We arrived in La Paz, Bolivia after an overnight bus ride from Sucre. I learnt an interesting fact along the way. Contrary to common belief, La Paz isn’t officially the capital of Bolivia. Sucre is the constitutional capital! (even though the seat of government is in La Paz). Now there’s a Trivial Pursuit answer for you.
Our overnight bus ride, with the company Trans Copacabana, was a pleasant surprise. We were expecting a rough, uncomfortable ride. To the contrary, it was possibly our most best (albiet a relative term) overnight bus ride in South America thus far, with seats that reclined to be almost flat!
My experience of arriving in La Paz, amidst a sleep-deprived haze, was a mind-blowing experience. I awoke to a chaotic hive of activity, with thousands of “collectivo” buses crowding the roads, street markets everywhere and people looking extremely busy. Smog filled the thin air.
I must admit that I was also a little anxious: La Paz has a reputation for being a little unsafe. We carefully chose our taxi from the bus station, and travelled to our hotel room, which was also a pleasant surprise. It was very comfortable with fast wifi Internet. Actually, our whole time in La Paz was event-free, and felt reasonably safe overall.
Then we explored La Paz, while stumbling around quite sleepy from the overnight bus ride.
First thing we noticed that our streets was crammed full of people selling the most beautifully coloured things, which we later learned was for carnival. Bolivia has a strong Catholic influence, a legacy of the Spanish. The Oruro Carnival in Bolivia is one of the biggest in South America.
Another thing that was notable was just how many indigenous women in La Paz wear the colourful traditional costume, complete with bowler style hat. The hat has been worn by Quechua and Aymara women since the 1920′s, when it was brought to the country by British railway workers. I found it intriguing that still so commonly worn today.
Next stop was the witch’s market (how could I not visit a place where they sell llama fetuses openly on the street?). This too was a cultural experience. I learnt that around 99% of houses in Bolivia have a llama fetus buried underneath, for good luck!
Then we went to the coca museum. I was excited to see this museum: the Internet told me that it is one of the top attractions to see in La Paz. It’s a small museum, but I learnt so much. The locals have chewed coca for many hundreds of years, and it’s high-altitude and nutritional benefits seem beyond doubt.
The issue of course that many governments have with coca is cocaine, that fine white powder that the coca leaves are made into. I can’t help but think that the humble coca leaf (and the local people) has been caught in the cross-fire of the war on drugs. I am on the side of the local people here. Let them and their coca tradition be!
Over 20 companies around the world have a license to import coca and use in their products. It is used for medicinal purposes. For example, in drugs that end in “caine”, like novacaine.
There is one such company that has an import license for the United States: Stepan Company, in New Jersey. Guess which household name then uses coca leaf in its product? None other than Coca-Cola. Most people know that Coca-Cola doesn’t contain cocaine any longer, and that at one stage it did, but not many people I have spoken to knew that coca was still an ingredient to Coca-Cola. (I guess the clue is in the name!).
It did make me wonder: how many people involved in the war on drugs and on coca production happily guzzle down a Coke with their hamburger?
For some more local culture, we went to a peña in the evening, a bar with traditional Bolivian music and dance. It was difficult to find one that was open but we were glad we made the effort to find it. The show was an explosive combination of dancing and colour, and a a lot of fun! We were pulled up on stage to join in the dancing. At the end of the show, the owner, who had taken a liking to us (or was it the girls I was with?!) offered us his special, snake-infused drink. It tasted like grappa!
We also did a day trip out to Tiwanaku, the ruins of the Tiwanku capital. I had never even heard of Tiwanaku before visiting La Paz. I was astounded to learn that they controlled land encompassing a large part of the Inca’s empire, over 500 years before them. Much of the Inca’s knowledge and traditions came from the Tiwanaku.
Alas, the Tiwanaku were eventually a victim of a change in climate. There was a huge drought that lasted over 100 years up until around 1,000AD. Lake Titicaca receded from the city, food production dropped and the civilisation fell into decline.
On our last day in La Paz, we arrived at the bus station to find that it was as empty as Tiwanaku probably was in 1,000AD. There was a blockade of the road by a protest, a common occurrence in Bolivia. No buses departing that day! (My tip for Bolivia is to not plan a tight schedule.)
In summary, La Paz (and Bolivia in general) is an amazing place. The culture is so deep, so thought-provoking, so colourful. It really is another world, and quite distinct from the rest of South America.
Being in such a chaotic, thought-provoking place is a challenge, though. A man can only absorb so many interesting facts.
After 4 days I was ready to head off to Isla del Sol: the fabled origin of the Incas!