Our biggest news of the moment is that we got sick. We both got some kind of parasite and got completely destroyed for about a week. We’d looked forward to spending a few days in La Paz, but ended up staying here for 8 days, most of them in bed and/or staggering to/from the bathroom. Our hostel set us up with a nice doctor who happened to speak english and he got us all sorted out and de-parasited. Despite that nasty ordeal, I really fell in love with La Paz and wish we’d had more time here!
Anyway, we arrived in La Paz on an overnight bus from Tupiza, getting in very tired at 6:00 on a Sunday morning. We expected to find the town quiet at this hour, but as soon as we walked out the front door we found ourselves in the middle of a parade. We wandered on down to the huge Iglesia de San Francisco and were immediately overwhelmed by traffic, mothers carrying babies, vendors selling everything, churchgoers and heaving, colorful crowds of all kinds.
For me, this seems like quintessential La Paz. Everywhere we went, it was always wildly chaotic, festive, crowded and crazy with colors and decorative details. A large percentage of the population of La Paz are indigenous people from various groups (the two main indigenous languages spoken are Amayra and Quechua, but I think there are a wide variety of different groups represented), and that gives the city a flavor distinctly different from any other city I know. La Paz is incredibly high up (around 3600 meters elevation!) and very cold, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides, even in summer. The city is set on mountainsides and all the streets are steep, which makes it slow going for foreigners unaccustomed to the lack of oxygen at this elevation. The main street, El Prado, basically follows the bottom of the valley that forms the city, while the city climbs up the hillsides and mountains on either side. No matter where you are in the city, to get to the main street, you just walk downhill.
The architecture is a mixture of really elaborately decorative old buildings and modern, shiny towers. The part of the city where we stayed, downtown, has a really old feel – beautiful historic buildings, some newly painted but many with a deeply worn texture, centuries of peeling paint and wear. The textiles here are incredible, there is so much talent and tradition in the elaborate and bright textiles that are used and sold everywhere.
We ended up being in La Paz at a really festive time; while we were sick, President Evo Morales was inaugurated for his second term in office. The first day, he attended a summit of indigenous nations just outside of La Paz and did a formal and very festive all-day inauguration ceremony there. Evo Morales is the first ever president of indigenous heritage (all the previous leaders of Bolivian were of European descent) in a nation that is predominantly indigenous, so his appearance at this summit was an important first. The second day, he was formally inaugurated in the government building in La Paz, and the party moved in to the city. From our hospital room we saw bits of the ceremony on the TV and on the second day we heard parades drumming and marching through the streets outside our window.
Then Sunday we were feeling better and tried to head out to see some museums, but it turned out to be another holiday, Alsitas, January 24th, a Bolivian holiday where you buy miniature versions of things that you hope to have in the coming year. Tiny houses, tiny stacks of dollars, tiny cars, tiny food, etc! When we wandered out towards the main square in La Paz, we found the streets choked with vendors selling tiny toy EVERYTHING – there were tiny buses, tiny vegetables, even tiny masters’ degrees! It was impossible to get around and visit museums, but it was exciting to see all the action. Every vendor had a pile of hot coals burning, and it seemed like the thing to do was buy your miniatures, toss some incense or scented wood on the coals, and wave your miniature bounty in the smoke for good luck. We saw a few statues around town of Ekeko, the Bolivian god of abundance.
the one museum we managed to visit was really cool: the Museum of Musical Instruments on Calle Jaen. They had tons of crazy and interesting Bolivian and world instruments, and they had a great section where you can play instruments! I really loved the traditional ceremonial dancers’ masks too.
Other noteworthy stuff in La Paz: the Witches’ Market, where you can buy potions and incenses claiming to cure any problem from indigestion to poverty to a broken heart. They also sell a lot of dried llama fetuses, which are apparently supposed to be buried near the foundations of your home for good luck.
And “Cholita” wrestling, which is like a Bolivian version of Mexican wrestling, with the twist that some of the wrestlers are ladies, dressed up in the traditional skirt-braids-and-bowler-hat outfits that most of the indigenous women wear here. The whole event was really silly, but fun to watch.