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Published: April 14th 2008
Nuestra Señora de La Paz
As I mentioned in my last blog, Sucre might well be the constitutional capital of Bolivia, but all the action seems to be in La Paz. While Sucre has it's colonial buildings, La Paz has an incredible street life: there's a real vibe on the streets, with constant noise from the thousands of taxis and cars, the numerous markets and the huge number of people. Shops as you know them in Europe don't seem to exist in La Paz; instead everything you need can be found in markets or kiosks lining the streets. These are often run by indigenous women, who, with their huge, bright dresses and bowler hats, add a touch of colour to this crazy city.
After a short flight with AeroSur from Sucre we arrived at La Paz's airport - the world's highest commercial airport at 4050 metres above sea level - and took a bus (more like a mini van) to the centre. To understand the geography of La Paz, imagine a cereal bowl. The centre is at the bottom of the bowl while the suburbs extend right up to the top. It was an interesting trip from the airport into
La Paz Lady
The friendly stall holder on Calle Sagaranda, where we bought the wooly hats.
the centre as the airport lies on the top of the bowl, and there are are fantastic views as you descend down into the city. We stayed near Calle Saraganga - also known as gringo alley - but to our surprise our hotel was very quiet. We were on the same street as the famous witches market, but Hotel Fuentes was set back in a lovely courtyard, away from the street. We had a fine view over the city from the shared balconies outside the rooms.
The weather in La Paz was mixed for our stay so we abandoned plans to go hiking or climbing; instead, we spent our four days in the city seeing some of the many museums, and eating "international" food for a change. We found a great Lebanese restaurant on Calle Salagrange, and as I hadn't eaten middle-eastern food for a long time, we feasted there twice. We even found a "proper" British curry house, run by an ex-pat from England, while Ruth dragged me to the gringo hang-out Oliver's Travels for beans on toast! I didn't expect to find all this in Bolivia! All about coca
The first museum we visited was a
stone's throw from the hotel. The Coca Museum is as it's name suggests about the coca leaf, a controversial plant which is best known (to non Bolivians) as the raw ingredient for cocaine. As we learned in the museum this is just one of many uses for the leaf. The native people have chewed the plants for thousands of years, and it can help combat altitude sickness, hunger, depression. It's especially popular with the miners in Potosi as it makes such a difficult job just a little more bearable. In recent years Bolivia (with financing from USA) has tried to ban the growth of the crop. It's a long way from coca to cocaine so banning the production in this way is a highly emotive subject in these parts. Many Bolivians feel that the USA would be better off concentrating its efforts on addressing the problems of drug addiction in their own backyard than harming the livelihood of farmers in Bolivia. I liked how the museum was fairly unbiased and gave both sides of the coca argument.
Some interesting facts we learned:
1. GB, USA and France are amongst countries who can legally produce cocaine.
2. Bolivia and Peru
Framed La Paz
View from Monticulo Viewpoint
are not; USA has 5 %!o(MISSING)f the world's population but consumes 50 %!o(MISSING)f the world's cocaine.
3. Coca-Cola contained cocaine until 1894. Nowadays, coca-cola is one of the few companies which can legally import coca leaves.
4. Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to try cocaine recreationally. Museum Hopping
The other museums we visited in La Paz were less controversial but no less compelling. In such a poor country, it's not surprising that working in tourism has become a popular choice, and in most museums we were offered free guided tours. Our guide in the archaeology museum was full on information but he spoke no English so while we struggled to keep up with his Spanish we at least got to practice listening. Though on one or two occasions I'm sure he asked us questions while we nodded appreciatively and said "si" assuming he was explaining stuff to us. It was quite a good museum with plenty of exhibits on Tiahuanaco, a pre Incan tribe near Lake Titicaca.
Our best tour was in Iglesia San Francisco. This was one of the first colonial buildings build in La Paz, and today it remains probably the
most important and impressive church in the city. After paying the entry we were approached by one of the guides. She said he name very fast and I didn't quite catch it but she studies tourism in University in La Paz and offers free guides in the church as part of her course. I think she had as little interest in religion as we have but we had a great time seeing the church with her. I was very impressed with the Franciscans set up, what with their lovely gardens, huge living areas and wine cellars. I remember saying that if I was going to be a priest, a Franciscan would not be a bad choice. Then she showed us the self-flagellation room and I quickly changed my mind! From the roof of San Francisco we had a fantastic view over the plaza and the markets below. These markets are a must see sight in the city so it was great to watch all the hustle and bustle from above.
A noticeable presence on the streets of La Paz was the large number of tourist police. I think before visiting South America Bolivia, and especially La Paz, was one
Little & Large
At the Killi Killi mirador with La Paz (and me) in the background
place we were a little nervous about. Particularly as when we started planning our trip, we had read the very sad story
of the Austrian couple who were murdered here a few years back. It seems things have improved since that time and to us La Paz and Bolivia seemed as safe as anywhere in South America. We walked all over La Paz and even in the quieter streets it felt fine.
Our four days in La Paz passed very quickly and we so easily could have stayed longer. Though it doesn't have the beauty of Sucre or the glamour of Buenos Aires, it's a special place nonetheless, and it's the type of place you could spend months exploring, finding something new every day.
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