South America | Bolivia | La Paz – Out of breath in La Paz
Food from street stalls are some of the best, if not unhygienic, tidbits found in any city. Here in La Paz, Bolivia, there’s a great culture of street stalls offering tasty morsels to passers by. I just had to be careful with the ubiquitous salte?as (little pastry things filled with meat sold everywhere), for they had a tendency to explode with gravy running down my hands.
Getting here (and the Snickers bribe)
From Cusco, I caught an overnight bus that took me to La Paz in about thirteen hours. In the early morning, the bus arrived at the Peru-Bolivia border. Immigration works something like this: we alight from the bus on the Peru side, head into the Peruvian office and get our passports stamped for exit. We then walk across the border (a chain across the road) and head into the Bolivian office to pick up our entry stamps.
Now, when I was wandering towards the Bolivian side, I went around the wrong side of the building. A soldier spotted me and pulled me up for questioning, seemingly as if I was some illegal immigrant smuggling something into Bolivia. He and another soldier then searched my bag, discovering a suspicious package. “What ees this?” he asked, his hand hovering near his holster in case I made a run for it. “Um, it’s my stinky socks”, I replied.
They then found my stash of Snickers bars, and I offered them one each. They appeared pleased with this “bribe” and let me go on to immigration cheerfully. I suppose they don’t get a lot of chocolate here at the border outpost.
Huffing and puffing
La Paz is positioned at an acrophobic altitude of 3632 metres above sea level, apparently the highest capital in the world. It also appears to be situated in the bowl of a canyon, surrounded by mountains on all sides.
Due to its inclined streets there was a lot of huffing and puffing as I frequently walked uphill just to get to my favourite breakfast joints and cafes, sucking in scarce oxygen as I went. This has got to be the most tiring city I have been in for pedestrians.
One afternoon I climbed up to the Parque Mirador Laikakota, a scenic spot high up overlooking the city itself. From this vantage point I was able to appreciate how truly remarkable this city is. Packed in the middle are the highrises resulting from modern development, while simple residential homes can be seen crawling up the sides right up to the canyon ridge.
My linguistic grapplings with the Spanish language began weeks ago when I entered Latin America. While I had picked up a collection of words and phrases, I did not have enough to hold a conversation.
So I decided to take some time out in La Paz and enrolled in a Spanish class for a week. Granted, this is not enough time to get me up to fluent standard, but it was most valuable in teaching me the standard constructs and usage of basic Spanish. Now that I’m armed with better Spanish, I can continue with the rest of my journey confident that I can now ask for fries with that.
Chaotic street stalls
The Bolivians are a prolific bunch, for they will sell anything and everything anywhere they want. Everywhere I went people would set up stalls on the sidewalk, selling a diverse range of paraphernalia. The hustle and bustle of street stalls made for lively, at times chaotic scenes. As there was sometimes no room on the sidewalks for pedestrians, I frequently had to risk my health by walking on the street amongst the equally chaotic traffic. There were people selling all sorts of stuff from pirated DVDs to fake Nike merchandise to dinner plates to replica weapons.
Rather interesting were the people who happened to have a telephone in their stall. They would charge people fifty centavos for the use of their phone. Even more bemusing were the people wearing green vests roaming around with a cell phone chained to themselves, continuously shouting “llamada, llamada, llamadas!” (telephone calls). These were also on offer for people to use in return for payment.
Buy your shrivelled llama fetuses here
Near my hotel I also hiked up to the Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches Market, where all sorts of spooky stuff were being hawked. I recoiled in horror at the shrivelled llama fetuses that people were selling, all piled on top of one another in baskets. I have no idea what they are used for, let alone how they are used. Perhaps having one of those in your house would surely be enough to ward off evil spirits. The peddlers also sold amulets, potions, idols, animal skins, and secret herbs and spices (not the KFC kind). Most bizarre indeed.
Nice place to hang out
La Paz is one of those cities where people could comfortably spend some time in, despite the chaos on the streets. In my spare time I explored the climbing streets and just poked about the back streets, waiting to discover or stumble across something interesting.
I even had time to go to the cinema and catch Spiderman 2, or El Hombre Ara?a as they call it. Although of course, this being Bolivia, the DVD was already out on the streets ages ago. I also ran into a fellow traveller, Genevieve, a French-Canadian who was my tent-mate on the Inca Trail. We managed to catch up and hang out before we went our separate ways. In between taking my Spanish lessons, I had quite a pleasant time just hanging out in La Paz, despite the exploding salte?as.