Before we came we’d heard rumors about La Paz being a big city like nowhere else, but nothing could prepare us for what we saw as we came driving over the Bolivian Altiplano by bus. The city is located almost 4000 meters above sea level in a huge bowl/valley dug out by a (now underground) river and houses cling to the surrounding hills all around. Just the fact that someone would build such a big and important city in a place like this says a lot about Bolivians, not to mention that the name La Paz (“the peace”) has a stark contrast to its rather violent history of power struggles, dictatorships and coups.
Another thing you recognize pretty fast is that the streets are death traps for pedestrians, and you are best off taking every precaution before crossing the rather narrow and always car-filled roads around the city. Bolivians drive like crazy as if their life depended on getting somewhere before everybody else. If you take a look up from the streets you see a spaghetti mess of power lines going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Being an electrician in Bolivia is probably more like being a brain surgeon with no eyes..the possibility of screwing something up when changing the power lines is almost 100%, and that’s probably why they just keep adding more lines instead of fixing the ones that are there.
Bolivians seems to be a rather superstitious people, with religious roots to Pachamama mixed with Catholicism. One can clearly see this when visiting the witches market in La Paz, where they sell everything from lucky charms to magic powders (ex. to keep you husband from cheating on you) to dried lama fetuses that they bury under the construction of a new house for good luck. We did the very excellent Red Cap free walking tour and were told that for bigger constructions they use live cows/oxen and supposedly for the most important buildings/constructions (like a bridge) bury live humans (like drunks that no one will miss)…go figure.
We were also told some other interesting stories about the infamous San Pedro prison. In this prison the guards only control the outer perimeters and the prisoners themselves control the community within. They are allowed to have wives and kids inside (who go out daily for school and work), and they have housing markets, restaurants and shops, all controlled by the inmates. If you are rich, this is a very good prison to stay in, as some of the best “cells” have 5 star accommodation with several floors and internet among other things. On the darker side the prison is a big producer of cocaine (said to be the best quality), which they manage to get out by bribing the guards. It is also a nesting place for scams on the outside, and the corruption goes right into the local police (and maybe higher up) in order for them to get away with it. There used to be tours in the prison for tourists, but not anymore as a lot of the prison secrets came out with the tourists. It is still possible to visit, but you are not sure to get out (yikes!).
Okay, so Bolivans are pretty crazy, but they are also really nice and we had a good time walking around the streets of La Paz looking at all the wackiness. We also found our favorite lunch food, the salteña, which is very similar to empanadas, only the dough is a bit sweet and not fried, and the inside is like a stew with chicken or beef or vegetables. We found the best salteñas at Paceña la Salteña in Loyza street and ate there everyday for lunch. This is definitely a food we will be making when we get home!
More photos from La Paz and the rest of Bolivia can be found here.