, the city’s Catholic Cathedral which was founded in 1549. The Basilica has its own museum which I definitely would have visited had I a little more time!
Having pounded the pavements for the majority of the day, I decided to head back to the hotel, showering and changing before heading out for the evening ahead.
At around about 7pm we all met up as a group in the hotel lobby and I was introduced to a few other members of the group. There was Grace, a student from Wagga Wagga, Australia, Elle a student from Perth, Australia and Jameel; and engineer from Adelaide.
We were all pretty hungry so Laura said she would take us to a nice restaurant in the city which served traditional Bolivian cuisine. This cute little courtyard restaurant, Angelo Colonial, was dimly lit by candlelight and was decorated with antiques from the wall adornments down to the mis matched furniture we sat on. It was amazing.
Laura suggested that we try the quinoa cannelloni; a combination which I wasn’t too sure about. I trusted Laura however, and was pleasantly surprised – it was delicious. And of course, only right to have it here, in the world’s largest Quinoa growing nation!
We all sat around the restaurant, eating all the delicious food, chatting and getting to know each other – it was the perfect first proper night all together in South America!
The next morning we decided it would all be nice to go and grab brunch together and Laura recommended a cute little spot called Cafe Del Mundo. Whilst not the most traditional of Bolivian places, it was exactly what we needed and a perfect start to our day exploring La Paz. I ordered Huevos Rancheros which was spot on. Obvs.
I was nice at breakfast as I met the final two members of the group. Aziz (Jameel’s cousin) and Blake, both engineers from Adelaide, Australia. We were now a complete group and I could tell straight away that there would be no problems with us all travelling together over the next three weeks to come! We all hit it off straight away.
Completely stuffed from brunch, and our caffeine quotas for the day already fulfilled, we headed towards the Plaza San Pedro where we met an, erm, interesting little man. Ladies and Gentleman, meet Crazy Dave.
Crazy Dave ( aka Dave Sanchez) is a 50+ year old Hispanic-American from Spanish Harlem, New York City. He’s a weather-beaten, battered looking, tanned & tattooed little fella about 5ft 5inches, with a smashed left elbow, and dirty bare feet. Back in the late 1990’s, by his own admission, Dave was a fairly desperate lowlife junkie who’d seriously let down his partner and kids. Then, as luck would have it, opportunity knocked, or so he thought…
Some drug acquaintances offered Dave $2,000 to spend a week in Bolivia and bring a little of the local produce back to the states. After a week of drugs, sex & rock n roll (his words, not mine) he found himself back at La Paz airport, trying to board the plane back to New York with two sealed beer bottles containing some 8.5kg of cocaine in his case.
Perhaps unsurprisingly he was stopped, searched & detained. He was subsequently sentenced to 16 years in prison for drug smuggling, receiving short thrift from the US authorities.
Dave now believes he was the decoy man for a much larger smuggling operation, the sacrificial sucker who nobody would give a damn for, whilst the real criminals raked in the drug profits. He surmises it was they who tipped off the border security to bust him as cover for the bigger deal that was probably going on at the same time. Makes sense really.
Dave is the ultimate story teller, he raps, he shouts and by the end of his monologue he most definitely had a captive audience in us, and no shortage of bemused looks from some of the passing locals.
Dave was detained in La Paz’ notorious jail – San Pedro Prison. We sat listening to him whilst the prison loomed in the background which made his story even more enthralling, being able to see the backdrop to all these unbelievable anecdotes right in front of us.
If you’re not familiar with San Pedro Prison, I cannot recommend enough that you pick up a copy of ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young. After completing his law degree, the author, Australian Rusty travelled around South America and like me, visited the vibrant city of La Paz. Unlike me however, Rusty didn’t just admire the prison from the outside, he bribed a guard and ventured into the prison for the purpose of taking a very off the record tour from one of the prisoners, Englishman Thomas McFadden. Similarly to Crazy Dave, Thomas was caught trying to smuggle cocaine out of La Paz and was sentenced to [x] in San Pedro. During the tour of the prison, Rusty and Thomas struck up an immediate friendship. Rusty longed to be a writer and Thomas wanted someone to tell his story. The perfect partnership was therefore born. Rusty ended up being smuggled into San Pedro where he lived for four months interviewing Thomas and eventually penning the incredible Marching Powder.
I genuinely could write an entire blog post about San Pedro Prison; there’s no other place in the world like it – San Pedro is certainly not normal prison by any stretch of the imagination. For starters prisoners must buy their cells when they enter the prison, that’s after they’ve paid the entrance fee! There are many different ‘neighbourhoods’ in San Pedro ranging from terrible conditions in the poorer parts where inmates are crammed in 3 or 4 to a tiny cell to areas which are more like posh apartment blocks and house convicted businessmen and politicians. If you can afford it, your ‘cell’ could be a three story apartment complete with a jacuzzi spa..! The wives and children of many of the inmates actually live with their husbands inside the prison and twice a day you can see lines of children leaving and entering the prison on their way to and from school. Dave explained to us that he was even paid to tutor some of the prisoners children in English…
In San Pedro, every inmate must earn their living as nothing comes for free so many run shops, restaurants and most famously cocaine laboratories. Unlike most prisons, guards rarely enter the main part of San Pedro, so prisoners are for the most part left to look after themselves. C-razy.
Nowadays unfortunately it’s pretty impossible for tourists to enter the prison on unofficial tours. At its peak popularity there was a stream of problems with visitors being robbed, and even raped… perhaps just admire the prison walls and learn all about what actually goes on inside from our friend Rusty!
Having enjoyed listening to Crazy Dave’s tales, we were treated to an impromptu rap before we paid a little tip (asking no questions as to what he would spend it on…) said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel where we met Stephanie a La Paz local who was going to show us around the city in a bit more depth.
One of the first spots Stephanie took us to was a little indoor market which sold every clothing item a Cholita could ever need from skirts, to pinafores to the iconic bowler hats. Stephanie explained that the garments were in no way cheap; the hats would set you back around 1000 Bolivianos, and one skirt could easily be around 500.
Stephanie explained that the bowler hats were actually made in Europe in the late 1800s and were shipped to Bolivia for the European railroad workers. Unfortunately however the hats were too small but instead of throwing them discarding the hats, it was decided that they would be gifted to the Aymara indigenous group. Now these hats are literally everywhere. Obviously handmade European hats don’t come cheap and aren’t affordable for every Cholita; its therefore not unusual to some ladies wearing straw or cotton variants.
Having wandered out of the market we hopped onto one of the public buses which took us farup a winding steep mountain track to a particularly mystical place; El Alto; the second largest city in Bolivia which is 30 minutes or so from La Paz. I’ll write about El Alto separately as the incredible things we witnessed there definitely deserve their own post!
Having spent some time in El Alto we continued walking until we reached a modern terminal building. For our return to La Paz there would be no long bus journey this time round; we were here to experience one of the most recent additions to the city – the cable cars!
Having been in operation for three years, the La Paz cable cards have completely revolutionised life for the city’s inhabitants. A journey across town which could have previously taken an hour and a half, now only maybe takes twenty minutes.
We boarded the cable car at the top of El Alto, the red line, and took it down into the basin of La Paz City. As we meandered down (at quite the gradient) – Stephanie pointing out various points of interest on the way.
First, we learned all about the canny resident’s way of avoiding paying taxes on their houses…. How you might ask? Well, you just don’t finish the construction… In La Paz, taxes are paid upon the building being finalised; don’t finalise the building therefore – don’t pay any tax!
Funnily enough, floating down above the winding residential streets we noticed that most families employed these tactics; there’s houses with no roofs, partly constructed walls and piles of bricks were a room should be. It’s amazing that the Government hasn’t cracked down on this more, but well – God loves a tryer hey?
Crossing over the skyline, Stephanie pointed out a sprawling graveyard below. In La Paz it seems, overcrowding is not just restricted to the living. The city’s cemeteries are so full that that a crypt in the crypts in this cemetery – Cementerio General – are only reserved for 10 years, after which the remains need to be cremated and collected by the deceased’s family, or stored in a smaller space.
Since its establishment in 1826, the cemetery, has grown so much in size that it resembles a city in itself. Spread over 1.5 miles, the equivalent of 15 city blocks, the predominant sites are rows of individual concrete compartments, each set in structures over four stories high.
The compact tombs stacked one above another are framed by a shrine covered with glass, which are decorated with flowers, photos, and other mementos that are placed there by bereaved families. These are added with the help of ladders to aid the deceased’s journey into the afterlife, and are part of a tradition where death is seen a continuation of life.
The building facades painted with colourful murals frame an intricate series of alleys, where relatives organize parties, lunches, and family gatherings in front of their loved ones, and even play songs to the dead. The cemetery becomes even more boisterous during the “Day of the Dead” festivities every November 2nd, where each family visits their beloved relatives and spends the entire day there, feasting and celebrating.
This colourful exterior masks the cemetery’s problems that are continually exacerbated by its rapid expansion and huge demand. Many people are buried without order and documents, and others are evicted if cemetery fees have not been paid. If fee deadlines are missed or cannot be met, the bodies are sometimes removed and cannot be traced. Super interesting!
Another site of interest that Stephanie pointed out was the city’s football stadium. Stephanie explained that some teams have to wear oxygen masks whilst playing because of the altitude! I for one would not want to be running around this high up. You would never catch your breath!
We spent quite a bit of time on the cable cars before hopping off centrally where the tour ended. We all dashed to the supermarket to fill up on supplies for bus journey to Uyuni that we would be taking over night.
We did, before we caught the bus however head back to Cafe del Mundo for a quick bite (a big bowl of pasta in my case) before heading to the bus station.
La Paz was absolutely one of the most amazing cities I have ever had the luck to visit. The people, the culture, the beliefs, the cuisine – literally amazing. I hope I get the opportunity to go back one day!