Around and about in La Paz

14 Jul, 2011 | Sarah Lund

Culture

Follow Sarah Lund on a free ramble through the sights, sounds, smells and surprises of the Bolivian capital.

The city of La Paz climbs up the surrounding mountainsides and you’ll have to climb yourself in order to enjoy its many splendours. At 3,660m the city offers some impressive views. Wherever you are, you will be able to discern the landmark in the La Paz’s horizon - the three-peaked and always snowcapped Mount Illimani. At night the city lights create a carpet of glittering stars against the black hillsides.

Down in the streets you might be overwhelmed by the swarm of buses, cars, stray dogs, police, children, guards, modern office towers, street performers and road vendors. Old smoky school buses defy gravity as they fight their way up and down the steep and crooked hills of this jumbled city. ‘Voceadores’ hang out the windows of the public minibuses, shouting out destinations and competing for road space and customers among the honking taxis, “trufis” (shared cabs) and trucks. Minibuses are available everywhere and cost just 1.50 to 2.30 Bs per journey. Remember to ask for directions. A taxi usually costs 8-15 Bs, though can be more expensive late at night. Tourists are advised to only use those cabs that are marked ‘Radio taxi’.

Up here in this beautiful and perfectly formed chaos between the Andes the streets are filled with all the world’s products - you can have your keys copied in a few seconds by men working at old turning machines. You can purchase a bicycle wheel, find household items, pasta, fresh cheese, CDs or Coca leaves, spoil yourself with beautiful handmade alpaca woollies or pick up a dead llama. The so-called Black Market, starting at the intersection of Calle Max Paredes and Calle Graneros is a vibrant maze of abundance. Here you might meet a teenage model side by side with butchers removing the entrails of a freshly killed pig.

If this city crowd makes you hungry, go grab an empanada, a salteña or an ice cream cone for a few Bs from one of the countless vendors whose small businesses line the streets. Whether you’re after a kilo of mandarins or a handful of bananas (for just 1 Boliviano), you will always find an amazing selection of fresh produce, and when your thirst strikes, can you enjoy a freshly squeezed pineapple, orange or banana juice from one of the small stalls offering every fruit imaginable.

You’ll find a cholita sitting at each puesto. These conspicuous caceras, in their traditional colourful skirts that sway from side to side, with their long black braids, fringed scarves and small bowler hats spend the day until sunset selling their wares while their babies sleep in a pink bundle of blankets on their backs. At the end of the day they pack their entire business into a huge shawl and struggle home with it - only to return the following morning.

Get your shoes polished and meet a zebra

You can get your shoes, sneakers or sandals polished for just 2 Bs by the ‘lustrabotas’. These extremely poor boys and men run around everywhere in their balaclavas, carrying their equipment and very eager to polish your shoes. They are also happy to offer you a copy of their newspaper, “El Hormigón Armado,” (see p.10) which costs 4 Bs, the profits from which go towards supporting them to have a better and more dignified life. If you want to visit their organisation and headquarters you can do so and at the same time enjoy a cup of coffee at ‘El Centro de Arte y Cultura Boliviana’ (on Av. Ecuador)

El Prado is La Paz’s central promenade. Here you’ll find larger shops or restaurants selling La Paz’s favourite fast food - pollo (chicken) prepared in 30 different ways, as well as shoe shops and many Internet and telephone cabinas. While walking around exploring new arrivals should take it slow so the altitude doesn’t get the better of you. Stop for a rest at the Plaza San Francisco, the old colonial church at the top end of El Prado. This area is a hub for traffic, office workers, vendors, and the novel zebras who accompany children, tourists and other pedestrians safely across the road. Waving their stop and go signs and dancing around in their endearing black and white costumes, they are an entertaining counterpart to the armed and uniformed police guards, who make efforts to regulate the busy traffic with their dogs, hand signals and whistles. In La Paz, it is also easy to get lost among large groups of shouting protesters in front of government buildings on El Prado. Many demonstrations take place in La Paz and several times a day you can notice the loud ‘pang pang’ of their cannon fireworks.

Lose yourself in a riot of colours - and buy a dead llama

Climb the charming Sagarnaga Street behind the San Francisco church and you will suddenly find yourself in the middle of an exotic colourfest of hand knitted goods, often but not always genuinely alpaca, as well as leatherwork and a sumptuous selection of jewellery. It is always possible to bargain the price a bit.

Suddenly you meet a strange smell of incense and a llama hung dangling from a stands’ tarp covering. You’ve come to the infamous Calle de las Brujas or witches’ market, where you can find everything a witch might need. Located on Calle Linares between Jimenez and Sagarnaga Streets and Santa Cruz, the vendors here sell folk remedies, soapstone figures, aphrodisiac formulas, dried herbs, dried insects and frogs. You can buy dried llama foetuses in all sizes, which are used as offerings to the goddess Pachamama (Mother Earth).

Up high in El Alto or down towards Zona Sur

If you continue down El Prado, keeping sight of Illimani in the distance, you will arrive at the beautiful, quieter area of Sopocachi. Here the atmosphere is different to the older part of town, and you’ll find many modern cafes with WiFi and a variety of international menus. Two different supermarkets offer a wide selection of local and imported goods. In the beautiful Plaza Avaroa you can take a rest overlooking an architectural mix of tall glass buildings alongside ancient colonial beauties. Here you might meet the local ‘malabaristas’ - jugglers who entertain motorists at the street intersections. Children can play in the playground and you can grab a coffee to go at Alexander’s Coffee - La Paz’s answer to Starbucks.

Continuing downhill you find the city’s main bridge, Puente de las Americas, which unites the city’s two parts. Walk across the bridge and take in the stunning panoramic view over the city. You can also take a steep hike up to the highest view point, El Mirador Montículo, an ideal and popular place to photograph the city from, as well as enjoy a rest in the shade.

South of La Paz city centre is Zona Sur, the wealthier part of town. This area has blossomed in the last 30 years and contains shopping centers with expensive brands and fine restaurants and hotels.

Diametrically opposed and 500 metres higher up in the mountains, the suburb of El Alto is closer to the clouds and its long streets are buzzing. This much poorer area is peppered with markets and shops selling white goods, traffic signs, tools and industrial machinery. The atmosphere is more chaotic and intense - a fascinating sight and worth a visit during the daytime. One sees no tourists - but this part of town gives a more realistic picture of the locals’ living conditions.

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