We hadn’t yet been Bolivia so, on a recent trip to South America, we decided to check out the country. Our original plan was to have a day in the historic, colonial capital of Sucre, have a long-multi-faceted visit to La Paz, and then take side-trips to the Uyunui Salt Flats and Lake Titicaca. While it would not be a comprehensive view of this unique, in-the-clouds country (the valley in which La Paz is located is itself at 11,942 feet), it would provide us with a pretty good introduction to the country.
This plan was disrupted well before we got there, when BOA (Bolivia’s nationally owned airline) cancelled our flight to Sucre and offered an alternative schedule that would have given us a mere three hours in the town (including getting to, from and through the airport). This forced us to cancel our stop in Sucre and to go straight to La Paz, Bolivia’s second largest city.
La Paz officially has 800,000 people, but actually has 1.5 million people when one includes its suburbs. It is also a hub for transport around the country and also became our hub in the country.
At 11,942 feet, La Paz is the fourth highest city in the world even though it is in a valley. Its airport, sits on a plateau that towers 1,200 feet above the city. When we flew in, we were told that the plane does not so much land at the La Paz airport as the land rises to meet the plane .
The taxi ride down to the city was also something of an adventure. Our driver took it upon himself to take the local roads versus the more express road (taxis are flat fees so this little tour did not cost us any more). We drove along potholed local streets loaded with stalls selling every variety of household and clothing product, food stands cooking and selling snacks and meals to hungry crowds and many, many street markets. Oh yes, and lots of dogs. The buildings atop the plateau and along the long, winding road down to the city were a far cry from those in Argentina and Uruguay, and were probably among the least affluent we have seen in any of the six South American countries we have so far visited (at least outside Rio’s and Sao Paulo’s favelas). But we had a nice nighttime overlook of the lights of the city
La Paz and Valley of the Moon Tour
After a brief, self-guided introductory walk down the Main Street (Avenida Santa Cruz), through San Francisco Church, the Witch’s Market and the lovely Plaza Murillo, flanked by the Presidential offices, the Cathedral and the beautiful Congress Building. We then met Grupo Rosario for its Half Day Tour of La Paz and Valley of the Moon for a more comprehensive and knowledgeable introduction to the city’s primary sights, neighborhoods and history.
Our guide, Vladamir used the passing of a park dedicated to Eduardo Abaroa Hidalgo, the hero of the lost 1879 War of the Pacific as a foundation for an overview of the country’s two primary wars: the 1809 revolution that laid the foundation for the country’s 1825 Independence from Spain, the 1879 war with Chile in which an unprepared Bolivia fought valiantly, but ultimately lost its access to the Pacific coast to Chile. While this led to a series of conflicts and settlements that were to give Bolivia a commercial right of way to the coast, it has still not received this access and the case is now in the International Court of Justice (with an initial finding in Bolivia’s favor).
This conversation led us to a stop of a cable car that we had admired on our initial scenic drive from the airport to the city. We took the tram up to the top and back down for a magnificent view that was accompanied by discussions of the:
- Country’s geography which is only 26 percent mountainous, with the rest consisting of lowland (especially the Amazon Basin) and especially plains (where its primary city, Santa Cruz, and its agricultural, ranching and timber industries are);
- Country’s population, which is about 60 percent native, consisting of about 10 different regional groups, each with their own dress and customs and, even with the country’s rapidly growing urbanization, generally large family sizes;
- Growth of the downtown area and plans for extending the cable car system to a total of six lines that are intended to criss-cross the city and hopefully alleviate some of the horribly congested roads;
- Nation’s economy, which is overwhelmingly concentrated on tin, silver and other minerals, oil and natural gas, agricultural, ranching and forestry products, textiles and especially its great hope for lithium. Since it is the world’s overwhelming largest supplier with an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the world’s supply, it hopes to leverage this position to expand beyond extraction into an upstream, value-added manufacturing business, beginning with the lithium and related chemical production, the manufacturing of lithium ion batteries and hopefully expanding into products including laptops and smart phones;
- Country’s political system which has gone through long periods of instability, is now run by a socialist government. Evo Morales, its popular, populist president is less than friendly with Western, capitalist countries and foreign investment has been greatly hampered by a long history of nationalizations, privatizations, re-nationalizations and partial nationalizations in strategic industries including oil, mining and air transportation. He has instituted a referendum to allow him to run for a fourth five-year term, for which we have seen a proliferation of “NO” signs in various districts (and has been subsequently voted down); and
- City’s active promotion of the arts, with its public art initiatives, opening of museums and especially its active promotion of pottery, weaving and other local crafts (some markets of which we visited with our guide and on our own).
We passed through, and our guide discussed a number of sights (the president’s house, embassies, universities and so forth) and high-income neighborhoods (including La Florida, Obrajes and Calacoto) and when passing native women in traditional attire, he explained subtle nuances in their dress, including the meanings of different style of dresses, the ways in which their hats were tilted (which indicated, single or married) and the color of the flowers they wore. We also drove by a square with an open air museum dedicated to the Tiwanaku architecture and culture that was prominent all across northwestern South America before the Incas.
Among our more interesting stops were:
- Moon Valley, a landscape of weird, hoodoo-like shapes that was formed by a raised sedimentary seabed, scoured by a glacier then eons of wind and water erosion;
- Killi Killi Lookout, with its 360-degree view of the city and is surrounding mountainside communities and scenery;
- Blocks and blocks and blocks of produce markets with traditionally-attired native men and women selling a huge range of fresh fruits and vegetables;
- Street of the Witches (Linnares Street), where we learned of the custom of sacrificing pregnant llamas and the drying of llama fetuses that, when placed in a basket with sweets and other items, are supposed to produce good luck for new houses. We also saw and learned of the type of luck that is intended to be brought by different amulets (jaquar, condor, fish, turtle and so forth) and the overarching powers of the Pachamama goddess. Also natural medicines for everything from diabetes and ulcers to menstrual pains and impotence and the roles of cocoa leaves (which are available everywhere) as a stimulant and medication for altitude sickness (both of which we had experienced on a previous Machu Picchu hike) and other illnesses. And we learned the mystical powers associated with healers, oracles, 1st priests and of the dark magic practiced by witches;
- Los Andes Street Costume Market, a fascinating street where we saw hundreds of incredibly elaborate costumes that people rent (for up to about $300 for an event) or buy (for up to $1,500) for carnival and many other celebrations throughout the year. More than seeing the costumes, Vladimir explained the history, the cultural significance and especially the fascinatingly deep ironic jabs that different costumes make at the country’s Spanish colonial rulers and the natives that collaborated with them to subjugate and enslave the local population. In addition to the shops for the entire costumes, he showed us shops that made individual components (from bells, masks and boots—the latter of which long-distance marchers and dancers sometimes have custom made) and how artisans often work up from producing specialized components to complete costumes.
We also visited, walked and learned about the buildings and the history of Plaza Muillo, the center of La Paz’s old town. This plaza is home to what had been the three primary buildings of the Bolivian government, the:
- Congressional Palace, the magnificent legislative chamber with its central tower and clock that runs backward (at least to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), to symbolize the country’s south of the Equator location;
- Cabildo, which houses the presidential offices and his administrative staff;
- Cathedral, the current version of which was built over a 100-year period (1835-1935) had been a formal component of the country’s government until 2009 when Bolivia formally separated the roles of church and state.
The Plaza itself, originally built in 1558 as Plaza Mayor, was the site of many protests and power struggles during the colonial era and was renamed Plaza Muillo after Pedro Murillo, one of the initial leaders and temporary president during two weeks in 1809 when the revolution temporarily gainned control of the government. When the Spanish regained control, they hung Murillo in the center of the square—where a statue of him now presides. It was renamed in his honor in 1902.
Just outside the square is the Museum of National Art and the main old town street which still has some pretty historic buildings, glimpses of which can still be seen between and above the stalls that often occupy the street. Nearby are several modern buildings in which government ministries are housed.
Although most of our time in the city was spent exploring the sights, eating (wonderfully, I may add), and locked in perpetual traffic jams, we did have time for a couple hours of entertainment. A few of these of these hours were spent in two events:
- Alasitas Feria, an annual, month-long cultural event that is based on a Pre-Columbian tradition of using miniature representations of what a person hoped to get as a message to the gods. The current version entails buying these miniatures, getting them blessed by someone acting as a shaman and giving them as a gift to their own house’s model of Ekebo, the household god of abundance which is represented as a small, smiling, mustachioed, gift-bearing man. While some items represent the basic needs of life, such as food, household goods and nice dresses, they are typically for more aspirational and lifestyle products and experiences, such as cars, houses, money, university degrees, marriages and even children. Although the fair, with hundreds of product and food booths, is often packed on evenings and weekends, it was very tame on the weekday afternoon we were able to visit. Even so, it did provide an idea of the experience.
- Cholita Wrestling. What trip to La Paz would be complete without a visit to a hilariously staged wrestling match where colorfully-dressed women take World Wrestling Federation antics to an absurdly entertaining new level. Begun more than a half century ago as a way for abused women to express frustration and release stress, it has become viewed as a means of expressing female empowerment in what is still a male-dominated society. It can also help some women actually achieve some empowerment by earning much more than they could by selling snacks on the street—and sometimes, even more than their husbands. Our show, which combined men and women’s matches, did not disappoint on choreography, artificial blows or assisted falls. Many of the actor/wrestlers came out in elaborate costumes, preened for the audiences and threatened the referee. Among the most entertaining of the “matches” were a three-woman match and a tag-team/free-for-all among six men and a young boy who was employed by one of the teams to hit immobilized opponents with a water bottle and kick them in the groin. And just imagine—all of this and no blood or discernable injuries!