Heavily armed, swaddled in bulletproof jackets and wearing no-nonsense facial expressions, La Paz’s law enforcement officers cut an imposing, if not downright intimidating figure. At least, that was the impression I got when one of them approached me as I waited for a bus outside the main cemetery.
Up close, the blank look morphed into a conspiratorial smile: “Where are you from?” In a country that is over 95 percent indigenous Indian in racial composition, I stood out. The backpack certainly didn’t help me blend in; in fact, that’s what had prompted the approach.
My response elicited a warning: “You gotta be very careful here. Keep close to your backpack. Do not let it out of your sight even when it has been put on the roof. And don’t get any money out in public.”
This was all a little sobering, even intimidating, as despite the palpable levels of social unrest, and obvious frustration with the latest in a quick succession of governments, I had not felt at all threatened since arriving in Bolivia. To be fair to the policeman, his advice was not meant to put me into a state of anxiety. Instead it was a little reality check as, like most visitors to La Paz, the relentless pace and heady zip of the city had captivated me. Common sense goes a long way when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings, and Bolivia’s biggest city was nothing if not a disorienting experience.
Upon arrival, a kaleidoscope of colors, lights and smells had hit me. Just climbing the short distance uphill from San Francisco Church to my hotel provided an obstacle course of dodging street peddlers, discarded husks, crates and other flotsam, while picking a path through the myriad of market stalls and traffic.
Describing La Paz as a market town would not do it justice. For a start, it’s not a town, but a city or rather a citadel, naturally fortified by a range of mountains, being on the Andean Altiplano. It’s also far more than just an urban sprawl with the odd market dotted here and there, as every corner turned seems to send the traveler deeper into the increasingly psychedelic bazaars. Around the main drag, streets teem with book and jewelry stalls, while a little further uphill the countless other flea markets offer shoppers the chance to buy such essentials as designer clothes and sneakers of dubious origin, as well as a bounty of exotic fruits, unfamiliar vegetables and assorted household goods. And somewhere within this chaos is the notorious Witches Market. This is where evidence can be found of Bolivia’s peculiar kind of Christianity, which is fortified with heavy doses of ancient Indian beliefs. Potions abound, as do stalls stacked high with mummified cats, emus’ heads and dried llama fetus, among other delights.
Like any city in the modern world it’s important, when in La Paz, to keep your eyes peeled for pickpockets and opportunists prowling the streets for prey. However, the place is crammed with some of the most open, friendliest people you’ll ever meet and besides, in La Paz the real enemy is altitude sickness. The city lies at around 14,000 feet, well above the 11,000 feet mark at which point altitude sickness can kick in.
Sufferers can experience anything from a dull ache at the back of the head to nausea and migraine. Far more serious, yet very rare, are instances of people developing high altitude pulmonary edema, a condition which sees the sufferer succumb to fever, accompanied by an increased pulse rate, and then endure the unpleasant and frightening prospect of coughing up white liquid as the lungs start to fill up. The most effective cure is to descend to a more familiar altitude.
Along with the galleries, churches and government buildings, I stumbled upon the weird and wacky Coca Museum, a shrine to the national pastime of chewing coca leaves. It’s well worth putting aside an hour or so to find out more about the leaf, which was the drug of choice for pre-Inca
| Travel notes|
All prices are in US$. No visa is required to visit Bolivia for tourist purposes. The best time to travel is between November and May.
You can fly direct to Bolivia from many US airports, but it is usually cheaper to transfer at some other destinations, such as Rio de Janeiro, Santiago or Buenos Aires. Alternatively, catch a coach from Peru, Chile, Brazil or Argentina.
Given the level of congestion on the streets of La Paz, the best option is to walk wherever possible. Taxis are very cheap and reliable, though. If on the bus, do not let your baggage out of sight.
WHERE TO STAY:
El Dorado Hotel
Double rooms from $40
Calle Sagarnaga 334
Double rooms from $9
WHERE TO EAT:
2535 Calle 6 de Agosto
Calle 20 de Octubre
Good, traditional meals at reasonable prices (main course from $5).
2248 Calle Jauregui
A range of pasta and pizza meals (main from $3).