La Paz – Bolivia’s bustling and chaotic capital

I’ve spent a great deal of time in La Paz, generally doing nothing interesting or useful, but for the past few days I’ve been able to explore the city in a way I never was able to during my many previous visits. I really enjoy the chaos of the Bolivian capital, with its constant touts for minibuses and shoeshines battling it out for business on the sidewalks and plazas. The city is full of contrasts, old and new, loud and quiet, young and old.  

 

Street Art near the Witches Market
 
During previous visits, I went to places like the San Francisco Church and Witches Market, but little else. San Francisco church is a colonial church located along the primary street running through the core of the city. The church itself is generally not open for visits, but the connected museum tour is an excellent way to see the inside of the church complex and hear the history of the church and the city. The Witches Market, located in and around Calle Linearas, sells good luck charms (like llama fetuses!) and elements for Aymara rituals, called ch’allas. The entire area around the church and market are really touristy and are the most popular parts of La Paz for visitors.    

San Francisco Plaza
  
Dried llama fetuses in the Witches Market
 
During this longer visit, I went to all the traditional tourist attractions as well as as few not so popular destinations. Kirsten and I arrived in La Paz on Wednesday afternoon after a crazy trip to the city from Copa during a snowstorm. When we arrived, we checked into a hotel along El Prado and grabbed some lunch before returning to the hotel for long overdue hot showers – nothing feels better than a hot shower with good water pressure after two months without either. Afterwards, we took a cab to the La Paz International Book Fair, located in a conference center type building in the south of the city. We shared a cab with a lovely Mexican family from our hotel who happened to have already been heading in that direction, which was great. The fair itself was fantastic and there were two giant floors of booksellers selling books about every topic imaginable (I found a book on Bolivan a Forensic Anthropology!). We stayed for about an hour and a half before heading back to the hotel for dinner. We met up with a friend at Pollos Copacabana, a La Paz fast food chain with really great fried chicken (I ended up going back twice more).   
The Book Fair
 
The following morning we headed to the Ethnographic Museum near Plaza Murillo. This museum is probably one of the best museums I’ve ever visited anywhere. The displays were fantastically put together and very modern. There was one section on the various dances of Bolivia that was especially amazing. The museum is huge, we ended up spending quite a long time inside. When we finally left the museum, we headed back to El Prado via Plaza Murillo. Plaza Murillo is home to the Bolivian Presidential Palace and a Catholic Church. The Presidential Palace is interesting as it is home to the Clock of the South, Bolivia’s response to a perceived colonial imposition of clock direction While there are a number of problematic issues related to colonialism still facing many countries, clock direction is not one of them – changing it just confuses everyone.  

 

Clock of the South in Plaza Murillo
 
Once we made it back to El Prado, we had a quick lunch and went back to the hotel to grab our bags and check out. We shared a cab to our next destinations, Kirsten to the airport for her flight home, and me to my new hostel located further up the street up from the San Francisco Plaza. Once I got to my hostel we bid each other farewell and I began my 5 weeks of solo travel across southern South America. I stayed at the Adventure Brew hostel, located only a couple blocks from the bus terminal. I picked the 8 bed dorm and ended up having the whole thing to myself during my entire stay, which was both great and boring. 
For the rest of the day, I visited the museum along the old colonial street of Calle Jaen. This street has a four museum combo ticket available for 10 Bs ($1.40). The museums are located in old colonial homes, and include a Costume Museum, the Murillo House (one of the men who conducted the overthrow of the Spanish rule and was executed), the Museum of the Bolivian Sea (they’re still bitter and want it back), and the Museum of Precious Metals. Of these museums, only the Precious Metals Museum is well put together. I visited all of them in about 30 minutes and then carried on in other places. I returned to Plaza Murillo, where a very large number of pigeons had congregated in a very unsettling fashion. I returned to my hostel soon after and then met up with a friend for dinner before returning to my hostel to get ready for my morning bike trip down the Death Road.   

 

Calle Jaen
 
When I went down to the lobby the following morning for my tour, I was told it was cancelled due to the weather. I was both disappointed and relieved, as I had been up since 3 AM with some food poisoning-like stomach issues and wasn’t ready to bike anyway. I went back to bed to recover from the sickness and then ran around the city reorganizing my trip schedule for the Death Road trip the following day. After rebooking the trip, changing my bus ticket to Sucre, and booking another night at my hostel, I took a local minibus to Valle de la Luna, located about 10 km south of the city centre. The ride down took about an hour and a half and cost a whopping 35¢. 

 Valle de la Luna (entry 15 Bs – $2.14) is a canyon which was carved out by the many rivers which flow through this part of the city. There are two trails available to hike during the visit, a short 15 minute walk or a 45 minute hike through the canyon. I chose the latter and was not disappointed. The landscape is beautiful and feels like a completely different world than the bustling city located so close by. There were very few other visitors when I was there, which made it so much better as the atmosphere felt more desolate and isolated. I stayed for over an hour before heading back to the city on a micro and grabbing an early supper at Pollos Copacabana so I could rest for the next day’s activities.  

 

Valle de la Luna
 
I spent all day Saturday biking the Death Road, which has already been written about elsewhere. I grabbed supper in the local market afterward with a few guys from my hostel who were also on my bike tour and then passed out from exhaustion not long after returning. Sunday was a slow day in terms of activities, as everything still hurt from the bumpiness of the biking the prior day. After enjoying the all you can eat pancake breakfast at the hostel, I went to the Altitude Biking office to pick up the photo CD that was included with my tour and then walked toward the Sopocachi Teleferico station. Along the way, I stumbled upon San Pedro Plaza, home to the infamous prison. As I descended along the street, the general atmosphere changed from the familiar chaotic Bolivia to a calm and upscale feeling. Along the walk, the frequency of people walking small dogs in sweaters increased exponentially, as well as the number of fancy restaurants and bars. In one plaza I stumbled into a festival for dogs where there were dog sweaters for sale and puppies up for adoption.  

 

San Pedro Plaza
 
I made it to the Teleferico station, which is located at the top of a very large hill, not long after finding the dog festival. The station is part of the Yellow Line, which I had not previously used. I took the cable car up to Estacion Mirador in El Alto to see the cityscape as I ascended the hill. Once I reached the top I wandered around El Alto in the parts surrounding the station to take photos of the city below. From there I took the Teleferico back down across the rest of the city to the Green Line, which is connected to the Yellow Line for access to the districts of Obrajes and Calacoto. I took the Yellow to the Green Line until it ended in Calacoto.  

 

La Paz from Mirador Station in El Alto
 
The Calacoto district is a bizarre section of La Paz which feels like it could be SoCal in an alternate universe. As soon as I stepped out of the station I was greeted by a donut stall and a snow cone vendor, two things I hadn’t seen in Bolivia before. As I wandered through the streets of this clearly upscale neighborhood, I stumbled into a supermarket where I found all the things I hadn’t seen in the two previous months I’d been in Bolivia. After succumbing to the call of a large chunk of smoked provolone cheese and aloe vera juice, I continued to explore the district for a bit longer. I had lunch in a random kebab place which had really cheap gyros (13 Bs, $1.85) and caught a micro back to my hostel, where I spend the last couple hours charging everything for this ongoing overnight bus ride (it didn’t do much, the phone died already and it’s only been 3 of 12 hours). Anyway, the next destination is Bolivia’s first capital city, Sucre! 

Calacoto from the Green Line

Two days of Dance – La Entrada Universitaria and the Day of the Campesino in Siripaca

Every year in La Paz there is a large dance festival put together by the local university, called the Entrada Universitaria. This festival includes dances from across Bolivia which are predominately performed by university students. The dances begin near the bus station and continue downtown along El Prado and Camacho streets, and they last the entire day.

 

Male Morenada Dancer
 
Kirsten and I took the bus to La Paz early in the morning to make it there with enough time to see most of the dances. We got dropped off near the cemetery and had to walk through the cemetery (which was really cool) to get to the teleferico station which went toward the bus station downtown. We made it to the dance around 11 AM and rented a ground level seat in order to get some good pictures of the dancers. The dances are very diverse and come from both the lowland and highland regions of Bolivia. We both much preferred this festival to the Chacaltaya festival we attended a few weeks earlier due to the greater diversity of dances and costumes. The dancers at this festival also seemed to be much more happy to be performimg compared to the other festival. My favorite dance was the Tobas, which comes from the Amazonian part of Bolivia. The dancers carry spears and bows and the costumes feature lots of colorful feathers and skulls. We stayed for a few hours before catching the bus back to Copacabana.  

 

Tinku
  
Waca Waca Dance
  
Diablada
  
Tinku
 
The following day, we were invited to another dance festival in the village of Siripaca, about 30 minutes from Copacabana. This festival was put together by a number of small villages for the school kids to perform various dances for the communities. We arrived just after noon and were treated to a lunch of potatoes, oca, sweet potatoes, and chicken, before the dances began. The kids started dancing about 40 minutes later. One of the first dances involved small children dressed as birds dancing around a large paper egg, out of which an even smaller child popped out of after a few minutes, which was adorable. The dancers got progressively older as the performances went on, and because of that the quality got better. Many of the dances had live bands from their respective villages playing along with the children, though a few just used a CD for the dance track. The dances lasted for about an hour and a half, after which Kirsten and I walked down to the lake to take photos of the mountains and sit in the shade, since the sun was pounding down on us during the dances. We stayed about 2 hours after the dances ended, which was completely unnecessary, but the day was still enjoyable as the children dancing was very entertaining. Overall it was great two days of dance festivals, both urban and rural.  

 

Kids dressed up like birds
  
Lowland Bolivian dance
 

Chacaltaya – El Alto’s impressive dance festival 

Chacaltaya is a giant multi-day dance festival which occurs in El Alto, Bolivia, the sprawling expanse of city just outside of La Paz. Thousands of Bolivians participate in the dances, which are sponsored by a series of wealthy locals each year. The dancers practice the dances for weeks before the official day, and the bands play new songs written especially for that year’s festival.  
We arrived at the festival around 10 AM and rented some top row seats for a good view of the dances. A majority of the dances performed were Morenada, which is a Bolivian dance which imitates the African slaves in chain-gang which were brought by the Spanish during the colonial period. Each group of performers were huge, many with a couple hundred dancers and a large band which marched in between two large groups of dancers so they could all hear the music. Most of the musicians weren’t especially great, and had serious problems keeping a steady beat/tempo. There were occasionally non-Morenada dances, but they were few and far between. The crowds got progressively larger as the day went on, and the bench seating (similar to bleachers at a sporting event) got more crowded and uncomfortable as the day went on. If we weren’t there with other people I would have left soon after the bleachers filled due to the crowding, but we stayed for a few more hours.  
The festival is absolutely worth seeing if you’re in La Paz at the time, but probably not for an entire day like we were since a majority of the dances are the same. We saw very few other tourists visiting the festival, which is a shame since it’s a true Bolivian experience in a very accessible location for visitors to La Paz. I’d recommend staying for at least 1-2 hours if you want to see the gist of what’s happening, but no more than half a day is really necessary.