La Paz, hidden metropolis in the Bolivian Andes

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17-22/01/2014

Some places in the world have a natural attractive; there is something to them that makes them irresistible.  Although at first sight it’s not a top ten location, not many cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz, which offers you a first glimpse as the bus crawls over the lip of the narrow canyon in which the city sits hunched.  It’s a sight that will leave your lungs gasping for oxygen they can’t have.  A city which lies between 3250 and 4100MASL, amid a hollow gouged into the ‘altiplano’, is a scene of stunning contrasts: a central cluster of church towers and office blocks minimized by the magnificent icebound peaks of Montaña Illimani rising superiorly to the southeast.  On either side, the steep valley slopes are covered by the ramshackle homes of the city’s poorer population, tight-fitting precariously to even the harshest gradients.  It’s an area we pass through the day we decide to improve our height record of 4800MASL.  After a long ever climbing trip, passing rivers that take ice water straight from the mountains to the capital and defy the verticality of the mud tracks, we get out of the van and start a walk through the eternal snow.  Heartbeat starts to rise, respiration gets faster and deeper but step by step we wade our way through the mist and just at the moment we are about to suffer a whiteout we reach our goal: Chacaltaya at 5300MASL! A defiance worthy your considerations.

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Less difficult but nevertheless beautiful is the at 10km from downtown, Valle de la Luna (moon valley) as a feature of half day walk out of the hectic metropolis and astonishing demographic site.  It comprises an area where erosion has worn away the majority of a mountain, composed primarily of clay rather than rock, leaving tall spires.  It is similar to another zone of La Paz that is known as El Valle de las Animas (The valley of the souls).  Because the mineral content of the mountains varies greatly between individual mountains the sides of the mountains are different colours, creating striking illusions.  A majority of them are a clear beige or light brown colour, but some are almost red, with sections of dark violet.

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With a population of around 1,7million, La Paz as capital is the political and commercial hub of Bolivia.  Protected to some extent from the tides of globalization by its isolation and singular cultural make-up, La Paz feels better than it looks and is in some way surprisingly modern.  Hi-tech international banks and government offices rub shoulders with vibrant street markets , occupying each one of them several blocks, as the ‘Mercado de Brujas’ selling herbs, different remedies and  all manner of ritual paraphernalia, for pacifying the spirits and the mountain gods that still play a central role in the lives of the indigenous Aymara.

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The Aymara, in fact, make up not only the majority of the city’s population, but also that of ‘El Alto’ , La Paz’s militant, red brick alter ego, which continues to outstrip it in terms of rural migrant-boosted population.  For them, working life in La Paz is conducted largely on the streets, and at times the whole place can feel like one massive, sprawling market.

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Here everything can be found several times if you take the time.  And much more interesting even is the world’s unique Cholitas Wrestling where indigenous woman dressed in their folkloric outfit take their revenge on each other, other male wrestlers and even the arbitrator.  Different epic highly entertaining fights are served during the night and a healthy way to take pressure out of daily live as locals are shouting and empathize with one of the athletes.  We got extra lucky as surprisingly two Israelis, friends we met earlier on the journey in Guatemala, step into the ring and play along with one of the Cholitas.  We had the laugh of our lives!

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Our recommendations:

–          There are lots of hostels in a city as La Paz: as we arrived we checked El Solar (55B)for one night, a nice hostal, situated in the center close to the Mercado de Bujas, low prized but with the hallway as common area and a lock on the door from 11 o’clock  there is a lot of noise and music playing going on till the early morning.  The second day we changed to Hospedaje Milenio (70B) which is just the right place to be.  An oasis in between the grey city jungle with great service, nice breakfast , very clean rooms and a tourist office for all kind of information.

–          Valle de la Luna just costs 15B a person and is a nice and easy escape from the bustling urb.

–          Cholitas wrestling is a must-do!  It’s cultural heritage in any way you look at it.  At ticket costs 50B, including: transport  from and to the centre, a drink, popcorn and a gadget as memory. Fighting only on Sundays.

–          Buying bus tickets is the best the same day at the bus station, go 2/3hours before and get a discount depending on your skills.

–          Transport to Chacaltaya has cost us 65B each as there is no other way to do it in one day with public transport.

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