I am currently on my way from San Pedro in Chile to La Serena, a town a 20 hour bus ride down the coast. I’m extremely distracted because I keep thinking the man is bringing round a snack. Rumour has it, we may get empanadas but I’ll keep you updated. If you want to hear about our few days in La Paz, the most dangerous city in Bolivia, read on.
We had heard many things about La Paz and, quite frankly, none of them were good. Originally we were planning to by pass it altogether, but after three days on Isla Del Sol with no showers, wifi or electricity, we decided we needed a couple of nights in the city to firstly recharge my phone and make sure I wasn’t too behind on DuoLingo, and secondly doing the tasks normal people at home do, like, you know, showering and stuff.
We arrived by bus in the evening. The indigenous lady sat next to me had a caterpillar on her hat for the entire journey, and so, for my entire journey, I racked my brains and fumbled through my phrasebook, trying to work out how to say, ‘Excuse me, you have a caterpillar on your hat’ in Spanish. Eventually I just gave up, and, as I hate things that crawl, I spent the remaining five hours staring at the caterpillar our of the corner of my eye, in case it crawled onto me.
Before going to La Paz, we received many warnings from other travelers. The first piece of advice was to arrive during the day, not at night or when it was dark. The second, make sure you have somewhere booked.
We arrived at 7pm, it was pitch black, and we had no-where to stay.
Trying to ignore the niggling feeling that we were going to be robbed, we collected our bags from the bus and set about finding a taxi and then finding somewhere to stay. Luckily, the only taxi available when we got off the bus had a Loki Hostel sticker on its window. Whilst this seemed far to good to be true, we couldn’t afford to be fussy, so we threw our valuables into the car, screamed ‘YOLO’, then desperately tried to convince the taxi driver that we weren’t worth robbing.
As if we weren’t scared enough, the taxi driver then warned us about fake policeman who drive poor, unsuspecting Gringos to dangerous parts of the city and then rob them. We didn’t tell him that not only had we heard countless stories of taxi drivers doing the same thing, we also didn’t think there were particularly ‘dangerous’ parts of the city. Instead, the whole city seemed dangerous. At that point, I would rather have journeyed alone to Mordor than ventured into La Paz city centre.
But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 23 years of life experience, it’s to make sure you push yourself. Recalling the time I jumped to the fourth bar on the monkey bars at school when I was 9, and the liberation I felt doing so, I decided to give La Paz a chance, and besides, it’s not all doom and gloom in La Paz. The Germans we met in Cusco (the worst roommates in the world FYI) said they loved La Paz and got stuck for weeks. I struggle to trust travellers when they say they ‘got stuck’ anywhere, usually a code for ‘too lazy and hungover to leave’, and my fears were confirmed when I woke up at 1am to them sitting on my bed snorting coke.
Miraculously, we made it to Loki hostel possessions still in tact and with little sign of any criminal activity. I expected to see fake policemen robbing tourists left, right and centre, alongside the famous ‘mustard spill’ on the poor gringo’s clothing, but there was none of that. It seemed, in fact, just like a normal city. People were even out shopping with their children, and heaven forbid that you would take your child out in La Paz.
So, my point is, La Paz is beautiful and whilst I don’t have enough experience of it to describe it as ‘safe’, I wouldn’t start carrying pepper spray or duct taping your passport to your thigh just yet. Granted, two of the times we ventured out in La Paz were with guides (one walking tour and one tour of the incredible cable cars), but we also managed to make it to a cash point unscathed.
On our final day in the city we had an extremely healthy lunch at a vegan restaurant called ‘Nama Ste’. Whilst I generally detest vegan restaurants, I had quinoa soup which is actually extremely popular in Bolivia as everyone just loves quinoa, so don’t be hating on me too much, I’m still a carnivore at heart. Maybe I’ll go home and start snorting chia seeds, drizzling almond milk on everything and soaking my overnight oats in macha powder, who knows? I’ll keep you updated. The beauty of veganism is that you’re required to tell everyone about it.
For our cable car tours I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad we had a guide to wander round the city of El Alto with, which is basically a more terrifying and higher altitude version of La Paz. The four of us doing the tour were picked up from Loki hostel, evidently we can’t go anywhere alone, where the guide introduced herself and then confidently informed us that the cost of the tour didn’t include the tip. Welcome to Bolivia.
Next she told us that one of the three cable cars was closed today. Obviously, being Bolivia, we weren’t told this when we paid for all 3 cable cars, and whilst staring at some clouds the guide told us that ‘usually you can see the beautiful mountain but today is a bad day to do the tour’. Cool. Fab. Thanks a lot.
I just got distracted because the man on the bus came round with his clipboard and I thought he was going to be asking if we wanted vegetarian or meat empanadas (obviously meat) for our snack, but it turns out he wasn’t and now the dream of empanadas is slowly slipping away.
The other thing I should probably mention about La Paz is the altitude. It’s the highest capital city in the world and a lot higher than any ski resort you may have been to. The result of this is vomiting (if you’re Matt) and an extremely unsettled stomach alongside a blinding headache (if you’re me). Coupled with the more common effects of altitude; exhaustion and virtually no motivation to do anything other than lie in bed with a pack of frozen peas on your face, it doesn’t make for a fun few days. But, we handled it, although my sole piece of advice would be don’t even think about flying into La Paz, because you honestly won’t even know what’s hit you, and I can tell you now that what has hit you is most definitely not oxygen.
We also visited the famous witch market on our city tour. This is an interesting experience and probably not one I want to repeat.Dead llamas hang from the ceilings of the stores at varying degrees of decay, meaning the whole store smells like, well. dead llamas. There are various spell potions to make people love you, or make all your dreams come true, so if anyone wants something like that then give me a shout, and I’ll try to get it through customs.
All in all, I wouldn’t write La Paz off your Bolivia travel itinerary. Whilst the buildings are all the same dull red, the vegan food is terrible and there are armed guards outside every ATM, La Paz does have some hidden gems. It has Gothic cathedrals, a clock which tells the wrong time in protest of…everything, and some beautiful markets. If you want to hang out with some coke snorting Germans, La Paz is your place.
I would quickly like to apologize for the lack of photos in this blog post, I was too scared to take my camera out.