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Published: November 11th 2013
Illimani watching over the city
visible only on my second, dry season visit
La Paz and a Farewell to Bolivia South American capitals are rarely my favorite places, as canyons of modern buildings and too-much traffic and noise wear on me. Yet La Paz, like all the others, had great museums in colonial palaces, cinemas, festivals, international restaurants and little pockets of peace. While I always indulge in art, music and history, it was only in affordable Bolivia that I could also treat myself to eating out--lovely indeed! I visited the city twice, first in cloudy March on the way to Puno, Peru, to meet fellow travelblogger, Brenden Vermillion. Once in Peru, I headed to Cuzco where I was swallowed by perfection for four months, leaving only when high season arrived, and I lost my dorm bed to a tour group. From Cuzco, I visited Copacabana, leaving when prices doubled for the incoming La Paz holiday-making celebrating Independence Day and pilgrims venerating Our Lady of Copacabana. When I returned to La Paz, it was sunny August, and I was thrilled to see snow-capped Mt Illamani watching over the city.
Room Drama Resolved My first visit began in drama. Having had funky experiences with cheap
Bolivian buses with people crammed in the aisles and leaning all over me, I sprang for my first comfy, reclining bed seat, which at $20 for a 12-hour ride from Sucre, was well worth it. However, upon arrival, I spent the morning shlepping my things around the crowded streets as hostels were full even though it was the low, rainy season. Of course, I hadn't made a reservation--I never know until the last minute when I'm ready to move on.
I finally found a room across from the cathedral where I got to hear the beautiful tolling of bells four times an hour, reminding me of the passage of time, something I'm rarely aware of. The hotel had a variety of rooms from suites to ones in my price range--monastic cells in the ex-servants' quarters on the top floor with bathrooms a scary hike away. No wifi or kitchen, but it was luxury having my own space in the city center just a steep walk away from everywhere.
The World's Highest Capital La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia and the highest capital n the world. I stayed near the central
Plaza Murrillo with its beautiful, classical government buildings--presidential palace with red-outfitted color guard, national legislative palace with both the Bolivian and the rainbow-colored indigenous flags, and the 19c Renaissance-style cathedral. The leafy plaza was filled with indigenous people visiting the city and was the site of lots of military parades. Since independence, Bolivia has lost every war entered; thus, it's a bit defensive and likes to display its martial strength. While I was in Bolivia, there were often protests against Chile over a border kerfuffle, with Bolivia demanding a route to the sea which Chile had taken in the 19c War of the Pacific. You'd think by now these things would be settled. For Independence Day, work and social groups and their loud brass bands lock-stepped around the plaza, invading my room with their noise.
Geography and Social Hierarchy La Paz sits on the altiplano, the high plateau between two branches of the Andes, and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The city's altitude varies considerably from 3,200m to 4,100m (10,500 ft to 13,500 ft). The central city climbs the hills of a canyon that follows a now-covered river, with the affluent neighborhoods in
the lowest reaches where the weather is mildest. It was in these posh spots that I found an organic veggie restaurant, a cafe serving a great Thai salad, and two shopping malls with cinemas. The poorer neighborhoods are on the freezing, high plateau of El Alto, where waves of rural immigrants have crammed into rough brick apartments, hoping to move up in society and down in geography. I took a mini-bus to El Alto and was aghast looking down at the city's concrete sprawl filling and spreading up the sides of the canyon, punctuated only by tiny bits of dry-season brown parks. This was one city where I eschewed the miradors--I'd seen enough!
City Scapes The city was filled with a wonderful variety of people from somber, suited-up office workers to colorful cholitas (little indigenous women), the fanciest in the country with fringed shawls, flouncy, satin skirts and bowler hats that sat jauntily on their heads. The name-changing main street, commonly called El Prado, has a lovely alameda--a tree- and flower-lined pedestrian walk dividing the traffic lanes. On Sundays, it's closed to traffic, and a fair is set up
with artisans, snack sellers, musicians, fortune tellers, and free games for children--a perfect way to spend the day! The Contemporary Art Museum was located here in a beautiful, former mansion designed by Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. As in the pink granite, colonial Art Museum in the center, the art was not to my taste, but both venues were lovely walks back in time. The tourist area, Sagarnaga, was lined with shops selling hand-made textiles and tourist tat, and international restaurants where I had a great Indonesian gado gado. It led to the Witches' Market, with stalls selling exotic potions, herbs and ritual materials for Aymara spells and ceremonies, such as llama fetuses to bury under new houses or porches. A difficult decision, but I decided to pass on fetuses as gifts. While La Paz was founded in the 16c, there were few colonial buildings; they are expensive to maintain, and so were generally razed for concrete towers. I went on a treasure hunt to find the few preserved gems. Sometimes a colonial church would pop up in the midst of a modern block, but lucky for me, many former
palaces had become museums.
Museums in Colonial Mansions The pedestrian, stone-mosaic Jaen Street was a confection of colorful colonial homes, many of which now housed charming, small museums, such as the Museum of Precious Metals and the Museum of Musical Instruments where you could play the hand-made string and wind beauties. Although the street was a steep walk from my hotel, it was my favorite haven, and I often found myself lingering there. Feathered caps and capes from the Amazon basin, and woven textiles, ceramics, and woodwork from the multitude of highland Bolivian indigenous groups filled the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore which was housed in a gorgeous 18c mansion. It had fine explanations and maps showing the origin and uses of the artifacts, as well as videos of the artisans practicing their crafts. Complementing this were the intricate and varied treasures of the Textile Museum in a tricky-to-find colonial mansion.
San Francisco Monastery and Indigenous Day The huge 16c San Francisco Monastery was a history buff's delight! Exhibits explained the history of the monastery, neighborhood and city and the country's independence movement, as well as on the
Franciscan monastic life with its cells, cloisters and service to the Aymaras who were displaced by the Spanish. The monastery church was a peaceful retreat with rich gold altars and bowers of fresh flowers. I often visited San Fransisco and its somewhat chaotic plaza as the latter was a great gathering place and wonderful for people watching. I sauntered over one day to be rewarded with a colorful festival, Indigenous Day. For Indigenous Day, groups from all over the highlands and jungle came together for speeches, dances and ceremony. Indigenous Bolivians, like all in South America, dislike having their photo taken in daily life. However, when there is a festival, they are much more amenable and sometimes even look at the camera--score! While there were also fine day trips from the city, my time was getting short. Unfortunately, Americans are allowed only three months in the country in a year. A few days before this deadline, I caught a taxi to the 19c, Eiffel-designed bus terminal where everything was signed in Spanish, English, Aymara and Quechua--so inclusive! I boarded a funky, crowded, roasting but cheap local bus to Oruro where I'd
I never could have photographed them like this when I was in their village
get a freezing, second-class seat for Uyuni and a fabulous tour of the biggest salt flats in the world. Farewell, colorful Bolivia--I loved you well.
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