We arrived in La Paz early evening, checked into our rooms and decided to grab dinner at the hostel. We had a few drinks with Bobby and Jake and then things got interesting as it was Karaoke night at the hostel bar. People really got into their Karaoke songs and some (including JC, a friend of ours from California we had met earlier in Peru) even got up and danced on the bar, which was very entertaining. Farima and I sang the Aladdin Disney song, “A Whole New World” in honor of our Machu Picchu trek with Brittany and since it was one of the only songs I knew all the words to.
Our 2nd day in La Paz was pretty relaxing as we just grabbed lunch in the city, walked around a bit and didn’t do a whole lot after. The crew ended up heading out on the town that night but I didn’t join as I wasn’t feeling too great – and only slightly due to the previous night.
As we wanted to learn more about the history of La Paz, we decided to join the Free Walking Tour the following day. I find the walking tours quite interesting as they are usually led by young locals who have grown up in that city and it is nice to hear their perspective of its culture and politics from someone of the same generation. Our tour group consisted of around 40 tourists and only one guide, Mauricio. The meeting point of the tour was the San Pedro Prison, a prison essentially run by the inmates, where money can create a good life for you inside and you are even required to buy your own cell. Inside the prison there are shops, restaurants, and pretty much anything you can imagine in a small city. Some mothers and kids even live inside the prison with their father inmates as they cannot afford a life both inside and outside of it, which is a bit shocking and sad. On the tour, we learned that at one point tourists were actually allowed inside the prison as a form of tour but in the present times this has become quite dangerous. Tourists these days still try to enter the prison, fascinated by its concept and history. However, in the current day prison tours are strictly advised against.
After the brief history on San Pedro, we made our way to the Mercado de Hechiceria (Witches’ Market), which is a market lined with stalls selling various products ranging from cures to stomach pain to helping with your sexual life. One of these products is called a “come to me, come to me” potion, where it is rumored that if you blow the dust on the back of the person you fancy, they will immediately be attracted to you (no… I didn’t actually try it to see if the rumors were true, but maybe I should bring some home!). Our tour guide, Mauricio, then explained a little bit of the Bolivian culture to us. He explained that when a person wishes to build a new house or building, they must sacrifice a baby llama corpse along with some alcohol to Pachamama (Mother Nature), in hopes of good fortune and for permission to use the land. Rumor has it that if you keep Pachamama drunk, she will never have time to be mad. Therefore alcohol is often used in offerings to Mother Nature during most rituals in South America. The baby llama corpse which is sacrificed, is then buried under where the house is to be built and after the offering, the construction workers have a big party before commencing work on the building. Another big “rumor” we were told about was regarding sacrifices for bigger buildings. It was said that in the past, instead of just a baby llama, one would have to sacrifice an actual human corpse. To do this, whoever wished to build a big building would wander the streets looking for those who lived on the streets, with no home and no family to leave behind. They would then become friends with them, invite them to their home for a meal, get them drunk, and the killing would occur mostly by the builders poisoning the person’s food or drink. Afterwards, they would bury their dead corpse under the building and cover it up with concrete to avoid anyone, including the police, of finding out about the crime. Some say this tradition may still be practiced today but no can know for sure.
Our last stop on the tour was the Political Plaza, where Mauricio told us stories about past presidents, three of which really stuck in my mind. The first was about a Bolivian president who tried to abolish slavery in the country, with the citizens actually turning around and killing him only to realize their mistake after as he was actually a good person and a good president. Upon realization of this, they ended up building a statue in his honor which is situated in the plaza. The second story involved a president who was an American citizen, but born to Bolivian parents. They elected him even though he could barely speak any Spanish. During his term, he did not make the wisest decisions and ended up stealing a lot of money from the Bolivian banks, running away with it all back to the United States. It is said that he lives a very good and luxurious lifestyle in Maryland with a good majority of the money still left. The Bolivians (not surprisingly) are not the biggest fan of him and all want him prosecuted in the country, however, this case seems to have been going on for ages (UPDATE: the Bolivians recently won the case against this former president and he is now required to return to Bolivia to be put on trial and receive a verdict there). We had to leave the main plaza and hear the last story somewhere more secure as it was regarding the current president. Overall, we learned that the citizens of La Paz are generally happy with him as he has done a lot of good for the country, although he has expressed some unwise remarks and has tried to enforce not widely accepted laws and regulations. For example, during his term and to solve the low population crisis of Bolivia, he once tried to ban the use of condoms as well as tax women of a certain age (18+) who did not have any children – making it understandable as to why the majority of the citizens are sometimes inquisitive and unaccepting of his views.
After the tour there was an 18th story hotel where you could scale down the side of the building in your choice of costume using the proper gear and equipment. Of course I had to try it, but it was way scarier than I had anticipated. Three boys went before me and I was the last to go of the day. The act required you to angle your body to 90 degrees before you began walking down. As soon as I started walking down I slipped and that’s when I started to freak out. They told me to use my hands to push myself back on the wall and once I got my footing I began walking again and then with 30 meters left, I was instructed to let go of the rope entirely, making the rest of the distance a fee-fall down to the bottom. This was by far the most fun part of scaling the wall for me and made me glad I had tried it.
After the tour, we headed back to the hostel and got ready for a nice meal out. A big group of us, Jake, Jake’s friend Dash who just arrived from Los Angeles, Bobby, another Jake and Leo (who we had met on the walking tour), Farima, and myself went to the nicer part of town called Sopocachi for dinner. After dinner, we all headed back to the hostel for a night out together.
The next day was Sunday, perfect for sleeping in and relaxing, just like lazy Sundays back home. Something not found every Sunday back home however, is Cholita Wrestling. Every Sunday in La Paz, El Alto is home to overdramatic Mexican style wrestling matches with the main attraction being the indigenous women known as Cholitas. It was quite an experience and basically a really bad version of WWE, but with indigenous Bolivian women wrestling one another and sometimes the referees. The act started off with really bad fake fighting but then as the matches went on they turned out to be pretty entertaining. The fun part about Cholita Wrestling was it wasn’t just a tourist attraction, many locals and indigenous women came to watch the show as well. If you particularly didn’t like one of the fighters you could throw stuff including water bottles and food at them in the ring, but beware because they could throw it right back at you. One tourist threw a full water bottle (and many other things) at this one Cholita fighting and when he wasn’t paying attention she dumped an entire water bottle on him as payback, which was the highlight of the show for me! It was an interesting night to say the least and one bizarre experience. The show ended around 7 pm and we headed back to La Paz and our hostel shortly after.
The next day was Monday and finally time to bike down what is known as “Death Road”, aka the most dangerous road in the world. This road was said to be the most dangerous road in the world once upon a time, as in the past each year many vehicles plummeted over the edge killing many and risking the lives of others. Today, Death Road is rarely used by any vehicles as a new road that is safer and wider was recently built, however many tourists and bicyclists continue to use this as it is still one the main attractions of La Paz. Jake, Dash, Bobby, Farima, and I decided to go with the company Barracuda for our 3500 m descent from La Paz to Coroico. When we reached our starting point where our ride would begin, we suited up and made an offering to Pachamama for safe keeping. First we poured alcohol on the front wheel of our bike, then on the ground, and then had to drink a sip in order for Pachamama to look after us along the road. Unfortunately, the day started out quite cloudy and it didn’t really clear up much that day; it even began raining while we were biking down. We went quite slowly down the road just to be extra careful due to the weather conditions. Although the weather wasn’t the most desirable, it was still a beautiful ride as we rode through waterfalls and stopped occasionally to admire the views. Luckily, our group made it to the end without any injuries!
When we reached the bottom for lunchtime, we were all soaked and drenched. We were lucky the place had showers and we were able to change into nice dry clothes. After lunch we had a 4 hour drive back to La Paz. The drive back was a party in itself as our bike guides bought us all Cuba Libres (rum and coke) that some of us drank on the way back — some more than others. We all sang along to the songs that our guide was DJ-ing and one guy in particular really got into it. Having such a fun time on the bus helped the time go by and we were back in La Paz faster than expected.
We got ready and met up with the same crew for dinner and a few drinks as it was our last night with all of them. It was sad to say goodbye especially to Jake since we had been traveling with him for quite some time but I have no doubt I will run into all of them again, Jake, Dash and Bobby – it would be upsetting if it didn’t happen. Saying good-bye to people you become so close to in such a small amount of time is the hardest part of traveling, but also the most rewarding knowing you’ve created a life-long friendship.
Edited by: Farima M.