La Paz walking tour

Breathless in La Paz

The highest capital in the world, at around 3650 metres, La Paz will keep you breathless, and I’m not just talking the gorgeous views. On the way from the airport, ask your driver to stop at a viewpoint looking over the city as you will get the most spectacular views over the city. The city is built in a valley, with red brick houses clinging to the hillsides all around us. I fell for La Paz almost immediately.

La Paz

La Paz

First up to get my bearings, I booked in for a walking tour of La Paz. This was fantastic, as on top of the usual touristic sights, our trip took us to El Alto, the city next door to La Paz which is home to most of the indigenous population. Even higher, at around 4000 metres, we meandered slowly through the markets. I couldn’t help but admire the local indigenous ladies’ clothes- layers upon layers of skirts to make their hips look wider, and an English style bowler hat which is purely a symbol of wealth as there is absolutely no practical use for it. Our guide, Sergio, told us that a real bowler hat can cost up to $US300, which is a lot of money in anyone’s language if you ask me.

We wandered through the biggest fruit and vegetable market in South America. We tried pacay, a fruit which looks like large bean pods. The shell is very hard and inside are large black seeds covered with a thick white fruit that is almost pith-like but quite delicious. They are naturally in sections, so you pop one into your mouth and suck off the fruit spitting out the seed. We also ate tumbo. When you break into it, this looks exactly like passionfruit but it was much tarter. We also tried the juice which must’ve been sweetened – it was absolutely delicious. We sampled coca leaves, chewing them and collecting wads in our cheeks, hoping that it would hep alleviate symptoms from the altitude.

In El Alto we wandered in the huge Mercado de Hecherceria, or Witches’ Market. You could buy almost anything there, including bull penis and bull testicles which goes into a local soup delicacy, Caldo de Cardan. It was absolutely fascinating, as we also learned about some of the indigenous beliefs.

There was a massive section filled with witch doctors. You take to them our offerings which you’ve bought in the market – a surprising mix of candy, llama fetuses, tinsel paper – and whether it’s money, love, health or work, the witch doctor reads your fortune and then your offerings are burned.

 

In La Paz we also stopped for a snack at one of the many Saltena shops. Saltenas are like small empanadas, or a small cornish pasty, filled with a variety of fillings – mixed meat, vegetarian, chicken. It was absolutely delicious. More surprising was how delicious the limon con leche (lemon with milk) drink was. It didn’t sound that appetising to be honest and I don’t even like milk, but this was really yummy.

I also discovered that when La Paz was first settled there was an indigenous village and a Spanish village. In typical invading European fashion the indigenous were not able to leave their village, however the Spanish could go anywhere they like. The San Francisco church, just near our hotel, was in the indigenous village and you can see in the carvings references to local indigenous culture, including Pachamama (Mother Nature). Crossing over the road, which was once a river, the houses in the Spanish side are much more European in style, and although in quite a state of disrepair with peeling paint and a birds nest of electrical and telephone wires clustered outside, the houses are still quite beautiful. The most famous street is Calle Jaen, a cobbled ankle-breaker street now filled with museums and upmarket galleries.

We went by the famous San Pedro prison. Many years ago I read the book, Marching Powder, about one of the inmates which gives a fascinating insight into how this particular prison operates. It runs like its own little village, completely outside of the law, where inmates buy their own cells, and there’s a rich section, a poor section. Until a few years ago there were even tours for travellers by the inmates! This has all been stopped now and I was surprised to learn that the book itself is banned in Bolivia. Our guide had however tracked down a copy online and was recommending it to us very enthusiastically.

On my last day I spent some time in Plaza Murillo doing some people watching. This square borders the Parliament buildings and the Presidential Palace, and there must’ve been something interesting happening in the Parliament as there was a bit of media scrum outside and multiple interviews taking place which I observed with interest. As I sat waiting I got my boots polished from one of the many shoe polishers that wander around the city. He was so sweet I paid him double the 40 cents he asked for, he looked really chuffed! Not long after this there was a scurry of activity at the Presidential Palace and a few minutes later some official police motorcycles with lights flashing pulled up followed by a sleek black Lexus. The security guards stood to attention and who should bound out of the car and into the Palace but Evo Morales himself. A good bit of people watching indeed!

I highly recommend taking one of the telefericos or cable cars, which are a relatively new part of the public transport system. We traversed the entire yellow and green cable car lines which took me to the poorest parts of the city as well as some of the richest, and admired the views from above. Then we caught a chicken bus back to the Plaza de San Francisco, the 30 minute ride through the crowded rush-hour city costing us around 20 cents and rewarding us with more people watching opportunities, including at one point when we had to bunch up when some local ladies with their huge skirts squished in next to us.  A true locals experience.

La Paz

Catch the teleferico for amazing views over the city

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