South America (Part 3): La Paz, Bolivia 

Our Journey via Paraguay: 

Bolivia was probably the country that had intrigued the most prior to our trip, as it for me it was the lesser known. 

After our stay near Iguazu Falls in Brazil, we had planned to cross over the nearby boarder into Paraguay, so that we could fly out of here up to La Paz, Bolivia. When we were planning our trip, this worked out much cheaper and quicker than flying back up to Rio and across to Bolivia from there.  

Our initial plan was to get a taxi from our hostel to take us over the border and to our accommodation in Paraguay. It should have been about a 15 minute drive. However, we soon learned that the border was closed to traffic, due to protests on the Brazilian side of the border. We had no choice but to walk over the border which was a 10 minute walk over a bridge, past the protesters and riot police! 

We spent just the one afternoon and night in the city of Ciudad del Este. We had been informed that it could be dangerous in places, with gangs regularly fighting over counterfeit goods. We were the only guests in the hostel which was a converted house. 

During the afternoon we walked around the hundreds of market stalls, surprisingly we were not pestered. We grabbed some food across the road from our hostel that evening, ensuring not to stray too far. Our restaurant had an armed security guard outside, which was both reassuring yet unnerving at the same time! 

The next morning we woke early to catch the first of our three planes to La Paz. 


La Paz (High Altitude warning!): 

Yes, it’s true what all the books and websites say, La Paz is bloody high. At 3,660 metres above sea level, it’s one of the highest cities in the world. 

Our Amazon trip, see my last blog, was sandwiched in between a two night stay in La Paz. 

As soon as we got off the plane, after we had literally taken two steps down the stairs onto the runway, the altitude got us both. It’s hard to describe the feeling, as some of you may know, it’s like having your breath taken away along with a really bad hangover. Not a very pleasant combination! We had to sit down in the airport for a while to try and come around and alleviate the initial mild panic. 

The views ascending down from the airport to the centre were stunning. Houses were built high up into the hills, and the snow capped mountains could be seen in the background. 

Our lovely room in our La Posada hotel (Booking.com), helped with our altitude sickness. We strolled out for a walk near our hotel, but the steep hills and steps proved difficult to climb with our shortness of breathe. We decided to rest up the rest of the day, drinking lots of water as advised. 


Ancient Rituals & Traditions: 

We did a walking tour on our second day in La Paz, after we had flown back from the Amazon. The altitude sickness came back again but it wasn’t as severe as previously, well not initially for me.

After a morning of shopping around the local markets for souvenirs, and having a superb Cuban sandwich for lunch, we headed down to the main square to join one of the walking tours (See Trip Advisor – Hanaq Pacha Travel). 

Our guide was really knowledgable and entertaining. He took us around the city to a number of historical and cultural sites, and educated us along the way.

The majority of Bolivians worship both Catholicism that was brought over by the Spanish, and ‘Mother Earth” in line with their indigenous heritage. It was the later that interested me the most, particularly the ancient ritual around the construction of new buildings that is still custom today. 

We stopped at the Witches markets and here we were told about the llama beliefs. In Bolivia, the llama is considered sacred, a baby llama even more so. Before construction workers will commence building work, a dead baby llama must be buried in the foundations and a Shaman must carry out a ritual. The larger the building, the more baby llamas that are needed. Baby llamas however cannot be killed so building work is often held up until one dies naturally. 

There are rumours that the homeless population of La Paz, has greatly declined in the past when there’s been a shortage of baby llamas. Perhaps this is just a coincidence! However, stories have been told of homeless people being plied with alcohol until they’ve passed out, then being buried alive in concrete! Human remains have been discovered when tearing down old buildings. It’s believed that this terrible practice does not take place today, but I guess we will never know for sure. 

The Prison, Politics & Ghosts!: 

We were next taken to the outside of San Pedro prison. The prison was made famous from the recently published ‘Marching Powder’ book. There are no guards in the prison, it is ran by the Prisoners themselves, many of which have their families living them. There’s an hierarchical system inside based on an individual’s financial status, with the richest living in five star apartments, and the poorest sleeping on cardboard boxes. 

We were told about the countries corrupt and brutal political past, and of the numerous presidents that have been in power, most of whom were coincidently murdered in their parliamentary office.

Casa De La Cruz Verde was the final place we visited, the “haunted street”. Spooky occurrences have a occurred here over the centuries including a recurring daily smashed plant pot, conversations heard when no one is around, and even missing children! Residents of the street today still have an annual exorcism carried out by a local Priest!

A Traditional La Paz Dinner: 

Upon recommendation from our guide, that evening we went to Alaya’s Bolivian cafe, with Tim a fellow traveller from the USA who we met on the walking tour. 

We ordered a chicken and a pork dish which came with lots of potatoes and local vegetables. The dishes were nice enough and well cooked, but were a bit too bland for my taste. 

I made the mistake of ordering a Bolivian beer, which kicked my altitude sickness back in again. After only drinking half a bottle I felt as though I’d drank a barrel of beer! At least it was an early night for us as we were up at 6am the following morning to begin our journey through Bolivia into Peru. 

We had heard prior to our visit that La Paz had a bit of an edgy reputation, and although in parts it is (we did hear gun shots one night), we found it to be welcoming and culturally interesting. Many locals still wore traditional dress everyday, not just for the tourists, and it’s history and culture was fascinating.

(La Paz, Bolivia, May 2016)

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