Published: October 19th 2010October 19th 2010
I shouldn't give the wrong impression - I actually liked La Paz a lot, it's just that circumstances conspired against us. What with various strikes preventing us from doing some of the most anticipated things of the trip, acommodation hassles, at times shocking weather, and a couple of days of illness (the bucket that caught the drips from our leaking roof one night became a spew bucket a couple of days later), we didn't get to enjoy all that La Paz has to offer. We hung around for over a week waiting for our luck to change, but there's definitely not a weeks worth of entertainment in the city. Thankfully we ended on a high note, but we can't say that our La Paz experience was what we were expecting or hoping for.
I was slightly apprehensive prior to our arrival in Bolivia. Some last minute research and blog-reading spoke of intense poverty, traffic accidents, horrendous bus rides and corrupt officials, but I can happily say that so far we have experienced none of these. In fact, I have been pleasantly surprised by the standards of living. We are by now well accustomed to South American standards, and
Crossing Lake Titicaca
on what looks like a home made barge. People go in a boat.
I can honestly say I haven't seen anything worse than what we saw in Peru and Ecuador. As for buses, I don't doubt that there are some terrible roads in this country and the drivers have a reputation for enjoying a few beers on the job, but fingers crossed we can make it through without having to write about that!
La Paz was not actually our first destination in Bolivia. From Cuzco we were back in Puno for one uneventful night to break up the journey, and from there we took a TourPeru bus to Copacabana in Bolivia. TourPeru was one of the better bus companies we used in Peru, and they make crossing the border a breeze. We hadn't planned on staying in Copacabana - the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca - as we'd already seen the lake from the Peruvian side. Upon arrival though we almost changed our minds as it seemed like a cool town and the lake was beautiful on the Bolivian side, but we are counting the days until we meet Blake and Rhiannon in Argentina so we decided to push on to Sorata.
From Copacabana we took a La Paz bound bus
which dropped us off at a place called Huarina, which is actually more like the middle of nowhere, where we had to walk a couple of blocks and wait on the side of a road for a bus passing to Sorata. We felt awefully conspicuous standing on this ghost town street corner with our stuff waiting for a bus that never came. We were lucky that a passing taxi stopped and asked us if we were going to Sorata - I don't think he was working, just heading home with his wife and son in the car, but he knew a potential fare when we saw it! We were more than happy with the arrangement - an hour and a half private transport for only about $4.
Sorata is a lovely little town in a big valley and looked over by Illampu, a big snow covered mountain. Apparently the views from Sorata are great but here began our bad luck - during the few days we were there it was as though we were living in a cloud and we saw nothing. Still, we enjoyed Sorata. We stayed at a lovely little hotel on the plaza for only 50
Bolivianos (just over $7) which had a fantastic restaurant downstairs where we ate every meal. The people were wonderfully friendly and all the women were dressed in the traditional gear. It's all about the hat really; the hat really defines the outfit for me, though in Bolivia they seem to be parcial to the fringed shawl as well. We also found an arcade games place and had a few goes at old school street fighter and football while the local teenagers played incredibly loud music and ignored us.
We had planned on three nights in Sorata but with the weather preventing us from doing a walk we had no reason to stay that long, so we piled into a minibus to La Paz after two nights. Public transport in Bolivia can take many forms, but probably the most prevalent is the minibus. These converted Toyota Hiaces have four rows of seats squished into them - I think there were 16 passengers for our three hour trip to La Paz - so you can imagine the leg room, or lack thereof. I was fine what with my short little legs, but Kyle was a wee bit cramped. When we arrived
in the Cemetery district of La Paz we were on the lookout for a more common, or so you would think, form of transport - the ubiquitous taxi, but there were none to be found. What looks like a taxi to the naive westerner is more likely to be a trufitaxi
- actually a shared transport on a set route. Eventually we found one by walking to a big intersection, and soon we were at the door of the hostel I had chosen out of the book.
Our accommodation woes began at this point. We have very rarely booked ahead during this trip, for good reason. Something that sounds good on paper is often anything but, as was proven in La Paz. It was lucky we were acclimatised because we walked all over the damn city looking at all the cheap accommodation which were all varying degrees of crap. One place that the blasted guide book described as having "a good atmosphere" was more like a leaky public housing block with graffiti covered walls. Finally we ended up back at Loki, a party hostel which was quite pricey but at least they had a room available and it was
very comfy. The room was only available for one night however so the next day we chose best of the bunch from the day before and were pleasantly surprised when we were given a much nicer room than the windowless box we had previously seen. That one night at Loki was a bit of a waste seeing as it was a sunday night and not much was going on. It's a really nice place though.
One of the major activities of our trip and the one that Kyle has been looking forward to since we started planning this thing was cycling the "Worlds Most Dangerous Road". It's also called Death Road but I don't like that name. It's basically a mountain pass to jungle descent of something like 4,000 metres with sheer cliffs plummeting hundreds of metres to the steamy jungle below, and it is probably the best known and most popular backpacker excursion from La Paz. It happens to terminate in the town of Coroico, one of the main coca growing areas in Bolivia. Unfortunately for us the government is trying to erradicate eight million hectares of coca and the cocaleros
are having none of it. Their protest
Scary carnival mask
in municipal museum - 50 cents for four museums!
has taken the form of a road block, quite common in Bolivia, and it lasted the whole week of our stay in La Paz and is still continuing as far as I know. For this reason none of the tour companies can run the mountain biking, and we left La Paz without doing one of the most anticipated activities of the trip.
While we're on the subject of strikes, another one that hit our travel plans was a hunger strike and lockdown at the infamous San Pedro prison. This is the La Paz prison made famous by the book Marching Powder, where the prisoners have to buy their cells, have their families live in their with them, have their own businesses and run restaurants within the prison. I'm not sure how effective a hunger strike is when they have to buy their own food anyway, but there you have it. So we didn't get to visit the prison either. We did walk past just to have a look. It's very centrally located and in quite a nice area too - there's a posh hotel across the street. I bet they don't advertise that fact on their website.
the week in the city I think I visited just about every museum they have. The most interesting has to be the Coca Museum, thanks entirely to the subject matter. It's a tiny place with some photos and exhibits but mostly you shuffle around with your head stuck in an English translation of the information on the wall, learning all about the history of the coca plant in Bolivia, the use of the coca plants in everything from marriages to spiritual endeavours to nutrition, and of course the history of cocaine. Did you know Sigmund Freud was the first cocaine user, and that he later developed nasal cancer? And that the coca leaf is incredibly rich nutricionally. And that the US comsumes 50 percent of the world's cocaine. And that certain countries (including Australia) are allowed to produce or import a set quantity of cocaine for medicinal purposes each year, but that Bolivia is not part of this club. That the coca leaves used by Coca Cola to flavour its product are sourced from Peru, and that they have a wholly owned subsidiary that extracts the flavour and sells the alkaloids to pharmaceutical companies. It was very informative!
our most enjoyable day in La Paz was spent at the zoo and the Valle de la Luna. We took a big yellow bus, confusing called a micro
, from the main road and down down down into the southern, and wealthy, area of the city. The municipal zoo costs only 3.50 Bs (A$0.50) for an adult and is in a nice setting of eucalypt trees with rugged red mountains providing the backdrop. It also has also almost exclusively South American animals which is exactly what we were after. The condors were particularly impressive, especially watching one close up hack into a bloody carcass of some unidentifiable animal. Kyle told the surrounding school kids that it was a naughty child.
After the zoo we went across the road to the patio de comidas
for a spot of lunch. A seemingly innocuous event, this almost ruined the day. In Bolivia, as in every other South American country we have visited, they have set menus for lunch. Unlike in other countries though, they often don't advertise the price outside. No matter, we asked the price of the friendly old man and at 8 Bs we though it was a good priced menu,
so we took a seat. However, after a good meal of soup, chicken and rice (the usual) I went to pay and was told we owed 45 Bs. Como?
He proceeded to explain that we had chosen "special" dishes that were not included in the menu, and that the menu actually included something totally different that he never mentioned to us. Well, no, you're not getting us that easy. Kyle is usually a bit hesitant with the old Spanish but not when we're getting ripped off. He came over and blew up, called them thieves which seemed to do the trick, and we walked away having paid the right price. Kyle notched that up as a win but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Thankfully the day was not ruined. We walked up the hill from through the town of Mallasa to the Valle de la Luna, an area of weird rock formations that you can walk through for 15 Bs. It's really an amazing landscape, though I'm not sure if it looks anything like the moon. It reminded me of giant drip-castles. It is also the natural habitat of the vizcacha - a native
rabbit-lake animal with a long bushy tail, and Kyle managed to spot a couple of them chilling out in the sun.
We topped off the day with a visit to the cinema that night. Being two for one Wednesday we got to see El Origen
(aka Inception) for less than $4 and on the best screen we've seen in years. It certainly beat old Yelmo
in Madrid. And at Bolivian prices we could actually afford a large popcorn (they have salty or sweet varieties, how cool) and a few games in the arcade. Most of the films showing were in English with subtitles - they don't seem to share the Spanish obsession with dubbing everything. It topped of a great day.
Another day was spent on a shopping spree, but not for us - Christmas presents. La Paz has an artesania market area behind the Cathedral that is quite nice for walking around, and there's plenty to buy of course. Nearby is the smaller witches market where the stalls sell amulets and lucky charms for anything you could imagine, but the most intriguing item for sale are the dried llama foetuses which are buried under the house to
bring good luck and prosperity. I asked the old lady if it is common to do so, and she assured me that it is, and especially in La Paz where people are particularly supersticious.
Although in the end we were quite happy at Hotel Milenio, it happened to be located at the other side of town from most of the attractions, restaurants and bars. And La Paz being built in a canyon, it happened to be up a very long, quite steep hill. We haven't done any walks for ages but I am feeling very strong - all that exercise at altitude is probably good for me too. Another point I wanted to make about La Paz is how safe I felt walking around. Of all the capital cities we have visited it is probably the friendliest, and there's no problems walking around until about 10.30 or 11 at night. That's not to say that it's a calm, peaceful place. On the contrary - there are street vendors on every street and corner selling everything from food to socks to memory cards, there are people absolutely everywhere and crossing the main road is a drama as you dodge the
mini vans with their assistants hanging out the doors intelligibly yelling their destinations. Actually, for this reason I suppose they have a herd of zebras to help you cross the zebra crossing. I don't know if they are paid or what but a dozen or so people dressed up as zebras run out into the road every so often with stop signs, creating a slightly safer environment for the pedestrians to hurry to the other side.
After a couple of days of upset bellies and not much fun, we at least finished off our time in La Paz on a high note with cholitas
wrestling. This was actually one of the reasons we hung around until Sunday - to see some local women in traditional dress fling each other around the ring WWF smackdown style. This is a highly publicised, touristy event with all the gringos given the prime, ringside seats and a souvenir to take home, while the locals are sat on benches behind, but it was absolutely hilarious and one of the most unique things I think I'll ever see. There were six fights in total - the first was men wearing masks lucha libre
later came the women, entering the ring in their hats and full skirts to loud applause. Actually only one of the fights was woman on woman - most were man vs woman. There's something a bit wrong about laughing at a man play-bashing a womans head into a pole in what I hope is not a reflection of traditional married life. But the women usually came out on top. The last woman was definitely the craziest - Jennifer Loca I think was her name. She abandoned the ring early on to chase the unfortunate masked man into the audience, throwing barriers and seats aside and scattering the crowd as she went, though she did politely ask permiso
of Kyle as his seat went flying. It was a really enjoyable night, even down to the tourist bus that took us there playing what I guess they though was "gringo" music, including "Who let the dogs out", which I know is one of my favourites. The bus stopped on the way there and back at a lookout where we had a fantastic view over the city of La Paz nestled in the canyon below, snowy mountains not far away. It really is a bizarre place for a city, but it does make for a stunning view.
Unable to hang around any longer and already having exhausted everything to do, we left La Paz with unfinished business, which is just another reason to come back one day!