All of sudden we heard a lot of noise down on the street so Bret went to our balcony to check it out. Coming around the corner were 30 plus police officers cruising down the street in three pickup trucks, grabbing anything they could get their hands on from the unsuspecting store owners.
We arrived in La Paz after a three-hour bus and ferry journey from Copacabana. When researching our South American part of this trip, I had read a lot about the bus rides, cruising at crazy high speeds around windy roads with steep cliff drops off to the side. Up until now, I had been pretty lucky to only feel a tiny bit uncomfortable about these trips.
We boarded the tourist bus in Copacabana at 1:30pm (in Bolivia I am doing my best to avoid the night buses!). It was a bus that seated about 30 or so people with wheels that looked like they belonged on a VW beetle and I tried my best not to notice how bald the tyres were. Even if I didn’t want to board the bus, I really had no other choice.
The journey started off nice and slow as the bus seemed to barely make it up the winding hills. I was relaxed and enjoying the scenery for the first ten minutes or so . . . until we got over the hills. The bus picked up speed and the driver didn’t seem to slow down for any of the hairpin turns or care that he was driving all over the road, like he was the only vehicle using it . I sat there staring out the window, trying not to think about us rolling over the cliff into the valley below. After about fifteen minutes of deep breathing, sweaty palms and thoughts of my life ending on a tourist bus in Bolivia, Bret noticed my uneasiness and tried to comfort me. It worked for a minute or two but I had to break out the iPod. My old Jack Johnson playlist didn’t seem to help one bit. I just had to sit and bare it and come to terms with the fact that I might just die in Bolivia – at least I would die in the midst of a round the world trip?
After an hour, we made it to where we get off the bus and take a quick ferry across the lake. It was a relief to be off that bus, even if it was only for twenty minutes. Once we re-boarded, I settled into my seat with my iPod and managed to stay quite relaxed. I think accepting the fact that once I’m on the bus, things are out of my control, it made the crazy drive easier. Luckily the second part of the journey was on a much straighter road. The driver continued to drive at speeds that felt far too much for the bus and its tiny wheels but I felt much more comfortable on the straight road. Once we finally arrived in La Paz, we decided on a chill night at a little Cuban restaurant.
We spent four days exploring La Paz. Our first day saw us checking out the witches market, where stores sell everything from herbs to aphrodisiac formulas to dried frogs and llama fetuses. I had heard about the llama fetuses but was thinking miniature ones kept in little bottles, where in fact, they are actual dead baby llamas in many different sizes! They are often buried in new construction as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and are believed to bring good luck.
We also walked up to San Pedro prison, the one featured in a book both Bret and I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, Marching Powder. Back in the day it was fairly easy to tour the prison with an inmate (usually foreign). From the research we did, we found out that there is a super secret special backwards way of getting in for a tour but we thought we could find enough trouble without putting ourselves inside a Bolivian prison. Instead, we opted to do a lap around it. We didn´t see much but it was quite interesting to me that right across the street was a pretty nice plaza as well as a few nice looking hotels. Around the back of the prison is an entire street of little shack stores selling mostly booze. And at very reasonable prices. The prisoners family members are able to bring the alcohol inside the prison when they visit.
Saturday night we decided it was time to get out and experience La Paz´s nightlife. As usual, we were budget conscious and started with a few drinks in our pretty decent hostel room. I had read about a hostel that was also a brew pub, serving up beer that wasn´t lager or pilsner, so we had to check out. We made our way there, getting lost a few times, which turned what should have been a ten minute walk into a thirty minute walk. When we finally arrived we made our way up the five flights of stairs, which at this altitude (3,650m/11,975ft) feels like running a half marathon! Juuuuust as we took our last step to the top floor rooftop terrace/bar area, the lights went out. That´s it folks! It´s barely gone 10pm on a Saturday night and we are done! Damn, what a cruel trick.
We were more than ready for a cold beer after that long ass walk to the bar and up all those stairs so we jumped in a cab and headed for Mongo´s, a bar we had heard pretty good things about (except for the fact that the staff are known to overcharge tourists). When we got there it was fairly quiet but it was a really nice bar. Fireplaces, candles, chill house music. We settled in for a few beers but after a while, it didn´t really get going so we decided to walk around to see if we could find something a little more popping. Bret went to settle the bill, and sure enough, we were being had. The bartender tried to overcharge us by about 20 Bolivianos. Lucky Bret was on it and set him straight.
The next hour or so we spent wandering around, looking for fun. But to no avail. We finally decided to head back to our neighborhood and check out, yep, The Hard Rock Cafe! Believe it or not, we had heard it can get pretty crazy on the weekends so we thought why not. We lined up to get in but quickly changed our mind when we got to the door and they were going to charge us 60 Bolivianos each just to get in! Which to be honest, is only about ten US dollars but it´s also four or five large beers in Bolivia. At that point we decided to find some food and call it a night as there was not much within a short walking distance. The hunt for food ended in disaster as we ended up on our bed in the hostel, eating two-minute noodles. Night out in La Paz = epic fail!
The next morning we were luckily enough to stumble upon some kind of street parade. From what we could make out, it looked like a graduation festival. Kids that looked around 12-13 were dressed up and dancing down the streets. Fireworks, smoke bombs, and street food were plentiful.
Sunday night in La Paz is wrestling night! Cholitas Wrestling that is. The night out was organized by our hostel. We were picked up around 3:30pm and made our way out to the neighborhood of El Alto. Apparently we were VIP and were seated ringside. I am not usually into wrestling and don´t understand it much but this was quite entertaining. I think the highlight of the wrestling night is when the Cholitas “fight”. I was expecting Cholita vs. Cholita but it was mostly Cholita vs. some kind of male wrestler. Very interesting night indeed. It ended fairly early and we met up with Alison and Mike, an Irish couple we had met in Copacabana for dinner, Thai of all things.
Our last day in La Paz was pretty chill. We spent the morning walking to the other side of town to check out Mirador Killi Killi (a lookout over the city). After that we felt pretty content with our exploration of the city so we headed back to our hostel for a chill afternoon. The chill afternoon turned out to have a little excitement. All of sudden we heard a lot of noise down on the street so Bret went to our balcony to check it out. Coming around the corner were 30 plus police officers cruising down the street in three pickup trucks, grabbing anything they could get their hands on from the unsuspecting store owners. There was a lot of shouting, shoving and slapping going on but it never turned too violent. Bret, loving all of the commotion ordered me to grab the camera so he could get a video. Unfortunately the SD card was almost full and we only got a few seconds of the action.
I was deeply disturbed by the police officers actions and just couldn´t understand why they would drive down the street on a Monday afternoon, stealing from the locals. I couldn´t let it go so Bret asked the receptionist what that was all about. Turns out the store owners are constantly told not to keep their merchandise on the footpath as the road is very narrow and it´s not safe for pedestrians to have to step onto the road to get around their stuff. So, every few days, the police came along and just take what they can. You won´t move your shit, fine, we´ll take it! I am now a little more comfortable with what went down.
That pretty much wrapped up our time in La Paz. We had considered cycling the Death Road, but opted not to. Originally we had no interest in doing the ride but after meeting people along our travels and them raving about it, we began to consider doing it over the last two months. After visiting a tour agency to book a tour, we had a beer and really thought about what we were buying/doing. We got caught up in the hype of it all as many tourists visiting La Paz do the ride (we haven´t met anyone on this trip that has been to Bolivia and not done it). When you strip away all of the marketing, it really is us paying about $120 each to cycle down a gravel road that happens to be nicknamed the Death Road. After little debate, we were content with our decision not to take part and spend that money elsewhere.
We have spent the last three days trying to keep warm in Oruro, a town about three hours south of La Paz. It´s pretty much a layover point where we´ll take the train further south to Tupiza later this afternoon.
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