Before arriving to Copacabana, we spent three nights in La Paz, enjoying the beauty of good wifi. La Paz surprised us. We expected not to like it. Our tendency is for small and quaint, not sprawling and chaotic. But the city was unlike anything we’d ever seen…a deep valley surrounded by jagged, rust mountains with thousands of small red brick angular homes built on every possible spot. When you first see La Paz, you think “there better not be earthquakes here.” And there’s not. But flooding slowly erodes part of the city each season, with some homes being abandoned with the threat of landslides.
We had purposely booked a hotel at the south base of La Paz, in an effort to sleep at 10,000 feet vs 14,000. Calacoto, the embassy district, had coffee shops, Japanese food, and loads of wonderfully green parks. Our time was brief…two full days…we should have spent much longer.
We spent a day with Sergio of Banjo Tours, a private tour company that purports off the beaten path tours. Kyle said it was the best tour we’ve been on during our rtw trip because he didn’t see a single tourist the whole time. We met at the Basilica San Francisco where Spanish Catholicism and Native Aymara is uniquely melded in a way that must be unparalleled. We walked up to the Spanish section of town with its narrow cobblestone streets and colonial buildings. We stopped to try salteños, Bolivia’s version of the empanada, and despite warnings from Sergio, dripped it all over our chins and shirts. It was worth it.
We stood in the public square across from the infamous jail and heard its unique history…where inmates run the show inside with hot tubs and big screen TVs and endless drug parties, while the police guarded the outside. This jail for years offered tourists tours and drug parties. And even on this day, we watched as three young backpackers with plastic bags of toilet paper, bottled water, and other things they thought might be useful to the inmates, stood looking on, hoping that they would still experience what was on the inside. This jail, in the center of the city, at the edge of a beautiful plaza, would be closed down in two months time and parents of foolish traveling youth should be grateful.
While we watched, a small bronzed, barefooted man with a decidedly New York accent came up to us introducing himself as David from the Bronx and claiming that he just got out. Our guide later told us that he’s not really sure David was ever in the jail but looks for tourists to tell stories to for tips. A career path that never occurred to me.
We went to El Alto (the tall) neighborhood at the top of the city and took in the endless views of La Paz, as well as the produce markets where we tried a new fruit, tumba, and Julia determined she must start an import/export business to bring this sweet but sour fruit to the states. Our last stop was the witch market…this being the locals market vs the tourist market back in the center. Sergio explained that offerings are a daily part of Bolivian life, modern family or not. The fetuses of llamas, pigs and birds hung dried above our heads. Kits of molded sugar with different themes…a new car, money, a house, love…piled high. Had we purchased a kit, we would have then taken it a street away to the witch doctors, who would burn it for us and add their own power to make our wish come true. As we couldn’t come to terms with burning an animal fetus, we simply met a witch doctor, who of course looked like a college professor who just happened to have a human skull on his desk.
He read my future with coca leaves and accurately captured both my personality and my likely trajectory in health, work and love. Time will tell his accuracy.
I was able to get my requisite political conversation in…always a little touchy and requires judging your audience. Especially considering strained political relations between our two countries (nationalizing industry and diverting planes sort of leads to that). However Sergio was game. We’d heard time and again that Juan Evo Morales, the first Aymara President, was immensely popular among the people due to his Robin Hood focus. Expanded healthcare and schooling was pointed to as much improved under his terms. Similar to the U.S., the Bolivian constitution calls for two 4-year terms max per President. Mr. Morales is finishing up his 2nd term…and then running again. It was explained to me that a new constitution was created in 2006 during his first term and thus that term didn’t really count. The people and the military appear to be behind a seemingly well intentioned and effective president. But there’s always a minority and here it’s the rich, and even if you’re Robin Hood, thinking you’re the only one for the job is a dangerous path.
Our last day in La Paz, we took a short cab ride from Calacota to the Valle de la Luna, the valley of the moon. The mountains here have eroded into eerily gothic spires which reminds one of…the moon. Of course, Sean took exception with this..stating that the real moon is actually flat with craters. Ha, La Paz, trying to pull a fast one on this kid.