Smelly, dirty, lovely La Paz, Bolivia

August 16, 2010 at 3:26 am 1 comment

Although La Paz is more likely to wake you up with a hangover and a chestful of fumes than pancakes with a side of bacon, it is an abolutely intoxicating city. Actually I think insane is the only word to decribe a place that is so simultaneously inviting and intimidating that it has to be seen to be believed. The first shock is of course, its size, only a fraction of which can be seen at a time. We, like all visitors to La Paz, caught our first sight of the city as we rounded the last mountain and started to descend into an entire sea of clay-coloured houses. Clinging to every rise and fall of the surrounding mountains below were houses, businesses, apartment blocks and government buildings somehow filling the impossibly large space, offering up one of South America’s most memorable sights.

But it’s not just on first sight that La Paz shocks, it surprises time and time again. Every time you walk down the street and an alleyway opens up to offer a glimpse of the crammed hill opposite or every time your taxi rounds a mountain to reveal more of city you thought just could not get any bigger, you involuntarily stop dead in your tracks and stare, dizzied by the magnitude of humanity. And with Bolivia, it’s never just run-of-the-mill humanity. Scattered among the shotgun-yeilding security guards and suit-clad office workers are the indigenous women with their tiny bowler hats balanced on their heads, their long pigtail plaits weighed down by huge black beads and their loads strapped to their backs with striped pink, blue and yellow blankets. More than size and more than the shock factor, La Paz has character.

Even in its buildings La Paz is packing an unexpected punch. Hidden within the folds of the city’s many red clay suburbs is its thriving centre. Here skyscrapers sit amiably alongside beautifully restored old colonial buildings which serve as the seat of government, the national gallery and the museum of contemporary art. The real key to the city however, is in the buildings you aren’t looking at. The facades that, although neglected and flaking, watch over La Paz like colourful old dames.

But Bolivia’s capital is a lot more than a strangely beautiful, weathered old face. La Paz is a hive of activity, an endless list of things to do – few of which you will read about in your Lonely Planet. For most travellers it will be remembered as a party zone. A place where you are woken up at 11am by dorm-mates clambouring into the top bunk, where you jump up on a table and sing your National Anthem, where you do something under the influence of alcohol that you swore you would never do. At the epicentre of backpacker’s La Paz are the two party hostels – Loki and Wild Rover – both, unsurprisingly, Irish-run operations that promise to show guests a time they will never remember. We had the good fortune to be put up by Osgar – a fantastic character and a friend of a friend – in a lovely double room (with hot water!) in Loki. After not really meeting any Irish people in 9½ months of travelling Loki came as a bit of a shock – every accent, every tone, every shouted insult was suddenly Irish. On our first night in the hostel we lay in bed listening to Fairytale of New York by the Pogues playing upstairs and as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Two days later we had been swallowed whole by a group of 10 hilarious Irish people and 2 fantastic Brits – goodbye peace and quiet, hello Ruta 36.

With enough time and money you can do anything you want in La Paz. Unfortunately we had neither of the above so a day trip to the famed San Pedro Prison, a prison run by the prisoners that welcomes tours of intrepid gringos for a few hours or even a cocaine-filled night, was out of the question. What we did do though, I am slightly ashamed to say, was sign up for a spot of hangover midget wrestling – hilariously non-PC except for that there were no midgets, just women in bowler hats pretending to take a beating from various masked men and referees. Was this what a Bolivian domestic looked like? The whole thing was so badly faked that it was funny for the first half an hour. The second was a little boring. The third was just plain awkward. As we came into our second hour in the arena/cattle shed we decided to stop exploiting the locals and get a taxi home. A disappointing day in all but at least we got some kick-ass wrestling masks out of it!

By night Loki and Irish Rover may reign supreme in La Paz but by day, backpackers flock in their hoardes to the city’s two huge markets – the Black Market and the Witches Market – an absolute haven of hard-core bargaining where for a couple of pennnies you can pick up some household goods, a North Face jacket, runners, an alpaca wool jumper, beautiful handcrafted jewellery, a magic potion or a dead llama foetus to bury under the porch of your new house.

When we arrived in La Paz, tired, sweaty and completely overwhelmed, we didn’t take to it immediately. It was dirty, hectic and in many places extremely smelly. Yet six days later with heads full of cotton wool, prickly hangover tongues, light wallets and heavy backpacks we were devastated to leave. While it may seem a little grubby at first, a little worn around the edges, if you give La Paz the time and attention it deserves it can show you the time of your life.

There are more photos from La Paz available in the
gallery

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Entry filed under: Travel. Tags: , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. joe  |  September 14, 2012 at 4:08 am

    reminds me of Zacatecas

    Reply

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