Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bolivia – La Paz, Our home base

A typical sight in La Paz
La Paz is a mesmerizing city and is the country's seat of government and treasury. Yet, it shares some of its clout with Sucre which is the country's judicial/constitutional capital. It sits in a basin where the houses climb up the sides until they reach the flat antiplano level above: this is the city of El Alto. From El Alto, our bus steeply descends in what looks like a sink hole, or old quarry, or crater. It is a very monochromatic city. The cuboid houses all look unfinished in either red-orange exposed brick or just plain mud brick construction. It lacks color but has lots of texture and lots and lots of smoke!
The higher up the house,
the poorer the neighborhood
Since it winter and cold now, and nothing is really flat inside this basin, the car exhaust comes out in thick black clouds. We are also at 3660m which means thin air... maybe the cars struggle with this as much as the people do? Luckily for us, our lungs have gotten used to high altitude and we barely feel any difference.

We check into a hotel without even looking around. A nice 3 star place called Majestic Hotel costing 140B with breakfast and computer room with flat screens and wifi. (We soon discover that internet is a rarity here in Bolivia and fast internet is non-existent. We've been so internet spoiled on this trip up until we reached Bolivia!) The Majestic Hotel is located in the backpacker area which is near the large black market, although every street in this area seems to be chocked with items to buy.

Witch's market goodies
Our hotel is on calle Santa Cruz is also the home of witches. Yes, it's called Witches' Market (Mercado de Hechiceria). The "witches" here are traditionally attired women called cholitas (Quechua or Aymará women living in the city but continuing to wear traditional dress) They tend be elderly, robust in figure, grandmother types with two waist-long gray braids falling out of their amusing top hats...yes they look like the stereotypical witch but with much softened edges. So what are they selling? Potions, aphrodisiacs, amulets, herbs (fresh and dry), clay figurines, and lots of dried victims.
Money incantations?
Some of the dry goods remind us of China natural medicines like sea stars, herbs, twigs, etc., but then there is some new stuff here like dried toucan beaks and dried llama fetus. These are for the superstitious folks. They are used to placate malevolent spirits or honor benevolent one. For example, a llama fetus should be buried under the cornerstone of a new home as an offering to their god Pachamama.

Tell me your problem and I'll give you
a special potion, especially for
impotency and fertility.

Although many of the fresh herbs were ones that are known in the west like chamomile, large aloe vera leaves, mint, etc. But some of the collections were perplexing: they combine various items into a kind of sculpture which seems to bring luck into a particular area of one's life such a health, love, or money.

Need a Llama fetus?

No problem, we have them in
white or brown fur...
without fur, and nearly skeletal...

and neatly stacked too.

This is our kind of travel destination. We enjoy cities as much, or sometimes even more, than the countryside. They are animated, diverse, and authentic (okay sometimes also stinky and polluted and dangerous), but cities are rich in character.
Either the bedding will compress
or the taxi will expand, but
in any case, we are not going
to use a bigger vehicle!

One can explore and always be surprised by something. So we learned to tolerate the pollution as we walked up and down the streets. La Paz isn't dangerous if you are a bit savvy – much safer than the capitals in Central America and we enjoyed the freedom to go wherever we wanted to. So call us city people but cities speak to us and tell their history, their woes, their joy.

We are in Kimchi heaven
Plus another benefit is food choice. We can eat from around the world (Lima is the best so far for that though!). What were some of our cravings? Lebanese (Hummus, falafel), gyros, and Korean. Yes, we found the single Korean restaurant that caters to the Asian crowd. And we sure did enjoy our Kimchi soup and accompaniments. Spicy food has been lacking for us in South America. There seems to be plenty of quasi-Italian/pizza places to fill the international niche, but not the spicy food that we adore!

Going back to the shopping theme: We find it amusing that a street will have shops that all sell the same items. For example, the electric light street, woolen goods, shoe repair shops, stationery items, bedding materials, etc.

So many fascinating La Paz street scenes.

Nope, I'm not addicted to popcorn...
just selling the stuff
 Si Señora, I still have a lot of space
in my bag, enough for 2 cows

Masked shoe-shine service
or robber in disguise?
Selling calls by the minute
including wake-up calls
Casual chit-chat

Come here, Gringo:
Taste my delicious fruit juices
Rent a typist.
(a common sight in Latin America,
especially in front of banks)

Hmm, what should I do with
all these herbs? They are such
powerful sleeping potions.
Yes, I do like to travel light
Why two bags?
The cloth bag is for the baby
and the plastic for groceries

La Paz Stopover #1 was four nights. We wanted to do the Most Dangerous Road bike tip but there was rain and snow and ice on the route. Then we had to wait a bit for a flight to the jungle. It was a bit longer than we had intended but we enjoyed the exploration and intrigue of the city.

La Paz Stopover #2 was two nights. We finally were able to do the crazy bike trip

La Paz Stopover #3 was only a brief one. We arrived just at dawn and managed to cram in a packed day:
Plaza Pedro de Murillo
After our most comfortable night bus trip to date in Bolivia, we headed to our hotel around 7:30am. We were extremely cautious this time as a friend had had a very unfortunate experience in La Paz a week earlier. Someone had grabbed her daypack while she was checking into her hotel and ran our the front and into a taxi. She spent the next day trying to replace a passport and catch her flight. We realized that two people and four eyes and arms makes traveling much easier. One watches and the other "does" (i.e. takes photos, shops, buys tickets, etc).

Plaza San Francisco
Unfortunately when we arrived at Majestic Hotel, it was too early to get a vacant room so we had a bit of a wait using the lovely wifi in the lounge area.
Valley of the moon..
with Matterhorn?
After a quick shower and retrieving our bags from the storage room, we were ready to head to Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) in the suburbs of La Paz. It took 30 minutes to get there once we found the right Micro Bus. We passed through the chic part of the city and then into some very affluent suburbs that must be where the rich and affluent live. It was a totally different side to La Paz.

The Valley of the Moon was recommended to us by a few people. It is a very unusual sand pinnacle formation caused from rain and erosion. We will let the pictures tell the story. Entrance was 15B ($2) for foreigners. It is an easy and worthwhile trip to make if you have a morning or afternoon to spare.
I never though I would walk on
the moon!
Nice view, eh!

A small step for man.....
Did NASA film the moon
landing here?
What? do I really need to hold up
this rock for the next hundred years?

Afterward, we proceeded to our favorite Korean restaurant for more spicy intoxication – gosh we miss Asian food! The last "to-do" item was to buy a sweater for Julane from a Japanese designer called Yumi. She ended up getting two sweaters in the end. Indecision and fear of cold makes a woman irrational!

So farewell La Paz: You are a weird and intriguing city and has been a home away from home for us in Bolivia. Despite some ups and downs in the country, La Paz always welcomed us back.