Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America.
La Paz, The City of Our Lady of Peace, one of the highest cities in the world.
In Chile, when we said to people that we were next headed to La Paz, people generally said ‘ah, you’ll see the real South America there’. Or there would be a short exclamation of mirth. ‘La Paz is like Valparaíso on speed’ one of the Tours4Tips guides said to us.
So we didn’t really know what to expect. Except that when we landed we would probably be short of breath and suffer headaches or other effects of altitude sickness. The city itself being at 3,600m above sea level. In fact we touched down even higher as the airport is located in El Alto some 500m higher at 4,100m. El Alto is the sister city of La Paz. It is the capital of the Aymara people (one of 36 indigenous groups that live in Bolivia). Recently it split from La Paz for economic reasons. It was the ‘poor’ suburb of La Paz receiving no money for growth, or the support of the population there. However, with a population of 1.2 million people it is almost as large.
The airport is tiny compared to many of the huge hubs we’ve been to. Only two taxi drivers were waiting holding cards, and one had our names on it. So it was time to see what the ‘real’ South America was like. Not long after leaving the airport, the driver asks if we’d like to stop to see the view.
El Alto sits on a high Andean plain. La Paz’s mainly terracotta brick houses are draped over the steep hillsides below into a bowl and stretch down the valley as far as you can see. Above the city and the plains, snow capped peaks tower above reaching over 6,000m. Whatever else is to come, La Paz is absolutely spectacular scenically.
Heading down into the bowl of La Paz itself, my first impression was that it was in some ways like being back in India. The traffic was chaotic, cars and trucks and old 1960’s busses all competing for the same patch of road space. Road space that is seriously limited. Most streets are extremely narrow, being sandwiched between buildings and often street stalls and markets spilling across the pavements. Actually, markets were everywhere. Selling everything from fruit and veg to shower heads. And people were walking along the road selling to the occupants of the stationary traffic. In fact our taxi driver stopped and bought two toilet rolls. Not sure how long he thought it would take to get through the traffic…
We stopped again, this time outside a small shopping arcade. The driver told us we’d arrived. Looking around, a sign saying Golden Palace Hotel was visible fixed to the wall above the shop fronts. But there was no hotel lobby. Twenty metres in off the street, past shops selling ceiling decorations (roses, cornices, etc.) and leather were the doors to the hotel. It was really weird, but it seems that this is fairly normal. In La Paz at least.
I was a bit worried about the hotel. We weren’t due to meet the Intrepid group for three days so we’d booked an extra three nights there. However trying to contact them for an early check in and an airport transfer had been impossible. We ended up having to go through Booking.com and Intrepid to get any kind of response. It was probably the only hotel or Hostal on the whole trip that we’d had problems communicating with. However, once there it was friendly enough and our room was ready.
Breakfast was interesting. You could only have eggs, and only cooked one way. The way the ‘camp commandant’ like cook, cleaner and no doubt laundry lady liked them. Fried, and then chopped into little pieces to resemble scrambled but without any of the moisture or seasoning. Even though the eggs went through the ‘fried egg’ phase, you couldn’t have them like that. And wo behold you if you ventured behind the counter and into her space to look for anything!
After a rest (we had a very early start in Santiago, up at 3:00am for a 05:50 flight) we ventured out into the chaos.
A little something to make those of an older generation smile. In Bolivia we were spending Bob again! Their currency, the Bolivian Boliviano, is frequently shortened to Bob.
Second impressions were similar to the first really. A unique environment certainly, but there were some similarities between the chaos, colour, street markets and beggars here and in South East Asia and India. Street stalls were selling fruit (massive watermelons), vegetables, and household goods. Shops lining the pavements behind the street stalls had chickens and raw meat on display. We also people walking around selling raw chickens out of shopping bags. Street food sellers were cooking local sausages on grills or selling empanadas and other such things. There wasn’t the rubbish that you see everywhere in India though. Nor the constant haranguing to buy from whatever stall you were walking past. It was even possible to stop and look without being hassled!
In contrast, there are some really modern elements to the city. Due to its location the traditional underground metro system is completely impractical. So instead, the president back in 2014 commissioned a cable car system to be built, linking the extremities of the city to the south and the north with the centre. Substantial investment has been made, jointly with the Austrian government who invested 50%, in getting this up and running. It uses Austrian technology, and will be familiar to anyone who skis regularly in the Alps).
Currently there are eight lines running. The earliest is from 2014 with the most recent going into service as recently as March of 2019. These have cut the travelling time from the outlying areas into the centre from over two hours (the traffic really is bad) to less than thirty minutes. It’s cheap too. Each ride costs 3 Bob (about 30 pence) and there is still more to come. There is an ambition of completing the connection in El Alto to the airport amongst other plans.
We had some lunch at a small café full of locals (Tia Gladys, which turned out to be the most expensive street food place around), wandered around a little and were heading back to the hotel when we saw the stall holders start to cover the goods on their stalls with plastic sheeting. Then it started to rain. Jut after we got back the heavens opened. Torrential rain accompanied by thunder and lightening. Clearly the locals can predict when rain is on its way.
It was over in a couple of hours though, and when we hit the streets again everything was back in full swing. As we walked to get some food, we noticed some small, dried up looking, animals or birds hanging up in some of the stalls. There were some larger furry things hanging up. These we initially assumed were some kind of toy. In fact, we’d walked about a block away from the hotel to an area known as the ‘Witches Market’ (or Mercado de Hechiceria) and the dried and furry things hanging up turned out to be llama foetuses and baby llamas.
Now, before anyone starts shouting, the llamas are not killed (according to the local guides, although rumour suggests otherwise). The llama apparently does not have great record when it comes to gestation. Many foetuses are naturally aborted, with many others being still born. Why they are then hung up on market stalls and why local people buy them (they do) I’ll come on to later. Finally, at about 9:00pm the streets finally seemed to quieten down as we hiked breathlessly back up the steep path to the hotel.
We enrolled on another walking tour. It really is a good way to get the feel of a place, the local guides seem to do a good job of imparting culture and history and in taking you to interesting places.
This tour started in the Plaza de San Pedro. Now I wasn’t aware of this but La Paz has an infamous prison right in the heart of the city. The San Pedro prison located on the plaza we were now standing in.
The prison is literally a law unto itself. Home, officially, to about 2,500 inmates in reality it accommodates three times that. The whole place is protected by only seventeen guards. And they only patrol the outer walls, they never go inside. Families of people incarcerated there can also live within the walls and are allowed to come and go freely to attend local schools for example. There is little need to go outside though. Within the prison is a complete micro economy with shops, restaurants, barbers, laundry services and even a sauna. One service offered is a ‘taxi’. The taxi is an inmate with a yellow vest with Taxi written on it. He meets you at the gate and will take you through the prison to meet the person you are there to visit. Only the inmates know the rule, where others live and how to reach them.
Each of the eight sectionals within has an elected leader and these leaders form the basis of rule within. Inside it is completely self governing. Bolivian law isn’t like ours. You’re guilty until proven innocent. Many inmates are people who have been charged wi5h a crime but are still awaiting a trial. They may be in there for years. And if found guilty, the time already spent in jail isn’t offset against the sentence, it is added on. Allegedly the self government also goes as far as administering their own punishments. Should someone be put inside for child rape as an example, we were told that they were unlikely to walk out the next day…
As criminals, it’s no surprise I guess that they get up to criminal activities. It is said that some of the purest cocaine in all Bolivia is made within the prison walls. It’s smuggled out through relatives leaving or by being lobbed out of widows to the nearby plaza where waiting accomplices quickly scoot off with the evidence.
You used to be able to go inside the prison and take a tour with a guide. A number of years ago these tours were outlawed by the government because they are just too dangerous. After all, you are in a place full of convicts with no guards! Also it was a way of getting the white stuff out, and stories of visitors leaving with small bags of powder were common.
It is still possible to get a guide to take you in. But nobody recommends these illegal tours. They are dangerous (two women were raped inside not so long ago) and as you shouldn’t be there in the first place there are no grounds for any prosecution. In fact, if you’re caught you could end up there as an inmate. Not really something worth contemplating.
The square is a slightly tense place, and even taking photographs can lead to trouble. A guard (armed obviously) came over to me and insisted I delete all photos of the prison from my camera. Photos of just the outside. Apparently I got off lightly. Cameras have been confiscated, and people in hotels on the other side of the plaza have been reprimanded for taking photographs from their rooms. It seemed daft, but it wasn’t worth arguing about. I just retook a few pictures from further away where the guard couldn’t see.
We met a young couple when we went back into the middle of the square. They were desperate to get on a tour inside. They were looking for a guy called ‘Crazy Dave’ who regularly walks the square and takes people in. How I don’t know, and I don’t want to. Sometimes it’s best to just leave these things.
Back to slightly safer but no less bizarre topics. We went back to the witches market, but first a bit about local fashion.
In La Paz, and in Bolivia generally, many of the women particularly the older ones wear traditional dress. These women are called Cholitas. In many South American cultures the term is derogatory but in Bolivia this has been overcome. The women are actually seen as something of a cultural icon.
Their dress consists of a huge skirt, almost down to the ankles (sometimes consisting of 8m of material) with up to six or seven petticoats underneath. One their backs they often have colourful embroidered cloth known as an ‘aguayo’. It is used to carry everything from shopping to goods to sell to their babies. To top it all off they wear a sombrero, a bowler hat, but a tiny one.
The story behind this goes like this. Back in the 1920’s hat makers in Italy started to export bowler hats to Bolivia. They erroneously thought that as the Andean people were quite petite that they would also have proportionately smaller heads so they sent out small sized hats. Clearly that is not the case so the hats didn’t fit, they were too small. But somebody from the company told the ladies in La Paz that wearing these small hats was the height of fashion in Europe so the cholitas penchant for wearing tiny bowler hats was born. There is also something that can be read into the way these ladies wear their hats. If they are worn straight, on top of the head, then the cholita is married. If it is worn tilted to either side then the cholita is single.
Apparently the big skirt is attractive to the local men as they like big hipped ladies as it is a sign of fertility. The many under skirts also help to keep the ladies warm during the cold winters.
The Witches Market in La Paz is the ‘lite’ tourist version and now quite small. The real deal is 500m up the mountain in El Alto. But we did find out the story behind the llama foetuses.
In South America, religious beliefs amongst the indigenous peoples focus on natural gods and spirits. The most widely worshipped of these is Mother Earth, known across the continent as Pachamama. Pachamama receives offerings for many things, a good harvest, wealth, etc. but her blessing is also sought when a new building is erected.
You do this by making a cha’lla, or offering. First go to the witches market and buy a llama foetus or baby llama (the size of the building you are erecting dictates how big the llama should be; bigger buildings demand a larger offering). Then you need to get it prepared by a Yatiri, a local witch doctor. Finally, you wrap up the little creature and bury it under the foundations of your house.
What happens if you’re building a hotel, or a school, or some other large building I hear you ask? Well, the same applies, except that you need a larger offering. The local tale is that instead of using a llama, homeless people are coerced by the generous use of alcohol into getting themselves into a stupor and in their incapacitated state they are thrown into the foundations, unconscious but still alive, and then buried in concrete. The police deny this practice, but two local guides said that this practice does go on and that human Da has in fact been recovered from the foundations of buildings that have been demolished. You’ll have to make up your own mind if you believe this, but as appallingly as it seems I can believe that such things may have happened even if they have now longer stopped.
And not that long ago either. In 1946, President Gualberto Villaroel resigned his presidency in the middle of a riot. Protesters broke in to the palace, and according to one story, he was beaten close to death, thrown from a balcony into the street below and to finish him off he was hanged from a lamp post in the Plaza Murillo in front of the palace.
Allegedly, there can be up to three protests every day in La Paz. We didn’t see any, but we did hear fire crackers being set off during the night, and when we were in the Plaza Murillo a squad of armed riot police came marching across the square from a couple of armoured riot vans (with water canon) and disappeared behind the palace. Locals didn’t seem to bat an eyelid, so it must be a regular sight.
I’ve mentioned the new cable car network, but alternatives to that (other than struggling through the traffic in your own car) are to use the old 1950s busses imported in from the US or to use one of the thousands of mini busses filling the roads. These are essentially unregulated, you need two things from what we were told, a mini bus and a driving license. Put some signs in the front window to let people know where you’re planning to go and you’re off! Put out your arm and one will stop literally anywhere. Mainly right in the middle of the road. Jump in and any ride is 2 Bob. Tell the driver when you want to get off and he will again stop immediately, pretty much wherever you are. Hand over your 2 Bob and your done. Cash only of course.
So on our second walking tour in La Paz the first group activity was to catch the minibus up to the main cemetery, half way up the hillside toward El Alto. The set up is similar to the cemetery we visited in Santiago. Except that there were fewer big mausoleums for well known individuals or wealthy families. The local customs surrounding the dead however are very different.
They still rent the grave sites for 5 years. The local belief is that the dead actually continue to live amongst us for 5 years, and during this time the rent is paid and the graves (in general) are well tended. Favourite foods, drinks and things like cigarettes are left regularly for the deceased. Ladders are stacked at the ends of the avenues for people to access the higher graves (which are also cheaper to rent) and these are rented for a few Bob.
A common site on the graves is a white sticker. These are eviction notices. After the 5 years people often just stop paying the rent. Their loved ones have departed to a better place, so the grave doesn’t need tending as it had before. So after the notice period, the body is evicted from the grave. The skull is removed and the rest of the body is cremated and then the ashes deposited in a communal grave.
The whole cemetery has in recent years become home to some impressive street art and an annual street art competition. Much of this art is centred around death and the local customs and rituals surrounding death. It all adds up to a slightly surreal experience, with the well tended, and often garish, grave sites interspersed with some thoughtful, dramatic and sometimes macabre artwork. Certainly not your average western cemetery.
Back to the skulls, what on earth do they do with the skulls?
We know now that when you build a house you need to gain the blessing of Pachamama, but once you have your home, how can you protect it from harm, bring it good luck and how do you stop thieves and robbers from stealing your belongings?
You get a ñatita. A skull.
You have to buy a ñatita, you know its name, but only you can use that name. You have to give it a nickname for others to use (should they want or need to). If you look after it by providing the things that it would have liked during its lifetime it will bring your home luck and protect it. Fail to please it and bad luck will be close at hand. Should you dream of someone else holding your ñatita it doesn’t like you! Then you have to find that person and give it to them, for free. Then if you want another then you have to go buy one.
Not only do you know the name of the ñatita, you also know what it did during its life. If you were going to court, you might buy a ñatita who was a lawyer. That would bring you luck in your court case, or if you were ill you might try to find someone who was a doctor.
The final part of our walk took us via the cable car up to El Alto. Two things are up there, the largest street market in South America and the ‘real’ witches market.
The street market allegedly covers over 400 blocks. And it is also rife with crime. So our advice was to stick together as a group and not react to any provocation or diversionary tactics. These provocations could range from someone dropping something in front of you, throwing a baby (doll wrapped in clothes) toward you or even someone spitting at you. It was huge, and it was busy, but we saw no hint of any trouble. I don’t think we had ventured very deep into the area though.
Having said all that, it turned out to be the place out of my worst nightmare. Row upon row of stalls selling rubbish replica t-shirts, trainers, jeans etc. If we hadn’t been on a tight schedule we could have been lost for hours. It doesn’t just sell rubbish clothing though. There are stalls of car parts (used), tools, gadgets (fake) and apparently even an aircraft engine has been seen for sale (and sold).
The witches market is at the end of the main mega market. It runs along a dirt road at the top of the cliff overlooking the bowl that La Paz sits in. It is nothing like the markets below. The road is lined both sides with a row of small sheds/huts/shops, each the workplace of a ‘Yatiri’ or witch doctor.
Each of the huts has a fire outside, the street was filled with wood smoke, and on the fire offerings are burnt and all kind of witch doctorly stuff happens. I’m not exactly sure what, as we walked down the street without stopping. The ancient beliefs and customs that these people still have are strongly held and inquisitive tourists are not always particularly welcome.
Now, not anyone can become a Yatiri. You have to be born with a sign, an extra toe, a significant birthmark, something to set you apart from the norm. If you are ‘different you are offered to a Yatiri to train, a kind of apprentice witch doctor I guess. There is another way to become a witch doctor, you have first be struck and killed by lightening, and then come back to life with the help of Mother Earth. I guess there are not many Yatiri who have been chosen this way…
The witches market here is here for a good reason, well a couple really.
It is considered a sacred place as Illimani, a 6438m peak that overlooks the cities of La Paz and El Alto and is considered to be sacred by the local Aymara people. It stands on the horizon like a sentinel and is clearly visible from a viewpoint at the end of the witches market. This viewpoint itself also has a mythical status.
Tupac Amaru II was an Inca Prince who led a rebellion against the Spanish in 1780. After much bloody fighting and a siege of La Paz, he was betrayed by two of his officers and captured by the Spanish. Sentenced to death he was forced to watch the execution of several members of his family before having his four limbs tied to four horses who tore him apart. He was then decapitated with his head being displayed on a spike and his severed arms and legs being sent out as a warning against other rebellious leaders. His torso was burned in Cusco (where his great, great, great grandfather had been executed) but legend has it that his heart was saved and was buried next to the sacred stone in El Alto.
The site is now marked by a statue of Christ raised by the Spaniard conquerors as a way to try to quell the rebellious elements and Catholicise by replacing their sacred indigenous sites with Christian ones.
The views from up here are truly spectacular though.
From there we took the cable car further into El Alto to see what is fast becoming an urban legend for visitors to La Paz.
Yes, those same ladies in their local dress jump in the ring and fight. If you know WWE you’ll know the drill. And they are all actually trained in the US and fully accredited apparently.
Watching these ladies throwing themselves around the ring, sometimes by their hair, always accompanied by cheers (and boos for the villains and the ref who always sides with the villain) and shouts of encouragement from the boisterous crowd was pretty bizarre. Wrestling’s not really my thing, but it was fun, and the wrestlers were pretty skilled at their craft, but not something I’d expected to see in South America.
The next day, 26th April, was the start of our final overland trip. From La Paz, across the salt flats and high Altiplano desert, back into Chile then on through Argentina and Uruguay and finally into Brazil. All this was due to take another month.
At breakfast we met our guide, Julia, and some of our fellow travellers. Some joining the trip in La Paz (like us) and some who had already travelled through Peru together.
They were planning a tour around La Paz so we decided to join them. Some of the tour covered places to which we had already been, but we did visit another viewpoint and the oddly named Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).
It’s not a valley at all, but a series of spikes peaks created by the erosion of the soft mud and clays rocks and soil. The name isn’t actually that old either. Astronaut Neil Armstrong visited the spot after his 1969 moon landing and declared that it looked like the surface of the moon. The name stuck, and it has subsequently become one of the sights to see when visiting La Paz. Worth a visit? Yes, but don’t go to La Paz just to visit it…
Walking back down to the Golden Palace after visiting the cemetery again, is a good chance to chat to our new friends as we wander downhill through yet more markets.
That only left us a brief shopping trip to buy gloves and a scarf for the forthcoming trip over the Andes. We expected it to be cold as we would be at altitudes up to 4,900m and sleeping in the desert.
La Paz has to be one of the most fascinating cites I’ve ever been to. It’s location is spectacular, it is colourful, hectic and culturally as far from western culture as anywhere I’ve been. And unlike so many places you visit, many old traditions and beliefs are still part of day to day life.
Even before heading off in the dark to Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia, (on a very luxurious, 12 hour overnight bus with completely lay flat beds a la first class) La Paz has left an indelible impression. It’s certainly a place I’ll never forget, and another of those places that I feel privileged to have seen before tourism spoils it and the old traditions are lost.