Saturday, April 9, 2016

La Paz, Bolivia, Part 1: The Most Fascinating City Ever

I was having a discussion with a bunch of people about the different stereotypes of backpackers around the world.  For your amusement, I've compiled a brief list of things people from other countries apparently dislike about Americans:
  1. When they ask us where we're from, we say the state we're from instead of the country, like we expect them to know all the states in America - this apparently comes off very arrogant to them. When we ask where they're from, they would never say a random province or city in their country; they'd start with the country first. 
  2. We are over-enthusiastic about everything and they can't tell if it's real (GUILTY, AND IT IS REAL, AND I'M OK WITH THIS)
  3. Why do we use the word "amazing" so much?? (GUILTY, AGAIN)
  4. We are loud (sometimes guilty)
  5. We don't seem to know that much about other countries or anywhere that isn't America (um, we can't help this if we're not taught that much about other parts of the world, and HEY I'm traveling and learning what I can now!)
In case anyone's easily offended, there's also tons of stereotypical things people dislike about other backpackers from every country in the world; not just America. I just found this the most interesting and relevant.

Anyways, back to regularly scheduled programming: Bolivia! From Uyuni, I took an overnight 8-hour bus to the main city of La Paz.

What It's All About:
La Paz is the largest city in Bolivia and its unofficial capital (the government and all ruling offices are based here). It's nestled in between mountain ranges, and is super high in altitude (~almost 12,000 ft above sea level!!!) - meaning I wheezed like a 90-year old man with emphysema anytime I had to go up more than two steps.

La Paz basically consists of zillions of clay-covered buildings located high up in the mountains

I was initially a little nervous about going to La Paz - any story you hear about a backpacker getting robbed in South America, seems to have happened in Bolivia.  But I soon found La Paz to be one of the most interesting places ever!  There is a unique blend of the indigenous culture with the Spanish culture here. The history of La Paz is totally crazy, and much of the community's indigenous roots are still evident today: from the ladies wearing traditional wear (long, braided pigtails, a sun hat, and thick, colorful skirts) to the Witches' Market (a market that sells many traditional remedies, talismans, symbols, and potions of the indigenous people).  

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • In the past couple of years, the government has constructed some cable car lines, as a way of creating a faster & more efficient public transportation system (vs. the city's buses, which have to inconveniently wind their way through crowded/narrow winding streets, up and down the mountains). Inadvertently, these cable car lines have become a huge hit with tourists, as they provide breathtaking views over the city and neighborhoods that would have previously been inaccessible to see.  AND THE WHOLE THING ONLY COSTS 3 BOLIVIANOS, which is like $0.50.  
I rode the cable car's red line (there's also a green and a yellow line; the three of which make up the colors of the Bolivian flag). They are currently constructing even more cable car lines of various colors.

The Red Line also soars over huge swaths of cemeteries in the middle of the city - these are all individual mausoleums, and there were SO MANY rows of them!

Yes, I was sharing a cable car with two locals, and yes, it was slightly embarrassing because they were sitting there quietly, just trying to use their city's public transportation system, while I was snapping photos out the window like a maniac.

But look at these views!! The cable car quickly ascended up the mountainside, which provided breathtaking views of the city.

SELFIE (by this time, the locals had gotten out of the car and I was alone, so no worries on me being embarrassing)

Last one

  • I took a walking tour (par for the course now), which happened to be the MOST FASCINATING walking tour I've ever taken. And I've taken a lot. So that says a lot. But seriously, some of the stories our guide told us about the city....cray.

Our first stop was the Witches' Market.  Nowadays, the Witches' Market is so touristy that they carry a bunch of tourist handicrafts and stuff, in addition to the traditional potions and paraphernalia, just because it's good business practice.

This is a traditional offering tray, called a mesa: you buy various dulces, or candies (non edible), to burn on the tray as offerings. Each dulce symbolizes something you're hoping for - whether it's love, or money, etc. Also I don't know if you noticed, but there's a dead baby llama fetus on this tray with yarn wrapped around its neck (Yes, it's real). Llamas are used as offerings for new construction; i.e. if you're building a house, you may bury the dead baby llama in the foundation as an offering to the gods to keep the builders safe, and for strength in construction.

This is a special god they pray to (which yes, looks like a fat white man) - whatever is hanging on him is what you hope for - be it $100 US bills, food, etc.

Some of the interesting natural remedies being sold in the Witches' Market.

That light pink building is the infamous San Pedro prison of La Paz - it sits in the middle of the city and IT'S CRAZY.  It's like its own little autonomous city inside the walls.  Some bizarre facts:
1. Apparently, you have to pay rent to stay in the prison (and there's different levels of housing you can live in - from nice, ritzy places to terrible slums).
2. There are no guards inside at all (and only a handful outside) - the prison basically runs itself, with its own businesses inside and its own forms of social justice for its prisoners, run by its prisoners (and this saves the gov't money!)
3. Everything is so corrupt that there was a point where an enterprising prisoner started smuggling tourists in and giving them tours of the prison as a way of earning extra money. It became a popular thing to do - the prisoners would simply pay off the outside guards to let the tourists in/out, and these prison tours became so well-known that it was even a suggested activity in the Lonely Planet at one point. Eventually, the gov't shut it down in 2012/2013
4. Coca-Cola sponsors all the prisoner-run restaurants inside the prison - in exchange for branding, they provide free chairs/umbrellas/etc. So you can only get Coke products inside the prison.
5. Some families of prisoners are allowed to live with the prisoners inside the prison (again, they have private apartments and stuff) - there are about 80 children living inside the prison today because they have an incarcerated parent. These kids are allowed in/out of the prison daily to attend the local city school, which is outside the prison.
6. Lots of illegal drug-producing (read: cocaine) activities go on inside (read: corruption)

This is the main city square and the seat of Bolivia's government (and tons of pigeons!)

This pink building is supposed to be the president's house - but no president has lived there since the year 1964. Because Bolivia has tons of uprisings, you see - and some pretty grisly things have happened there to former presidents due to angry mobs. So since then, presidents have refused to live there.

These people in zebra costumes are in charge of making sure people abide by the rules of the zebra stripes (which are what the crosswalks are called). How adorable is that?!?! The government pays people to dress up in zebra costumes to make sure cars and people are following crosswalk rules! 

This is a creepy haunted street (name forgotten), where unfaithful men have been known to disappear

View of the mountains from my hostel rooftop.

The main church, St. Francisco. The original founders of the church basically had to bribe/con/scare the indigenous people into coming to church at all (basically, the indigenous people weren't initially interested in attending church). 

  • After the walking tour, I asked the guide for a recommendation on somewhere for dinner - she gave me the names of three places she told me were traditional Bolivian. Man, oh man, I was not prepared for what they were. All three were huge, fake-Disney-on-crack restaurants with ridiculous themes, multiple floors, fluorescent desserts, and garish decor.  

First floor of the restaurant: jungle themed! Complete with workers in safari outfits.

The third floor was underwater-themed. It was seriously like a poor man's Disneyland. I can't believe this is a "traditional Bolivian restaurant."

And my meal? A giant kebab and fries.

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • There are urban legends (which our guide believes to be true) that take the burial of the dead baby llamas a step further. A dead baby llama is a good offering to the gods for the construction of a small building, sure - but are they enough for the construction of a large building?  There have been dark stories of human sacrifices being made for big construction projects (which involves burying someone alive under the foundation of a building as an offering) - usually homeless people, or someone who won't be missed as much. People in this part of the world are big believers in superstitions and making offerings to the gods, after all...
  • On that note, apparently the dead baby llamas used in the Witches' Market have all died of natural causes (like stillbirths or frozen to death, etc.).  They don't go around killing baby llamas to make sacrifices with.
  • There is a fascinating book called Marching Powder, written by a former prisoner of the San Pedro prison, that details life, the community, illegal activities, and everything else inside the infamous building. 


  1. So interesting! I can't wait to check out the Witches market!

    1. Right?? I can't wait to read your post on it too! =)

  2. The prison shpeal was so cool to learn about! BUT THE ZEBRA PEOPLE. They stole my heart <3

    1. RIGHT?? I will absolutely follow the rules of the zebra crossing if there's ADULTS DRESSED UP IN ZEBRA COSTUMES enforcing them!!! <3