22 Apr 2014

A Long Weekend In La Paz

La Paz couldn’t be more different in appearances to Sucre, its all chunky grey buildings, noisy traffic and busy people packed tightly into the base and steep sides of its crater like setting. The city is edged with beautiful mountains and sits at an average height of 3,600m ASL making it the highest capital city in the world. Travellers have mixed opinions on La Paz but like any capital its dirty, noisy and smelly so its a love it or hate it kind of place. We approached it with an open mind and were looking forward to somewhere with bustle and hustle.

la paz street art bolivia

Our accommodation was Loki Hostel, a well-known party hostel that had just switched to a new location so it was really chaotic at all times on their reception. We eventually got a decent room that didn’t smell and enjoyed making friends in their lively bar but apart from this we couldn’t wait to leave! We had a really central location so were able to walk to most restaurants and sights in the city and escape to a different kind of mayhem.

The Red Caps Walking Tour was by far the best thing we did in La Paz. It’s a free tour where you tip at the end (around 20 BOB) depending on how much you enjoyed the experience. Our tour began at San Pedro Plaza outside the famous San Pedro Prison where Brit Thomas McFadden (author of Marching Powder) was a prisoner and bribed the guards to allow him to offer tours inside the prison. Visitors could witness its unique set up including a nosey inside the five star penthouse apartments that the convicted politicians live in and own. Its not safe to go inside today as you’ll either get raped, mugged or held prisoner until you pay an expensive exit fee.

la paz witches market bolivia

Next we visited a couple of markets and our favourite was the Witches Market which didn't appear as mystical as it sounds, its simply a few discreet stalls on a road of sportswear shops. They do sell some strange things though from gimmicky items like ‘love dust’ and ‘death dust’ to llama foetuses which we were assured died of natural causes. Bolivians are very superstitious people and it was fascinating to hear about their beliefs and rituals.

la paz witches market bolivia

Back in the day when a new building was to be erected in the city the owner had to sacrifice a living human into its foundations to Pachamama. The Shaman who conducted the ceremony would get a local drunk annihilated and lead him back to the building site in front of the workers who would watch as the unwitting victim was buried alive. 

la paz witches market bolivia

Totally separate to witches we also found out the story behind why the Aymara women wear bowler hats. Around 1900 when the Spanish ruled the country they had advised the men to start wearing suits and bowler hats like they did in Europe. The Bolivian men agreed and ordered 10,000 bowler hats from Italy, when the hats arrived they were too small for the men as they forgot to state a size so they cunningly decided to sell them to their women instead. The women were sold a story that bowler hats were high fashion for ladies in Europe and they eagerly bought the hats, it soon spread nationwide and the trend continues to this day.

Ladies with a hat perched perfectly straight on their head are already spoken for and if its tilted they are available or widowed. When its raining they will wrap their hat in a plastic bag and where it like that, trust us we saw this happen! An Aymara lady is NEVER seen without her bowler hat.

la paz bolivia president house

Another tour highlight was learning about Bolivia’s colourful political history as we sat on the steps opposite the Presidents House in Plaza Murillo. They really have had some hard luck when its comes to their political leaders and the stories blew us away.

Bolivia’s land mass used to be much bigger than what they have today, one President sold off some land close to Brazil for a white horse he’d fallen in love with. This guy Mariano Melgarejo was particularly crazy on his power trip and once made his soldiers march off the balcony on his house just for fun - most broke their legs for his amusement. 

More recently they had President Gonzalo Sanchez-Delozada who basically privatised all of their successful public industries including gas and sold them to other countries. Eventually he was ousted by the people, police and military forces in violent protests and he fled in 2003 to the US with a lot of Bolivia’s money to live a life of luxury.

la paz bolivia president house

Bolivia's current President Evo Morales is pretty popular amongst the people and is doing great things boosting their economy and welfare. He’s had a few crazy ideas though and the one about fining girls who haven’t had a child by the age of 18 particularly stood out to us. Thankfully this new law was not passed as understandably the Bolivian women were in uproar. He’s really keen on population growth and bizarrely thought that banning condoms was the solution. Of course he has advisors but he’s a bit of a wildcard and speaks before he thinks or reads his scripts!

la paz zebra crossing bolivia
"A fresh approach to a Zebra Crossing!"

We definitely recommend this tour for an insight into Bolivia plus at the end you can even abseil down a building dressed as Spiderman. 

Another museum of interest for us was the Coca Museo where we found out some interesting facts on the coca leaf and cocaine. In most kiosks you can buy a bag of coca leaves and around 80% of Bolivians chew them. At one point the Spanish wanted to ban the people from consuming the coca leaf until they realised it made the men and children (aka slaves) down the silver mines work harder and survive a 48 hour shift. The coca leaf is a way of life in Bolivia as it holds nutritional value and helps with living in such high altitude, when chewed they react with saliva and release a tiny amount of cocaine into the blood stream. The coca leaf tea is harmless though and whilst it will help with the altitude no drugs are absorbed. 

la paz coca museo bolivia

Apparently it was the Americans who turned the coca leaf into commercial cocaine although the museum could be a little biast. At first it was used a lot in medicine as an anaesthetic from the 1850’s and then of course everyday use. We can also confirm that Coca-Cola did used to contain cocaine and before Coca-Cola there was a bizarre French drink called ‘Coca Wine". The states declared the use of cocaine illegal outside of surgery in 1914 once a fair few people were addicted probably because of the afore mentioned drinks. This museum is definitely worth a visit and is nicely curated.

la paz bolivia
"You can even find llamas in La Paz."

There are lots of restaurants to choose from in La Paz but they are pretty spread out so we stuck to the places within walking distance of our hostel. Unfortunately we didn’t discover anywhere amazing but The English Pub satisfied our cravings for pub grub with a pretty tasty effort at Shepherds Pie and Bangers & Mash. For drinks we stuck to our hostel bar as it was a friendly and lively crowd with not too crap music.

We were surprised at how much we liked La Paz and were glad we’d chosen to stay a few days here. It's gritty and full of history like any capital should be!

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