La Paz: Where old and new converge

I’m afraid I’ve gotten a little behind on the blog postings.  Guess that’s what happens when you whirl through a country in one week. That’s right. We spent a total of one week in Bolivia which means we really didn’t do it justice. However, at this point in our travels, things are starting to look very similar in each South American country we visit – landscape, geography, economy, architecture, people, food, etc. Of course there are subtle differences, but we don’t feel the need to visit every single city or hike every mountain or volcano to discern such differences. We have the gist of it now.  Rather, we want to focus on the “must see” or “must do” aspects of each country.  In Bolivia, we wanted to tour the Salt Flats.


But before I get to that (in the next post), we had a few days to discover La Paz (population 2 million), the defacto capital of Bolivia.  As you enter La Paz, you can’t help but be impressed by its size and its geographic location.  First, you pass through the slums that go on as far as the eye can see.  You may think this is the city until you realize you are only on the the rim of the valley in which the entire city is sprawled out.  It was quite astonishing to see this vast city sitting in a “bowl” surrounded by the high mountains of the altiplano. As the city grows, the city climbs the hills, resulting in varying elevations from 3,000 m to 4,100 m (9,840 ft to 13,450 ft).

When we arrived in La Paz we were overwhelmed by the chaos – the people, the traffic, the markets – the city was hustling and bustling at all hours of the day.  The streets were steep, far steeper than any street I walked in San Francisco, and the altitude was high, making for a lot of huffing and puffing as we probed the various neighbourhoods close to our centrally located hostel.

Old man with basket walking up steep street.

Hang on to those bananas!

The city was one of contrasts from modern, imposing high rise buildings to abject poverty as evidenced by the women with very young children, even infants, begging on the streets late into the night, a troubling sight.  Just when you felt you should do something, then you caught sight of another mother on the next corner, and another, and another.  Maybe I’m becoming cynical, but I suspected that these women were strategically choosing their locations to target tourists returning to their hotels after dinner. One could hardly fault these women though.  I’m sure they would have preferred to be in a cozy home with their children tucked safely in bed rather than sitting on the cold side walk begging late into the night. It was a reflection of the suffocating poverty that choked the majority of the population and a visible reminder that Bolivia is indeed the poorest country in South America.

A main boulevard with manicured pedestrian
walkway in the middle.

Typical building in state of disrepair.

A modern high rise.
San Francisco Church, founded in 1548 and rebuilt 1784.
The Witches Market (Mercado de Brujas)

The illusion of a sophisticated city was shattered when we stepped into the side streets and discovered a market offering everything a witch could possibly need, like shriveled llama fetuses, dried frogs, dried armadillos, concoctions of dried plants and teas, and a wide variety of ceramic figures.  It was fascinating to see these strange and exotic objects and one couldn’t help but wonder what they were used for.  Well, why don’t I tell you.

  • Dried llama fetuses:  These are placed under the foundation of a house when it is being built for good luck.  Apparently, an estimated 99% of Bolivian families have a dried llama under their feet.  It’s a good business to be in.
  • Burnt llama fetus (presented on a plate of sweets and herbs): Ensures good luck for a new business venture.
  • Dried frogs: Brings prosperity and if you stick a cigarette in your frog’s mouth, your chances of striking it rich will increase.
  • Bolivian armadillos: Forget ADT Security. Stick one above the entrance to your house, and it will prevent thieves from entering
  • Amulette d’amor (ceramic couple embracing): Use one of these to get hitched although I’m not quite sure how you use it.
  • Naked ceramic couples: These are supposed to improve your sex life, rectify impotency, and increase fertility.

Basket of llama fetuses.

A tray of good luck potions.
(with instructions on the side)

Something for everyone.

Everything a backpacker could possibly want.

One Big Market

Unlike other towns and cities we have visited, we couldn’t find a central market.  This may be because the entire city appears to be one big market where vendors set up their mats or stalls with their wares covering every inch of every side walk, often spilling into the streets.  Streets were dedicated to certain products or services.  Want a suit? Then visit the suit street.  A pair of shoes for the suit? Yes, go to the shoe street. Some streets just looked like one big flea market with stall after stall of merchandise.  I have never seen so much stuff for sale.  Imagine all the products in Wal Mart laid out on a side walk on small tables and then multiply that by about 50. At times the streets turned into a maze of stalls each leading to yet another street of stalls.  It was easy to get lost amongst the utter confusion.

Closed on Sunday.

One afternoon, we headed in the opposite direction of the tourist district to try to get more of a feel for where the locals hang out.  As we meandered through the maze of stalls, we stumbled upon what we believed to be the black market.  This was where knock offs and counterfeits and all sorts of illegalities were the order of the day. The entire street seemed dark and sinister, like a black cloud had settled over this notorious black market district. People conducted their business in a hushed and subdued manner. Ironically, this market which mainly featured electronic goods was in the shadows of the adjacent street that prominently advertised legitimate electronic goods from well known companies like Sony, Samsung, LG, etc.

Legitimate electronics stores.

Come shopping with us for a few minutes!

Aside from all the every day products sold on every street corner, La Paz was overflowing with artisan shops targeting the tourist dollar.  We spent some time browsing the kaleidoscope of colorful textiles and purchased a couple of warm hats in preparation for our visit to the Salt Flats.  I also bought a scarf that I just love.  Things were dirt cheap – $3 bought you a warm, hand-knit hat or scarf made of alpaca wool.  We were so tempted to buy a textile wall hanging to ship home, but in the end we decided not to.

Typical indigenous clothing.

Showing off my new scarf.

A Local Food Fair

Every single meal we had in Bolivia was delicious.  We tended to stick to the tourist restaurants which we don’t usually do, but I think we were ready for some recognizable food.  We ate amazing Indian food that would have rivalled any British curry house.  We thought we had died and gone to heaven as we savoured melt in your mouth bacon wrapped filet mignon brochettes served with potatoes that had been fried in bacon – yes real bacon – and onions, accompanied with a plate full of wonderful vegetables.  We ate mouth-watering pasta and pizza.  I know, nothing Bolivian.  But with such a fine array of international cuisine to choose from, we just couldn’t resist.

Enjoying the local brew.

We did enjoy one afternoon of cultural cuisine when we stumbled upon a Food Fair which provided a forum for local restaurants to showcase their best cuisine.  This was not a tourist attraction, in fact, we were the only visible tourists amongst the entire crowd.  We stuck to what was recognizable and were impressed with the quality of the food on offer. Throwing caution to the wind, we lined up for something that we couldn’t really recognize, although we could tell it was some kind of meat.  When it was our turn, the servers looked at us skeptically and then suggested they give us just a little taste to see if we liked it. Under their watchful eyes, I took one small bite of the meat and it was all I could do to swallow it.  It was awful!  With a straight face, I offered it to Chris – here honey, you should give this a try. Unsuspecting, he took a bite and I could tell right away that he was ready to gag.  Politely, we handed the plate back to the servers, shaking our head, and with a “no, gracias” and a “sorry”, we gave that place a big pass.  I think they were serving tongue – that was the shape of the meat – although I don’t know whose tongue it was!

Entrance to the food fair.

Fancy vegetable art.

Food samples – yummy!

Dancing in the Streets

It seems South Americans are always celebrating something and La Paz was no exception.  The sound of a marching band in the distance drew us to the location of a local parade in full swing.  This was a great opportunity to legitimately take pictures of the beautiful costumes which we had been admiring on the local indigenous women ever since we arrived.  The smell of booze mixed with urine permeated the street as the parade passed by.  Liquor and beer were being consumed openly in copious quantities by both the parade participants and those watching from the sidelines.  We discovered why the smell of urine is so prevalent in this city – men and boys alike use the side walks and streets as urinals whenever the need arises!

  Dancing in the streets

Money Woes

Our last afternoon in La Paz was spent frantically trying to get money from the notoriously unreliable bank machines.  Only the day before, I had withdrawn the full limit allowed with my bank card so I was surprised that my card didn’t work at any of the dozen or so ATMs we tried the next day.  Chris’ card didn’t work at all, in fact, we realized it hadn’t worked for about 10 days or so.

Finally we contacted our bank to see if perhaps they had put a hold on our cards.  Sure enough, Chris’ card had been frozen since we entered Peru, and mine had just been frozen that day.  What a hassle. And here we had thought the bank machines were at fault.  Well, they were some of the time, but not all of the time.  We got our cards sorted out just before we had to leave for our overnight bus to Uyuni where we would start the tour of the Salt Flats.

Our new toques from La Paz served us well on the
Salt Flats – but more about that in the next post.

Category: Bolivia, South America
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4 Responses
  1. Maureen Parry Smith says:

    Hi Chrisies, Have just enjoyed the mooch thro the colourful and crowded Le Pas Market with you!Affluence and poverty,the latter pushing and carrying great loads twice the size of themselves. I love all the bright and gaudy materials,scarfs,crafts,vegetable art,the women’s gay and flouncy skirts etc ANd the witches stand just highlights it all with it’s gruesome paraphernalia to keep evils away.The whole atmospher,hustle & bustle and not forgetting the smells just highlighted it all! Thank you Christina for educating me on how the other half lives.When David was in Caracus he was appalled by the poverty there and was pestered to buy a child! I love both of your hats.Enjoyed your trip around the Galapagos islands in your luxury cataraman yacht and enjoying the whales,sharks,dolphins,birds.swimming and snorkelling.etc Happy XMas love Maureen

    • christina says:

      Hi Aunt Maureen,
      Glad to hear that you’re reading our blog and enjoying it. It’s very strange to be spending Christmas here – again many contradictions. Sunshine, warmth and palm trees just don’t align with my idea of Christmas. We just spent one night in a city called La Serena and we were surprised to see the streets and stores full of people doing their Christmas shopping wearing t-shirts and sandals of course. We came across a mall that rivalled any in Canada, even nicer than most in Ottawa. It was all decked out in Christmas decorations, there were line ups at the cash registers and the parking lot was overflowing with nice cars – no different from what we would see in Ottawa this time of year. Anyways, nice to hear from you. Have a wonderful Christmas, and stay tuned, we’ve got lots more adventures coming our way – the big focus now is getting down to the bottom of Chile where we plan to do a big hike in Patagonia. Take care, lots of love, Christina

  2. sonja says:

    Love the scarf!! looking forward to the salt flats report,


    • christina says:

      Hi Son,
      Thanks! We’re working on the salt flats post but its going slow as we’re on the road again. We’re heading to Santiago today (7 hrs by bus) where we will be in a nice apartment for a week over Christmas. That will give us some time to catch up a bit. We’re loving Chile. It’s more refined, more advanced than the other countries we’ve been in thus far but of course this comes at a price, quite literally. Everything is much more expensive, almost the same prices as at home. Budget is taking a bit of a hit as a result. Take care. Chris