Nuestra Senora de La Paz, Bolivia (translated: Our Lady of Peace, Bolivia), the de facto capital of Bolivia, is set in a valley high in the Bolivian Andes. At about 4,000 meters, or 13,100 feet, La Paz may be the highest capital city in the world. This metropolis can feel overwhelming at first, but it is a great place to wander around with a good map, and take in the unique atmosphere.
We actually had the opportunity to visit La Paz twice, once before and once after our trip to the jungle. Our first time in La Paz, we arrived from Copacabana, Bolivia and had a fun little river crossing during our bus ride. All the passengers of the bus had to get off and pay for a water taxi, while the bus drove onto a separate ferry in order to cross the river. Then, everyone hopped back on the bus for another hour and a half through the barren Altiplano until we rounded the bend from the suburb of El Alto to an impressive view of the city sprawled across the valley floor with a snow capped mountain backdrop.
On our first night in La Paz, we were able to get delicious Indian food from a British curry house, and it was nice to enjoy a change of cuisine. On the following day (Adam´s 23rd Birthday!!), we meandered through a few of the city’s markets and happened upon quality, fake merchandise (Colombia & North Face gear for $30 anyone??). We also encountered what is known as the Witches’ Market, which is filled with old ladies selling a number of strange herbs, spices, and other items (including dried llama fetuses!) for people to use in whatever recipes they may be concocting.
Next stop: the Coca Museum. This informative little den was started by scientists, psychologists, and other anti-drug activists to educate people on the difference between coca & cocaine. For those who don´t know, coca is a plant commonly grown in the Andes, which is eaten, chewed, or made into a tea to help alleviate the effects of the altitude. It is also, unfortunately, the same plant that is processed into cocaine & other drugs.
The museum provides visitors with a background of the ancient uses of coca, how to use it properly, a description of how coca effects the body versus how cocaine effects the body, how coca is processed into cocaine, a brief overview of the war on drugs in Bolivia, and examples of past and modern day “medicines” that use coca as an ingredient. This includes, as you may have guessed, good ‘ole Coca Cola. On the second floor of the museum is a cafe serving up all types of goodies containing coca or coca extract, such as coca cookies, brownies, and coca tea or coffee.
Since we had already had coca tea in Cusco, we skipped the coca cafe and continued to explore the rest of the pedestrian street behind the main square. Later that night, we went to a Japanese restaurant to celebrate Adam’s birthday. On the walk back, we got to see a group of dancers practicing in the main square, which culminated in fireworks, one of which went horizontal instead of vertical – oops! but luckily it did not hit anyone in the crowd. Overall, Adam said that it was one of the strangest birthday’s he has ever had with finding the “black market,” the Witches’ Market, touring a coca museum, eating Japanese food in a Spanish speaking country, and ending with fireworks on a cold winter´s night when he normally has a summer birthday.
The following day, we decided to make arrangements to go to the Bolivian Amazon jungle, so we did a little research and talked with a few travel agencies to see what they offered. We also found great Cuban food at A Lo Cubano and explored one of the larger city parks, as well as part of an upscale section of the city where many of the embassies are located. This area contains supermarkets stocked with international cuisines, a number of coffee shops, international restaurants, and bakeries (my personal recommendation for coffee is Cafe Alexander – great cappuccinos & bagged coffee beans grown in the Yungas region of Bolivia).
Before we left La Paz the first time, we got to witness one of La Paz’s largest, annual festivals – Dia Universitario. This festival consists of a day-long parade of groups of university students dressed up in full costumes, each doing different indigenous dances as the parade through the center of the city. On parade day, usually July 26th or the closest weekend date, about 70 groups of dancers participate in the parade. We thought it was an exaggeration when our hostel receptionist told us that the parade would continue the whole day, but we watched for 3+ hours in the afternoon and at 10pm that night we still heard music from the parade.
Coming back to La Paz after our trip to the jungle, we were content to wander around any streets we had not seen yet and enjoy city´s variety of cuisines before heading to Sucre, our next destination. We also took at day trip to Tiwanaku, arguably one of Bolivia`s most important ruins, as well as one of Bolivia`s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
A pre-Incan civilization once inhabited the site of Tiwanaku, located an hour and a half bus ride from La Paz in northwestern Bolivia. We went with a tour company to the site, but I would not recommend this. The guide was not very informative and the whole tour was rushed, except for the hour and a half lunch break. If you want to visit the site, I would take a public bus so that you can decide how long to stay at the site and admire the amazing stonework and strange stone heads that remain intact at the site.
The Tiwanaku people were actually enslaved by the Incan civilization as stone workers. They are most likely the people responsible for the characteristic Incan stonework found in many of the most famous ruins in Peru. In addition to being great stone workers, the Tiwanaku people were also skilled in metallurgy and astronomy, evidenced by the orientation of many of their religious temples. There are two museums at the site in addition to the ruins, but only the ceramics museum is really worth anytime. Tiwanaku is also semi-famous for the mystery behind how they were able to cut such precise lines in the gigantic stones they used in their buildings, and why the stone heads in one of the temple walls are all different, leading some people to believe that the site was once visited by extraterrestrials.