La Paz – The good, the bad and the ugly

19 Sep

La Paz, the highest capital city in the world, at an altitude of 3,660 metres above sea level, had us in a spin from the second we arrived. Approaching the city the empty, flat plains of El Alto go on endlessly until that special moment when you see the ground opening up and receive your first glance of La Paz sprawling in the deep valley below.

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The views from our bus window literally left us gasping for breath. Snow capped mountains ringed the city and a sea of buildings washed around an enormous bowl and spiralled downwards into the canyon.

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On arriving in La Paz, the city’s sights, sounds and smells hit us like a sledge-hammer. The effects of altitude, the harsh climate of powerful daytime sunshine and bitterly cold nights, the frenzied traffic, the pollution, the colourful and endless beat of daily life – it was like nowhere we’d ever experienced before and we felt dazed in its presence. We quickly learned that to really appreciate the many sides to the city we had to slow down and take our time whilst exploring. The city was like an onion with many layers and we were intrigued to peel back the skin and take a good look inside. Like any big city we knew that La Paz had its fair share of problems and we may not like all of the faces it showed us but for us to really understand what makes La Paz ‘tick’ we were going to have to embrace the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE GOOD

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Although there is a good sprinkle of colonial buildings, churches and pretty squares in the city centre and the quaint cobblestones of Calle Jaen hosts some excellent museums, conventional tourist sites are somewhat limited in La Paz and it’s the city itself which is the main attraction.

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The city has a ramshackle and quirky beauty which we couldn’t help but love.

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The rule of thumb in La Paz is the wealthier you are the lower down the valley you live because the climate is better, and the poorer you are the higher you live, so there’s an unusual mixture of shiny new apartment buildings downtown and half-finished red brick, tin roofed huts clinging to the upper canyon walls.

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The main avenue running from top to bottom of La Paz is called the Prado and from here steep streets twist and turn like a maze always leading uphill.

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La Paz has two main seasons – dry and rainy – and undoubtedly the best time to see the city is the drier months between May and September when clear and sunny days offer incredible views.

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Several miradors, or viewing points, have been created around the city and all include a huff and puff up steep hills to get to them.

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Our favourite viewing point was ironically called ‘Killi Killi’ and the climb was indeed nearly the end of us!

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But the views at the top were simply incredible with the whole city laid out in front of us and the huge, snowy Mt. Illamani (6,402 metres) dominating the backdrop. A series of walkways and platforms allowed us to peer down on the city from every angle.

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A local man sat practicing his guitar and the beautiful notes soared above the chaotic streets below where locals thrive on a bustling way of life.

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Another excellent viewing point is the central green space of ‘Laikakota’ park which offers a new perspective from the midst of the city where tall buildings shoot up around you and busy roads look like racing tracks for toy cars.

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Such electrifying views released the big kid inside of us and I couldn’t resist trying out the children’s slide. I’d like to say I was brave but there was a 6-year-old girl screaming less than me!

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One of the things that made La Paz special for us was the vibrancy and colour of local life.

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A festival culture characterises the country and locals are proud to boast a festival for nearly every day of the year with loud music, flamboyant costumes and exotic food as key components. In many parts of Bolivia globalisation has certainly taken hold with shops selling high-tech flat screen TV’s, hip bars and restaurants which could be mistaken for London or New York and international corporations setting up shop, but this cosmopolitan side to the city seems to co-exist in perfect harmony with the older, more traditional way of life.

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Many of the ladies have long, black plaits and wear bowler hats and colourful layered, embroidered skirts.

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Shoe shiners in balaclavas rub shoulders with men carrying impossibly heavy loads and street vendors serve up an array of home-made food in large bubbling pots.

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Market traders sell beautiful woven clothes, bags and trinkets and musicians fill the streets with Latin beats to collect a few Boliviano’s from passers-by. The Bolivian’s are busy, industrious people and unemployment is very low. There are no welfare provisions so not having a job is simply not an option as it would mean not eating or losing your home. Getting a job in Bolivia often means creating one and it’s estimated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that the informal economy makes up around 65% of Gross Domestic Product and accounts for up to 80% of all urban and rural employment. The smaller traders work hard to push the country forward and there’s no better place to witness this than the local markets.

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The area known as the ‘Witches Market’ is a long time favourite hangout for Gringos with plenty of accommodation options, tour agencies, funky cafes for a decent coffee and lively bars. The original market still exists and it’s possible to lose yourself wandering through the side streets and back alleys selling everything from herbal love potions to dried llama fetuses. Sorcery and witchcraft is alive and well in La Paz and it’s common to see huddles of people having their coca tea leaves read or a shaman burning incence and performing a blessing.

The biggest food market in La Paz is called Mercardo Rodriquez and it brings people from all corners of the city together.

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Despite the grimy, urban setting there’s beauty in the vegetables stacked neatly in rows and strong-smelling spices heaped in large piles. It’s not uncommon to find the sellers asleep at their pitch but it’s no wonder when they work nearly 100 hours per week. The faces of the market stall owners are weather-beaten and cracked with lines which reflect the harsh reality of outside work and we made it our mission to turn their stern looks into smiles.

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La Paz is an excellent place to indulge in all manner of activities for a very cheap price – mountain biking down the world’s most dangerous road, abseiling off one of the city’s highest skyscrapers, paragliding, summitting 6,000 metre plus peaks – the list is endless – and will certainly give adrenalin junkies their fix. One of the most dangerous activities we indulged in whilst staying in La Paz was taking on the vindaloo challenge at the world’s highest Indian restaurant – the Star of India. La Paz boasts a huge array of inexpensive eateries from street stalls to westernised restaurants with some of the country’s best chefs. We’d been satisfied most days eating the cheap set lunches, known as Almuerzos, where we’d be served a bowl of soup and the dish of the day – usually chicken, rice and potatoes – but we’d been hankering for a British-style curry for months and we’d been tipped off that the Star of India was possibly the best curry house South of the equator. Neither of us had ever eaten a vindaloo before but we were feeling particularly daring (or stupid) having just booked our bike ride on the ‘Death Road’ for the following morning and the thing which sealed the deal was the guarantee of a free t-shirt if we managed to finish the fiery dish containing no less that 40 naga chillies. To wash it down we ordered another creamy curry dish, rice and naan bread.

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The food was incredible with great flavour and we’d even go as far as to say it was one of our most memorable curries ever…and we’ve eaten a few! The vindaloo was extremely hot and Dan needed to use several paper napkins to stem the small stream trickling from his forehead and to dry his eyes.

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Mouthfuls were devoured and our tongues started to swell and our lips tingled but with grit and determination we emptied our plates and at the end of the evening we were the proud owners of a new t-shirt. We could only hope that the vindaloo wouldn’t come back to haunt us on the bikes the following morning!

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THE BAD

Pollution, smog and litter are all large problems in the Continent’s poorest capital. The traffic in La Paz is relentless and at times headache inducing. Day and night cars, taxis, buses, micros, trucks and bikes clog up the city’s roads. The deep growl of straining engines and frustrated horn honking rings through the air. Old bangers, which should have long since departed to the rust bucket in the sky, spew out huge amounts of black fumes and threaten to choke you as they pass.

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A lack of environmental awareness means that many locals have an out of sight, out of mind attitude towards litter and choose to throw their cans, plastic wrappers and so on in the street and walk away rather than finding a rubbish bin to put it in. And even if they did find a rubbish bin, inadequate infrastructure and resources means the city’s streets cannot all be cleaned so it’s not uncommon to see piles of festering rubbish with stray dogs picking through it.

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Rapid population growth in some of the poorer areas also means the city struggles even to bring potable water and sewerage services to everyone.

There are thousands of street kids living in La Paz and many work as shoe-shiners, which is seen as the lowest form of employment.

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Many of the children start working at a young age to support their families but quickly get sucked into gangs and what they see as a fun and independent way of life. In worst case scenarios, the money they earn gets spent on alcohol or drugs, they eventually drop out of school to support their habit and their families abandon them because they have too many other mouths to feed. These children deal with freezing temperatures, violence and drink and drug related addictions.

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We saw the shoe-shiners everywhere in la Paz – typically with their faces covered with their trademark balaclavas and always looking for their next customer. As a general rule, a shoe-shiner needs ten clients every day in order to make enough money to eat. Some shelters are now appearing around the city to help house, feed and steer young people down a different path by offering practical skills, which is a positive step. As a traveller we may not need to get our shoes shined but we found that giving a few coins or even having a friendly, fun exchange with these kids could make a small difference.

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THE UGLY

The majority of people in La Paz are good, honest citizens and are more than likely to go out of their way to help you and show you kindness. However, there are a small number of criminals who make it their living to take advantage of tourists and extort money and even possessions from them whenever the opportunity arises. Of course there exists the simple opportunist thief who will pick your pocket at busy markets or on a packed bus but there are other hustlers that use elaborate lies and tricks to part tourists from their money – these we call the scammers. We weren’t unlucky enough to be exposed to any scams during our time in La Paz and the locals we met were always friendly and helpful but we did hear that other travellers had encountered some scams and we knew to keep our wit’s about us. The list of scams is as long as these crooks are resourceful but three of the most popular at the moment include:

  • The fake policeman – A man posing as an undercover cop or the tourist police will approach and ask to search you, to see your wallet/documents or will ask you to follow them into a taxi, all in an attempt to rob you. Police in La Paz will always be in uniform and are under strict orders not to hassle tourists. Firmly refuse any such requests and do not get into a vehicle with them. If they persist suggest a walk to the nearest police station and they will likely back down.
  • The suspect bird poo – Someone will approach you pointing at a stain on your clothes or bag which they say is from a passing bird and will offer to help clean you up. What has really happened is that they’ve squirted some foul mustard/mayonnaise mixture onto you when your head’s been turned and whilst pretending to help, they actually lift your wallet or watch. Politely refuse any offers to help ‘clean up’ from strangers and in the confusion don’t put any bags on the ground or they will be gone.
  • The dodgy taxi driver – Taxis are an efficient and cheap way to get around La Paz and they are plentiful but it’s important to choose the right one. Unmarked and unlicensed drivers may be working with gangs who assault and steal from tourists who are driven to a quiet back street by the driver. On occasion people have been abducted and taken to multiple ATM’s to remove large amounts of cash. It’s best to use a known and reliable firm like Radio Cabs and check the driver’s licence which should be displayed in the car. Also avoid sharing taxis with people you have just met, particularly around bus stations, as however genuine they seem, they may be in on the scam too.

La Paz is frequently described as one of the world’s top ten party cities. As the sun goes down a host of popular bars, clubs and happening night spots open and jump until the early morning. Taken in moderation these facilities are excellent but as with may big cities alcohol consumption in La Paz is on the rise and causes a host of social problems.

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Alcohol is cheap and readily available and an ‘anything goes’ attitude in La Paz means that alcohol is readily available no matter what your age or inebriated state. It is not uncommon to step out of your accommodation after breakfast and find locals slumped in doorways drunk out of their minds on powerful 97% proof homebrewed alcohol.

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One of Bolivia’s most famous writers and one of La Paz’s most infamous drunks, Victor Hugo Viscarra, describes in his writing an alcohol fulled underworld where the strains of every day life take people to the ‘elephant cemetery’ in La Paz where they can leave their memories behind by drinking themselves into oblivion.

San Pedro prison in La Paz is one of the most notorious jails in the world. The prison is renowned for being a society within itself where inmates work inside the community and buy or rent their own accommodation. The wealthy prisoners are able to buy themselves large cells furnished with all the mod-con luxuries and the poorest are crammed into tiny cells with numerous other inmates. They often live with their wife and children in the prison – the wives coming and going as they please but unable to support themselves alone in the city. Elected leaders enforce rules inside the jail and harsh penalties for not complying, such as beatings or stabbings are common place. Despite the fact that on average there are four deaths every month at the jail the police seldom venture inside the jail.

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The prison was made famous in the book ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young which describes a young, British man called Thomas McFadden who was jailed in San Pedro for his involvement in drug smuggling. McFadden, who has now been released and deported to the UK, famously bribed guards and ran illegal prison tours for backpackers in the 1990’s. He alleged at the time that the prison was where the biggest party in South America could be found as the inmates were producing the best cocaine in the country. Bolivia is the second largest producer of cocaine in the world (behind Columbia) but it’s not a significant consumer, preferring to export to 174 countries, of which North America and Europe make up 67% (United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Statistics 2008).

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Cocaine tourism is on the rise in Bolivia and ‘Route 36’ in La Paz is probably the world’s most famous cocaine bar. Bolivians are not allowed inside the bar so the patrons are made up exclusively of Westerners – not necessarily an elite crowd but often young travellers who view this as nothing more than another experience on the South American Gringo trail. Changing its location every few months to avoid being shut down, the address of the bar is passed through word of mouth between backpackers. It’s usually a harmless night out but there are obvious risks involved – losing your inhibitions may cause carelessness when venturing back onto the streets late at night, the cocaine is very pure and there is always the risk of medical complications and of course if the police were to raid the bar, everyone inside would be in serious trouble.

La Paz certainly has its fair share of bad points and it’s necessary to be street smart to ensure you stay safe during your time here, but for us the positives of this different city far outweighed the negatives. La Paz is one of the most unusual but memorable cities we’ve ever been to and we’d go as far as to say its one of the highlights of our Latin America trip. There are many different faces to La Paz but none of them are trying to be something that it’s not – what you see is what you get – and the reality is that you’ll either hate it or, as we did, love it!

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