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February 2018, La Paz – Bolivia
After crossing 6 South American countries, I can say that Bolivia is like no other.
Chaotic and full of contradictions, La Paz takes you out of the confort zone in any way you can imagine. There are at least 10 fun facts about La Paz that I find peculiar enough to surprise any traveller.
If I made you curious, take a look at what we’ve been through while staying here!
First days at 3650 meters: 1 tooth less
At 3650 meters above sea level, La Paz is the highest seat of government city in the world.
Not long after arriving here, the unexpected happens.
Somewhere after midnight, I hear Geo whispering: “My tooth hurts …”
“Take a pill then”, I mutter, covering myself with the soft blanket and falling asleep again.
Next day, same story. But this time the pill has no effect. “I know, I have ketonal, the mother of all pains!”, I remember. Nothing bad can happen, right? Especially HERE.
The second night goes by painfully slow, taking painkillers, searching for Wi-Fi on all hotel floors, emailing to the insurance company, looking for dental clinics in La Paz. More painkillers.
I finally realize that…it’s serious. We’ve never waited for the sunrise with so much hope.
First thing in the morning, we call a taxi and rush like crazy to a clinic with good reviews found on TripAdvisor.
40 minutes later on the sinuous roads of La Paz, we reach the dental office. Surprisingly, they have state-of-the-art equipment, and the staff speaks English. In the waiting room, 2 more unfortunate travelers with a swollen jaw wait for their turn.
What do you know? Bolivia is known for causing tooth infections due to its high altitude.
Verdict: “Severe infection, I must take it out”, says doctor Cortez.
On March 1, the same day we celebrate spring in our home country, we leave the clinic with a small bloody tooth in hand, a painful swollen jaw and a big smile.
Don’t cheat on your casera
1 tooth less and still recovering, we are now in pretty good shape to explore the city.
Local markets are the main places people buy food from. There are no supermarkets, no processed food. Flowers, together with fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese and everything you might need are lined up on the ground at the market, waiting to be tasted and purchased as you make your way walking through.
“Do not cheat on your casera!” we are warned. You must buy from the same lady if you want to get the freshest goods.
Cholitas: wrestling and bowler hats
Since the 1950’s, Bolivian wrestling has been a popular sport in the country. Women wrestling started around 15 years ago as a way for abused women to vent their frustrations and get into the spotlight. Now it’s become a way to entertain both locals and tourists with a one-of-a-kind battle in colorful costumes.
All cholitas wear bowler hats, which is another funny topic itself. Shortly after bowler hats were invented, two English brothers manufactured a line of these hats to sell to the British railway workers stationed in Bolivia. It turned out the hats were too small for British heads, and Bolivian men were not interested. So they told Bolivian ladies this was the latest trend for women in Europe. It worked! Nowadays, the bowler hat is the Bolivian national pride and is an inherent part of the traditional garment.
If you’re up for a laugh, a Sunday evening watching cholitas wrestle will not disappoint.
Next, we check out the witchcraft market, Mercado de las Brujas. This is a hot spot for locals dreaming to get rich, or looking for revenge on a cheating partner. Magic potions, dried frogs and turtles, aphrodisiacs, herbs or dried llama fetuses are just a few of the things you’ll find here.
According to indigenous beliefs, animals should be buried under buildings to thank Pachamama (mother nature) in return for her blessings. Smaller houses have little llama fetuses underneath, though bigger projects require the sacrifice of a live alpaca or, if you believe urban legends, a human!
A crazy prison
Walking down the road a little further, we pass by the San Pedro Prison, which is a miniature city itself. From the outside, everything seems normal. But there’s a different story inside.
New inmates are required to purchase their own cells. The wealthy can even renovate their cells, or construct new ones. The commited crime, as well as food, clothing, and every day behind bars, have a cost. To gain the needed money, people have started businesses inside. Churches, market stalls, restaurants, handicraft workshops, a football field, taxi companies are part of everyday life in prison. Inmates can live in cells with their families, children included. The little ones leave to school in the mornings and return back to prison in the afternoon.
San Pedro Prison is reportedly home to cocaine labs that produce some of the finest stuff in the country. It’s said that the cocaine packs are wrapped in Pampers diapers, and thrown to the park nearby through the prison roof.
Crazier still, tourists used to be able to visit the inside on guided tours!
If you’re intrigued by the famous coca leaf, you cannot miss the Coca Museum.
The leaf’s healing properties, stimulating effects and nutritional value have been used by locals for centuries. Only after the complex process of mixing it up with several chemicals, it has become the deadly cocaine. Check out how it’s made in this little house hidden at Calle Linares 906, La Paz.
Subway in the clouds
If the traffic is hard on the ground, move it up! 🙂
People in La Paz have found an ingenious idea to speed up the commute and cut down pollution, by building the longest aerial cable car system in the world.
Operating at 4000 meters above sea level, the cable car ride has revolutionised the way locals travel between La Paz and neighbouring El Alto. The public cable car system consists of 5 lines, with 6 more in construction. And because best things are (almost) for free, a ride with a spectacular view costs only 3 Bolivianos (~0.5 USD).
No traffic rules
As we wander the city, it seems there are no rules on the streets of La Paz. Or at least no driver respects them.
If you’re a pedestrian, you have to cross the street wherever you can, running through cars and black smog. If you’re a driver, you blow the horn every second.
After a few days, i come to think that blowing the horn in La Paz can mean anything from: go, stop, hello, move, let me pass, you drive me crazy, i’m happy.
A clock running backwards
Bolivians have clocks running backwars. At least the one on the House of Congress does. The public timepiece was configured to run backwards in order to remind people of their pre-colonial roots and indigenous heritage.
The tooth infection changes our plans, so we are stuck in La Paz for 9 days. The recovery is slow, but things get better every day.
After a few tries eating in several places, our conclusion is that Bolivian food is healthy, but strange.
Finally, we discover a nice restaurant running as a family business. We come back here over and over for their fresh food purchased daily from the market. Llama meat, soup with pasta and fries inside, chicken with rice, potatoes, beans and corn in the same plate are just a regular meal in Bolivia.
The last day has come. When we tell the restaurant owners we’re leaving, they get emotional and cry.
Afterall, La Paz gave us the most unbearable pain, but the most gentle and humble people we ever met. We will surely not forget our time in Bolivia.
- Long distance transportation
Bus Uyuni – La Paz, 38 USD/pers
38 USD/night/double room
- Local transportation
3 BOL(0.5 USD)/pers/1 way teleferic
20 BOL(3 USD)/taxi ride
Free walking tour: 20 BOL(3 USD)/pers
Coca Museum: 15 BOL(2 USD)/pers
- If you’re coming from Uyuni, you probably saw the Salt Flats. If not, go for it! That’s the best experience you can have in Bolivia.
- For long distance transportation between Uyuni and La Paz, Todo Turismo is known as the best bus company.
- A decent hotel in La Paz close to city center is Hotel Nuevo Sol.
- For a free walking tour of La Paz, the guys from Red Cap do a great job.
- If you’re looking for a healthy and cheap meal, go to Restaurante Cafe Mirasol.
- If you encounter teeth problems (hopefully not!), go to Clinica Dental Cortez. We will be forever grateful to Dr. Cortez and all the professional staff who helped us recover and continue our journey.
In January 2018 we booked one-way tickets, took our backpacks and left cozy old Europe, for (hopefully) the greatest adventure of our lives: South America. If you like our story, don’t forget to spread the word!
Happy travels and stay safe!