I’ve always been intrigued by Bolivia, that landlocked country way up in the Andes. It’s one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world and has a very heavy indigenous presence, ingredients that usually combine to make for an interesting place to visit in my experience. Lately the country’s politics have gone extremely left, and the socialist president Evo Morales has been busy nationalizing, reforming, and generally taunting the United States in any way he can. How could anyone not want to see what things were like in such a place?
Other than a night in the border town of Copacabana, La Paz was our first stop in Bolivia. At an elevation of about 12,000ft it’s one of the highest capital cities in the world (technically it’s not the capital but the “seat of government”), and is apparently known as something of a suicide mission for breathless visiting lowland soccer teams.
La Paz has to be one of the most dramatic looking cities anywhere. It sits in a steep-sided valley with houses and buildings climbing up the sides, and is surrounded by snow capped mountains. It’s a picturesque mixture of high-rises and dilapidation, with an incoherent layout and impossible traffic. It’s filled with informal outdoor markets, crowds of people and noise and chaos everywhere, but somehow never felt overwhelming. There are giant protests and blockades all the time that bring the city to a standstill, and while we were there protesting miners threw small sticks of dynamite at the police. But all in all it was a fairly friendly place, and seemed surprisingly safe. We loved it.
We found an $8 room in a cheap hostel right in the center of town, and proceeded to walk all over the place for a few days, exploring and eating and dodging the impatient old ladies in bowler hats with their sharp elbows. There’s a famous “witches market” where you can buy dried llama fetuses and other such witchery supplies. It seemed a bit on the touristy side, but that didn’t stop Denae from buying am amulet from a business savvy pre-teen. Food was cheap and okay, with most of the street food consisting of hamburgers and fried stuff. Popcorn was available from street carts everywhere and practically free, so we almost always had a bag of it with us. Probably the most interesting street food was a drink made by pouring beer over whipped and sugared egg whites. It foams up heavily and is eaten with a spoon. It was very popular among people of all ages and coca cola and non-alcoholic beer were other options to pour over the stiff egg whites at some street stands.
At night things got very lively out in the streets despite the high altitude cold, and the crowds would be out shopping and mingling. It was a fun atmosphere and we had a great time strolling and eating popcorn, then stopping in for a coca tea somewhere. While we were in town we also visited the popular Coca Museum, which had some interesting displays and information about this notorious plant that is so important to many cultures here. We were given a free sample of leaves to chew along with the black goo made from quinoa that the locals use to help unlock the effects of the leaves. We packed our cheeks full and after twenty minutes or so ended up with numb mouths and a buzz similar to strong caffeine. I hadn’t known this before but that numbness was part of what made coca (and cocaine) so revolutionary to medicine back in the day; apparently it was the first local anesthetic, which was a pretty big deal. Before that trips to the dentist involved whiskey for pain management, not novacaine or lidocaine or other synthetic cocaines that are commonly used today.
We also made plans for an adventure just an hour outside of town: in the next post, mountain biking down The Worlds Deadliest Road.