Mark and I were ready to hate La Paz.
Often, after we have spent time in the wilderness soaking up stunning natural landscapes, cities can feel tiresome and unwelcome, even to this diehard Londoner.
But La Paz was a pleasant surprise which made us realise once again how much Bolivia has to offer. It’s such an underrated country with so many misconceptions – their tourism industry needs better PR!
Pub quiz fans know La Paz to be the highest capital city in the world: a nosebleed inducing 3660m. What we weren’t expecting was the way the city’s buildings seem to climb the sides of the canyon with Mt Illamani in the background. Or how varied the different neighbourhoods are. Or just how sweltering it gets in the daytime, especially in contrast to the freezing nights.
On the map, distances within La Paz don’t look far but the combination of altitude and steep hills is a killer. Wads of coca leaves stayed firmly in our cheeks as we found our way around the city.
One of the first places we visited was Calle Jaén, the oldest street in La Paz which today is a charming collection of higgledy piggledy museums, galleries, shops and cafes on either side of a cobbled road.
A favourite was the Mamani Mamani gallery, where you could see some of the huge, colourful works of Bolivia’s most famous artist. Our travel budget didn’t allow us to invest in any paintings, but luckily he has also painted murals around the city which can be enjoyed for free.
La Paz is also a paradise for shoppers, with quality items like baby alpaca jumpers at laughably cheap prices. More unusual goods are also available, particularly in the Witches Market.
For example you can find llama foetuses, which are traditionally buried under the front step of a new house, as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth, a venerated spirit in Andean cultures) to ensure prosperity.
You can also buy all sorts of lotions and potions for a multitude of purposes, from career success to sexual prowess.
These little chaps are used during the Bolivian tradition of Alasitas, or the “Festival of Abundance” every January. Miniature versions of items such as money, food, cars, houses, diplomas are offered to be blessed, as a prayer that the real, life sized thing will be obtained in the coming year.
La Paz also has many fresh produce markets, with literally thousands of stalls displaying virtually identical stock, each looked after by a cholita (the Bolivian ladies who wear the ubiquitous style of bowler hats, two long plaits, full skirts and many layers of cardigans and blankets).
We didn’t understand this initially – surely in such a busy, competitive marketplace it would be best to differentiate yourself and your stall with specialist items or price points? Then we learnt that Bolivians are fiercely loyal to their fruit & veg cholita: generations of the same family will only buy their food from the same lady’s stall. Apparently it is not uncommon to be refused service if you are obviously carrying a bag of produce bought from another stall.
We also learnt a bit about the etiquette of these markets. For example, haggling over the price of fresh produce is not welcome, but you can get a good deal by asking for a yapa (a free gift of a few extra items to add to your shopping).
Also it is important to ask permission before taking photos as many cholitas don’t like it. Sure enough we spotted a few with bags of rotten tomatoes by their feet, ready to hurl at disrespectful, snap happy gringos.
Some other sights from our wanderings around the city, including politically significant buildings. We learnt a bit about Bolivia’s tumultuous, dramatic history: around 200 changes of government in around 180 years as a republic. The streets and squares of La Paz have seen many protests, marches and riots; some landmarks have visible bullet holes.
Unbelievably, traffic in La Paz is controlled by people in zebra outfits!