At 3,500mt above sea level La Paz is the world’s highest capital (well, administrative capital as Bolivia’s capital is actually Sucre. Who knew?). Its dramatically stunning setting is what drew me in at first, with its snow-capped backdrop and red brick facades covering the valley’s inner walls, but it was the city’s hilly, winding streets and welcoming chaos which made me stay. Like many capitals it is congested and smog-filled but it has a veil of charm which somehow overrides everything else.
To my joy it has many markets, street stalls and vendors, and it’s hard to find a supermarket which in itself is quite refreshing. We visited 3 markets, each with its quirks and histories. Our top two are:
Mercado 16 de Julio which is on the city’s tip, so high up one needs to get there by cable car. The market runs Thursdays and Sundays so we were lucky to have been around for it. Need an old truck’s exhaust pipe? You’ll find it. Run out of toothpaste? This is your place. Your iPhone just broke and you want a new one? No worries. Anything you can think of, in some shape or form, can be found here. Needless to say we highly took advantage of this and found a few little gems for ourselves, including a floral hat for Annalie and earphones for KT.
Then we have the Witches’ Market, which leads us to a fascinating insight into the local culture. Interestingly, La Paz was built only 500 years ago by Spanish conquerors and it originally served as a stop-off point between Potosi (rich silver mining town in Bolivia) and Cusco in Peru. The few indigenous communities who at the time lived there were lucky to be welcomed by non-violent settlers, thus allowing the two cultures to live as neighbours. This balanced and fairly harmonious set-up eventually favoured the development of intertwined traditions and a blended belief system of Catholocism mixed with local indigenous beliefs and customs, many of which still persist today. This syncretism can be seen in La Paz’s local Witches’ Market – a place to buy amulets, potions, dream catchers, herbal remedies and indigenous trinkets – all run by the local cholitas (indigenous women who live in the city) who are most likely Catholic. But, beyond this slightly touristy market, their traditional belief system is also seen in day to day life. We heard of a peculiar indigenous tradition which is still very much alive today; a ritual which people do when building a house. Before the build commences, an offering of a baby lama foetus is given to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to bring good luck. But, what if you’re building a huge mansion or a block of flats, will a small lama foetus be enough? Obviously not. How about a human, would that cut the mustard? Seemingly, yes. It is said that to this day human sacrifices are still done, though legend has it they’re limited to drunkards and druggies who have no mates or family and hence won’t be missed. Nice. Needless to say we had no drunk evenings in the streets of La Paz.
Beyond the markets and the good vibes, La Paz is excellent for all thrill seekers as it’s the stepping stone to the infamous Death Road, a 50k downhill bike ride. Our adventure kicked off in the cold clouds above the capital with a long ride down an asphalt road and ended in the warmest jungle-like terrain after a long bumpy and lumpy dirt track.
The bikes were ‘professional’ suspension mountain bikes (quotation marks needed as the dodgy brakes needed tightening 3 times) and with our gear and matching outfit we almost felt as though we were actual pros (until a real biker overtook us at double our speed). It was pretty amazing but also very hard work (I know I know, biking down hill sounds like a piece of cake doesn’t it).
To Annalie’s surprise, I survived intact, but the downside was that we almost got ‘arrested’ by the police (quotation marks needed as it’s a slight exaggeration). The overall ride started off with Annalie feeling a bit poorly but luckily some food and a coca tea sorted her out. Unfortunately, two group members also weren’t so lucky, as one ended up going to hospital with a broken shoulder and the other with a sprained a wrist. We should’ve seen all this as a sign. When we finished the ride, dusty and sweaty, we treated ourselves to a couple of cold beers in celebration (bought from a kid with a cooler in the middle of nowhere), and by the time we head off in our van we got flanked by a cop car who aggressively walked towards the passenger windows pointing at our near empty beer cans. Panic / amusement filled the air, till the cops took our guide away in their car. We were left confused as we didn’t know passenger drinking was illegal but also slightly wary when we realised we were following a police car to god knows where. After about an hour of back and forth and incomprehensible conversations between the police and our guides we eventually were let off with a 200 Bolivianos / £20 fine (I.e bribe).
Both La Paz and Bolivia are treating us very well (apart from a couple of bowel incidents which are best left unsaid) and we know full-heartedly our next two adventures are only going to get better. Amazon and Salt Flats, here we come!
Ciao for now x