La Paz has been one of my favourite cities to fly into so far this trip. A bright blue-skied day enhanced the spectacle of the snow-capped mountains that surround La Paz on all sides. It is one of the highest capital cities in the world at 3,640 metres above sea level. We had become accustomed to South American roads, where any sign or rule is optional. However, La Paz roads were a whole new level. We made it most of the way to our hotel before the taxi driver pulled over and explained that the road was closed up ahead. As we lugged our backpacks the last few hundred meters we could see why. Most of the central city streets were now crammed with locals sitting on chairs and holding up protest banners at every single intersection. We later found out that the government was considering charging street stall owners for owning any more than one street stall. This had proved unpopular with the many local families who hawked their goods at numerous stalls across the city and had thus led to the shutdown of the inner city streets. Our hotel explained that this is not unusual in Bolivia. Bolivians do like football, but I feel that their true national sport is protesting.
Our first day in La Paz was spent on an incredibly entertaining free walking tour. We started at the infamous San Pedro Prison. Our guides explained that the jail only has 12 guards at any given time and is a town of its own inside. This is the jail made infamous from the book, Marching Powder. Tourists used to be able to take a tour inside the jail. Unfortunately, the British inmate who had originally organised these tours and paid other inmates “protection money” to allow the tourists to pass through the jail in (relative) safety had finished his sentence and left the jail. The tours had briefly continued in his absence, however his successors thought it unnecessary to pay protection money for the tourists.
After several French tourists were stabbed and a young female tourist was raped on the tour, the government put an end to any jail tours. If you are lucky enough nowadays you may see a nappy fly over the jail walls to be swiftly collected by a local and sped away into the back streets. This is the current method by which cocaine is smuggled out of the jail. Apparently, the jail is a very large producer of cocaine with many a guard turning a blind eye for a cut of the profits.
We ventured into the food markets and then onto the even more interesting witches markets. Here you can find anything from dried herbs for a range of ailments through to dried llama foetuses which are buried in the foundations of buildings as an offering to pachamama or mother earth. The llamas on offer are very much real but luckily have died of natural causes.
We were also told about a much darker tradition where Bolivian shamans would ply homeless men with food and drink. Once liquored to the point of oblivion the homeless men would be laid on the building site and buried alive in the foundations. There have been plenty of old buildings in La Paz with bones found in the foundations. Our guides informed us that there is no evidence of this occurring in present day, but there are still rumours of the practice occurring. Given the level of superstition in Bolivia, I would not entirely discount those rumours.
We finished the tour with a summary of the political history. As with any South American nation there was plenty of drama in the form of coups, ex-presidents fleeing to USA after stealing millions, and at least one head of state executed in the main square. Like I said, pretty standard for Latin America. Politics back home in Australia seem pretty tame in comparison.
We were up early the next day for a ride down the infamous death road. Having no interest in spending time exploring the Bolivian medical system we had booked through Gravity, a highly recommended company. Our Dutch guide ran us through the basics on the half an hour trip to our starting point. The bikes provided were excellent, but we were reminded many times to avoid braking too hard due to the many non-riders in our group. The ride started with a very simple descent down a wide sealed road with glorious views down a steep valley. Many a tourist seemed to be embolden by the lack of technical difficulty and descended at breakneck speeds. It was only about 8kms in when we came across our first victim of the ride lying dazed and with blood dripping from her mouth as the company’s guide assessed her. We asked our guide at the next stop what had happened. “Apparently she locked her brakes and took a fall” she informed us. “Lost a tooth in the process” She shook her head as said this. Seems that the real danger of Death Road was the tourists with underdeveloped frontal lobes.
We took the bus for the short uphill before the real start to the ride. The clouds had set in as we got off the bus again at the start of the loose gravel decent marked by the warning sign at the top. Our guide reminded us again about our speed and braking. “This is a very simple descent as long as you give each other space and stay in control of your bike”. Again it seemed for many of our group that this was lost in the mountain wind as before the day ended another two had come off their bikes. One of which finished her ride (and potentially her holiday) with an ambulance ride after flipping over her handle bars. Luckily neither of us were involved in any crashes staying well to the back of the group. The scenery of the ride was absolutely spectacular, when you could free your eyes from the road. I do have to say the experienced was slightly marred by many of the participants in our group and their need for speed. I would still highly recommend Gravity though as a group to go through.
We had not been expecting great things from Bolivian cuisine. The national dish is fried chicken which is consumed with great gusto by the locals on a daily basis. So we were extremely surprised to find that one of the founders of the famous Danish restaurant Noma, previously rated as the best restaurant in the world, had opened up a restaurant in La Paz. We decided that a pilgrimage to the outlying suburbs of La Paz was required to visit El Gusto. The restaurant was difficult to find with an unassuming brick façade in a residential street. However, once you walked through the front door you could see the hallmark of Danish design with simple yet eye catching concrete construction and impeccable lighting. I was a bit worried that I was going to get turned away, having not brought any particularly sophisticated clothing with me. Fortunately, there seemed to be very little pretence as the extremely friendly and professional staff seated us. While the food may not have been the best we have ever eaten it was certainly up there, and incredibly cheap given the quality! The real highlight was the cocktails, especially the gin and cucumber infusion which Cass ordered.
Our time in La Paz was drawing to an end. There was one last activity that we had decided was a must before we moved on; a visit to see the famed Cholita wrestling. Walking around the streets of La Paz you won’t go far without seeing advertising for these women in traditional dress laying into each other WWF style. The novelty of it alone lead us to book tickets. The wrestling area would have only been 10kms out of the city. But La Paz traffic and road meant that this was over an hour on a bus up winding road. The journey was well worth it though. The showmanship and athleticism demonstrated by the wrestlers was incredible. You could also see how much they were enjoying themselves. It was good to see something so empowering for these young women in such a patriarchal society.