Day two of the trip was to be spent ‘at leisure’ in La Paz. Having only flown in the day before, and having flown overnight, everyone was pretty much sleep deprived, and also we needed badly to get used to the altitude. We were already at 3,700m, higher than many, if not most, European mountains, and in the highest capital city in the world. A good time to explore and make the most of it. It was to be an incredible day.
There was an organised activity laid on by Jagged Globe, lest we lay too idle, in the form of a city tour. This was to take the form of a walking tour, for two reasons: firstly it was good for everyone to stretch their legs and get a bit of exercise, and secondly we’d get around quicker. As we’d discover, whilst La Paz is not exactly Kathmandu when it comes to traffic congestion, it can nonetheless hold its own with most places I’ve ever seen for gridlock and horn-blaring standstills.
Our guide was Rosemary, of Aymara origin. Bolivia it turns out, is still about 70% indiginous population, with most of the remainder being Spanish settlers. The Aymara and Quechua people, both of whom have their own languages, make up the vast bulk of this 70%. We learned a lot about Bolivia, it’s origins, how it got its independence, about Simon Bolivar, about religion (Bolivia is an almost entirely Catholic country for example), and many other customs including why the ladies wear bowler hats (marriage, basically) and the cholitas. It was fascinating. The tour including lunch took almost six hours, by which time we’d walked and also cable-carred around a sizeable chunk of the La Paz downtown areas. The cable car took us back up to El Alto, where the airport is, at 4,200m.
We visited city squares and parks, markets, the infamous San Pedro prison, and otherwise got to go to many places where as a tourist you wouldn’t normally have trodden. It felt safe, if slightly edgy, but not uncomfortably so.
The tour was fantastic, and probably more informative and interesting than any tour I’ve ever been on. La Paz is a bit of a crazy city, being known amongst other things for the somewhat scary San Pedro prison, which is slap bang in the middle of town. It also has many markets, where you can freely buy coca leaves (which I did!). The most famous, or infamous of these is the Witches Market.
View from my hotel, early morning, this in the very heart of the city.
A typical downtown city square
They use ‘zebra crossings’ too, but theirs are a little more animated than ours!
The infamous San Pedro prison. It almost looks nice from here, but believe me it isn’t.
San Pedro used to allow outsiders, family members, and even tourist tours to come inside the gates, but not any more. It is a notorious crack den, and about 1,500 hardened criminals live inside its walls. There are moves to close it down and move the inmates to a different location, but there is much resistance, most fiercely apparently from the inmates themselves…
A typical La Paz street market. Note in the background how steeply the houses rise into the hillside.
Buying the abundant coca leaves in a street market….
….and being shown how to fold and chew them, by Rosemary our Aymara guide.
The Witches Market is a hotch-potch of tiny shops and kiosks, selling an array of trinkets and potions alongside the ubiquitous alpaca and llama scarves and clothing. At first when you approach the area you see what appear to be cuddly toys hanging above the doors and windows. They then give way to something considerably more sinister however, for hung outside every store, and in plentiful baskets inside too, are hundreds of llama foetuses, in varying states of decomposition. I have never seen anything quite like it.
These are neither cuddly toys nor fake in any way whatsoever…
…..most of the shops contain offerings to Pachamama, the goddess of Mother Earth. Oh and beer too, as you can see!
Inside one of the witches shops. Fascinating!
The story goes, that the witches market gets its name from the ladies who would collect things from the altiplano to sell. Most of the indigenous population worship or believe in the spirit of Pachamama, the goddess of the Mother Earth. The llama foetus is revered for apparently bringing good luck and good health to houses when they are built, and this is the reason for their sale. They are put amongst incense and other symbols of good luck and burned in the foundations.
The ladies themselves were labelled as witches by the Catholic community and so came to be the witches market where they still sell their somewhat frightening wares. For me there is a fine line between respecting local and indigenous traditions, and being appalled by something as ostensibly appalling as llama foetuses. This is particularly the case when I learned that they are largely obtained by being pulled from the wombs of the mothers who are killed for their meat. I’ll pass no opinion as to which side of the fence I’m on, but I nonetheless found the experience one that will stay with me for a very long time indeed. There are also dried frogs and armadillos here. I should also say that I found the ‘yatari’, who are the people from whom the witches belong (they are considered a sub class of the Aymara by the locals), were among the friendliest, most humble and welcoming people I have ever come across in my life.
We then took one of the the four cable car lines out of the city up towards El Alto. El Alto (literally ‘The Heights’) is Bolivia’s second biggest city, and is effectively joined to La Paz, but is so radically different. A city of a million people in its own right, it is very poor. I would see much more of El Alto the following day. La Paz itself is home to about 1.7m people, and is in a big bowl, or canyon, which millions of years ago was basically a big lake.
View from the cable car up to El Alto…
…and the view back across the city towards the centre. Illimani dominates the backdrop, even if it is over 50 miles away!
Travelling back into La Paz itself by cable car again, passing massive walled cemeteries of the likes I have never seen before, we then ate in a traditional Bolivian restaurant of the kind that you’d never ever venture into if you weren’t being taken there by a guide. I also got to taste my first llama. I am not sure I really wanted to, but it is all part of the experience I suppose. For the record it tasted somewhere between lamb and beef I’d say, and I won’t be rushing to eat it again.
When we finally got back to the hotel it was time for our kit inspection by Olan, which as far as I’m aware everyone passed. We then had to pack all of our mountain kit which would be transported separately from us to Base Camp at Cordilera, our first objective in two days time. It brought the reality back into focus of why we were here, such a different thing to switch to after all the things we had seen during the day. We also packed our rucksacks with basic kit ready for two days acclimatisation at Lake Titicaca, and separately left anything we didn’t want in the mountains in a separate bag which would stay at the hotel.
In the evening we were free to do as we pleased, and so John, Laura, Gavin and I went and found an Argentinian restaurant (Gaucho), where the steak was monstrous (and that is an understatement!) and delicious, and the Cabernet Sauvignon (Trapiche Reserva) fabulous. I’m not sure that the latter was the best idea as part of an acclimatisation programme, but nonetheless it went down very well, which is a good thing in itself. The second bottle went down even better…..well, it’s all carbohydrate as they say 🙂
The next morning we would check out of La Paz to head to the largest lake in South America on the Peruvian border, all 5,500 square miles of the fabled Lake Titicaca. The journey was already really coming alive in so many ways, and the educational trip around La Paz just made me want to see and know so much more about Bolivia – it was already becoming a brilliant trip, and it was only one day in.