The 11 hours bus ride to La Paz from Uyuni was hellish. The roads were bad, the broken seats did not recline and it was cramped even for a really petite person like me. The toilet stank and it was freezing cold inside the bus. My intense dislike for Uyuni and rash decision to escape from there had resulted in the horrible bus ride. My Uyuni group member, Claudia and I had stupidly believed the travel agent when she sold us the bus tickets to La Paz. She had promised that it would be a cama (sleeper) bus and just like every Bolivian infamous bus company agent, had lied blatantly.
The 24 Septembre bus company turned out to be the worst among the bad transport companies in Bolivia and it was a long, cold night. The bus constantly broke down and all the passengers huddled out in the cold as it got repaired. Once moving, maniacal driving on high mountain roads made it lurch and break down again soon. We were really high somewhere in the Bolivian Antiplano (Highland) and it was pitch black outside. We could not even see our hands in front of us in the darkness but the freezing cold reminded us of our high altitude. The road was invisible and we had no idea of its condition. So needless to say, every time the bus lurched I broke out in cold sweat and did not get a wink of sleep that night.
The shabby suburbs of El Alto arrived early in the morning and Mt Illimani sparkled in the silvery light. I got off at the busy bus station and calmed my nerves over a steaming cup of coffee. The bus stop was throbbing with life and in spite of being really cold, was fully functioning. Beggars, porters, Bolivian families, fluffy stray dogs, girthful elegant cholitas and bewildered tourists strolled around in the morning light. Everybody was engaged in some constant motion and the station hummed with busy buying, selling, minding, yelling, eating, queuing, bargaining, begging and stealing. The coffee soothed me nicely and I walked out of the bus station to slowly climb uphill. Hotels, restaurants and shops lined the winding roads and homes branched off deeper into the lanes, away from the main thoroughfare.Traffic was light and after 11 hours of cramped legs, I needed the walk badly.
A nice homey sign on a quiet side lane attracted my attention and I checked into the peaceful Residencial Latino. It was housed in a lovely old colonial building with signature white washed walls and high wooden beamed ceiling. A nice sunny patio, free fast wifi and an exalted hot shower came with it and I nearly cried out in joy. I rushed to my room, stripped as fast as possible and sat under the steaming hot shower till I nearly fell asleep. That was my most enjoyable La Paz moment and I can vividly recollect the relieving feeling of that hot shower even today. I stayed in La Paz for 3 days and regretfully did not do much justice to the beautiful city. Still bone tired and culture difference weary, I wasted away my time in the city by eating, sleeping, reading and occasionally wandering around.
La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia and home of the infamous city within a city San Pedro prison. San Pedro used to host prison tours until a young Australian writer busted them through his book, “Marching Powder” and brought them under worldwide public glare. At 4058 meters above sea level, La Paz is the world’s highest national capital and built in a bowl. The city slowly descends into the Choqueyapu River canyon and the affluence meter runs in reverse in La Paz. The rich live at the warm bottom of the bowl at the tree lined Prado while the wind swept shanty town of El Alto circles the top.
My La Paz days were again a lazy repeat of Sucre time and my most energetic activity involved walking around in small parts of the sunny picturesque city and consuming massive bowls of fruit salads. La Paz was unlike any other city I had ever been and it was definitely the highest. A strong Aymara base, La Paz streets are filled with regal looking cholitas and their strange black magic markets. Aymaras are native indigenous Andean and South American Antiplano/Highland natives and although conquered by Incas and Spaniards many years ago, they still stubbornly maintain the unique individuality of their culture and language. Cholita is a colloquial word meaning a young woman but have come to be broadly used for Aymara and indigenous ladies. Traditional cholita attire is very photogenic and includes voluminous skirts (pollera), frilly shawls, long twin braids and signature bowler hats. La Paz was filled with cholitas and although they make one of world’s most photogenic subjects, photographing them is not easy. Like most traditional indigenous people they are camera wary, believe that photographs steal their souls and do not like their photos being taken.
Cholitas’ uniqueness enticed me a lot and attempts to photograph them drew me out of my cozy hotel room in La Paz. I used to trail them hopefully throughout the strange Witches Market, wandering between grisly dried llama foetuses, black magic trinkets and huge mounds of fruits and vegetables. Witches Market was a distraction in itself and I used to photograph shamelessly till the fierce cholitas used to shoo me away.
Located in the middle of the lively touristy area near Sagarnaga, the Witches’ Market of La Paz can be best described as bizarre. Vendors selling herbs, folk remedies, armadillos, desiccated llama fetuses and dried frogs for Aymara rituals line the market and strange soapstone figurines and aphrodisiac formulas stare back at stunned disturbed visitors. Llama fetuses are always buried in the foundations of new constructions or businesses as a cha’lla (offering) to the goddess Pachamama, since as per Aymara rituals llama sacrifice encourages the goddess to protect the workers from accidents and bring good luck to the business.
The fetuses however are used only by the poor because moneyed Bolivians sacrifice live llamas to Pachamama. The market was also a favourite haunt of the fearsome yatiri (witch doctors) and their distinguishable getup of dark hats and coca pouches, used to always remind me of the countless holy men back home. They were more camera friendly than their afflicted patients but demanded crazy sums of money for posing for photographs.
My La Paz wanderings were limited only to the Witches Market and it was sheer laziness which made me miss out most of its beautiful colourful streets. The high altitude also did not make walking around La Paz very easy and it rained incessantly for 2 days. Cold set in more fiercely and made me long for warm weather. So one cold rainy morning over a bowl of steaming onion soup I decided to leave La Paz for the warm amazonian jungles of Rurrenabaque. I gave up my mindless staring at the mighty cholitas, bought an all inclusive day trip to Lake Titicaca and a return air ticket to Rurrenabaque. La Paz could wait for my return and hopefully the skies would clear out by that time.
So I gave San Pedro prison amiss, left the city’s juice shops and food scene behind and happily went back to my room to dream of my upcoming tropical jungle adventure.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE