Exploring the world’s highest major city – La Paz

After our overnight bus ride from Sucre, we arrived in La Paz at sunrise and were lucky to be allowed to check straight into our rooms.

After freshening up, around half the group headed out to join a morning walking sightseeing tour of the city. The short walk down to the city centre was exhausting, a further reminder of the effects of the altitude on your fitness.

Every sidewalk and street corner was packed with market stalls selling every type of fake goods from leather to football shirts.

Traffic in the city is total chaos, primarily because he minibus taxis can stop anytime when they are flagged down. Pedestrians have no right of way, so crossing the road becomes a life and death decision.

We met our local guide Javier outside the San Francisco Cathedral which was built in 1549. The original church was destroyed by snow, and only rebuilt 150 years later as the home for Catholicism in a country where 80% are now Catholics.

The Church itself is impressive but unique in that it is lopsided, with just one bell tower as it structurally couldn’t handle the weight of two.

We headed next to the Witches Market which is a short 5 minute walk. At first glance it looks like any other market stall, selling colourful garments and trinkets – it was only when we noticed the Llama foetuses hanging from the shop front that we knew it was a little different.

Inside the witches shops sell every ingredient and idol necessary to give an offering to Pachu Mamma, the earth god. The shelves were filled with lotions and potions for everything from good luck, wealth and sex to spells for casting good omens on a new house or your academic studies.

The llama foetus is added to a stove cooking up the potion and other offerings including sweets and fortune cards and the ashes are sprinkled or dabbed in the necessary place, such as buried in the foundations of you’re building a new house.

From the Witches Market we wandered through the winding streets, stopping to see some of the local fruit and vegetable stalls.

Locals build up a family relationship with the stall owners and will always buy from same person – it’s an insult to buy from a neighbouring stall. There’s an intricate dialogue ritual of small talk which keeps buyer and seller on good terms and helps secure a ‘Yappa’, which is an extra portion if you buy lots. A local version of a bakers dozen of you will.

From the market street we descended to a central plaza, where the infamous San Pedro prison stands. Built in 1905, San Pedro prison became globally famous in Rusty Young’s 2003 book The Marching Powder about British drug smuggler Thomas McFaddens time in the jail.

San Pedro’s unique system, built on corruption and entrepreneurship means the prisoners effectively run the prison, setting up shops, restaurants and cocaine labs. The prison tours and sleepovers which Thomas McFadden started are no longer permitted but as we viewed from the outside we could see prisoners in their private ‘apartments’ and dozens of families coming and going.

With families allowed to live inside with imprisoned parents, there are currently 60 children inside who are escorted out to attend school every day.

After a fascinating insight from Javier about Bolivian corruption we continued to the Independence square, where the cities historic buildings stand, most built in the early 18th century

Amongst them a monument to the July 16th 1809 independence of La Paz, where the city split from Bolivia, although for only lasted for 30 months before the ring leaders were captured and executed.

Bolivia itself has a long history of political turmoil with 136 successful coups and a bloody war with Chile which left it landlocked.

The old Bolivian parliament, dwarfed by an unfinished modern building flies the national flag of Bolivia, the checked flag of the indigenous people and a flag representing the territories seized by Chile.

From the square we wandered up to our finishing point on the street, where Mourinho, leader of the 1809 coup lived. The cobbled street is said to be haunted by the ghost of a women who can only be seen by drunk men. Luckily we were all sober…although out of breath!

After huffing and puffing our way back to our hotel, we said goodbye to Javier and grabbed an afternoon nap before our 3pm cable car ride to El Alto.

The cable system was remarkably modern, built by Swiss and Austrian engineers only three years ago, its reduced the taxi traffic on the windy roads, providing a one way trip for Bs.3.

The view from the top provided an excellent panoramic view of the valley and city of La Paz. We spent an hour exploring before heading back down and enjoying dinner at the next door English Pub…and before anyone asks why not local cuisine – after 142 days abroad, a Steak and Ale Pie is an acceptable


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