La Paz is one of the few cities where we have found that taking a tour has many benefits over the DIY approach
It can be a daunting city to find your way around and, as we were only spending a couple of days in the city, a guided tour was a time and cost effective way of hitting the main places of interest.
Bright and early on Sunday morning our guide Milton, from Banjo Tours, met us at our apartment at the lower end of Avenida 6 de Agosto, the main thoroughfare of La Paz. He was a very personable guy who had a wealth of information to impart about the history of La Paz, its culture and its people.
We started off by walking up Avenida 6 de Agosto from the apartment. On a Sunday morning, it was alive with handicraft stalls, food vendors, dance troupes and bands playing everything from rock to traditional Bolivian music. Everyone seemed to be having a go ( regardless of talent!)
Next was the infamous San Pedro prison, the only prison in South America run by its inmates! Housing around 2500 “residents” and controlled by just 25 guards whose primary job is to facilitate the entry and exit from the prison, nothing else. The prisoners are fed two meals a day and forced to work for a third. Cells are not free, If inmates cannot afford to pay they live “on the streets” inside the prison, which is far more dangerous than life on the streets outside! The inmates run the place – shops, barbers, restaurants and labs producing high quality cocaine both for trafficking outside and for “home” consumption. The authorities have been trying to close it down for years and move the inmates to other prisons but it is still there!
The prison has its own justice system with the prisoners acting as judges, jurors and often executioners to inmates that breach their self-imposed rules. The population ranges from petty criminals to powerful drug barons. The wealthier inmates purchase and equip there own cells, some living a lives of comparative luxury. Poorer inmates have to scrape a living as best they can, either relying on relatives from outside for handouts or by working for the wealthier “neighbours”. There is quite a class system within the prison. Sorry, no photos allowed!
Whilst hanging out in the plaza we were approached by the self-named “Crazy Dave”. He told us he was a New Yorker who spend 15 years in the prison when caught at the airport trying to smuggle several kilos of cocaine back to the USA. A pleasant guy with many tales to tell. We spent quite a while chatting with him. This attracted the attention of some of the police in the square. To avoid confrontation, he went over to them and started chatting with them too. Apparently he is quite a legend in La Paz
Our guide became a little concerned about the build up of guards and police around the prison. Some buses had arrived, presumably to transport the prisoners to another prison. So he led us off to our next destination of Plaza Murillo and government house.
Outside government house in Plaza Murillo, the guards reminded us of a very low key version of the guards outside Buckingham Palace, back home in London. The plaza itself was full of pigeons, again, just like Trafalgar square used to be.
Milton explained something of the recent history of Bolivia, pointing out the bullet holes in the facade of one of the buildings in the square where the Army fought with the police back in 2003. He also explained how, until Evo Morales came to power ten years ago, Bolivia got through an astonishing number of presidents! Years ago, apparently numerous presidents were hanged in the square! It seems politics is, or at least was, a thankless and dangerous job here.
Mid-morning we stop at a cafe famous for the best salteños in La Paz. Similar to the ubiquitous empanadas found in Argentina and a much smaller version of the original Cornish Pasty from my home county of Cornwall. They did in fact migrate here from Salta in Northwest Argentina and are, as any Bolivian will tell you, a major improvement on the empanada! Delicious they certainly were, albeit a little messy to eat! The meat ones are the most popular but I preferred the chicken. The meat ones include a lot of gravy and apparently, if you spill any it means you are not a good kisser!
From Plaza Murrillo we head ever upwards to Plaza San Francisco, the main square of La Paz and took a look around the beautiful colonial church there. a mixture of architectural styles and one of the most famous buildings in the country .
From the plaza we wander uphill through the streets in the area generally known as the witches market. The market supplies all the paraphernalia used by the shamens (witchdoctors) used in their rituals. Dried llama foetuses are the most obvious and are hanging from stalls everywhere. $200 for a big one apparently, but where would you put it?.
These shamanic rituals are still a very much a part of daily life in Bolivia. For those that simply don’t have the time to choose, there are pre-packed baskets of offerings ready to be burnt in the rituals; There is also a huge array of potions for sale supposedly curing everything from constipation and infertility to impotence and headaches!
Milton explains what everything means and does and the reasons for which people make their offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Some people are buying individual items , but for those that don’t have the time to choose, there pre-packaged baskets containing sweets, fake money and anything else which presumably may be of use in the afterlife?
On our last visit a few years ago, getting to El Alto involved jumping in a collectivo. Now the city has a network of very swish cable cars which must make life a lot easier for the people. It certainly did for us!
We made our way to the station close to the witches market and were whisked up to El Alto. This cable car ride must surely rank as one of the most spectacular anywhere in the world! The views are simply breathtaking. The snow capped mountains that surround La Paz providing a very impressive backdrop.
Arriving in El Alto is like arriving in an entirely different city. Firstly, it is a lot “grittier” than La Paz proper. As we wander from the very modern and impressive cable car station through the market stalls we notice how much cheaper and fresher all the produce is.
This is where most La Paz residents do their shopping and you can by virtually anything here. A whole section is devoted to indeterminable car parts. Next to that is the secondhand car stall – a big van with photos of cars and vans stuck to the side. The market goes on for miles and miles. As soon as we arrive, Milton warns us to watch our stuff and each other. Apparently, pickpockets are everywhere. Good advice as on our last trip I felt a hand in my pocket, put my own hand in only to end up holding hands with this sweet looking old lady trying to steal my wallet.
Eventually we find our way to the shamen’s alley which consists of a long street of huts where we see the remnants of the bonfires where people have burnt the offerings we saw earlier in the Witches market. No too much activity, but it is a Sunday afternoon.
One of the advantages of visiting El Alto on a Sunday is that we can tick off another “must do” item, in La Paz, the Cholitas Wrestling!We bought our tickets early and were given seats in the tourist/VIP area. A little concerning at first as they were ringside and not behind the wire barriers where all the locals sat.
After some dancing and some words from the master of ceremonies (and referee), the first combatants entered the arena. Somewhat surprised to see that the first bout was between two men. After much parading around and winding up of the audience, which involved one of them, a heavily made up transvestite, giving be a big lipstick smeared kiss! I knew ringside seats would have their downside!!
The bout was hilarious. The one that followed, even more so. The second match involved a mixed tag team. Goodies versus baddies, much flying around and throwing out of the ring, a bit of blood, some real, most fake hastily applied when the combatants found themselves thrown under the ring! When the men on both sides started to get the worst of it, the crowd went wild, throwing, amongst other things, bread rolls at the fighters??
Politically correct? Probably not, but a great afternoon’s entertainment nevertheless.
After our fill of wrestling we walked to the collectivo stop for a bus back down to La Paz at the end of a great, but exhausting (don’t underestimate the altitude,) day out. If you do nothing else in La Paz, take this tour. It really is a great way to see the highlights of the city in a short space of time. Banjo Tours were excellent.