We had set aside 3 nights for La Paz. I didn’t want to spend anytime there preferring to rather head straight on to the wide open spaces and blue water of Lake Titicaca but Chris was set on exploring Bolivia’s capital. My apprehension for the city was then not helped by the fact that 1) La Paz was super super hilly and 2) the altitude was getting to me. We had been t higher altitude before but we had never been active – now I was expected to walk up and down steep hills while feeling dizzy and battling to breathe. Needless to say my relationship with La Paz got off to a bumpy (no pun intended) start.
Chris was desperate to explore the region on foot so he was excited when I found a local company, aptly named La Paz on Foot, that offered walking tours of the city and the surrounding areas. Unfortunately our 3 day stay was over the weekend (when the owners were away and not answering emails) but a few frantic emails and phonecalls on the Monday morning and they very quickly organised us a guide for a half day ‘urban trek’. I was heartened by the difficulty rating of 4/10 and the fact that buses and taxis were in the itinerary for the hilly bits!
This is what we saw…
We started our tour at San Pedro square – just outside San Pedro prison. I had just finished reading Marching Powder by Rusty Young, which tells the true story of a former inmate, Thomas McFadden, and his life inside the prison. The prison is a remarkable place. Each prisoner must buy his own cell (the quality of the cell will obviously depend on the money available) and can set up businesses inside (restaurants, shops) and can even have their families live with them – the families are free to come and go as they please. While Thomas was an inmate, the prison even offered informal tours of the prison where tourists could visit the prison for a few hours or even stay overnight – the highlight seems to have been access to cocaine which was produced in laboratories within the walls of the prison. We stood outside the prison for about 30 minutes waiting for our guide. It was like watching the book come to life as I saw children leaving for their afternoon school classes, women coming to visit and sending the messengers at the gates to find the inmates (one of the ways inmates earned money) and even inmates casually dressed being led off to court. We had been asked not to take pictures so the ones we have are a bit distant…
We met our guide Alexandra in the square and she pointed up high above us to the ‘satellites’ (we would say power lines) above the city and explained that in 15 minutes we would be standing there. We jumped in a shared taxi (a taxi that follows a set route rather than going where you ask it to go) and soon we were climbing some of the steepest roads I have ever seen – remarkable even passing other cars on the particularly steep bits (nothing is impossible on the roads in Bolivia). La Paz lies in a valley at 3600m and we were heading straight up to El Alto (a city growing just outside La Paz) on the flat ground at 4000m. As she had said, 15 minutes later, we standing looking down on the sprawling city of La Paz beautifully bordered by snow capped mountains.
We stayed up in El Alto for about 30 minutes because Alexandra wanted to show us the art gallery. When we got there we discovered it was closed but when they found out Chris was from England they said we could come in and look around (still not sure how that worked). The gallery has been built in an old water tower and, if you can face the 6 or so flights of stairs (which is had at that altitude!) the views of El Alto are fascinating.
We then began our descent back down into Laz Paz – this time in foot. The neighbourhoods we walked through have incredible views but are basically clinging to the edge of the hills. The government has recently given them money with which they have built a staircase down (particularly useful for us) and a channel for them to throw dirty water down – this runs straight down into the already over polluted and smelly river.
The plan was that when we reached the main road we would catch one of the beautiful old fashioned and colourful buses down to the markets but we were hit by a sudden (and might I say vicious!) hail storm (one hail stone actually hit me just beneath my eye) that we had to get a taxi.
The final part of our tour was a browse through some of the markets. We visited a market where the ‘cholas‘ go to buy their clothes. Cholas are woman in Bolivia who wear the traditional dress – this includes a wide skirt (with multiple underlayers), a little jacket or shawl, flat pumps and the distinctive bowler hat. We also went to the market known to the tourists as the ‘witches market’. In this market you find traditional medicine and that all important llama foetus – if you are building a house it is a vital part of the offering to pachamama (mother earth).
We finished at the strikingly beautiful iglesia de San Francisco – the perfect place to people watch and reflect on it being our last day in the city.