It was a curious sensation landing at La Paz Airport; instead of the pressure increasing as we landed, we could feel the pressure being let out of the cabin, from the normal cruising pressure. It turns out that normal cabin pressure is around 8000 feet above sea level, but La Paz International is over 13,000 feet above sea level. We exited the plane and began to feel lightheaded and dizzy as we tried not to stumble along to immigration. It might have been fun if it didn’t proceed to give you a headache. Just before baggage screening, we exchanged $20 at an exchange window; which was a good thing since we were unable to find an ATM in the main terminal and our driver was not likely keen to wander around with us at 2 AM to try to find one.
We descended down to The Adventure Brew Hostel in La Paz (the airport is above the city on the high plain called El Alto. The driver rang the bell and waited with us as the night clerk opened the door; although we would pay the hostel for the taxi, Cynthia slipped the driver a small tip. The clerk walked us 30 yards down the street to the B&B, unlocked the door, then checked us in. We didn’t have enough cash to pay for the room, so they just kept one passport which we’d get back when we paid. It was close to 3 AM when we finally crawled into the hard beds layered with 3 llama/alpaca blankets and a down comforter. The abundance of blankets seemed great until your body finally heated up and the inside became an inferno while your head stayed cold. The night didn’t get any better, unfortunately, due to the altitude induced headaches and sleeplessness. At least we discovered the space heater the next night.
Every 10 yards of walking in the thin air of hilly La Paz felt like running a mile so we opted for some small forays the first day. We strolled the vendor-stall laden, multi-level Mercado Lanza; when the city was trying to clean up its act, they wanted to clear the area in front of San Francisco church of the outdoor vendors but there was such an uproar that the city decided to erect the Mercado Lanza building which the vendors now use.
Back at the hostel for lunch, we were amused that pouring a beer produces an incredibly foamy head so it takes several tries and patience to get a proper amount of beer. We then visited Plaza Murillo where the government is located and where bullet holes are still visible on a building from a fairly recent squabble. We finished the day with dinner at Sol y Luna restaurant where we ordered the pricey llama Chateaubriand which was very tough but tasty (and more than enough for 2 people) and the bratwurst.
We woke up to a jingle outside that made us think of the ice cream man! Rushing to the window, it was actually an “Eco eficiente” truck for recyclables; the hostel had recycle bins so it was nice to confirm they actually do recycle. Even the cable car stations and other public areas were adorned with Christmas trees made from plastic bottles and ornaments made from other recyclable materials.
It was rainy so we decided to wait on the cable cars and instead set out to explore again on foot. Covered stalls line almost every street so on the way to the witches market (where you can buy dead baby llamas to bless your home), we stopped at the first shout of “ponchos” and bought one for 5 Bs and a collapsible umbrella for 20 Bs. Armored for the rain, we continued to the infamous San Pedro Prison, which was rather under whelming. The prison is famous for its own autonomy, but we could see nothing except a big high-walled structure spanning a large city block.
We noticed shoeshine guys who had their faces covered and later learned they might be former gang member hiding facial scars.
Huffing and puffing it up to the orange line of the Teleferico, we bought some things from a proper grocery store at the base station. We were amused at one of the huge posts supporting the cable car line that cut off half a block – the Teleferico is their version of a subway system and progress requires sacrifices.
Saturday was all about the dead and good food. We took the red line Teleferico up to the famous La Paz Cementerio General. Originally people were buried in church courts but given that it was unsustainable, the city decreed a plot of land for the cemetery and later the government took it over as a public cemetery for the city’s poor as well. This, go figure, also turned out to be unsustainable so now, after a burial in ground or crypt for 10 years, the resident deceased remains must be cremated and the ashes collected by the deceased family who can then opt to rent a smaller glass-faced compartment where the ashes can be stored. These compartments are edifices can be four stories high!
Unfortunately, given the cost of renting forever, it’s not unusual for families to miss a deadline or payment resulting in the removal of the family members body that can no longer be retrieved. We saw several notices on such compartments that they had 5 months to pay or else. And some gaping holes where the “or else” had already occurred.
Nothing like a tour of the cemetery to whip up an appetite, so the rest of the day we devoted to food. At “The English Lion”, near San Francisco church, we shared what was probably the most delicious and biggest shepherds pie (and serving spoon) that we have ever had. After resting off the pie at the hostel, we met our tour guide, Alfi, of HanaqPacha Travel for a food tour to get a taste of Bolivia. It turns out that we were the only ones signed up, so it was a private tour. We first stopped at a market stall in the Mercado Lanza and sampled a couple API drinks, a thick breakfast drink made from corn (one white and one red), cinnamon, clove, baking soda and sugar. From there we moved on to Sillpich’s, a fast-food type place on the commercial walking street, where we tried sillpichs and sopa de mani (Peanut soup). The former was a piece of beef pounded so flat it looked like a tortilla on top of rice and potatoes. It was delicious but we could not finish it, so Alfi, with our agreement, made sure to seat an old man from the street and allow him to finish it off. The next stop was a street vendor selling grilled beef hearts that were surprisingly tender and delicious. We finished up the night with some ice cream (cinnamon and a coconut variety) which was more ice than cream so a bit unusual for our palettes.
Our last day in La Paz dawned bright and sunny, a good day to ride the Teleferico. As the main public transport, it’s like an extensive ski lift system, zipping people in and around the city in 15 minutes or less. For 3 Bs each trip, you can ride the entire line one way or get off, but once you get off your trip is over and you’ll need another ticket to get on, so stock up on the “boletos” (good on any line) before hopping on to save time. At 9:30 AM the red cable car line was already long to get to the El Alto market that occurs every Thursday and Sunday. It is reputed to be the largest market in South America. We could find no real rhyme or reason so we just moved with the flow through the “aisles” of stalls and, surprisingly quickly, found some needles and thread that we were looking for. The scope of the market was not immediately apparent until we boarded the blue cable car to try to get an aerial view. WOW. It went on forever winding thru city blocks, spilling out into the squares for as far as the eye could see. Luckily we got there in the morning for as we returned to La Paz, the lines to get onto the cable cars were immense.
The afternoon was spent at the cholita wrestling. If you haven’t heard, latin america has a little obsession with professional wrestling and Bolivia has a little bit of a twist where the ladies, dressed in native garb, go at it. Think of it a little like WWE (our professional wrestling) crossed with little ladies with wide skirts and a fedora. It was a hoot but as foreigners we got the “VIP” seats up front however, they neglected to mention the wrestlers will snatch your drink and smash it over their opponents head or spray them (and you in the process), or even wind up with a Cholita thrown in your lap. Who knew there’d be so much audience participation!
Next, moving on to Uyuni and our salt flat tour.