I usually fall in love with every place I travel to for one reason or another. I’m a culture vulture and a people watcher. I love landscapes as much as cityscapes. And I thrive when I’m out of my comfort zone and have to navigate the waters of a new environment. However, it was difficult to do in La Paz because I just wasn’t feeling it when I got there. Not one bit. Save your hate email, ‘one Bolivian’ who may read this because I loved so much of what I saw outside of the capital and was endeared to the Bolivian people everywhere I went, but La Paz itself…a bit lack lustre for me.
La Paz sits in a canyon, wedged between mountains in the valley of the Andes. It has an elevation of 3650m making it the highest capital in the world, so my almost three months in South America did nothing to prepare me for the altitude. As soon as I got off the plane I was short of breath, and even though I spent two weeks in the country travelling to different cites, every time I went back to La Paz, it was the same old heave and wheeze routine. It probably didn’t help that I never fully recovered from the bronchitis I caught in Peru a month earlier, but this was relentless…while walking, talking, sitting, even sleeping. Yes, on more than one occasion I woke up in the night gasping for breath. Not fun, let me tell ya.
I stayed at a great hostel located on Calle Jean, one of the oldest colonial streets left in the city located near numerous points of interest – museums, markets and night life. Nonetheless, it’s also located near unbearable pollution, smog, filth, traffic, dilapidated buildings and the constant smell of urine that I had many a gag sesh over.
I’ve always loved gritty places, so my aversion to La Paz had nothing to do with its unmanicured appearance and everything to do with the constant reminder of how dangerous it was. I’ve never shied away from places that some people consider sketchy and don’t allow all the travel warnings in the world to dictate my plans. However, even I was a bit concerned there because it was the locals I met who provided me with a laundry list of advisories – much more than the simple petty theft possibilities.
Apparently, in La Paz you’ve got to look out for fake cabs, fake tourist police and fake regular police. The fake cabs are known to get you in the car, then pick up their buddies or have them leap out of the trunk and beat the crap out of you until you cough up your banking info. The fake cops will try to get you to hand over your passport and then keep it until you pay. And the fake tourist police will apparently help you with directions and then follow you to, you guessed it, shank you for your wallet. Whatever happened to straight up pick pocketing by dodgy young thugs or sweet little old ladies?! I was told not to fret….La Paz has that too….
In defence of poor ol’ La Paz, I think it didn’t help that it was towards the end of my trip because I was tired. Extremely tired. I was sick of hostels, sketchy showers and long bus rides. And I had thrown out most of my clothes, so I was looking a bit like Pig Pen from Charlie Brown. So as you might have guessed, at this point in my trip I had the patience of a two-year old which amplified my annoyance level times a gazillion. It’s no wonder that when I did a day tour of Chacaltaya Mountain which takes you up to 5421m with breathtaking views of the area, I got half way up and thought, ‘screw it’ and walked down. There was also nearby Valle de la Luna and the infamous Death Road that everyone sees on a trip there, but I skipped them both. And when I was told that half the tourist sites in the city were closed because of ongoing protests and blocked off roads, I didn’t care.
However, I always like to think of my backpack as half full and not half empty, so I made sure to look for the silver linings of this city. I found the best cafe/writing spot near San Francisco Church that I frequented multiple times. I enjoyed the markets in La Paz where you can find the cheapest, most beautiful handicrafts on the continent. And I visited the witches market which is biiiiizarre to say the least but quite interesting. I’m always down with anything considered fringe, but I’m still at a loss for who would like to buy taxidermied baby llamas. But maybe that’s just me….
And for all the warnings I received, I experienced nothing but kindness. Many of the locals I encountered were some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. There was one older lady who I spoke with in Spanish for a good 20 minutes in front of her shop with quite the goodbye when I left – equipped with hugs and kisses. I even got an invite to her village a few hours away to meet her remaining single son that was simplemente perfecto for me. He spoke no English but could apparently offer me plenty of other things as my future husband. I didn’t understand everything that she put on the table, but there was most definitely talk of livestock and land in the mix. Enticing, indeed.
And I just happened to be in La Paz for L’entrada del universidades which is where the universities put on a Carabana-esque parade of costumes, dancing, singing and a competition to see which school does it best. I have no idea who won but by the barrage of singing and dancing and banner-waving, I think it might have been a tie between all of them.
So even though the best part of La Paz was when I left for the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Pampas Amazon tour, it was an interesting place to be in to end my South American trip. For everything I didn’t like, there were plenty of bright spots that made it all worth it and made me realize that you can’t judge anything by its cover.
So as I spent my last day in South America languishing in the La Paz airport, counting down the minutes until lift off, I thought about my time there – the beauty and the bleak – and was happy for ending my summer trip in La Paz, for it added to the diversity, the experience, the memories. Most of all, it reminded me about the power of optimism and how you can always find some good in everything even if it means digging deep in order to do so.
A lesson for life, not just travelling.
Gracias, La Paz y gracias South America. Until we meet again…