La Paz was my next stop on the way to Peru. I decided to spend there few days, catch up with the news, have my sleep out but first of all – get used to the next altitude change. Surviving the stay in La Paz without headaches and other side effects would mean that Machu Picchu and Cusco, which are situated lower in the mountains, would be a piece a cake. Well, there was also the trekking in Rainbow Mountains in Peru but there is no way to prepare to that. You either prevail or not (you can read about this trekking HERE).
La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia, is a metropolis, in which around 1 million people live, so much less than in Warsaw, Berlin or Paris. But the surface area of the city is huge. It’s located in a valley and on the surrounding hills and expands gradually, seemingly having no end.
It has a bad reputation among tourists. Reading about this city on travel for a, I learned most of all that it’s very dangerous and generally not very interesting. I thought that these opinions are very hurtful and I refused to fully believe them. Thus, I decided to give La Paz a chance and calmly, without prejudice, observe how its citizens live and absorb the cultural diversity.
I caredabout talking to them to learn what they say about the city and to experience it with their eyes. Unfortunately I had no friends in Bolivia, so I found in the Internet a group of students, who, as a hobby, guide around the town and show less touristic nooks. We’ve agreed to meet the next day at San Pedro square. We were joined by a few Dutch and British tourists.
The first point was the San Pedro Square itself, mainly because of the prison situated nearby, or more precisely – because of its absolutely unique organization. Well, this is a waiting prison – for all the convicts awaiting their sentences. In Bolivia this is no joking matter, because you might have to wait even six or seven years for your trial (even for minor crimes, like stealing a loaf of bread). Of course, it might turn out after this waiting period, that the accused was not guilty of the crime… but before anyone verifies the issue, it might be a long, long time. So in short, it’s a place where committing a crime is exceptionally unviable. What’s more interesting, the accused are allowed to live there with their families, with wives and kids. The prisoners are not allowed to leave the post but their wives and children can, so they live a “standard” life. Women go to work and kids attend the nearby school. They come “home” for the night, so basically to a prison.
This place is famous for another reason too. For the recent few years it has been the biggest clubhouse in the city. It was totally legal to organize tourist trips to the prison, where the tourists visited the prisoners, played cards or soccer with them and then drank and partied until dawn. Of course with a sea of alcohol and lots of drugs, mainly cocaine, which was freely brought in and out because of the prisoners’ families’ freedom of movement. Just a standard, prison life.
The most curious way to smuggle cocaine? It was wrapped in diapers and threw out of the prison windows directly onto the street. Well, it’s obvious that those who do not know what’s inside would never pick up a rolled up diaper off the street. The diapers were seen only by those who should have seen them. High level creativity.
And now something concerning the matter of tourists and safety, because this is a boiling issue on travel fora. Recently, the most famous matter was a story of a British guy who absolutely needed to get to the party in the prison. He of course came there accompanied by a “guide”, because there is no other way. For a few hours he partied to the fullest with the prisoners, with help of any available drugs. But when he decided that the time came to get out, it turned out that his guide did it a few hours before, leaving him alone in the prison. When the Brit approached the warden, trying to get out, he only laughed and answered, that in this prison everyone wants to get out so it’s not a reason to let him leave and as he already is in the prison, he should probably stay in. And the rollercoaster started. Getting out of the prison took him over a week, of course with the help of the British embassy.
And now tell me that it’s not the tourists themselves, who push themselves into dangerous situations because of their stupidity and ignorance. Then they return with stories that Bolivia is a dangerous place.
After this incident the government intervened and decidedly forbade any trips to the prison (not that it encouraged them before). But you can always find frauds who offer risky trips. The naive tourists pay and the trips never happen, so they lose their money. You’ve been warned.
After San Pedro square we made our way towards a very popular street market (it covers the area of few streets). It’s a grocery market, where you can buy practically any kind of food: from meat and fish, to groats, all the sorts of quinoa, fruits and vegetables (including the biggest selection of potatoes I have ever seen – in Bolivia there are over 2 000 potato types). The market bubbles up with colors and smells, the food is sold directly on the street. It’s arranged on special, colorful mats. Cholitas – so Bolivian women of Aymara tribe – are the queens here. They looks fabulously in their colorful skirts and with bowler hats on their heads. They are the symbol of Bolivia and an extension of its history and tradition.
I carefully watch the colorful Cholitas, who are real mistresses of the trade, but this time I don’t buy anything. Although I do a memo in my head to come here again and taste the white potatoes, that look like donuts in powdered sugar.
The next stop is Mercado de Las Brujas (the Witches’ Market). For someone coming from the Western culture, this place is really unique, in which everything is different than we are used to in Europe. You can of course buy various souvenirs and lots of cheap and cheesy things like pens with llamas, key chains or figures. Needless to say, you cannot escape the globalization. However, what this place is most known are the shops with magical remedies and stuff.
At first I think that it must be a joke but after a while I dive into the world of hundreds of mysterious goods. From health enhancing mixtures, so anything for headaches, leg or liver pain and upset stomach, to many more advanced “stuff”. A total smash are the pills, ointments or drinks that stimulate sexuality. Erection problems? Low libido or frigidity? Don’t worry, you’ll find a cure here. The Bolivians are not prude, you can easily ask them what works better, what doesn’t work and how to use every piece of magical “aid”.
Lately, the matter of potency pills was quite big. Vigoron was an absolute hit, bought in great numbers until the moment when people started getting… heart attacks during orgasms. The heart could not withstand the dose. It turned out that these pills had concentration of Viagra suitable for horses, not for people, but someone “forgot” to mention that. There was a huge confusion and unrest, the drug was withdrawn but shortly after a new, improved version appeared on the market – Vigoron 500. Undaunted by the whole story, the consumers use it till this day.
Another sales hit are perfumes, which you spray on your intended one’s underwear, what should guarantee that he or she would want to go to bed with you. Although, the instruction does not cover the part how to come into possession of his or her underwear. I try to learn it from the Cholita, who sells them, but we can’t find the common language.
But not everything revolves around sex here, there is also love. The love matters are a different branch. Someone must have foreseen any possible problems in relationships and decided to help by creating magical potions. For example, the women can benefit from using a mixture for a naughty boyfriend. If he does not want to listen to you and does not bring you flowers, you only need to add few drops of this mixture to his coffee and he will be obedient.
The men are not discriminated here and there are also mixtures addressed to them. For instance, if they want a girl to fall in love with them, they only need to blow a special dust on their necks and when their chosen gal turns around to see who did that, they will fall in love in them if they look at them.
The Witches’ Market is also a place where the locals buy… dried llamas. The view is somewhat drastic, when under the shop’s sign dangles a dried llama fetus. A question comes to mind: who and why needs dried llamas? Well, they are used for building new properties. In a place, where something is to be built, they celebrate a ritual, a sacrifice to Pachamama (Mother Earth). They burn down the dried llama and its ashes are spread around the foundation. It is believed that it should grant safety and is a way of thanking the nature for the opportunity to build a house. The more educated Bolivians do not believe that this ritual is necessary but the workers and building contractors would not start construction until someone grants them the possibility to sacrifice a llama to Mother Earth. Supposedly, refusing to do so might enrage her and bring death to people who are constructing the building. Therefore, any real estate in La Paz has a little llama ashes spread underneath.
We finally reach Plaza San Francisco, in which one of the most important monument of La Paz is situated – Iglesia de San Francisco (Church San Francisco), known also as Basílica de San Francisco (San Francisco basilica). The building is a peculiar mix that tries to combine two different religions – Christianity, brought here by the Spaniards and the local religion and beliefs of living in peace with Mother Earth. Observing its outer facades I see a rich symbolism of Catholicism interspersed with Mother Earth motifs.
Lots of mirrors hang inside the church, what is connected to, unfortunately, sad story. The Bolivians believe that if they get scared of something or something bad happens to them, their soul might leave the body. In order to make it come back, in such situation they always had to repeat three times a spell: My soul, come back to me.
The Spaniards realized that this belief might be used to their advantage, to make the locals convert to Catholic faith. That’s why they hanged mirrors in churches and talked the uneducated Bolivians into believing that every time their soul leaves the body, it’s trapped in a mirror in the church, so they have to come to the church to claim it back. The wretched and perfidious manipulation was so effective that now around 80% of the society is Catholic but only 10% attends the religious services. It only shows that it is impossible to make someone believe in something by force. You can declare or pretend various things and beliefs under pressure but in the depth of your heart you believe in what you feel is right.
Late afternoon we reach Palacio Quemado. This is the seat of the government and the president of the Bolivian Republic, situated at the Murillo Square in the La Paz city center. If you think that politics in your country are wicked, after hearing about Bolivian government, you’d come to a conclusion that your country is not that bad.
The Bolivians are not lucky in choosing their governors or they simply lack the sense of politics. One of the political stories is simply crazy. Manuel Melgarejo Valencia, who was the president of Bolivia since 1864, gave up a huge stretch of the country for… a horse. It sounds like a preface to an absurd anecdote, but, sadly, it’s true. So, the audience with a president was attended by the prime minister of Brazil, who came on the back of a white horse. Melgarejo liked the animal so much that he wanted to keep it to himself at all cost. The prime minister of Brazil did not want to give it to the president or to sell it. Because the negotiations didn’t went well, the Bolivian leader came up with a “brilliant” idea. He placed the horse on the map of Bolivia and copied the shape of its hoof on the map and put forth a proposal that Brazil can keep this part of the land as long as he could keep the horse. As you can imagine, the Brazilian prime minister was quite smart and agreed immediately.
Bolivia lost a huge part of its land but the president had a pretty horse. The politicians’ ways of thinking will always stay a mystery to me.
The walk ended but I still craved for more. I quickly decided that I will stay in La Paz for a few days and get to know it slowly. This city fascinates me. Everything is so different, amazing and interesting that it’s impossible to just walk past it. In the globalized world, surrounding us all the time, it’s so wonderful to be able to admire these cultural differences, local color and respect to history and tradition. In terms of this, Bolivia distinguishes itself among the other countries of the South America. After only few days I am sure that this is the place worth devoting my time, because round every corner there might be something intriguing to explore.