A Week at 14,000 Feet

La Paz

I’ve mentioned La Paz in a few prior posts, however never much beyond a general overview because we were just passing through.  Let’s recap: it is built into the crater of an ancient (inactive) volcano, it’s a large urban metropolis at 14,000 feet above sea level (Denver, CO is at 5,000 feet), and it’s really hard to breathe the first day or so there.  After our expedition to Coroico and seeing the changes in terrain from the jungle to literally the top of the Andes Mountains, I had been wondering why La Paz is located where it is: how did this spot so high in the air, where you get winded climbing merely five stairs not to mention moving faster than a stroll, where your pounding heart serenades you to sleep at night, where even your eyes begin drying out for lack of air, how did this spot become a sprawling city?

La Paz

“Back in the day,” (for lack of a better phrase), merchants making their way along trails through the Andes Mountains into Peru would stop after going downhill into the crater.  After resting for a bit, they would continue their journey.  Gradually, over time, the merchant stop grew into the thriving metropolis that is La Paz today.  Makes sense.

We were staying in the beautiful home of one of Oscar’s uncles, an architect.  The first priority was preparations for our main event there: the presentation of Oscar’s newly-wedded sister and her husband at a lovely party in Oscar’s uncle’s backyard, which has a marvelous view of the surrounding mountains.  Needless to say, we spent a lot of time stuffed into cars going from stores to street markets making arrangements for tables and chairs, flowers, beverages, and anything and everything we could possibly need.

Street Market

Driving through La Paz is an experience all of its own.  Narrow byways intersect larger boulevards surrounded by your typical city skyscrapers mixed with smaller buildings.  However, to get from one side of downtown to the other, you have to wind your way up and down two mountains and over a system of three bridges called “the Triplets,” which nearly span the two mountains.  But the freaky part is the traffic rules, if there are any.  Forget following lines on the road: if you are going too slow, people pass whenever and wherever they please, even if that means turning out into oncoming traffic.  There are no lanes: if your car fits, it’s in a lane.  Red lights seem to be more like guidelines and yellow simply means accelerate faster.

Crossing the Triplets

Between errands for the party, we managed to get some time to see the city.  For lunch one of the days, we went to a cafe for my first salteña in Bolivia.  I’ve had them in the US before, at a Bolivian restaurant outside of DC called Luzmila’s, which I highly recommend to anyone in the area as an authentic Bolivian dining experience (Oscar and his family give it their stamp of approval).  Salteñas are a traditional Bolivian treat of chicken or beef and potatoes, with a slice of hard-boiled egg, encased in a slightly sweet dough: it’s kind of like a handheld pot-pie that comes in chicken or beef.  Everyone has their own way of eating them: some just bite, some spoon out the inside and eat the dough bit by bit, some take a few bites then drip some of the sauce onto a spoon.  Regardless, a clean plate without a single drop of sauce on it at the end of eating a salteña is a point of pride for Bolivians, which if you’ve ever eaten a potpie, you can imagine can be difficult to do.  You get the hang of it…with practice.

Salteñas

The drink in the picture, by the way, is fresh-squeezed nectarine juice.  One of the many great things about Bolivia is their juice.  Everything is freshly squeezed — no concentrate, no powders, no preservatives.  Literally fresh-squeezed juice: orange juice, pineapple juice, peach juice, apple juice, nectarine juice, mandarin juice.  There are ladies along the sidewalks that sell juice for about 3 Boliviano a cup (less than 50 cents), peeling and squeezing the fruit right into your cup.  So fresh and good, however I definitely recommend taking a preemptive Pepto or two.

Along with wonderful salteñas, we got to see the governmental center of La Paz.  Surrounding a public square are the Congress building, the Presidential Palace, and a beautiful cathedral housing the guarded tomb of Andrés de Santa Cruz, Simon Bolivar’s right hand man.

Presidential Palace

Tomb of Santa Cruz

After seeing those three sites, we wandered around the side streets riddled with market places selling silver wares, leather goods, and literally everything you could possibly think of being made from alpaca wool: sweaters, scarves, gloves, hats, socks ponchos, bags, leggings, I think I saw a summer dress or two…everything.  I took the opportunity to buy a few gifts for my family before taking a mini bus to meet up with the rest of the crew.

As I mentioned in my post about Cochabamba, mini buses are the less chaotic version of the city bus, although only slightly so.  They’re vans that follow a specific route and are anywhere from 1 Boliviano to 2.30 Boliviano depending on how far you go (.7 cents to .32 cents US).  There is a rider in the back poking his or her head out the window yelling out the route to the people on the sidewalks and opening the door for anyone getting on or off.  You pick it up like a taxi by hailing the driver and there are seats for 10 people, plus as many more as the driver thinks can fit.  At rush hour, you are most likely to be stuffed into the mini bus that’s zooming in and out of traffic, but for that price, it’s absolutely worth it.

La Paz was our launching point for our four day expedition to El Salar de Uyuni, and I only have two more places to talk about before those series of posts go up: Tiahuanacu and Copacabana/La Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca.  Tiahuanacu is the site of possibly the oldest civilization in the world and the Aymara people had some amazingly advanced technology for being a civilization possibly 10,000 years old.  We also took a day trip before El Salar to Lake Titicaca and La Isla del Sol via the lakeside town of Copacabana: La Isla del Sol is an astonishingly fertile island considering it’s altitude is higher than even La Paz and it was winter.  Keep checking back for those posts!

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Comments
One Response to “A Week at 14,000 Feet”
  1. Thanks for sharing this beautiful post! We’re also loving La Paz! Greetings from our traveling family! 😮

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