Five hours take us to get to La Paz from Copacabana. The first thing that surprises us before arriving to the capital is the amount of threads painted on the walls of the streets. We go through the outskirts of the city, probably a not very wealthy neighbourhood, there are many messages on the walls saying “ladrón pillado, será colgado” (meaning: caught thief will be hanged), or “ladrón pillado, será quemado vivo” (meaning: caught thief will be burned alive). Not only we see the threats, there are also human-like toys hanging on the street lamps… we hope that La Paz is friendlier than that…
The city is big and hilly, it goes from 3600m to 4000m in altitude, which is a pretty huge difference for a city. As, of course, a subway wouldn’t really make a lot of sense in a city like that, they have several cablecars that paceños use instead of underground transportation. They are very modern, new, fancy and they give you great views over the city. We cross it all using them and see the little Dakar cars that have arrived to the city. La Paz seems to get crazy about the Dakar rally, but we doubt that they are real followers of the race, they see business behind it and it seems to be the big event of the year.
For us this is not such good news, as we can’t leave the city before the Dakar cars do, they are the honored ones and all roads are closed and reserved for them.
Given that we can’t move forward we decide to make the most of our time in La Paz. We visit the markets and meet some “caseras” (stand sellers who treat you as if you were their children and always give you an extra portion of something when you become a regular costumer). We learn that the little hat (a bowler hat) women wear in Bolivia is inherited from English landlords and it has a particular meaning depending whether is worn straight or tilted (straight means married woman, tilted means available woman (single, divorced, widow…)). We also pass by Saint Peter’s prison, a prison at the very heart of the city where the convicts pay rent for cells with cable TV, the latest sound system and some even have Jacuzzi! They live in the cells with their families, who can go in and out of the prison as they please (they go grocery shopping at the markets as anyone else, and children go to the school right next corner, but they then come back “home” inside a prison). The convicts are actually very well organized, they have a whole working system and they provide all the services they need inside the prison: there are hairdressers, shoemakers, restaurants… and how can they pay for their cell rents and services if they are actually convicts? Well, they continue the businesses that brought them to prison. If you see a diaper on the street next to Saint Peter’s prison in La Paz, it probably contains some hidden drug processed inside the prison… We wonder how a prison like that could be running!
We said we visited some local markets, they are almost everywhere, you find covered ones and then the other markets that spread along the streets whatever the weather looks like. Next to the main square there is a big covered market on top of which we find many little food stands. We cannot resist the smell and have to try one of the local lunch menus: we choose “el plato paceño”, a traditional dish from La Paz. It consists of broad beans, sweet corn (choclo), potatoes, fried fresh cheese, and it is very tasty! The choclos (big sweet corn typical from Bolivia) is basic in almost all traditional dishes. Also a choclo is a tourist, they call us like that because our skin color is like corn… hmmm… not so sure about that 😀
There is a tradition in Bolivia, on the 6th of January they bring a figure of baby Jesus to the church to be blessed. Next to the churches you see everyone carrying baskets with the baby Jesus and many many many so called witches burning myrrh (not such a pleasant smell, we have to say…). You can ask them to help you with your future, for that they’ll ask you to bring some material, like soap figures and other stuff, such that they can brew a magic broth. Otherwise, you can get the ready-made potions sold at the famous witches market.
Bolivians were colonized and forced to convert to Christianism, they were put in front of a mirror and were told that the devil had their souls, and if they wanted them back, they had to convert to Christianism… But they still believe in the mother earth, the Pachamama, and they still practice some ancient rituals. There is one of them that says that a house will stand firmly if a fetus of a llama is buried in its foundations. The witches are the ones carrying out the rituals. If it happens that you want to build a house and need a fetus, just go to the witches market and get one, you’ll find plenty of them hanging around (obviously already dead and dried…).
Nevertheless, if you want the house to become even stronger and more stable, the ritual says that you’ll need to bury a person alive. Obviously, nowadays hardly any building has a buried person underneath, or that’s what people think. However, there was a Bolivian writer (Victor Hugo Viscarra, also know as the bolivian Bukowski), who used to be alcoholic and lived many years submerged in the darkest suburbs. He spent 30 years of his life experiencing himself the marginality and the social differences in the bolivian society. He got the inspiration for most of his novels from this time. He talked openly about the scary “elephant’s cementeries”, clandestine bars where desperate and depressed people go to drink to death. They pay very little money for cheap alcohol (normally mixed with some powder-juice to hide the awful taste of the cheap alcohol), and they drink in little rooms without even seeing the sunlight, until they die. There is a movie based on a book of Victor Hugo Viscarra, called “cementerio de elefantes” which puts it into images. Anyway, all this just to say that some people believe that these clandestine dens are providing bodies to these old building ritual. Imagine our faces when we heard the story, unbelievable! There is also a book talking about this by the same author, called “borracho estaba, pero me acuerdo” (I was drunk, but I remember). Maybe it’s better not to drink too much in Bolivia if you go out, just in case…
Let’s change subject after this frightening story. Very close to the city there is a moon-like valley, called, obviously “moon valley”. We spend a nice morning wandering around arid earthy peaks linked by little dust paths and small bridges. It is the sunniest morning we have during our Bolivia visit! And we are so happy about it! 🙂
In our last afternoon in La Paz we intend to visit a cholitas wrestling show. The cholitas are the traditional women of Bolivia. They are characterized by wearing the traditional bowler hat, a big skirt and having long hair tight in two pony tails.
These women are very strong, so strong that they can beat a man on wrestling. Unfortunately, there was no show on that day… we’ll have to come back for one!
Did you know that…
… La Paz is the highest capital city in the world?
… the moon-valley is an important site of the famous holiday “día de los muertos” (Day of the Dead)?
… Cholita wrestling is a way for Bolivian women to prove their worth in a “man’s world”? Having been abused, humiliated and discriminated against throughout history, the ring is one place where indigenous women can hold their heads high, do their job with pride, and be on equal footing with men.
- Cablecar: get nice views on the city with cheap and modern cable cars.
- Markets on the streets and caseras: buy bread, shoes or magic powder just around the corner.
- Tasty food: mix with the locals and eat a super tasty meal in the market. Also try the giant popcorn sold on the streets.
- Hills: if you manage to walk, talk and eat at the same time in La Paz, then you have probably passed the citizenship exam 😉
- Dakar: the city stops for the rally and it gets more expensive than usual.
- Traffic: sometimes it is faster to go on foot.