The following is a guest post by Natasha.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in La Paz was the altitude. The feeling is difficult to describe but consists of lightheadedness and a faster heart rate – almost as if you’ve just had an intense workout. The 1,000m drop between the airport and the city centre did little to alleviate my symptoms. La Paz is not a “pretty” city, but it is awe-inspiring and too often overlooked by tourists and travellers who only spend a few nights there. With its location in a bowl of land and the altiplano and the majestic Illimani towering over it, the geography of Bolivia’s administrative capital is intriguing in itself even before you reach the chaotic city centre.
As Bolivia is relatively unknown by the majority of people from my home country of the UK (I knew pretty much nothing before I went), I’ll start with a brief introduction. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America (59% live in poverty), and it is a former Spanish colony. The two main ethnic groups in La Paz are the indigenous Aymara people, who make up a majority of the population, and those of European origin. There is a significant and obvious wealth gap between the two ethnic groups. There is still much evidence of racism, particularly against cholitas, the traditionally clothed women who primarily sell food in the street. One clear example I remember is the prevalence of signs in restaurants that read, “todos somos iguales antes la ley” [we are all equal before the law], a stark reminder of the fact that only recently were cholitas allowed in certain public places.
The unabashed socialism of Bolivia is a big draw for lots of travellers seeking respite from their own capitalist cultures. Pretty much anywhere you go in La Paz and, in fact, in Bolivia, you are guaranteed to see graffiti that says, “Evo Si” or “Evo No”, which references the president, Evo Morales, who is clearly a very divisive figure throughout the country. One of Evo’s main initiatives involves the coca production, an industry that Bolivia relies heavily on. The simplest cure for problems with altitude is coca – either chewing the leaves or making it into a tea. Like many Bolivians, I consumed coca every day while I was in Bolivia, and I was made aware of its many health benefits. The U.S. tried to stop coca production in the notorious ‘War Against Drugs,’ but Evo managed to lobby the UN to repeal the ban on coca in Bolivia. As such, we saw an abundance of coca fields dispersed throughout the rural parts of the country, sometimes on slopes so steep it was a wonder the farmers didn’t roll down the fields as they were working.
Speaking of steep slopes, it is worthwhile to mention that the main method of transportation used in La Paz and the surrounding area is minibuses. Initially, I was nervous about boarding these minibuses, as I squinted to read the place names of where each bus was headed before hailing it down, dodged some traffic to get to the minibus, and finally crammed into the back of the minibus bracing myself for the bumpy ride. An alternative to the minibus is the teleferico, a network of cable cars unique to La Paz that transports people from 2,500m to 3,500m in a fairly short time. From the top of the cable cars, you can get a breathtaking view of the entire city, and as long as you aren’t afraid of heights, it is an absolutely stunning and surreal experience.
I was lucky to be able see La Paz with some locals, so I was able to experience things that I imagine most tourists would miss out on. For only 30 bolivianos (about £3.30 or $4.30), I had the opportunity to watch a football match between Bolivar (who I now resolutely support) and The Strongest, a highlight of the Bolivian footballing calendar. Another authentic experience that’s lesser known to tourists is the Witches’ Market at El Alto, which you can reach by minibus or teleferico. This is not the same as the more popular Witches’ Market near the Plaza San Francisco. At the real Witches’ Market, you will see demonstrations of Aymara remedies including llama fetuses, which emit an interesting smell. The market also has food, drinks, and anything from old car parts to clothes; this is where the majority of residents in La Paz do their shopping. What I enjoyed most, however, was simply wandering the streets of La Paz and being surrounded by the constant noise from minibuses, taxis, and street sellers. The smell of street food and fried chicken permeated the streets, which was especially comforting in the coldness of the night. There was never a quiet moment in La Paz.
What to eat in La Paz:
- CICLIK: attracts the trendier crowd of La Paz and lots of European/American tourists with its slightly more expensive, international menu.
- BRINDIS: serves a three course, traditional Bolivian meal (almuerzo) for just 15 bolivianos (£1.70 or $2.15)! Make sure to keep your belongings very close. You can also get almuerzo at almost any restaurant you see for a similar price – filling, cheap and traditional.
- STREET FOOD: street vendors are dotted all over La Paz, selling empañadas, salteñas, tucamañas, choripan, anticuchos, and even hamburgers. If you’re eating chicken, be sure to go in the morning to avoid food poisoning.
What to drink in La Paz:
- LA COSTILLA: somewhere I never would have found on my own. There are no markings on the outside so we effectively had to knock on someone’s front door on a quiet street in the Sopocachi district to be let into a bar with rather quirky decorations. Try a chuflay, the signature cocktail of La Paz containing singani, a Bolivian spirit, and ginger beer.
- DIESEL: more like Ciclik in the kind of crowd it attracts. I had a té con té, an alcoholic hot drink made with tea and singani.
Beyond La Paz:
La Paz is also a great starting point for travelling through the rest of Bolivia, which is what my friend and I ended up doing. Two spots that really stood out for me were Coroico and Sorata:
Coroico is a jungle town nested on the side of Uchumachi. We got there on a slightly hair-raising minibus journey from the city, going along the other side of the valley to the infamous Death Road. Once there we stayed in El Cafétal with amazing jungle views and went on some beautiful hikes to the waterfalls and up the mountain. I also saw fireflies for the first time!
Sorata is a small town in the mountains, somewhere between the Andes and the Amazon. We were almost the only gringo-types there and stayed at the wonderful Hostal Mirador, which had epic views of the valley. From there, we walked to the caves of San Pedro and took a boat out onto the underground lake, which was both majestic and slightly eerie. We also hiked down to the riverbank, where an old cowherd who had walked the river with his cattle sat down next to us and shared some snacks and conversation.
I couldn’t have asked for a more unique or extraordinary country to visit on my first stop in South America. Bolivia is still relatively raw and authentic as it has not been as saturated with tourists as other South American countries. I would highly recommend visiting Bolivia, a country untouched by the negative effects of tourism and a melting pot of South American culture, society and politics.
Student at Edinburgh University. I love travelling to places in the middle of nowhere or cities with interesting history and politics, taking photos of the former and writing about the latter.
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