La Paz

EN ROUTE TO LA PAZ

September 25 - October 4, 2014
October 19 - 22, 2014

We left Puno at 2:30pm for our bus to Copacabana. Our bus stopped at the Peruvian half for everyone to get their immigration card stamped and walked across the border to get their Bolivian visa. For U.S. citizens, a visa costs $135, but for nearly every other country, a 30 day tourist visa is free. Jesse and I came prepared and had more than enough in dollars to pay for the visa, but nothing is ever that easy. According to the officer, our bills were unacceptable because they had the smallest slits on them from normal use. It was very, very minor to us and seemed like a joke. Apparently counterfeit money is a problem in Bolivia and prefer crisp currency. Frustrated, we quickly grabbed our things from the bus and asked a taxi to take us to the nearest ATM. The bus driver was impatient, yelling that the bus will be moving in less than 10 minutes! Our bus was merely stopping at Copacabana and continuing on to La Paz, so the time schedule could not afford wasting time. The nearest town was 5 minutes away and because there was a separate line for paid visas, we slipped in quickly and paid with a mix of Peruvian soles and U.S. dollars. The other two lines were quite long, but they were for every other country that did not require payment. Nobody wants to drop $135 just because of your nationality. We were the only two passengers that had to pay for our visa.

 

Just as we paid, the bus began to ride away slowly. We ran in front of the bus and boarded just in time. It would not have been the end of the  world if it drove away since the town was within a few miles, but we paid for a bus ride there. Copacabana is a picturesque lake town on the opposite side of Lake Titicaca that translates to "Lake View" in Aymara. It is the largest city on the Bolivian side bordering the lake. We went to an ATM and retrieved Bolivianos which at the time was 7 bolivianos to 1 U.S. dollar. The best part of that was our hotel stay which was 40 bolivianos/person or $6 a night for a twin private room overlooking the harbor. This even included breakfast! Our room was charming and had large bay windows.

Isla del Sol is one of the major attractions offered in Copacabana and is roughly 6 miles long and 4 miles wide. There are several traditional communities still living on the island with ruins. It serves as the birthplace to several entities including Viracocha, the great deity of Incan mythology who the sun and the moon. We left the following morning and spent $5 for the entire boat ride which took 2.5 hours each way. We spent a good 4 hours trekking the entire island's trails and felt a little disappointed by the lack of ruins. There were also various checkpoints in which you had to pay  a small fee to access part of the island; a detail that would have been helpful knowing beforehand.

The next afternoon, we left for La Paz. Everything was fine, but our bus was not properly ventilated. It felt like an oven with all the other tourists aboard. The interesting thing about this bus ride was that the midpoint required us to take a ferry across the narrow straits of Lake Titicaca known as the Tiquina Straits. Our bus was on a platform and crossed the lake as well. If the conditions were right, it was possible to make out the exposed peaks of the Cordillera Real mountain chain. When we finally arrived, we found a hostel called Hospedaje Milenio.

Over the past week, Jesse and I explored the extremes of La Paz from the snow capped mountains to the desert valleys. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at an altitude of 12,264 feet. The Illimani mountain of the Cordillera mountain range looks over the city on the east while the western side is dominated by dry climate called Valle de la Luna. To the north, the Yungas region is pure jungle climate and lies only an hour away from La Paz. There is no way to get bored with the climate. 

The inhabitants of La Paz are very traditional and maintain their roots more than any large city in South America. It was truly like nothing I have seen before. Women wear colorful dresses and shawls that highlight the largely industrial surroundings. The beautiful coexistance of both indigenous and European identities makes La Paz truly unique. We took a day tour of La Paz through our hostel. Our guide took us close to the Illimani mountain before getting stuck in the snow. We decided to climb up ourselves and take a few pictures. On the way down, there was a beautiful vantage point overlooking the entire city.

As we declined the mountain, we fishbowled around the city stopping at various points. The contrasting landscapes of the snow-capped mountains to the dry, narrow canyons to the southeast was absolutely fascinating. Valle de La Luna is actually comprised of a lot of German immigrants and is kind of segregated from the rest of La Paz. The area enjoy warm, dry climates. We were able to walk around the maze of beige-colored canyons. According to our guide, the Moon Valley got its name from Neil Armstrong after apparently visiting the site and remarking how similar the landscape was to the moon. But it's just a myth!

On random days, we took the red and yellow cable cars known as Mi Teleferico. Luckily for us, La Paz implemented the system that summer so we were able to experience it first hand. Similar to the cable cars of Medellin, the cable cars are a way for inhabitants to travel to and from work everyday from the city center to their neighborhoods. Generally, the higher up you are, the less income you have, but the view from above is so spectacular. Made from Austrian engineers, Mi Teleferico is color coded yellow, red, and green terminals and costs Bs5 which is less than a dollar. It's hard not to fall in love with this city. 

I would often visit Plaza Murillo, the historical center of La Paz and watch the pigeons flock around people with food. Named after one of the heroes of the Bolivian independence, Plaza Murillo has two guards in bright red uniforms standing guard of his tomb outside the government palace. At night, the government buildings surrounding the square would light up in beautiful colors. During our time in La Paz, the elections were well on their way. Since their independence in 1825, Bolivia has had more than 190 changes in leadership.

Evo Morales has been the Bolivian president since 2005. Of Aymara descent, Morales was reelected in 2009 and was able to run a third term by changing the constitution, but many people did not seem to be bothered by this. In fact, most of the people I met liked him for his policies that benefited the indigenous populations and the environment. For instance, I have a brochure that lists the top 10 objectives if elected president. Two of these struck me as incredibly ambitious that maybe the U.S. should take note.

1. Eradicate extreme poverty and basic services for everyone.
7. Water for life and respect mother nature.

Every morning, Jesse and I would eat an avocado and egg sandwich from the same lady in one of the markets near the San Francisco church. The stall was one of many in this concrete, multi-level building similar to a parking lot. We would pass by "lustrabotas", young boys with black masks who shine shoes. At first, it triggers for alarm since they look like ski-masks, but the boys wear them to hide their face from discrimination as well.

A few blocks northwest of Plaza Murillo is Calle Jaen, the finest colonial street in all of La Paz. It has a handful of museums, but during my stay, only one or two were actually open due to construction at the time. The cobbled street lead me to the Museum of Musical Instruments and its extensive collection of unique instruments such as the charango. Before I left, I asked the man behind the front desk if I can record him practicing his charango. It is Bolivia's version of the Ukulele, but with 10 strings. I ended up purchasing one before I left La Paz, which made the rest of the journey home that much more difficult!

You can not walk around La Paz without seeing stalls on the sidewalk. It is literally one enormous street market, carrying anything you can ever think of. Jesse bought a few pirated DVDs of newly released films. Jesse and I splurged on so many things. Many of the things I purchased were made of alpaca wool. The oldest church in Bolivia known as Iglesia de San Francisco seems to be the start of endless stalls. El Mercado de los Brujos or the Witch Doctor's Market has everything and is full of tourists. There were the usual knock-off brands of apparel and North Face, but there was also llama fetuses for sale. They are used as an offering to Pachamama or Mother Earth. Everything from magic potions to charms and spices allow you to influence your fortune. 

Jesse and I went to the market often to buy our last souvenirs for ourselves and others for Christmas. He was absolutely obsessed with an ugly yellow and brown alpaca sweater. I wish I snagged a picture of it, but it was an eyesore and honestly made whoever wore it look like an old banana peel that has been sitting out too long. The lady still wanted 380 Bs for it, which was relatively expensive. Jesse can’t believe that the only sweater he cares about in the most expensive in all the market. He would talk about it constantly and I would watch him on two separate evenings try to negotiate with the lady. He finally let it go.

The "most dangerous road in the world" lies 40 miles north of La Paz and leads to the small town of Coroico in an jungle region known as Los Yungas. The climate changes from cold, snowy mountaintop to the humid, tropical valley below. Jesse signed up for the adrenaline rush of biking downhill on narrow, unpaved road hugging the cliffside. The average width of the road is only 3 meters wide According to his guide, a French girl died three weeks prior trying to take a selfie and quite literally biking off a cliff. At any given point, falling off the road is at least a 600m drop into the valley below with little to no safety barriers. Many people fall victim to bike malfunctions and faulty brakes so picking a reputable tour agency is key. Although a new road opened in 2007, the old road is still used by vehicles and cyclists alike. Roughly 26 vehicles disappear off the edge every year. Crosses alongside the road show a warning to all cyclists and drivers who use the road.

*Photos provided by Gravity Tours.

Jesse booked a 3 day/2 night mountain climbing tour of Huayna Potosi. The first time we arrived in La Paz, the hostel said that the conditions for climbing was deemed unsafe and was postponed for a few weeks. Fortunate for Jesse, our return trip was satisfactory conditions to climb the 5,990m high mountain. It is a good climb for beginners since the first day "hike" was spent at a refuge to acclimatize. Dawn was breaking the horizon when Jesse got to the top. He said that walking was very difficult and some people did not even make it to the top due to the lack of air. All Jesse had was my cheap Sony point and shoot, but he managed to snag 2 pictures and a short video.

While he was gone, I visited the Iglesia de San Francisco, the oldest church in La Paz. Constructed in 1548, the church was the gateway into the Aymara neighborhoods of La Paz. In order to convert them to Christianity, the Aymara indigenous were encouraged to live around the church. This ploy also segregated them from the Spanish community by Rio Choqueyapu. La Paz grew prsperous during the silver trade between Potosi and Lima. The tour guide showed me where the priests would whip themselves whenever they committed a sin. Sometimes they had to confined themselves in these dark, claustrophobic cells for 1-3 months. Afterwards the weather went from sunny to a complete downpour. I sat for 20 minutes waiting for it to die down and then noticed the slush of ice on the car windows indicated it snowed. You never know what weather to expect in La Paz. 

When it was time to leave La Paz, we took a taxi to the bright yellow bus terminal which happened to be created by the famous French architect Gustave Eiffel who designed the Eiffel Tower. Petty crime is common in La Paz and luckily it did not happen to us. We saw our friend from Demark Fischer at the airport on our way home. It was a random reunion and he told us that 3 days prior to his flight, he was robbed in La Paz. Apparently when he got off the bus at 6:00am, his taxi driver was pulled over by a fake police officer. He asked him to step outside to check for drugs and fake currency. Once Fischer realized it was the scam, the taxi driver began driving away with his stuff and managed to jump into the driver seat window. He was beating him while holding onto the window, managing to salvage his iPad back. Unfortunately all his money and pictures were lost in the encounter. 

SOURCES:

  • Benchwick, G. Lonely Planet Bolivia: Lonely Planet, 2013. Print.

  • Blore, Shawn. Frommer's South America. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008. Print.

  • Keeling, Stephen, and Shafik Meghji. The Rough Guide to Bolivia. 2015. Print.

  • Mutic, Anja, Kate Armstrong, and Paul Smith. Bolivia. Footscray, Vic.: Lonely Planet, 2010. Print.