Published: August 8th 2012August 2nd 2012
The bus journey to La Paz from Lake Titicaca took us through yet more breathtaking scenery, made even better as the sun made its way to the western horizon. A golden landscape of remote villages, with isolated dwellings under the majesty of the Andes in the distance, made the trip one to savour.
The minivan we were travelling in looked in good shape from the outside, but once we got going, the dashboard told a different story. Numerous warning lights were on, and an electronic display kept flashing up messages such as: CHECK TYRE PRESSURE; OIL CHANGE REQUIRED and even BRAKES NEED TESTING. But just over an hour later we safely arrived at the city surrounding La Paz, El Alto. Once upon a time, El Alto had merely been a suburb of La Paz, but that was until 1985 when it became a city in its own right. El Alto looked down-at-heel, a dirty frontier town, unkempt and unloved. Even though it had a population of close to a million, most of the buildings looked broken and unfinished, and the lack of street lighting gave the place a sinister feel, especially with night falling.
“El Alto is growing at
an alarming rate,” explained Anne, our guide to La Paz. “And it is the fastest growing city in South America. But this has major implications for the government. The crime rate is astronomical, with gang fights and murders all the time. About half of the population of El Alto have no running water or electricity, which sounds bad for a city, but when you consider that eight of ten of the people who live here were originally from the mountains, it’s not so bad. Why would they miss something they never had in the first place?”
The main road through El Alto was a cacophony of beeping and of crowds, but none of the people looked particularly criminal but then Ann pointed out something. “You might’ve noticed the scarecrow-type figures hanging from some lampposts. They’re there to warn people that Community Justice rules the area. This is a form of law brought from the mountains, but it does not really work in a city. In the mountains, there are no police or law enforcement officers, and so I can understand when people take the law into their own hands. But in a city...? I’m not so sure.”
explained about Community Justice. “If a person steals something, and are caught by the people, they will be killed. Simple as that. Community Justice. If a person rapes someone, they will be killed. Community Justice. And the Bolivian constitution allows this. Under Community Justice, a person will not go to court over a killing. But a big problem with Community Justice is that sometimes the vigilantes get the wrong man. Maybe one, two or three people are killed before the right man is caught. And what will they say to the innocent men’s family? Oh, hey, I’m really sorry about murdering your son, but here’s a bag of potatoes.”
We passed the blurred boundary between El Alto and La Paz and began a descent into the canyon. La Paz was contained wholly within the bowl and we could see the lights twinkling on all sides. As we drove even lower, the difference between El Alto and La Paz could be seen easily. For a start, the buildings looked in better shape, with even a fair smattering of modern-looking skyscrapers, and there was more street lighting. The city centre was packed to high heaven with cars, vans, busses and people.
The last time I’d seen such a mass of humanity had been in Bangladesh.
“Welcome to La Paz,” said Anne as we drove bumper to bumper through a main street in the centre. “And tomorrow, make sure you visit the Witches’ Market and Plaza Murillo. But don’t walk too quickly; the air is still very thin in the mountains.”
The next day we awoke to glorious sunshine. The weather on our South American trip had been perfect throughout, despite being winter. We left the hotel and headed out to see the sights. And Anne was correct, despite being at high altitude for almost a week now, we still found it hard to catch a good gulp of air as we headed up the slight incline towards Plaza San Francisco.
“It’s not a very pretty town, is it?” said Angela as we walked up the main street, passing men selling flags and people standing around waiting for minibuses. Street stalls sold the usual soft drinks, cigarettes, newspapers and chocolate bars, and in the clogged up roads, blue Dodge buses chugged along with a never ending stream of white minivans. I nodded. In the glare of the sun, many
of the buildings run down making La Paz look distinctly grubby.
But up in the hills the city looked just fine, the sun giving the house on the slopes a warm glow. And with a snow-capped mountain in the distance, I could see why some thought La Paz beautiful. We came to Plaza San Francisco, a rather grand name for a quite nondescript square. The only building of note was the San Francisco Church, which looked like it also doubled up as a museum. Women in bowler hats stood around in the square trying to tell trinkets but we walked past them and turned uphill towards the Witches’ Market.
The Witches’ Market was famous in La Paz for the strange things it sold. Llama foetuses hung from every stall, some small, some large, most with with a cloaking of white fur, all disturbing. Guarding each stall were old lady wrapped in shawls and bowler hats. I asked a few if I could take a photo but all them shook their heads. In the end I had to pretend I was taking a photo of Angela to get a picture of the gruesome scene.
Indigenous folk bought the
llama foetuses so they could make an offering to Pachamama, the Earth Mother. These offerings could be made at anytime of the year, for instance of a person was building a new house, but the beginning of August was a particularly busy time for the Witches’ Market because it tied in with midsummer, an important time in Bolivian Indigenous tradition. As well as llamas, other less savoury items could be bought from at the Witches’ Market, things like puma skins and tarantulas. These things were kept in the back rooms of the stalls and shops, well away from the prying eyes of tourists, but available to the huge numbers of locals who used the market.
“It’s horrible,” said Angela as we walked up and down the small market. It wasn’t very big and seemed actually seemed a bit haphazard in its layout. Some stalls were located on the corner of the street, others inside small shops. “And I know it’s a tradition, but look at those poor llamas. Not even born.”
Later we found out that once the necessary items had been bought, then the person who wanted to make the offering would have to go to the
highest point in the city. Instead of using grappling hook and crampons, they usually just caught a minibus, and then, once at the top, employed a Witch Doctor to do the blessings for them. This was where the name of the market came from. After the foetuses (and other choice items such as cigarettes, alcohol, and sometimes money) had been piled up, it was set alight, with the Witch Doctor chanting incantations in the name of the person who had brought the offerings. That done, the pile was buried and the person could get on with their life, safe in the knowledge that Pachamama would be watching over them.
After the fun of the foetuses, we headed across to the other side of the city, a place full of old Spanish colonial buildings. The heart of this area was Plaza Pedro D Murillo, surrounded by grand buildings which included the President’s Palace and La Paz Cathedral. The centre of the square was a frenzy of pigeon feeding, with birds sat on people’s arms or crowding their feet. One small girl was covered in pigeons, and was giggling with delight, even though to us, the scene looked slightly disturbing.
“This is the nicest part of the city,” I said as we wandered over to some guards standing to attention. “But to be honest, I don’t think there’s much more to see in La Paz.”
To pass the time we began wandering up and down steep streets, passing elegant churches and plenty of museums. At one point we heard the pounding of drums and saw a troop of drummers marching along a street parallel to us. Why they were doing this was a mystery and soon they disappeared from sight, with only the pounding of their drums audible as it reverberated around the buildings. We walked up a horrendously steep street towards a large outdoor market, where once more, ladies sat waiting for customers. It was a hive of activity with plenty of colour and life. Fish, fruit, and of course, potatoes were on sale, and quite often we’d see backpackers bending over the produce, prodding bananas or buying oranges. Other backpackers studied maps, and occasionally we’d see some crusties, ambling along with their inner peace and scraggly beards.
There just wasn’t that much to do in La Paz, we realised. Unless we wanted to induce a heart
attack by undertaking a mammoth climb upwards to get a view of the city, we were tied to the lower levels. We headed down to the opposite end of the city, the place where modern skyscrapers loomed and nice statues beckoned, and in the end we found a nice cafe and ordered some lunch. Angela summed up La Paz as we sat eating. “It’s an interesting place, but not beautiful one. I’m glad we’re not here for long.” As it happened, we weren’t; we were flying to the lowlands of Bolivia the next day, to a city called Santa Cruz.
To be honest, I’d never even heard of Santa Cruz, but we were going there because the airline we were due to fly with went bust, forcing us to make a stopover in what turned out to be Bolivia’s largest city.
The flight was uneventful except for the fact the cabin crew had to make all their announcements by handheld loudspeaker. Apparently the intercom system had malfunctioned, causing this most unusual of arrangements. No matter, the flight landed an hour later into tropical Bolivia. Palm trees and green jungle were what made up the landscape on the way
into the city, but Santa Cruz itself looked uninspiring; a mess of graffiti and generic buildings. Previously, Anne had told us that the city was the financial heart of Bolivia, the place to go mall shopping or nightlife. She also told us that hardly any indigenous people live in Santa Cruz, so in La Paz, we would say goodbye to women in bowler hats.
We also read that sloths favoured the trees in Santa Cruz, but in the end we didn’t even venture into the centre of the city. Instead we lounged about in our hotel, thankful to back at sea level after so long in the mountains. Our time in Bolivia had come to end. Next destination: Paraguay.
-Snow capped mountains as a backdrop
-The high altitude is a killer
-Not much to see
-Traffic jams and mental drivers
-The airport is a chaotic mess
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