Upon arriving back in Santiago from my Patagonian quest, I had to think about my next move! I already had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but nothing was clear. As my initial plan was to gradually make my way towards Cuzco in Peru, to visit Machu-Picchu, a short stop in Bolivia seemed a nice option, and the city of La Paz was first on the list. La Paz isn’t the capital of Bolivia, but it’s the main city, Sucre is actually the capital. It’s a bit like in Brazil, where Brasilia is the administrative capital, but Rio de Janeiro steals the show.
Direct buses from Santiago to La Paz don’t exist, so I thought I would stop in Iquique, and Arica in the north of Chile on my way. So I hopped on a bus, and after 24 hours, I arrived in Iquique. I must say, Iquique wasn’t really my cup of tea, it was so unappealing that I arrived at midday, and instead of staying there for the night, I decided to catch a night bus straight to Arica, the last city on my agenda, before leaving for La Paz. I made it to Arica for 7:00am and had just enough time to visit the bus terminal (woohoo!) and get breakfast, before shooting off to La Paz. It was supposed to be a 10 hour bus trip, but south american minutes always tend to be a bit longer than sixty seconds, especially the Bolivian ones! It ended up taking a cool 13 hours, after passing border control and having to change buses midway after ours broke down!
Passing border control was pretty tough, not because of the security measures in place, as the agents merely patted my bag before signalling me through, no, I’m talking about the altitude. At around 5000m, I was feeling pretty groggy, and I was literally zig-zagging to the inspection point, the rest of the passengers however were pretty much unfazed by this, casually stuffing coca leaves into their cheeks to relieve the effects of the altitude.
The arrival in La Paz (3600m) at night was so theatrical, the city lit up like altar candles, whilst the bus swooped down into the valley where La Paz is set, under booming thunder and lightning, saturating the light-levels, and making the houses tremble.
Upon arrival, I walked down. I’m saying this because La Paz is built in a certain way where, if you get lost, just walk down, and you’ll be back on main street! It was pretty late, so I decided to stop in the first hostel I saw. I left my bags and went straight for something to eat.
In La Paz, street food is the way to go, either grab a burger or a barquette of potatoes and sausage showered with a spicy “aji” sauce, or choose to sit down in of the many out door restaurants, where food is dished-out by the chef in the centre, whilst the guests gather round on small stools, by the roadside.
The next day I toured the city with an Australian couple I met, and we had lunch at the market in true “Almuerzo” style. A Tasty and filling starter & main meal for about £1,40, and on top of that you’re able to get up close and personal with the Bolivians!
La Paz looks like a gigantic unfinished real estate project, most houses stand naked, flashing their orange bare brick walls, lacking the final Stucco coating leading to completion. Is this a financial issue? A lack of readily available building materials? Or are the Bolivians just prone to procrastination, offsetting the completion of their projects?
Well, the right answer is pretty straight forward: Bolivian law stipulates that home owners don’t have to pay taxes whilst their houses remain unfinished.
Another plausible answer is that the developing country that is Bolivia also has developing constructions. The current generation can’t necessarily live as comfortably as they would like, but wish for their children to be able to. That’s why they prefer to start a grand project, in order to polish it off in the future. It’s an inter-generational pact.
In Latin America there are a handful of high-end restaurants, but only one is located in La Paz! As a passionate food lover, I suggested we go to the one and only “Gustu” a modern Bolivian restaurant founded by the Dutch chef Claus Meyer, and cheffed by Kamilla Seidler.
I’m a bit embarrassed to say how much we paid for this meal, even by Bolivian standards, but I definitely wasn’t thinking of that whilst I was tucking in to some succulent raw Llama meat, followed by a slab of Amazonian fish wrapped in it’s banana leaf. My Australian neighbour decided to opt for some Cayman! It was a pretty exotic meal, for sure.
Gustu’s “zero kilometre” philosophy, implying that only local produce be used ensured the freshness of the meals, and added to the charm, knowing that we were drinking, breathing and eating Bolivia.
We also got to taste some marvelous cocktails made with Singani, a bolivian alcohol, aji peppers, tamarind and some andean herbs.
On the next day, I went to visit “Moon Valley”, I’m not sure the moon really looks like this, but it sounds cool anyway. After contemplating the quasi-lunar landscape, I headed off to “The Devil’s Tooth” a 2-hour hike up to a great viewpoint of La Paz. I had read a few reviews warning hikers about the enraged dogs attacking people on the way up, but that obviously couldn’t happen to me!
How wrong was I, my pleasant and leisurely walk turned into a battle for my life, as I had to beat off packs of dogs with rabies, every 10 minutes, by throwing stones and war cries. However the risk definitely brought reward, as I entered a tiny mountain town, just under the devil’s tooth, where old Bolivian farmers bring their cattle down from the mountains, and the children run away to hide, bursting with laughter, upon seeing strangers enter the community.
After taking in the view, I headed back down, thankfully a 4×4 stopped by me and offered me a lift, helping me skip the dogs.
La Paz was definitely the most south american city I’d been to, and ironically the more north you go, the more south american, south america gets!
I really like how all the ladies named the “Cholitas” have kept the traditional attire, and how life here is still all about human relations. Nearly nothing is automatic, and every transaction you do obliges you to communicate with somebody. Thankfully my Spanish has improved quite a bit, so it wasn’t too much of a struggle!
After 4 days in La Paz, I left for Cochabamba, where I had organised to stay a week in a Shamanic Ashram called Janajpacha, through workaway.com
I’m currently writing from here, and am seriously contemplating staying for more than a week, like most of the volunteers here! It’s a spiritual peace haven resting at the foot of the Tunari mountain, and makes you never want to leave.
I’ll tell you all about it in my next post!