our love for La Paz was still there.

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South America » Bolivia » La Paz Department » La Paz
June 6th 2011
Published: October 9th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Then it was time to head to La Paz. We'd been there before, on our last trip, and loved it. There was was that trepidation – would it live up to our memories?

The Potosí bus station was interesting. Recently finished, it looked like a big mosque, with a huge blue dome covering the top, lacking only a minaret. And it was cold – colder than it had any right to be. We got some short relief while we had a feed at the strangely placed restaurant, raised high on a platform in the middle, but it was short lived. We returned to the bottom floor to huddle with our backpacks.

Plenty of entertainment though, on the bottom floor. I have never in my life seen so many kids getting so much enjoyment from a fibreglass motorbike that rocked back and forth as lights flashed. There was a queue at one stage, and laughing and squealing and sibling conflict. It was the best investment the owner of the internet cafe ever made. And, weddings. Bizarrely, at least 3 different wedding parties came to the bus station to walk around and have photos and videos taken. Possibly it was the flashest new building in town – not sure, but it was a distraction from the cold.

The departure of the bus was delayed for a time by a staff member coming off shift that was positive someone on the bus had swiped his Sony Ericsson mobile phone, but eventually we got under way. Looking around, I noticed that we were the only travellers on the bus without a pile of blankets. Night buses can be cold at the best of times, and when the buses head through passes over 6000m...well, it was a worry. But in the end, not too bad. It was cold, but over quickly – once you learn how to sleep on an overnight bus they can be the quickest journeys you'll ever have.

The La Paz bus terminal was exactly as we'd remembered, except it seemed to have a new facade. Or maybe it didn't and we didn't see it before. Unlike our last time, though, we had spent quite a long time at altitude, so our walk, fully loaded, down the Hotel Continental wasn't quite as breathless as I remembered. The Hotel was cheap and basic but fine for our purposes. That is, a bed a place to have a shower. Also, it wasn't a hostel.

The vast majority of travellers are great people – most people that are prepared to get out of their comfort zone are generally pretty good. That's probably the reason that almost every American we had met on the trip so far voted Democrat and some awareness of the outside world. But...there are always the dickhead backpackers and the showoffs. For them the question “where have you been?” isn't an invitation to have a quiet chat and share experiences, it's an opportunity to brag. For that reason staying in a hotel like place is sometimes to be preferred.

Shopping the next day on the main tourist street was a good demonstration of the travel silliness. I watched an English “experienced traveller” type girl in one stall find an alpaca jumper she was keen on. While her friend was talking to the stallholder she hunted for a defect in the jumper. She found it – what looked like a dropped stitch. She started the bargaining process, then, getting down as far as was reasonable, she pointed out the defect.

The stallholder looked at the jumper. “Por favor?” she asked, hand extended, and the English girl passed the jumper over. Whipping a crochet hook out of her back pocket the young Bolivian lady fixed the jumper on the spot in the time it takes to draw breath. Looking embarrassed, the backpacker handed over the cash and departed. She had been fighting to get 5 Bolivianos off the price of 100.

The nest day was doomed to be known, thereafter, as Brazil Visa Day. We only actually had to go to Brazil to catch a plane, for all of 5 days. But we needed a visa – the first country we had needed one for. And it was a very involved process. We had done the research before hand, or so we thought. We were wrong, so here's some tips for Australians.

First – do the form online before you do anything, this will save one trip to the embassy. We hadn't done that, so were sent away to the nearest internet café to do that and print it out. You can't do it at the embassy.

You will still have to make two more trips – fill out the form, take it back to the embassy. They will then give you a piece of paper. You have to take this about 2ks up the street to the Banco do Brasil where you will pay the money for your visa and get another piece of paper. You then take that back to the embassy (by this time you will be good friends with the staff, so it's nice) and hand all your stuff in with your passport.

Now wait 3 days.

Shopping is a good way to see La Paz. Calle Santa Cruz had the best selection of football knock-offs I'd ever seen. Every street is a market, and then there are the actual markets. The older travellers made a significant contribution to the Bolivian economy at one music shop, buying a guitar, a charango, a few sets of Andean pipes.

We walked over the main drag from the El Rosario area to have a look at the instrument museum. I confidently led the way, map in hand, and got it mostly right (flights of a couple of hundred stairs at 4000m notwithstanding).The museum was shut, and we were going to give it a miss, but we had a coffee at a trendy cafe and waited. We were very glad we did.

It turned out to be one of the best museums I'd been to. Heaps of exhibits – instruments made of all sorts of animals, guitars, strange inventions, all endlessly fascinating. And a whole lot of exhibits that you could touch and play with.

And a canoe and a stuffed sloth.

Bolivia was also the place we discovered that salteñas for breakfast is the way to do it. Basically a small pastie, salteñas are named for Salta in Argentina, where they're from. But the Bolivians have taken them and made them ten times better than the Argentinians do. Cheap, incredibly tasty and filling – the perfect way to start a day.

The day in question we had arranged a charango lesson back at the instrument museum. W had turned up early, ready to go. The bloke didn't turn up, so we skipped it, slightly disappointed. We booked a tour of Tiwanaku for the following day, then went on a bus ride of the city.

As those sort of bus rides go it wasn't at all bad. The headphones I got wouldn't work on English or Spanish – so I had to listen in French. Handy – we would be in France for almost a day soon.

We saw some truly amazing views – La Paz has to be one of the most visually impressive cities in the world. Incredible vistas along valleys, precariously situated houses, climbing out of the La Paz basin as the city made its way up towards El Alto – the primarily indigenous city at the top of the hill. A quick walk around a place where water had basically washed a lot of loose ground away over a long time, leaving some weird formations, and unstable ground. And around it all – gum trees.

Eucalyptus trees are loved and hated by Bolivians. They love them because without them most of the mountains would have caved into the city by now, and El Alto would be El Bajo, but they also suck all the water up, leaving them the dominant species.

Dinner at a Japanese/Indian/Thai place. It was close to the hotel, and sounded interesting. Possibly we should have stuck with the fried chicken street food we had eaten on previous nights. They obviously had a Japanese cook as the food was very well presented, maybe a touch bland.

Getting out to Tiwanaku was more difficult than it perhaps should have been. For much of the day we drove all over El Alto, trying to find a place that wasn't closed by protests or roadwork. Our driver didn't really seem to know where to go, but we tagged onto another group that he spotted, and managed to get us there.

The Tiwanaku civilisation was massive, and very important. Pre-dating the Incas by at least 1000 years the ancient city state was powerful and advanced. There were some interesting exhibits in the museum – of particular interest to me was the design of the agricultural canals which managed to create a humid microclimate on the altiplano through managemetn of evaporation, increasing production twenty-fold.

Still, the ruins were a bit crap. The best parts of the day really were the drive and seeing some of the wilder countryside.

Seriously, La Paz was an awesome town. We met, and continue to meet, people that say they hate the city. I remain bewildered by this. Sure, it's not the cleanest place, or that safe in parts, and it is big, but, as capitals go it is one of the best in the world. The people are friendlier than other South American capitals, and there is nothing boring about it So much to see, and it's so different from anywhere else you've been. If you go and don't like it there just may be something a little strange about you.

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