Less than 24 hours in La Paz confirmed to us that you need to spend a little bit longer than 24 hours in La Paz. Our desire to stay longer probably also had something to do with our hotel; we were dropped in the lap of luxury just when we needed it. Our room was a suite, complete with two TVs, Netflix, the shower was powerful and roasting hot and they had a hairdryer, Caro hadn’t seen a hairdryer since Patagonia, it was an exciting day. The hotel restaurant was also excellent so we didn’t venture outside that first evening, we ate at the hotel and watched half a Harry Potter movie before going to sleep in a pile of pillows. These indulgences didn’t particularly cut into our time in town, it was belting it down that night in any case.
The next morning, however, we laced up our trainers, ready to do some serious stomping on another walking tour, this one paid for but still very good. The company we booked through was Banjo Tours and they lived up to their excellent reviews. Sergio greeted us at our hotel and took us straight out for our second breakfast of salteñas. They are like empanadas but made with a sweeter, crispier pastry. Copious quantities of ice cream aside, we aren’t big fans of sweet things, so we definitely still prefer empanadas but they were tasty anyway.
We were then treated to four enormously engaging hours walking the streets and riding the cable cars of La Paz. We have become real fans of walking tours as you get bits of information on local life, politics and general goings on which you don’t get from a guide book. First up was the main square with parliament, the presidential palace and many thousand pigeons.
Some of our favourite buildings in town were practically derelict. We learned that wealthy Spanish families had owned them for generations but had left Bolivia decades earlier, their decedents sometimes don’t even know that they own prime real estate right in the centre of La Paz. So, the buildings have fallen into very graceful decay.
Speaking of graceful decay; Jaen Street, right in the centre of town, is an absolutely beautiful street of original colonial buildings. Really and truly original; La Paz didn’t exist before 1548 and the street was built in 1555. At the time, there weren’t any fired bricks available so the houses are built from traditional mud bricks and plaster.
Due to the materials used to build them, these kinds of buildings are very difficult and expensive to maintain, particularly for private owners, so the government is gradually buying them up, restoring them properly and turning the area in to a creative and cultural centre.
The city has a fairly hefty congestion problem, all made up of taxis and minibuses ferrying people around, so the government has built a number of cable cars. These modern and clean lines run all over the city and are a great way to get a view from above. We hoped on one line which took us up to El Alto, 1000m higher than the southern end of the city. On the ride up we passed over an excellent graffiti llama, the enormous central cemetery with its really cool, if a little creepy street art, the newly colourful houses of El Alto and a Toyota Corolla wedged in a cliff (miraculously, the driver survived).
You can just make out a sliver of silver wedged in one of the crevices, that’s the car.
We didn’t linger to long in El Alto, Sergio said it was not the safest part of the city, especially when draped in a dense fog as it was that day. We took the cable car back to the centre of the city and headed to the San Francisco Basillica with its unusual carvings on the exterior walls.
The Spanish built the bottom half of the building but then engaged local craftsmen to build the top half. According to Sergio, understanding of the Catholic faith wasn’t quite complete and so the workers went a little off script, merging the traditional Incan beliefs in Pachamama with the Virgin Mary; the female figures adorning the top half of the church have been carved with legs akimbo birthing a lotus flower. Doubtless this gave the padres something to think about.
From here it was off to explore one of the witches’ markets. This didn’t quite meet the images that we had conjured up, because it’s actually just a few shops at the end of one road. It is also a thoroughly odd experience, complete with dried llama foetus. These are burned in a pile of candy as part of an offering on important occasions. Sergio told us that it’s very expensive to hire a shaman to perform the ceremony and that he can only afford to have this ceremony performed once a year. The shop also sold a huge array of potions for every aliment imaginable, all marketed in colourful packaging. These are the cheaper, modern replacements for traditional options, which most of the population cannot afford. Most of it looked like bottles of water with food colouring.
We had seen these statues of a small leprechaun / Santa Claus type chap around town with cigarette in his mouth called an Ekeko. This too, is apparently part of an annual celebration. When the Spanish arrived, bringing Catholicism with them, they banned all of the idolatrous statues and spiritual paraphernalia asscoaited with the traditional beliefs. So the locals quickly swapped the statue out for a chubby white guy and the Spanish thought they themselves were being worshipped, which they were totally ok with. Apparently, if Ekeko, the god of abundance, smokes the whole cigarette it will bring good luck. These traditions endure and have been merged with the Catholic faith in quite an extraodinary way. It all seemed quite mad to us, but it is a big part of daily life in Bolivia.
One of the highlights of the day was exploring the produce markets, one of our favourite things to do in any city.
The colours were vibrant, it was amazingly clean, all of the produce looked fresh and appealing and the women working there wear traditional dress. This included a bowler hat which is too small for the wearer and is balanced on their head. The dress is a mix of native and Spanish influence. We learned that these women actually wield a lot of power, they own the spaces they work in the market, earn a pretty penny from them and are responsible for administering any vacant spaces which are hugely desireable.
We went straight from the end of our tour to the airport, it truly was a flying visit. La Paz certainly has more to offer and we were sorry not to have more time, but we were very excited about being back at sea level; time to enter the jungle.
p.s. We wanted to include a little bit about the trip from Copacabana, it’s not exactly a headliner so we’re just slotting it in here at the end because it was quite diverting. The bus journey is beautiful, actually a really lovely way to see the lake. The fun bit was the ferry crossing, for some reason, bus and passengers go separately, a fact we were actually happy about when we saw the rickety wooden dingy that the bus was loaded on to.
We were less thrilled when we were piled in to a tiny motor boat fit for 6 people with at least 18 others.
We then watched as our bus was held up on the far side by the arrival of an ambulance, sirens blaring. The ambulance was loaded onto its own raft and made the tortuously slow journey across the water, we very much hoped that the emergency wasn’t too emergent.