Last known location: London, England

Loco in La Paz

We arrived in the Bolivian capital just before 6am, having had very little sleep on the bumpy ride and ready for a first shower in days and a warm bed! Luckily our hotel let us check in straight away, so that’s exactly what we got!

After snoozing for most of the morning we were woken by the sound of a brass band outside. We went out to investigate and found the first of many Good Friday processions winding it’s way through the streets. Along with the band playing their sombre tunes their was a litter carrying a life-size model of Jesus on the cross, borne by half a dozen people in slightly scary purple hooded cloaks, as well as women carrying doll-like figures of the Virgin Mary, which old ladies in the crowd repeatedly showered with handfuls of flower petals.

After a quick wander around the hilly streets we settled in to watch the sunset on the roof terrace at the hotel, overlooking the city. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world built into a steep valley with houses packed in ramshackle fashion into every conceivable space up the slopes. As soon as the sun disappeared the temperature plummeted and it was time to head for somewhere warm! We thought we’d stop off for a drink before dinner but there seemed to be an alcohol ban in place for Easter so no luck there! I’d been craving a decent Chicken Tikka Masala for ages, so we treated ourselves to a curry at The Star of India, which duly delivered the goods at last! The place is run by a Brit who was presumably homesick!

We still had three more days to explore the city, which unfortunately was something of a ghost town over Easter – anyone who can afford it apparently heads to Copacabana for the spectacular celebrations held there. There were plenty of people on the streets though, and amid all the locals selling souvenirs (you couldn’t go 30 seconds without seeing a backpacker wearing a woolly jumper adorned with Llamas) we found the Witches Market, selling all kinds of ingredients for local traditional medicine. The weirdest of which were dried Llama foetuses, in varying alien-like states of development. These are also buried under new buildings as a good luck charm – bad luck for the Llama!

During our stay we also passed the notorious San Pedro prison. This was made famous by the book ‘Marching Powder‘, which we’ve both read earlier on in the trip, as it was a favourite for the Vietnamese book-copiers! It tells the story of a British drug smuggler who was caught and imprisoned there, and the colourful characters he met inside. Those with money could get anything they wanted brought into the prison, and cells were bought and sold like houses, deeds and all. The inmate also used to give tours to travellers before his release, with a few bribes to the guards, but the embarrassment caused to the authorities by the book’s release seems to have put a stop to this. We still saw a few hopeful tourists hanging around outside on visiting day though!

Another highlight was the Coca Museum. Coca leaves have been grown and consumed throughout the Andes for centuries, and are said to relieve altitude sickness, reduce hunger and increase alertness – our guide and driver back in Uyuni were chewing them non-stop – and, since the active ingredients are broken down in the stomach, completely harmless. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Europeans discovered that Cocaine could be produced from the leaves, and it was quickly proclaimed a wonder drug and incorporated into all kinds of things, including Tonic Wines and Coca-Cola, which still contains Coca leaf derivatives today. The discovery only brought trouble for Bolivia though! From the 1980’s onwards American officials were in the country trying to eradicate the Coca crop until the current president Evo Morales (a former Coca grower himself) threw them all out, claiming that America’s social ills weren’t his problem – possibly a fair point! The museum was obviously quite one-sided but made it clear how culturally important Coca is to the locals, and even though chewing is banned by the UN, I can’t see them stopping any time soon!

La Paz is renowned as one of South America’s party cities, so we thought it would be rude not to join in! We headed out on Saturday night to a bar called ‘Sol y Luna‘ and settled in for a few beers. All was going well until midnight came, when the shutters came down, and our bill promptly arrived! We weren’t sure if this was because it was now Easter Sunday, but even the English pub next door was closing, so we assumed that was the end of the fun and headed home. On our way however, we stumbled across ‘Gota de Agua‘ (Raindrop) which had traditional Bolivian tunes blaring out and was packed with dancing locals who were partaking in what seemed a bit like Line Dancing gone mad (see very dingy video below!). After some wine and a jug of the local spirit and orange juice we soon joined them, and although we received plenty of tips and advice we definitely didn’t master it! After an interlude from a live Pan Pipe band there was more of the same, before we finally made it home in the early hours!

The rest of our time in La Paz was spent climbing up and down the hilly streets, constantly out of breath, and taking in what was left of the colonial architecture amid the chaotic building sites, including the surprisingly well kept main square and the 460 year-old Catedral San Francisco, which gave great views over the city. We also managed to have a very edible four course meal for 8 Bolivianos (67p) each – a bargain if ever there was one! La Paz also witnessed the momentous moment (!) when I tried my hundredth different beer of the trip. If you like that kind of thing – who doesn’t – then you can see them all by clicking here!

La Paz is definitely unique, but after 4 days we were ready to relax on the shores of Lake Titicaca – next stop Copacabana!

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