Loving La Paz

Country Bolivia | Dates June 10-12 | Accommodation Hostal Journey

Our flight to La Paz was delayed by 8+ hours because of an unexpected snowstorm (remember that time I thought we’d be warm in South America, LOL). We spent all day in the airport reading awful (but great) books stolen from the last hostel, including a teen thriller about an archangel romance called Hush Hush. Sarah spilled cereal all over the floor and we bought crackers to eat. A group of school teens arrived with 5 trophies and played hacky sack in the waiting area for hours, with formal rules and an official.

Finally we got to La Paz, but missed our #1 attraction (cholita wrestling). In the packed minibus downtown my legs went numb as my bag was on my lap and I nearly puked. When we got out it was downpouring and we trudged through the rain uphill to our hostel; I was weak from food poisoning still and got behind. For dinner a spot in the touristy area that was surprisingly delicious, with handmade burgers and yellow, oily papas fritas. We ordered more fries as we didn’t know our meals had them and the man didn’t tell us (rude).

La Paz Bolivia

Not always loving cities, La Paz was a pleasant surprise, although it was way colder than expected (again) and we needed 80 layers. After our fascination with and use of the cocoa leaves, we went to the Cocoa Museum. It was budget – cardboard walls with faded photos on them, and huge thick books (100 pages) of translated information to read. We were offered black cocoa “candies” that numb your tongue. It was actually quite interesting, with details about the leaves, their use in the mines and elsewhere and also cocaine, although the information was outdated (1998).

Mercado de Los Brujas (Witch’s Market)

Our hostel was next to the notorious “witch’s market,” which (lol) ladies sell from storefronts and stalls covered in blue tarps a variety of herbs, yellow flowers, crystals, other items in boxes. Most notably we saw the llama fetuses hanging from every stall, some dried up and some with fur on them. 

Adjacent, and also labeled “witches market,” was the other market, selling standard tourist fare – bags, scarves, trinkets, etc, reminiscent of Bolivia and boasting traditional colors and patterns throughout the hundreds of stalls selling thousands of the same items. Prices are all the same, aggressiveness with which they vye for tourist business the same, too. In this case, the stalls were set against the backdrop of a graffiti alley.

Mi Teleferico

The day’s highlight was riding the Teleferico, or controversial new system of gondolas that runs all over La Paz. One ride turned into riding for hours, taking all 6 colored lines around the entire city. It was exciting and relaxing at once, seeing the city from above – a big stadium, the ritzy area, jutting mountains to the east, a hillside cemetery, colored mountains to the west, clay-colored houses packed together on hills and much more. We were disappointed each time a station appeared, but excited at once to buy (more!) tickets and get onto the next one; it was so fun! One line (white) even ran right through the city buildings, which was like nothing I’d experienced.

Sopocachi (La Paz Neighborhood)

We finally forced ourselves to get off the cable cars (we could have been there all day) near Sopocachi, a neighborhood described as more “hipster” or cute and up-and-coming. Surprise surprise, it was not as expected. There were some restaurants and shops along the drag, but it wasn’t all that unique (or hipster). We walked around a plaza with a confusing statue, Plaza Alvarez, and ate marshmallows off a stick (Sarah then carried the stick for hours). We also had a beer at Beef & Beer, not super authentic but the draft was quite good, and visited the Arco y Ries bakery for some pastries (A bit stale as we went at the end of the day).

Carcel de San Pedro

On our way home we walked past Carcel de San Pedro, the infamous prison in La Paz which functions as a society within itself. Built for only 250 people, the prison now houses 2,000-3,000. It functions and is a small-scale example of government and microcosm of the outside, with prisoners paying for cells – anywhere from a fancy cell with bathroom, tv, kitchen etc to sleeping on a floor or living in squalor, depending of course on your income. Prisoners work to pay for their rooms, from restaurants to shops to the cocaine factory inside the prison that provides some of the purest cocaine in the country. It’s unique in that women and children of inmates can live INSIDE THE PRISON with their incarcerated spouses, which is obviously dangerous, negative in many ways and controversial. Many people rely solely on food and goods brought to them from the outside (we saw people delivering said goods). And the police do not intervene; prisoners dole out their own punishments to others inside, allegedly drowning the worst offenders (ie child rapists) in a shallow pool. The women’s prison is located inside, as well.

It’s a fascinating story – obviously we researched for hours – and when given the chance to peek inside the door while walking by we certainly did, getting a bit too close to the latest drop-off of prisoners (not on purpose – we were mistakenly a foot away). It’s located smack dab in the middle of a city block next to a park. Tourists used to go on illegal tours of San Pedro, and large numbers of them too, getting in via “guides” (the most notorious a British backpacker who was thrown inside for having cocaine in the airport, and then paid his way to live there via the tours – he has since written a book). The tours were also controversial, and have since been shut down as they were always illegal. Interested as we are? Read more

City & Streets & Cholitas & Salteñas

For lunch we ate a smallSalteña place (again), as everyone loved them (but I did not eat as I was traumatized from the poisoning). Along the way we saw bustling parts of the city, street vendors, and many a cholita – or Bolivian women dressed in traditional garb including a hoop skirt, bowler hat (the angle at which the hat is worn signifies marital status), and usually carrying goods in the traditional brightly-colored fabric on their backs. There were ample street vendors everywhere in the city (reminded me of Vietnam in some weird way I cannot place), selling everything from the hoop skirts, hanging for sale up on a stone wall, to stark flooring and appliances, to candles handing waxy and opaque from strings over the booth. We even saw women selling raw meat, ripping chunks off with their hands in the street.

Minibus Adventures & A Casual Protest

On our way out of La Paz, we were taking a minibus (a small van for about 12 people, which has signs in the windshield stating its destinations). You just get on/off and usually costs about 25 cents, but this time we moved about 4 blocks in one hour and a half. Turned out downtown was closed due to student protests, so we had to get off (he didn’t make us pay), walk through gatherings in the shut-off areas, and flag another bus on the other side of the shutdown. My leg got caught in the sliding door and I had to move my bag repeatedly. At the “terminal” (Minasas), we were instantly approached by a women screaming “Coroico” and bought our tickets to our next stop quickly and easily (20 BOB). We then had to wait until the minibus was full with every seat sold, the lady and driver walking up and down yelling “minibus a Coroico” loudly for nearly an hour, until we departed. They loaded our bags onto the roof alongside the sacks of feed and other food goods, and he secured them with a thick black bungee. Keep reading to hear about the terrifying journey to Coroico.

La Paz Hostel Happenings

Our hostel was not ideal. While the staff was overly friendly, referring to us as “amigas!” (friends!), it seemed they used this to distract from the awful environment of freezing to death (wearing jacket to bed), no hot water (didn’t shower for 2 days) and unpleasant atmosphere.  The first night I was casually yelling, “ I want to die.” The lady heard me (oops), then asked my sister in Spanish if she could help with anything. There was weird mesh on the blankets, and the pillows were unsanitary.

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