Flying from Sucre to La Paz, we straddled the Andes, gazing at saw nude peaks, Matterhornian mountains and tiny, high lakes from the plane. Nearing the city, it seemed impossibly situated. Imagine an incredibly high flat plain (over 4,000 meters). There is a newer city on the plane, El Alto, which is smaller than La Paz, but still sizable. Then, there is a tremendous jaggy gorge clefting the plain, descending hundreds if not thousands of meters. It sparkles with buildings, and reminds me of the inside of a crater egg — an immense craggy hollow coated in twinkling crystals. The above is only a corner of it.
Driving hundreds of meters into this canyon, we reached downtown La Paz. The city is entirely on hillsides, so most streets are quite steep, and leave you panting. Taxi rides were slightly terrifying at first.
Our hotel’s neighborhood was the "Black Market," and near the "Witch’s Market." It was a chaotic, frenetic place, with milling crowds, and it smelled faintly of urine. I had altitude sickness the first day, and this wasn´t a great place for it.
The Black Market wasn´t actually so sinister though; it was just a permanent street market where you could buy anything — hardware, eggs, paint, luggage, clothing, etc. Stalls sold accoutrements for the Amayra women’s traditional outfits too — festooned pleated skirts, bowler hats, shawls, modified Maryjane shoes, and even braids of real human hair, for girls who want to dance traditional dances, but not grow traditional braids.
The Witch’s Market was more unusual. It consisted of several shops that sold everything you´d need to cure lung cancer, grow a bumper crop of quinoa, or buy a mansion. In addition to selling traditional herbal remedies, the shops also sold amulets, cure-alls and ingredients for offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) or other deities. Christian and pagan melded, and representations of the Virgin shared space with the ever present llama fetuses.
We saw soaps to improve your love life, red roosters to help find a beau, or special candy for Pachamama. Or Ekeko, the cigar-smoking god of fortune, who reminds us of Vietnam´s Genie of the Earth.
Native people still shop at the market, and tourists go to gawk. So there was also tourist tat for sale. Further down the street was a kind of gringo alley, with hostels, internet cafes, restaurants, and the ubiquitous alpaca sweater stores.
Other parts of town had grand colonial buildings.
Or art deco…
Or these terrible post-modern experiments gone awry — glass towers ¨sprouting out of¨ colonial buildings. Yes, the colonial building below is actually ¨broken¨ so the tower can sprout out, and its windows have been replaced with reflective glass so they´ll ¨blend.¨ We´ve seen these in multiple places on the continent so far.
We loved this train station (now a bus station) built by the brothers Eiffel.
One night we had dinner at a traditional restaurant with local music and dancing; I had steak while Jason ate llama.
The National Archeology Museum was housed in a former archeologist’s mansion. The Tihaunacu objects within are fascinating; Tihuanacan culture is the predecessor of Inca culture. They built stone structures with amazingly flat surfaces, and precise right angles. The zigzag motifs of their architecture are lovely, and remind me of art deco. It was fitting, then, that the architect’s mansion was a mix of art deco style and Tihuanacan; and it had a jugenstyle feeling.
On a day trip to Tihuanaco, we went to another museum of Tihuanacan objects. Most impressive was a two-story high stone statue of Pachamama. It had the same geometric angles as their architecture, and was inscribed with stylized motifs like condor-headed men. Locals are superstitious about this particular Pachamama, as disaster strikes whenever it´s moved. Photography of the Pachamama is prohibited. We also saw some jaguar-headed gods.
At Tihuanacu, native people were helping archaeologists to dig. The sun and moon gates, and a temple to the underworld were most impressive.
Apparently they, as well as the statues, were once covered in gold leaf. The Spanish damaged or destroyed many of treasures, in their haste to find gold. Our guide was telling us that now, various new age groups think aliens built the site, and that the Mormons even lay claim to it. Apparently, there are many new age pilgrimages to the site.
That evening, we took a cab to Zona Sur, the neighborhood of wealthy Bolivians and expats. La Paz’s demographic/geographic strata is opposite other hilly cities in that the poor live high on the hill, and the wealthy live lower down. Perhaps this is a function of the wealthy wanting to live at a lower, more comfortable altitude. Our cab descended the jagged canyon for 45 minutes and hundreds of meters, past mountainous rock formations and stacks of little brick houses. Though inhabited, the brick houses mostly looked unfinished, as Bolivians have to pay higher taxes on finished structures. So they hold off on surfacing or painting indefinitely.
In contrast, as we finally entered Zona Sur, there were mansions with large gardens and tall fences. Parks and community centers were well looked-after. And the "downtown" area looked like a little retail Disneyland with a Starbucks imitator, stores selling "Argentine Fashion," and the first sushi restaurant we’d seen in weeks. Zona Sur looked nothing like what we’d previously seen in Bolivia, and in fact, more closely resembled an affluent American suburb. Natives in traditional dress begged on the streets; their costumes stood out in Zona Sur. This was the biggest stratification between rich and poor we’d seen since Cambodia.
Some of the most poignant signifiers were the Red Bull-mobile, parked curbside; rich kids screaming obscenities at each other from SUVs: or the fact someone had scrawled Ramons lyrics onto walls –nowhere is "I wanna be sedated" less meaningful.
But on the bright side, Bolivia has its own Iron Maiden fan base. Rock on!