May 8 – 13
Situated in the altitude between 3.5 and 4.1 thousand meters, La Paz really is a city that touches the stars. Uneven, facadeless, precarious-looking brick sheds spread up the hills like a body of some giant amoeba, several lines of cabin ski lifts substitute metro (more to be open later this year), and regardless the almost complete absence of personal cars (practically all vehicles are public transport microbuses), the traffic is hellish. La Paz is an open air supermarket. People sell stuff, any kind of stuff, on every available space, on every corner of every street. You can buy anything, from textiles and toys, to groceries, snacks and freshly squeezed juices, to electric appliances on the streets. The shopping areas go by zones. One street will be full of vendors selling bread, other will have 10 stalls that sell only powdered milk, next street will specialize in electric bulbs and lighting solutions. If you are Bolivian, your family will have a trusted vendor (casera) for everything, and you would not give your business to anybody else, which is why on a street where 20 shops sell exactly the same thing everyone can thrive.
The majority of paceñas seem to be women – practically 100 % of the street vendors, but then maybe the men drive all the microbuses. The ladies all dress traditionally: big skirts, multicoloured scarfs over their shoulders that serve as decoration, isolation, handbag and child-carrier, and on top a bowler hat that would be too small for a 10 years old child. Why do Bolivian women think that a tiny Charlie Chaplin’s hat is chic, you may ask. In the times when Bolivia was still a Spanish colony, some merchant ordered a shipment of hats intended for men. When the cargo arrived, they realized the bowler hats were too small for anyone over puberty age, so – to add insult to injury of the subdued nation – the Spaniards convinced the local women that wearing wrong sized male hats was the latest fashion caprice of european ladies.
Places not to be missed in La Paz:
Markets: Mercado Rodriguez, that spreads over 20 blocks on Saturdays and where you will get everything you may think of. Mercado Lanza next to San Francisco church – go to the upper floors for cheap lunch. Mercado de las Brujas (Witch Market). The touristic one is in the city centre (it sells mainly souvenirs), but if you want to see the real stuff, take the red cableway to El Alto and check out where the locals go when they need services of a yatiri (senior witch doctor; to become one, you need to survive being struck by a lightning. Twice. Good luck with that). Best way to describe the religious situation in Bolivia is “confused”. Thanks to missionary efforts of the Catholic church, christianity is widely spread, but it’s christianity with a twist, as most people worship Pachamama, the Mother Earth. To be quite correct, most people (better safe than sorry) believe in both, probably even the priests.
Pachamama seems a pretty chilled deity. She offers protection, watch over you on your travels, heals or grants permission to build. All this benevolence in exchange of things she likes: alcohol, cigarettes, coca leaves, candies and dead baby lamas (it’s not ok to just sacrifice one though, Pachamama only likes stillborns and miscarried foetuses – I wonder what the abortion rate among lamas must be, given the quantity of dried foetuses on sale). Therefore, should you need a council or a blessing of any kind, head to El Alto and talk to a yatiri (he’ll probably only speak aymara, so bring a translator) – he’ll prepare a nice gift package for Pachamama and burn it in a tin can outside his shop. A local guy offer to translate if I want to have my future read from coca leaves, and tempting as it is, I think I wasted enough time of my life trying to reason with people who a/ were constantly high on something and b/ may not have been struck by a lightning multiple times, but possessed about the same amount of healthy brain cells as those who have. And anyway I have no interest whatsoever in having my future revealed. What if he told me I am not meant to have decent sex aver again. Imagine that. Better to die ignorant and hopeful.
Cementerio, the communal cemetery. Don’t be shy and go for a walk among the alleyways of the cemetery and admire beautiful street art that decorates the blocks that house the shrines.
Valle de la Luna. A spot with rock formations at the outskirts of La Paz. Don’t bother with an organized tour, take public transport. Also, don’t bother at all if you are coming from San Pedro de Atacama. Compared to what you’ve seen there, it’s disappointing.
Death road. It used to be the only connection between La Paz and the Amazons for all traffic, but since the new paved road has been built, Death road became a (macabre) tourist attraction and a downhill mountain biking single-track. I booked with Barracuda Biking, but I guess most agencies offer pretty much the same standard. It’s a good day out, starting in almost 5000 m (on tarmac, to get used to the hydraulic brakes of the bikes) and then descending on gravel all the way to 1200 m (over 35 km). The scenery is both amazing and frightening when you realize the road mostly isn’t wide enough for two cars, there is no hard shoulder anywhere and a void of sever hundred meters to your left.
Fotos by Barracuda Biking:
Tiwanaku: the ruins of the ancient capital of pre Inca civilization on the shores of Lake Titicaca, about 2 hours drive from La Paz (microbuses leave from the cemetery every so often).
La Paz is a fantastic city: colourful, buzzing, chaotic, lively. It’s also very safe, at least I walked alone various time at night and did not have the slightest problem. But then again, right now I look like Cristiano Ronaldo with boobs, so I suspect it’s more likely they ask me for an autograph or a selfie than try to rape me.