I met several travelers before arriving in La Paz who absolutely hated it. They warned me not to give it more than 1-2 days. I´m glad I didn’t listen to them, because I enjoyed La Paz!
My first full day here by myself, I was scared sh*tless. I really was. I don´t speak the language, it´s a third world city, there are no rules in effect for driving – or protecting pedestrians – and everyone has someplace to go, in a hurry. The last time I was in a city like this I was traveling with someone.
But I put on my brave face — and out I went. And you know what? It was fine. I managed. There´s nothing a solid map, a sunny day and a gracias can´t fix!
La Paz is definitely a busy city: There are at least three different types of buses here, with a crier yelling out the stops, as people hop on and off the still moving vehicle. There is no acknowledgement of crosswalks — you just have to stride confidentially into the mess, weave your way around the traffic, and pray you don´t get hit. (My secret it to shadow the old cholitas – traditionally dressed women – because really, WHO is going to hit an old lady???)
La Paz is one of the most interesting-looking cities I have ever seen. It has the sprawl of say, Bangkok or Bombay, but it is shaped like a bowl, with the city center at the bottom and houses climbing up all sides and spilling up over the rim and stretching for miles along the flat Alto Plano on one side, and stopped by snow-capped mountains on the other.
I decided to get an idea of the city layout by taking a bus tour. I know, I know… I hate bus tours. But given the steep hills and the altitude, it seemed like a smart (easy?) idea. One of the funniest parts of this tour — other than seeing the city at a quick glance – was how close we were to the electrical wires! Once I acclimated, I also did a walking tour — from the satellite city of El Alto, which spreads out along the flat plains above La Paz before spilling down into the bowl of the city.
The downtown area is bisected by a pedestrian medium called the Prado. One day I stumbled upon a street fair here – tasty food, interesting items to buy, and live music, which ranged from a NYC jazz singer to traditional folk music. These seniors were having the time of the their life!
And when the Archeology Museum was closed, I wandered onto the Prado and came across a privately-owed art museum housed in a beautiful former mansion. La Paz also has some lovely churches and while most of the exterior grandeur is covered in pollution, the interior cloisters and gardens are a pleasant surprise. Despite it´s near-vertical hills and crazy traffic, La Paz is a very walkable city. And if you remember to look up, you will catch some fantastic – if fading – colonial architecture.
The place with the most energy is definitely the market areas, which sell everything from super cheap athletic gear to llama fetuses for good luck to alpaca-made sweaters, socks and scarves. This is where you see the most woman in traditional dress — it is just the woman that dress this way, not the men. Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures of them because they get very angry if you try to photograph them. And if you ask beforehand, they usually say no. I haven’t been able to get a consistent answer as to WHY this angers them so much. And while regular Bolivians are friendly and smile, the cholitas are much more reserved, quiet and aloof. I can only guess that they have spent much of their existence being exploited not only by foreigners but by their own government. It was only when current president Evo Morales was elected that indigenous people started having more equal rights in the country. Still, markets are the most fun in any city and La Paz´s markets were no exception.
I also spent one day visiting the archaeological sight of Tiwanaku, which sits between La Paz and Lake Titicaca. This civilization existed from 1200 BC until 1000 BC; compared to the 95 years the Incas were around, that is fairly impressive. The ruins themselves aren’t much; they were looted by the Spanish and have been worn down by the elements. Still, it was worth the trip to see the remains of such an old civilization.
I closed out my week in La Paz by seeing Cholita Wrestling. This ridiculous and highly entertaining event involved Bolivian women in traditional dress kicking the faux-shit out of each other and some men in hysterical costumes.
Here, one cholita does the rounds before her match:
And her competitor is…
That´s right. A clown. I have never laughed so much!