La Paz: An Uphill Battle In More Ways Than One

Sitting on a smelly bus from Copacobana to La Paz was not the afternoon I had in mind after leaving Isla del Sol, but that is often the way it goes with travel.

I did get an unexpected break from the interesting odors of the bus when the bus stopped and the bus jockey kicked everyone off with no explanation. The locals aboard disappeared into the crowds of pedestrians by the lakeside market. The tourists stood around looking bewildered. I trailed the jockey around the market, asking what was going on. He looked at me like I was an idiot and told me the passengers had to be ferried across the lake separately from the bus.

Of course. Because that way, we get to pay yet another toll. I have never been to a place as creative about tolls as Bolivia. Even on Isla del Sol, you had to pay tolls to hike certain trails at stations that were as improvised as a ten year old’s sidewalk lemonade stand. I’m sure a lot of these tolls are scams, but Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. I’m not going to complain about paying an extra dollar here or there because I’m a tourist. Plus the ferry toll was worth the price if only to watch them drive the bus onto what was essentially a long raft with a motor at the end and putt-putt it across the channel.

The Bus Raft

As we neared La Paz, I became anxious. The outskirts of the city were dusty shacks with tin roofs as far as the eye could see, as these were the poorest neighbourhoods. It was not the poverty but rather the stuffed effigies hanging on nooses from telephone posts that was making me nervous. I couldn’t find out why they were there, but I must have seen over twenty of these ominous scarecrows on our way into town. I knew that Bolivia was prone to serious political protests, especially at that time, while the indigenous President was trying to push through a new constitution to restore some balance between the economic classes in Bolivia. So these dummies hanging from wires were alarming.

And then we turned a corner and this was the view:

La Paz

This photo barely does justice to the jaw-dropping vista of the city. La Paz’s center is nestled into a ring of snow-capped mountains. This means two things: 1) whichever way you walk, you are going uphill and 2) wherever you walk, there are gorgeous mountains in your view.

Uphill both ways...

The trouble with everything being uphill is that it is very easy to get lost, since it is hard to work out which direction you came from. And you do not want to get lost in La Paz. There are some very dodgy areas of town that tourists really should not wander into.

I managed to avoid the worst of the barrios and toured the witches market and the coca museum. The witches market sells all kinds of unusual things, potions, magic amulets and other oddities like dried llama fetuses which are buried under new homes to bring good luck.

Congrats on the new house!

The coca museum was tiny but very interesting. For a $1 admission, you can learn the entire history of the coca plant in a very balanced narrative that addresses both the profound cultural significance of the plant to Andean culturem as well as the dangers of its derivative drug cocaine. Trivia fact: did you know that Pre-Columbian civilizations in South America were able to sail across the Pacific to Tahiti in reed boats? This museum was full of interesting facts (though not all were related to coca).

I have to say that La Paz is one of the few places where I felt unsafe. Despite being at a high altitude with plenty of sunshine, it struck me as a sinister place. It was full of dark winding alleys, mangy stray dogs, spiked gates and barred windows. One thing I had been desperate to avoid in Bolivia was taking an overnight bus. I had heard too many horror stories of accidents caused by overtired drivers and robbery scams. I was very afraid of night buses in Bolivia but after seeing La Paz, I was more afraid of staying in the city and booked myself the first bus south to Uyuni that night.

I won’t lie – this was possibly the worst bus ride I have ever been on. If you reclined your seat, you slid out of it. The windows were sealed shut, though not enough to keep the rain from drizzling down the wall next to me, soaking my right side and leaving my feet in a puddle. The air conditioning was at Arctic levels.  The movie before bed was Death Sentence, starring Kevin Bacon, (SPOILER ALERT) in which everyone gets shot. I still had not fallen asleep when the bus stopped for a dinner break at 1am in a field with a roofed marketplace. The road after that had the bus tilting at angles that made me sure the bus would roll over. But the bus did not crash and we were not robbed and in the end I got to Uyuni safe and sound. Just sleep-deprived.

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