The highs and lows of La Paz

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June 5th 2011
Published: July 27th 2011
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La Paz was an amazing city - we ended up spending a few days longer there then originally planned due to me not being well. We flew from Cusco in Peru over the massive Lake Titicaca - it was a very impressive body of water seen from above! We could see the snow capped peaks of the Andes mountain range as well and combined with the bleak treeless contours of the Altiplano it was a memorable flight. We had pre-booked accommodation at the lovely Hostal Naira and arranged a taxi pickup from the airport. The airport is higher (4060 meters) then the city, which is only at a breathtaking 3660meters! Thankfully as we had already spent time at altitude it didn’t cause any major problems for us - though the hills were never easy to climb (or the stairs either!) On the way into the city the taxi stopped at a viewpoint for us to take in the amazing vista. La Paz city is in a bowl shaped valley - and we were on the edge of the bowl looking down into the bottom and everywhere were houses literally piled on top of each other as they rose sharply up towards us. In the background was the imposing snow capped peak Mt Illimani (6402 meters high).
By the time I reached the hostal which was in the centre of the city, right beside the stone San Francisco Church, I was feeling dreadful and realised that I had picked up a stomach bug. A very bad night followed but next morning we set off to obtain our visas for Brazil. It was a very frustrating day! First the taxi took us to the wrong address and it was a long walk back to the correct building. Once at the embassy we spent nearly 5 hours sorting out all the paperwork they required - bank statements from the previous 3 months, heaps of forms to fill out online - it took us ages to find an internet café with printers and then the printer didn’t work so we had no copies of the online forms to take back. The embassy weren’t thrilled with that but eventually when we thought everything was ok they handed our papers back to us and told us that we had to pay the processing fee at a branch of a bank (seven blocks away!) and return with the
Typical dress of Chola in La PazTypical dress of Chola in La PazTypical dress of Chola in La Paz

Note the layered frills in the skirt.
receipt before they would go any further! And then come back 3 days later to collect them……
By that stage I was feeling much worse and we ended up having to call a doctor to come to see me at the hostal. An injection later, a better nights sleep and I woke next morning feeling weak but much better. That day we slowly explored the area around the hostal. The plaza in front of San Francisco Church was being renovated and was a total disaster area with rubble and workmen everywhere so it rather spoiled our overall view of what was a lovely building. The streets near the hostal were lined with souvenir sellers, mainly Cholas dressed in rather pretty clothes. They were wearing multi frilled skirts made from shiny satins or velvet fabrics, flat round toed shoes, cardigans buttoned up the front, shawls over the top (many were covered in sparkles) and a bowler hat. The ladies were very squat and the layers of petticoats made them also look very wide! Many also had babies or toddlers tied on their backs in colourful wraps.
We spent an enjoyable hour wandering the Witches Market, now a real tourist area with dozens of stalls selling souvenirs but there was a small area selling traditional medicine and worship items - fascinating - full of coloured sugar shapes (eg tiny sugar cars which if used in worship hopefully will eventually bring you one), lots of herbs and hundreds of shrivelled llama foetuses which are buried under new homes for luck and good fortune. There were so many llama foetuses we were quite horrified wandering how they actually got so many. We did actually see a llama still born whilst we were at Machu Picchu (they have a few llama grazing there) so maybe still births and miscarriages are common in llama. The mum didn’t seem too perturbed that day after the birth.
We spent some time in Plaza San Pedro opposite the notorious San Pedro prison. There were dozens of people lining up to visit the prisoners within. The prisoners within buy their living conditions - some even have penthouses and many have their families including children living with them, At one stage you could actually pay a guard and have a guided tour (by a prisoner) of the prison. The government stopped the tourist visits after some of them posted videos about their visit on You tube - including the manufacture of cocaine within the prison and sale of cocaine to them by prisoners.
From there we walked through the fascinating streets - the whole city is one enormous street market - to Plaza Murillo which is the formal city centre and is edged by the Cathedral, the Presidential Palace and the Palacio Legislativo. It is covered in thousands of pigeons - not my favourite bird - and they soon chased us away. We waited until the National Arts Museum opened - we’ll never get used to these long lunch hours when everything is closed - and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of hours wandering around the exhibits. It was once a palace, built in 1775 out of granite, and has been beautifully restored - it was covered in very detailed carvings. I particularly enjoyed the contempory art on display within. Last stop for the day was a visit to the San Francisco Church museum - great view of the city from the roof and both of us love the architecture of the convents which are always part of the colonial churches. They comprise large courtyards surrounded by dozens of tall arches, most with lots of detail in their brickwork.
Next day was much the same - just spent wandering and enjoying the colour and chaos of the city. The main street - El Prado - which ran through the centre of the city was very wide, constantly crammed with traffic - you had to cross your fingers every time you crossed it - but through the centre was a wide area of grass and flowers. It was constantly full of people enjoying the sun which was great to see as in many places where there is grass there are also often signs telling people not to stand on it! We found many similar plazas with flowers and grass in our wanders around the city streets. The weather was cold - very cold as soon as you walked into shady areas but noticeably warmer when you were in the sun. We constantly had glimpses of the snowy peak of Mt Ilamani between the city buildings and could always see the thousands of house which lined the steep edges of the canyon whenever we looked up.
Next day we collected our Brazilian visas with no hassles, wandered and watched a student demonstration, (peaceful if very noisy) complete with large fireworks shot from long cardboard cylinders and dozens of riot police. Went back and visited the Cathedral which was very severe inside - hardly a trace of the gilt which was so much in evidence in most of the other churches we had visited. We spent some time also at another group of museums - a steep walk up the hill but worth it when we arrived. We loved the display of dazzling gold and silver in the vaults of the Museum of Precious Metals and Jerry particularly enjoyed the hundreds of musical instruments on display (mainly from Bolivia) at the Musical Instrument Museum.
Over the previous couple of weeks I had developed a cough which had got noticeably more severe since our arrival in La Paz so we decided that another doctors visit was needed. This time we went to a local hospital but they wouldn’t see me. However they kindly walked us around to another clinic but for some reason they wouldn’t see me either! Eventually we found a clinic happy to treat me and after x rays I was diagnosed with bronchitis and given a list of medicines to buy. At least I knew why the steps and hills had felt much higher the previous few days. In Bolivia you don’t need a script for any medicine - you just go into a pharmacy and ask for it. There never seems to be any pharmacist around - the young girl behind the counter just finds the packet and counts out how many tablets you want. It seems to be your responsibility to check that you have been given the correct medicine. Many people just buy one or two tablets at a time.
Next day we left La Paz for a few days at lower altitude. We went to Sorata and then to Copacabana to see Lake Titicaca - I will write about them in the next blog.
We arrived back in La Paz a few days later and proceeded to the Paraguayan embassy to get visas for that country. Thankfully that was relatively easy - we paid the money and went back a couple of hours later to collect them. We caught a bus up to visit the cemetery - we definitely could have walked faster then the bus - the traffic was unbelievable - but we weren’t too sure where to go. What a fascinating place! The cemetery was surrounded with stalls selling flowers - I wandered how they all made a living until we actually went inside the high walls which surrounded the cemetery. People are buried in layers above ground (like small apartment blocks) and in front of each grave is a small box which the family decorate in memory of the deceased. Each box has a glass front, lots of marble and brass, and contains photos and flowers. Nearly every one of the thousands of graves appeared to have fresh flowers in them which explained all the flower sellers on the streets. Many contained items for the afterlife - miniature bottles of beer and tiny glasses were popular. To reach a grave on an upper level you used one of the many rickety ladders which were piled up together. The whole area was very busy. From the cemetery we had a great view both up towards all the houses clinging onto the canyon walls and down to the high rises of the Prado area.
From there we walked down through the traditional markets - street after street - to our hotel. There were rows of booths selling gaily coloured skirts and petticoats, piles of shoes and hats, every imaginable item in plastic and cheap tin for the kitchen, vegetables and fruit (including bags of dried potatoes), shoe cleaners (the shoe clean ‘boys’ in La Paz all wear balaclavas - I was told it is considered a low class job so they try and keep their identity secret). I love the colour and vibrancy of local markets and La Paz had it all in abundance. We had returned to La Paz to watch the largest festival of the year - the Gran Poder Parade - it was a highlight of our trip. The colour and atmosphere had to be experienced - words can barely describe it. I will do a short blog later with lots of photos to give you some idea of the event.
Our last day in La Paz was spent recovering from the parade and visiting our final museums - the Museo de Artes Contemporie in the main street - designed by the man who designed the Eiffel Tower and full of stained glass windows and a very interesting collection of art. I loved the paintings of Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary who died in Bolivia and now graces half the souvenir t-shirts on sale here. My favourite museum though in all of La Paz was the last one I visited - the Museo de Ethnographic Folklore. It had an astounding display of textiles including some almost intact ones from the Inca era. There was a long gallery of masks used for festivals - set in a totally black room with each mask up lit - really showed them off to perfection. Some were totally hideous - many we had seen in the previous nights parade. The final gallery though was exquisite - the feather gallery was full of amazing headdresses made with literally thousands of feathers from probably now endangered birds. I’ve never seen any like them before - truly amazing! Our last evening was spent at Chola wrestling - not something that I ever thought I would go to. However we caught a bus with dozens of other young tourists and ended up in a dirty basketball stadium high in the El Alto area. We both didn’t enjoy the evening - we thought that we were seeing women wrestling but actually it was men wrestling with women which I didn’t like at all. Jerry enjoyed the entertainment outside - a group of men playing traditional instruments - I found the street scene nearby much more interesting. The general consensus on the return bus was the men didn’t mind it but most of the girls were very bored after he first 10 minutes and hating it by the end. I think it has become a bit of a tourist trap because tourists actually made up the greater part of the audience.
La Paz was a fabulous introduction to a country which we loved - Bolivia is an incredibly diverse (we are now in Argentina) and colourful country. It is every bodies favourite destination in South America and we were certainly starting to agree with them.

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29


Graves at La Paz CemetaryGraves at La Paz Cemetary
Graves at La Paz Cemetary

Note the houses on the edge of the canyon in the back of the photo

29th July 2011

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