Filthy, fumey, crowded and chaotic… What happened to make me like La Paz

Maybe we didn’t get off to a great start… At about 8am we were still in our room in Cusco, I was pottering and Steve had started his research into La Paz. We were all set for our flight tomorrow with one last day to take it easy and figure out what we would do and where we would stay. I guess it’s lucky Steve started by checking the time of our flight, “Um babe, I think our flight is today… Take-off in 2 hours.”

Aggghhhhh!!!!! Mad dash, packed in minutes, partial refund for that nights accommodation, say goodbye and THANKYOU to our great friend Luciano… Oh, now that bottle of red wine we got for tonight would need to be consumed before we hit security. 9.30am, back of the taxi wine and half a box of chocolate almonds for breakfast! Then after security another glass because we HAD to use up the last of our sole coins. This was actually shaping up to be a great morning.. Then our flight was delayed at first by 30 minutes, then an hour. Needless to say, when we arrived in La Paz I was coming down pretty hard, sugar, booze and adrenaline all wearing off and the first impressions of La Paz leave me very sad to have left Peru.
Tip: when you come out of the airport head right, towards the mini buses. Straight past all the taxi drivers offering rides to centro for 50 bob and onto the public bus for 4 bob!

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The hectic main road next to San Francisco Cathedral with its crazy “plaza” and the main mercado in the foreground to the right

We jumped out at San Francisco Plaza, fumes suffocated us and the sun coaxed a sickening rubbish dump smell from the pavement. La Paz apparently has a population of approximately 800,000 but it felt like 3 times that as we navigated our way through the hoards with our backpacks. The city is set in a giant basin with the majority of the residential property situated up some 600metres higher in the part of the city known as Al Alto. So, to find somewhere to stay from the lower section near San Francisco the only way to go was up. Hilly streets with broken footpaths consisting of piles of rubble and everywhere we went seemed to be undergoing roadworks. In and out of hostels and backpackers trying to find something half decent in our price range. Finding only dingy cold dumps and overpriced holes. Losing hope we settled for an average little room that at least had windows, a shared bathroom and good WiFi 60 bob ($12 AUD) per night.

 

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This is La Paz, the city is set in a giant ravine. The rich, opulent houses are low in the bottom of the valley where it’s sheltered from the harsh altiplano winds, and the simpler, lower value houses spill out over the steep surrounding hills. El Alto is technically another city but it sits adjacent to and above La Paz, so close it’s impossible to tell where one starts and the other finishes. El Alto is one of the highest major cities in the world and is set at 4050m. With most of its residents of “Amerindian” decent it’s stated only 0.1% are criollos (white).

By the time we finally settled in it was 4pm and we were starving.. Dinner at least was a success! We stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant called Kalakitas, it was fresh and wholesome and when we asked for tips on what to do our lovely waiter recommended we take the teleferico tomorrow, and check out the city from above. Something to look forward to! He also reassured us that La Paz is perfectly safe after dark in the centre, just don’t get into unmarked cabs as there have been a series of serious crimes with those guys.

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Kombi spotting

As night fell our hotel felt more and more like a crack den so I used the yucky toilet once before bed and hoped we’d be out before I needed to go again! That night we both struggled to sleep, then around 11pm the violent vomiting guy appeared in the toilet right outside our room… It was going to be a long night!
The next day we checked into Maya Hostel (here is a full review of Hostel Maya Inn), a place that was 3 times the price but we had a private bathroom and what’s an extra 100 bob ($20 AUD) for a happy nights sleep?

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The view from above: Middle class La Paz live in the high rise condos which are situated throughout the centre of the city

Now I’ve set the scene, here’s what we did on that second day…
Upon the advice of our waiter we took the teleferico on a sky high adventure over the suburbs of La Paz. There are currently 3 lines in operation spanning 10kms. The red, yellow and green lines connect El Alto with La Paz and are a unique way to travel indeed! The lines have helped decrease traffic and also helped to put La Paz on the “New 7 Wonders: Cities” list and a further $450 million has been committed to building a further 5 lines in the near future. Riding high above the city and the buildings below, this is the most thrilling mode of public transport I’ve ever used. I’m not great with heights but the construction is relatively new having been built in 2014, so it all feels very safe and modern. I didn’t really like it in the wind! But Steve assured me it was still safe.

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Not thrilled about riding in the wind, couldn’t even relax to smile for a photo

We took the red line up over the crazy above-ground cemetery, up to the flea-market at the beginning of El Alto. The biggest flea market in Bolivia is only on Thursdays and Saturdays and sprawls blocks and blocks, selling everything from clothes to auto parts.

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Toys, flutes, clothes and cars. Everything is on offer at the flea-market

But seeing as we weren’t in the market for anything we started walking towards the yellow teleferico line. The walk from the end of the red line to the beginning of the yellow line took us through the outskirts of El Alto. The residents here live in simple brick houses, the stories go that they live here one day hoping to upgrade and move further down into the valley where the rich folk live, but I don’t think that’s the case.

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El Alto is home to almost a million residents and growing fast

Taking the yellow line back down into the valley we notice the houses getting nicer, the gardens start to appear. Then as we transfer across to the green line the wealth divide becomes screamingly obvious. Mansions and luxury car dealers start littering the landscape below. We decide to go for a wander at the end of the green line in search of a nice cafe, it’s 3pm and we are quite hungry, but all we find is a burger king and a couple of other chain takeaway joints.

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We enjoyed watching the transformation of the city below from ramshackle brick houses to mansions with sprawling gardens

After filling up on soft serve and consulting our free tourist map we decide to check out the big green park in Miraflores. Buses are really easy to catch, they’re vans with the names of the destinations on the front that you can flag down anywhere (similar set up as Peru). Unfortunately they don’t need any type of warrant of fitness and most blow big black clouds of smog as they struggle up the steep roads. We arrive in Miraflores just as it starts to rain. As we get to the park we quickly realise it’s not the lush green oasis in the middle of the city as the map suggests, but a series of small gardens next to the highway. You even have to pay 2 bob to get into the depressing children’s park and the other part is locked. Oh well.

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The best thing we saw at the “Park”

We walk home. The next day we just kinda chill, feeling like La Paz has nothing for us we plan our trip to Copacabana tomorrow and look forward to Lake Titicaca. We did check out a great vegetarian menu for lunch, which is behind San Francisco Plaza (you’ll recognise it by the black and white cafe sign outside, go through the courtyard and up the stairs, it’s called Reencuentro) then later on that afternoon we decided to explore the interesting above-ground cemetery and figure out the times for the bus tomorrow (which conveniently leaves from across the road from the cemetery).

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The “Cementario” is full of glass fronted cupboards that hold urns and memorials to the deceased. Some of them are stacked so high they resemble mini apartment blocks!

The cemetery is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Little cubicles stacked on top of each other in what can only be described as apartment block tombs. Some of the single stories were as high as 10 levels, and then there were the multi story blocks which were 20-30! Each has a little window on the front and behind it the families place flowers and small gifts. I must say we were impressed at the number of windows with fresh flowers behind them. Bolivian people seem to honour their dead more regularly than we do on our side of the world. This is highlighted by the evidence suggesting that these little plots require a regular payment to keep them occupied. We noticed a couple with eviction warnings which was a little disconcerting.

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Not long after we arrive it starts raining. We head for the gate at the bottom of the cemetery and come head to head with a huge funeral procession! Either he’s a popular guy or the family have paid a fortune hiring professional mourners (Yip that’s a thing). We battle through and find out the buses leave for Copacabana every half hour until 10.30am then break for lunch. Easy.

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Carving beautiful frames for the internment cubbies

For dinner we try a different vegetarian called Namas Te (Zoilo Flores #1334, San Pedro) which is super delicious and highly recommended, they also have a lunch menu for 35bob.
That night Steve is very sick, his tummy is not happy with him. It’s been funny for a couple of days so we can’t figure out exactly what it could have been but the next day I go out to get antibiotics, expecting a battle with the crowds, the weather, the smog, La Paz. To my surprise the sky is blue and cloudless and the streets are quiet. Saturday has transformed the chaos… As I head a little further up and away from the San Francisco area the traffic is completely replaced by ladies in their full skirts and felt bowler hats with stalls lining the road. Selling fresh produce, flowers, toys, cereals, plant remedies, everything you can think of! The markets go on for blocks and the energy is beautiful!

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The markets were vibrant and had a great energy

I decided to buy a bunch of yellow flowers from the oldest, sweetest couple I’ve ever seen (there is evidently no retirement age here) because they were doing such a lovely job tying them up, then on my way back I gift the flowers to another hard working old dame, feeling happy to have seen a new side of La Paz.

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There is some interesting street art scattered throughout the city, there is obviously some kind of interesting sub-culture scene (although we didn’t find it)

Just as the sky was changing to dusk I decided to give this crazy city another crack. I’d just read about the real main Plaza, San Francisco is the obvious and easier to find Plaza (yuck) but the original “Plaza Murillo” is across the main road over the other side of town. As I get across the road and start heading into the back streets the vibe and the mood transform. It becomes more peaceful, I notice a couple of museums and fine dining restaurants and the buildings become more elegant. It all still has a very faded, dusty, run-down feel to it but it kinda adds to the charm.

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The once beautiful colonial buildings serve as a reminder of the Spanish conquest, however they are now battered and run down

The streets open out onto one of the most tranquil and romantic plazas I’ve seen so far, perhaps this has something to do with the contrast to the rest of La Paz, but it’s joy inducing.

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Plaza Murillo is quiet and romantic in contrast with the city of La Paz

 

I sit and watch happy well-dressed kids feed the pigeons for a while, then at 6pm uniformed men march forth from one of the more grand looking buildings next to the cathedral and perform the flag folding ceremony.

It feels like I’ve been blasted into soviet Russia! As it starts getting dark I wander back in the direction I’ve come, through more markets and stands, enjoying the fact that the streets are closed to traffic in this part of town. I keep walking until I stumble upon the main market of La Paz, it’s like a giant shopping centre of little cement stands organised into categories. Brilliant! I find one selling the brand of chocolate I’d read about online but not yet managed to find. Bolivia’s own “Para Ti” woop woop!

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Beautiful buildings in the Plaza Murillo

Picking up the other bits and bobs Steve wanted I head home feeling pretty elated to have found all the things I was hoping to find, including the elusive cultural side of La Paz. That night I even managed to find an authentic Cuban restaurant and had the best sandwich ever!! So all in all I’m looking forward to going back. We still have a couple of things we’d even like to do there!
(Follow up note, we got back during the week and it was back to chaos, if you are going to visit La Paz definitely plan it over a weekend, and DEFINITELY go to the Cuban place. We went back there 3 more times) Sabor Cubano: 357 Sagarnaga Street between Illampu and Linares.

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La Paz, it’s not so bad…
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