Nuestra Señora de La Paz
I was intentionally trying not to find out too much about the city beforehand in order not to have any preconceived ideas. I knew it was the highest placed capital in the world but beyond that I was ready to learn.
La Paz welcomed me with a downpour. I had a taxi booked from the airport that was to take me to the hostel where the group was supposed to meet the following day in the evening. The ride was amazing because the airport is situated on the plateau around the valley so on your way you are descending slowly through the steep streets and you get to admire the crazy architecture of La Paz. It almost looks like people’s houses are built on top of each other.
The following day I had a trip booked, a guided ride around the city and Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). My main reason for booking it was that I couldn’t walk for 5 minutes without running out of breath. As it turned out I was the only tourist in the car so it felt very posh and special.
Of course, right after I arrived, I supplied myself with some altitude sickness pills and something for my quickly growing cold. The altitude got me regardless. I was throwing up all night, coughed and had a nose running non-stop. Meeting the group the next day was a pure delight in those conditions.
The city of La Paz is a rather strange place, one could say even ugly. It looks like everyone just did whatever they wanted. One house built upon another without any sense of aesthetically standards. The streets are crooked, full of wholes and rubbish. Filled with people sitting on pavements selling whatever they can. Older women dressed pretty much exclusively in traditional attire we all imagine when thinking about Bolivia. Young women – jeans only.
Traffic moves seemingly not following any rules whatsoever. Everyone drives, takes over or turns as they please. Pedestrians don’t really stick to the pavements, as those are full of stalls selling you food and other things. If there is in fact any infrastructure, it’s very well hidden.
The division in the city is quite clear and easy to spot by the quality of sold goods. Around the hostel you could hardly move because of the street sellers trying to unload any type of cheap trinkets and food. If you go bit further out, you get to see the pavements, actual shops and some more ambitious advertisements. Further south the brands in the ads get high end and you notice some BMWs, Mercedes and Audis on the roads. The streets themselves are clean and of course no street sellers around. Many communities were gated. Those houses even had enough space for gardens.
The guide himself admitted that La Paz is not really in any way prepared for mass tourism. And indeed, neither hotels or hostels were marked in any way, they almost stayed hidden. And you have to look hard for any monuments when you’re sightseeing.
We started our tour with the San Marco prison, only from afar. The prisoners apparently are divided into three categories: petty thieves, drug dealers and rich convicts (so-called abo-gangsters, abogado meaning a lawyer in Spanish). The prison only became popular after an Australian drug smuggler has written a book about his stay at this facility and so it became increasingly popular. Until recently you could apparently even spend a night there. However, the more surprising thing about it is that the prisoners can have their families living there with them, of course for a hefty fee, so not everybody can afford it. The members of the family are of course allowed to leave in order to go to work or to school. Prisoners who cannot afford renting a cell have to sleep on the floor.
Worth recommending is also a Mirador from which you can see most of the city (including the Pringle – the Olympic swimming pool with funny shaped roof) and take some amazing pictures.
Only one of all colonial streets, Calle Jauma, has been renovated, I haven’t really seen other historical places at all. The street itself is very small and pretty, full of museums and cafés. We entered one of the galleries showcasing the works of a very famous Bolivian artist Mamami Mamani Indigeno. As he belongs to one indigenous tribes in the country I also found out that there are actually 36 different tribes and following that 36 official languages apart from Spanish. However, only three are being used: quechua, guarani and one more, which I sadly don’t remember.
The guide also told me some anecdotes about Bolivia losing a huge piece of land to Brazil in exchange for a horse because the president at the time couldn’t read the map in scale properly. He pointed at the place on a map with a finger and it covered much bigger area than he thought. Bolivians are also on not very friendly terms with Chile, because they have taken their access to the sea towards the end of the 19th century. They do have a sort of deal with them about easier access for import and export, but they are not happy about it.
Rain actually causes some serious problems in La Paz as the soil gets washed away from underneath the houses and they become to dangerous to be inhabited.
A very surprising thing I got to see on this very exclusive ride was Valle de la Luna. It was named like that because apparently Armstrong (the astronaut) told the Bolivians that the landscape reminds him of the surface of the moon. The area has been separated and protected only relatively recently, sort of last minute as developers and golf courses were literarily just around the corner. The valley changes with every heavy rain so every visit could be a very different experience.
I do have to mention the hostel I was staying at just in case someone is visiting Latin America for the first time. Some places, like my hostel, don’t have hot water, or at least for most hours of the day. There was also no heating. Of course, they were prepared so I got a heater from the reception and there was always hot water in a thermos in the lobby so I could make myself a tea. Interesting bit were the windows, not on the outside wall but onto the corridors, including the one in the bathroom. So, you could see and hear everyone walking on the corridor and if they looked carefully, they could potentially see you seating on the toilet.