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Published: November 11th 2015
Chaotic La Paz pulses with life at a dizzying, freezing 3650 meters/12,000 ft, its wild traffic dominated by crammed, black-smoke belching, ancient buses and tourist-robbing taxis, its buildings either half-finished brick, or steel and glass high-rises, both climbing steep, lung-busting streets crowded with indigenous women in flouncy skirts and bowler hats selling fresh orange juice and snacks, hand-woven goods and trinkets.
I'd been in La Paz a couple of times before, but this time was special, for while there, March-May, 2014, I had adventures with several, fabulous TravelBloggers (TBers), witnessed colorful festivals, including Carnival, Holy Week, and May Day, and lots of protests, as well as experiencing the darker underbelly of the city in this poorest nation in the Americas. As always, I stayed in the heart of the city in a beautifully restored old mansion, up a vertigo-inducing street, just off the main square, leafy Plaza Murillo, one of the city's few green spaces. Across from my hotel was the 19c Renaissance-style cathedral, whose bell tolled every quarter hour, reminding me of the passage of time--something I'm rarely aware of. Next, the presidential palace with its red, nutcracker-outfitted color guard. It and the national legislature
flew both the Bolivian and the rainbow-colored indigenous flags, appropriate since Bolivia has the highest percentage of indigenous people in the Americas. My Hotel Torino had a variety of rooms from suites to ones in my delicate, $6 price range--monastic cells in the ex-servants' quarters with bathrooms a hike away. It was a challenging huff and puff up the vertical stairs to the fourth floor, but through my window, I could gaze out over the city climbing the surrounding mountains. Often, an indigenous group practiced with their drums and pan pipes while I danced on their balcony. I loved staying there. I was coming from Arequipa, Peru, where I'd been living for eight months (slightly illegally, for which I had to pay $100 and endure border drama) and had just celebrated my birthday with TBer Anna, AnnaAdventuring. My visit to La Paz would be book-ended by getting back to Arequipa before she returned home to England.
Travel Bloggers (TBers) Just as there are so many ways to be in the world, there are as many ways to travel. The TBers I met here were wonderfully diverse. Some traveled fast, having
a Taste of the World experience and covering lots of ground; another had a 3-week vacation of in-depth tours in a smaller area; others slowly traveled for months, both taking tours and exploring on their own. Slower still, I had recently spent 2.5 years, mostly in Argentina and Chile, with dips into Brazil and Uruguay, and would now spend 3 years in Bolivia and Peru. And then, there are the ex-pats, like Anna, who spent a year in Arequipa teaching English. Such variety in our TB community!
Brendan Vermillion I entered Bolivia at Copacabana on Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake, where once again, I met fellow Californian, Brendan Vermillan, bvchef, with whom I'd spent several, lovely days the previous year in Puno, on the Peruvian side of the huge lake. As before, he was my gracious sherpa, bringing a replacement for my ancient computer and more. His gorgeous hotel was on the lake with giant picture windows, and there, he treated me to a lovely birthday lunch--a great welcome to Bolivia! I stayed in my usual place, where Sofia the owner remembered me and my favorite room with its
sliver of a lake view, the lumpiest mattress on the planet, and an electric shower that always gave me a zinging shock. I stayed for the wildness of a Bolivian Carnival (below) before heading to La Paz for more time with Brendan. Once in the capital, Brendan and I went for a tasting menu at Gusta's, a sleek, slate and wood restaurant attached to a culinary school where the Belgium owners were training Bolivian chefs to prepare gourmet dishes with traditional ingredients. We had five colorful, delicious courses (see second page for photos) which impressed even Brendan, who is a great chef. The courses were such a contrast to normal Bolivian food, which I never eat as it tends to be meat-oriented and fried, and I feel nauseous just passing restaurants. The next day, we explored the huge, 16c San Francisco Monastery-turned-museum, a history buff's delight, where the previous year, I'd spent a full day, reading every inscription on the history of the monastery, neighborhood and city, and the country's independence movement, as well as on the Franciscan monastic life and service to the indigenous Aymaras who were displaced by the Spanish. Brendan's isn't a museum fan, preferring active outdoor adventures, but here, I was his guide, quickly explaining the history and steering him up steep, stone steps and the tiled roof and around cloisters, and he actually enjoyed it. Then, we had a yummy meal in a Dutch-Indonesian restaurant. Bolivia is so fabulous because I can occasionally afford to eat in restaurants, something I rarely do!
Tiwanaku Early one morning, Brendan and I joined a group tour of Bolivia's greatest archaeological site, Tiwanaku, about an hour outside the city and near Lake Titicaca. Through the chaos of traffic, our van climbed up the sides of the bowl in which La Paz sits up to El Alto (The High), once a part of La Paz, but now a huge, sprawling city in its own right at 4,100 m/13,500 ft where the poorest live--including those pouring in from the countryside to find work. Eventually, we crawled through the crowded madness and entered the open altiplano, the high plains, surrounded by the snow-covered Andes, and eventually to the archaeological site.
The famous Inca of South America were really the late-comers on the scene. Their
huge, magnificent empire lasted only 100 years before it was destroyed by the Spanish. But before the Inca were hundreds of other incredible civilizations on the continent; one was Tiwanaku, inhabited for about 2,000 years and an empire from about 600-1000 CE. Due probably to drought and over-expansion, the empire collapsed, and the city was uninhabited for centuries until the current Aymara arrived. While much of the site is un-excavated, enough has been exposed to have a sense of the enormous scale and grandeur of the city--huge walls and pyramids of precisely cut stone, intricately carved statues and stela, solar and lunar calendars on the Sun Gate, and more. A couple of museums displayed beautiful artifacts uncovered there, as well as the techniques of cutting and fitting together stone blocks weighing up to 100 tons. When the Inca arrived 400 years later, they observed and perfected these techniques for their own constructions.
Saritrace and Serendipity After reading fabulous blogs on Bolivia by saritrace, Trace, I proposed we meet. Luckily, she and her partner Jim, from England and the Netherlands, were able to meet me several times in La
Paz, Copacabana, and Arequipa. We first met in my favorite Austrian coffee shop for luscious lemon pie and decided to tackle a challenging hike the next day. Unfortunately, I also left my camera on the back of my chair. I'd also done this in Arequipa, where they had it waiting for me the next day; here, I wasn't so lucky. I wouldn't have a camera for a year, but it was actually rather freeing not to be carrying one. The following day on our way to the hike, we entered my favorite mode--open to serendipity--I love surprises! We came upon the colorful street fair that, in the winter dry season, takes over the lovely alameda (a tree- and flower-lined pedestrian walk) in the main thoroughfare, El Prado. Trace and I were keen to explore, and Jim gamely went along. I love people who are willing to change plans and respond to the moment! We spent the day meandering among artisans, musicians, fortune tellers, and free games, music and art for children. Stages held live bands with music for every taste. Lured by traditional music, we ended up watching costumed dancers and groups of friends
of a certain age, clearly regulars here, dancing joyfully to the music. It was a lovely, lazy day; we'd have our energetic hike later.
Mountain Adventure La Paz is surrounded by the stunning, snow-covered Andes, and the city is watched over by the triple-peaked, snow-covered Illimani, wonderfully visible in the dry season. An hour outside the city, on an ancient glacier at Chacaltaya, there used to be the world's highest ski area before the glacier melted in 2009. Trace and Jim were headed there on a private tour and graciously invited me along. Our jeep again wound up through El Alto, traversed the vast, high plains and climbed up mountains dotted with turquoise and green alpine lakes and abandoned mines. Finally, we arrived at the deserted, stone and wood, former lodge where we bundled up like bears. The mountain was covered with slippery, black ice and in the thin air at 5421 m/17,785 ft, we trudged slowly and carefully upward. But what an incredible view as we stood on the peak, looking down at mountain ranges peeling away into the distance. I'd later meet them in Copacabana, in their charming La
Cupola hotel up a hill with wonderful lake views and a restaurant where they treated me to a delicious, vegetarian dinner and wine. From there, we caught the bus together to Peru, and Trace saved me from getting left behind at a pit stop--yikes. Then, in my Arequipa, I showed them my favorite spots and shared another great meal in the sunny courtyard of a converted colonial mansion.
Bob and Linda Carlsen I'd long been reading the blogs of Bob Carlsen, Home and Away from all over the world. Finally, I'd have a chance to meet him and his wife Linda who are energetic travelers and move at a pace this slacker couldn't image. While in La Paz, they generously included me in their private tour with Juan, a real character of a guide. We toured the archaeological site and museums of Tiwanaku (I can never visit too many ruins), had a yummy lunch and stopped on a ridge where Juan showed us burnt spots where Aymara shamen had recently conducted rituals before returning to the city.
La Paz's Witches' Market has potions, herbs, dried animal parts, and llama fetuses, used for spells and
charms by the Aymara. We passed on these and the fortune-tellers, but picked up some coca leaf tea, good for combating altitude sickness and used by the indigenous people for energy. Rows of shops sold beautiful, hand-woven and knit alpaca goods where Linda bought gifts. I would have loved to also, but posting is ever-so-expensive and my suitcase too heavy. I'd have to acquire memories, not possessions. Finally, we drove through the city and wound down into the lowest, warmest reaches of posh suburbs where the wealthiest live. Further on, was the eerie, sculpted and eroded, multi-colored mud spires and pinnacles of the Valle de la Luna/Valley of the Moon, which I'd later visit again with Trace and Jim on wild public transport. We spent lots of time riding in the van, so we had a lovely time getting to know each other. Just as I'd left my camera in a cafe, here I'd leave my sturdy umbrella, brought by Brendan, in the van. Fortunately, that I recouped. Possessions can be a tricky and sometimes seem to slip out of my hands.
Carnival in Copacabana People whose lives are monotonous and
full of drudgery--working 6-7 days a week, really know how to let go of the mundane and celebrate life. The towns along Lake Titicaca are known for their colorful, indigenous celebrations, and now, I was in tiny Copacabana (after which the famous Brazilian beach in Rio is named) for a wild Carnival. It was so much more authentic than the one in big city Potosi, Bolivia, where I'd been the previous year, where people wore boring, store-bought costumes and soaked us spectators with water. Here, women and men wore satiny, fancy versions of their normal wear and lots of bling. Normally, Bolivian women wear multi-layered, flouncy skirts, sweaters and shawls in a riot of colors and patterns. Complementing this are heavy bowler hats that balance on their heads, knee socks and dainty, thin-soled flats that must cause the portly women to feel every rock in the cobblestone streets. Now, skirts were of satin, shawls had long fringes and on top of the bowlers, they wore a second hat with devil's horns. I imagine the latter signifies the last time the devil, dancing and fun would visit as the faithful embarked on the sacrificing days of Lent before
Easter. Groups, often in color-coordinated costumes, danced to bands of brass and drums around the main plaza in front of the beautiful Renaissance/Moorish pilgrimage church of Our Lady of Candalaria, the patron saint of Bolivia. They were fueled by copious quantities of beer and danced through the night at stages blasting live music in the plaza near my hotel (forget sleep). While it was heaven for the eyes, it was hell for my nose and stomach. Throughout the plaza, huge pots bubbled with greasy chunks of popular, fried pork (chicharones), nearly causing me to be sick as I passed. Complementing this was the smell of urine, as revelers drank beer and sought relief out in the side streets. The second day, I wisely bought lilies and held them under my nose.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) In La Paz, Easter celebrations were traditionally Catholic. For Palm Sunday, women sat outside churches, weaving fronds into small, intricate crosses of all shapes for worshipers to buy. On Good Friday, I heard solemn brass bands and drums pass my hotel and ran out to see waves of color-coordinated groups in Ku Klux Klan-like outfits carrying
huge religious floats. From my days in Seville, Spain, I knew these to be the city's Catholic brotherhoods in their ancient costumes of satin capes, hoods and tall, pointed hats. They formed an impressive procession up my steep street, past the cathedral and to a more ancient, venerated church for mass. The penitents/devotees of the brotherhoods, some of which included women, carried massively heavy, wooden floats with statues of Jesus and weeping Mary. Fortunately, there were no flagellants flailing themselves with whips or chains, although children were selling little whips. Easter service in the lily-decked cathedral was packed and presided over by the country's fancy-dressed bishop and priests--all gray-haired, white men preaching to the very brown, indigenous congregation. Intrusive TV cameras recorded every communion wafer given, for the faithful at home. While the country has its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, the church hierarchy has yet to catch up to inclusion.
Secular Festivals Over much of the world, May 1st is International Workers' Day. In La Paz, the whole city turned out in a colorful, never-ending parade of union members, hard hats, and cholitas (indigenous women)--all with colorful banners, matching outfits
and constant firecrackers. They marched up my street to Plaza Murillo with its government palaces, where demonstrators are never allowed. That day, however, the plaza belonged to the workers as they chanted and listened to rousing speeches and traditional music. Since independence, Bolivia has lost every war entered; thus, it's rather defensive and likes to display its martial strength. Frequently, military groups lock-stepped around the government palaces near my hotel, the noise from their horns and drums invading my room and awakening me in the too-early hours. The previous year saw many protests against Chile over an absurd border kerfuffle in the Andes. This year, Bolivia was 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, but no, they were taking their demands to the international court in The Hague. On Naval Day, to celebrate their hopeful acquisition of a sea port, the military put on a grand parade with fabulous uniforms and paraphernalia reminiscent of the ancient Roman Empire. However, there's no way Chile is going to give up a major port city to the Bolivians.
Colorful Protests I love protests--they're a sign of a healthy democracy! Every week or two, colorfully dressed indigenous people from the countryside or the poor in El Alto would march through the streets seeking health care, social benefits, or education. Police in riot gear lined the streets to keep protesters away from the governmental offices. One form of protest for which Bolivia is infamous is its road blockades, in which protesters cut down trees and put them and big rocks across roads. For tourists, it's an inconvenience, and the previous year, I'd been caught in one, leading to drama, as I rushed to meet Brendan. But for residents, it can be more serious. Farmers, laden with produce to sell in the cities can be trapped and unable to get to market before their goods spoil and can also be stuck in an expensive city. This year, there was a huge strike by big mining companies who blockaded all roads in the country, demanding that foreign miners be allowed in to offer technical assistance. When the anti-American, socialist president Morales was elected, he ejected US businesses and NGOs. While
I agree enterprises should be in Bolivian, rather than foreign, hands, this measure cut off needed expertise as well as the work of NGOs that had been helping to excavate Tiwanaku and work with the poor. With all roads in the country blocked, the bus stations and my normally semi-empty hotel were noisy and bulging with travelers trapped in the capital. I became friends with four, angel-faced, 18-year-old, English lads for whom the blockades were to be the least of their problems.
Police Brutality Where there is poverty, there is not only petty theft, but also police and governmental corruption. My British friends went to a club, got drunk and ripped off by the bartender. When they demanded their money, big bouncers took them out back, beat them up and called the police. The police put them in a paddy wagon and beat them up more, took them to a deserted spot, stripped them naked, held knives to their throats and demanded their money and valuables. My friends thought they were going to be killed and bade farewell to each other. Instead, they were taken to a police station, thrown in
a small, freezing cement cell with nothing but urine on the floor and let out only the next morning. With black eyes and bruises, they went to the British Embassy who said they would look into it, but warned that there was little they could do against the police. Since we couldn't get justice for them, we hoped to help others, visiting hostels near the bar, asking them to warn guests away from there. Hopefully, we prevented further violence. We then spent the rest of the day climbing the steep, concrete canyons of La Paz. While I kept up with their fast pace, and we had a grand day, I then limped up the many flights to my room for an evening of ibuprofen while they went out to party. What happened? I was trekking like a trooper last year. Age and sedentary cities had crept up on me when I wasn't looking!
Farewell Bolivia My last night in La Paz was magical. A large, indigenous group played pan pipes, charangoes (an armadillo-bodied, string instrument), shakers, rattles and drums for dancers in colorful, feathered outfits in the restaurant in the center
of my hotel. Too often, these concerts and parties had loud rock music that shook my room. But this night, the music blended perfectly with the rain on my tin roof. The next day, I traveled to Copacabana to meet Trace and Jim and the following day, we set out on the 9-hour bus journey to my South American hometown, Arequipa, for more adventures. But I'll return next year.
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