We enter into Bolivia over what feels like the least official border crossing: whilst Peru was all concrete buildings and orderly queues, we get off our bus, enter a building, walk up the road past women selling produce on the street side, go into another shabby little building and with a couple of stamps we’re in a new country. The fun continues when we have to get off the bus again whilst we cross a wide river; we watch our bus floating across on a wooden platform and pile into a little motorboat to be ferried across the water by a teenage boy.
A couple of hours later we’re on the edge of La Paz. The city has been described to us as like “driving into a cauldron” and it certainly feels that way as the bus rounds the rim of a valley then plunges downwards into the huge bowl of angled streets and half finished buildings. It’s been a long journey and I’m not in a great mood, hungry and snappy with each other. Pizza solves everything.
The city feels hotchpotch, thrown together, and it takes me longer to get my bearings than other cities we’ve been in. Other places seem to have more distinct areas – the old town, the financial district, the backpacker area – but La Paz feels like a big jumble of it all at once. It’s dirtier and more chaotic but I like it. The streets are bursting with stalls, people walking, bus horns blaring and drivers doing whatever they like. There are shoeshine boys with their little stools and boxes of brushes – here in Bolivia they wear balaclavas to hide their identities; it’s seen as the lowest job and many are paying their families through school but the social stigma means they are ashamed to show their faces.
We spend our first full day exploring Plaza Morillo where we find the cathedral and the presidential palace. Many of the colonial buildings of La Paz have sadly been neglected but the square feels nice, with people feeding pigeons and ice cream sellers slowly touring around. On the way we stumble across an amazing parade, the whole of Avenida Mariscal, the broad road which intersects central La Paz, closed for the row after row of dancers. There are floats of live band and everyone is dressed up in amazing costumes and, on cue, twirling old fashioned football clackers. In contrast, a few minutes later we come across another parade: men carry a shrine on their shoulders, in their wake women swing incense towards the crowds who hold up miniature plaque of Jesus and sway to the brass band behind. It’s two amazing slices of Sunday La Paz in just a couple of blocks. We dip into the Iglesia de San Francisco just to take a look at the grand gold alter; there’s a Mass going on so we don’t stay but a lovely smiling lady and her baby come up to us to welcome us.
Later that afternoon we walk a little breathlessly (La Paz sits at a dizzy 3500m above sea level and its civil engineers had a penchant for steep streets) to catch the gondola up out of the bowl to El Alto. The cable car swoops across the poorer neighbourhoods and the view reminds me of Medellin where you could see for miles where people had built their houses into the hillside.
Up at the top is 16 de Julio, the big Sunday market named after the street it occupies. Now, it spills onto the many roads around it and what you can’t buy here isn’t worth being made. It’s not technically a tourist sight but I’m so glad we went up; it felt like the real La Paz. Every stall sold something different: car tyres, tupperware, boxer shorts, shoes, cooking pots, van parts, prams, fridges, blenders, DVDs, watches, phone cases, sunglasses, hammers, saws, knives, schoolbooks, baby clothes, TV remotes, electrical switchboards, neon lights. From the tiniest screw to the front bumper of a bus, there was everything. All the stalls were (wom)manned by cholitas, the indigenous women who wear the traditional costume of sticking out skirts and small bowler hat perched on their long braided hair. Many are as wide as they are tall and look pretty formidable, scowling at you as you walk past, often breastfeeding a little baby wrapped up in many layers.
We decided to do a little shopping of our own, rummaging through one of the many tables of clothes for a new tshirt for Phil, and having fun giggling at the weird and wonderful finds. Most are tshirts from the U.S. from charity golf tournaments or fun runs of Christian mission groups but we managed to find a normal and nice one, paid our 50p to the stall owner and Moz is now the owner of a lovely orange number with Beaufort NC on the back – whatever that is!
We have a tasty dinner, celebrating our sixth month wedding anniversary and raising a glass to our first couple of days in Bolivia. We’ve had a great time but ready to escape the pollution of La Paz and head to genteel-sounding Sucre!
We catch an early taxi from La Paz to the airport, the city grey in the bottom of the valley bowl but golden on the dawn light when we reach the airport. We fly to Cochabamba, switch planes and then head to Sucre. Moz chats in Spanish to the man next to him: Tony, an Argentinian who sells wine for a living, gives us his card and a tip that Bolivian wine is “on the up”.
Sucre feels like it could be Bolivia’s pride and joy. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has beautiful colonial architecture which is whitewashed every year, earning it its name “La Ciudad Blanca”. Small, friendly and easy to walk around, it feels like a million miles away from La Paz.
We drop our bags at our hostel and head out to find lunch, wandering into the market to see what we can discover. Stalls are piled high with beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables and we’ll return later to buy ingredients for dinner. For the time being, we decide to sample tasty sandwiches of embarallado (sort of like pork terrine) and chorizo. I have well and truly fallen off the Vegetarian Train. We eat in the plaza and watch the world go by, then continue our wanderings past the churches, plazas, the sixteenth century hospital and the modern judicial court to reach Parque Bolivar where we slurp ice creams in the sun. Today is a good food day.
That night, everyone is out for Halloween, kids all dressed up with face paints and straggly wigs and the bars, supermarkets and shops all decorated with ghosts and fake cobwebs. I think of home; my Instagram feed is full of parties and face paints, sexy costumes and (increasingly) friends babies dressed up as pumpkins. We have a voucher for a nearby bar and, like the cheapskate travellers we are, head there for a free drink then drink our bottle of £2.30 Bolivian wine on the roof of our guesthouse. Tony is right: Bolivian wine is on the up!
The next day we climb up to the mirador though I’m dragging my heels with all the walking we’ve been doing so we rest halfway and look at the city laid out beneath us then head back towards the centre.
In the plaza we get chatting to a lovely farmer called Pedro and we talk for ages, he invites us for a drink but we don’t have enough time as we need to call a tour agency. It’s disappointing but lovely to meet him and find out more about Bolivian life. He’s been a farmer for 40 years, is Quechua, talks about his crops and is interested in the Queen, our politics and Phil’s ginger hair. He looks at us through his glasses, with one leg broken off, and his skin creaks with age and sunshine.
Inside the whitewashed Casa de Libertad, the beautiful museum in the corner of the plaza, we learn more about Bolivian history. It was here that Bolivian independence was decreed and we saw a copy of the original manuscript bearing names from across the country to declare Bolivia an independent nation. Alongside the Bolivian flag there is the Wiphala flag, made of multicoloured squares that represent the native Andean people from all across the country. There has been a move in recent years to celebrate the many different cultures that make up Bolivia; 10 years ago, cholitas were second class citizens and had to sit at the back of the buses but now, thanks for president Juan Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of the country, they are equal. Morales is a controversial figure – everywhere we go we see SI or NON painted on walls, reflecting the debate over whether he should sit for a third term as president. He is bringing in taxes to built roads, hospitals and schools yet these sweeping reforms aren’t welcomed by all.
Leaving the sunlight courtyard we head back to our hostel to pack and get ready for our next stop – the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni!