La Paz

Trip Start Jun 13, 2006
Trip End Jun 12, 2007

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Thursday, December 7, 2006

Alex: We traveled the long way round to La Paz as it included a stop in Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca (it was also cheaper and apparently more scenic!). The lake seems to stretch on forever and we were driving next to it for a good couple of hours before we reached the Bolivian border. The border crossing went without a hitch and before we knew it we were on the road again and soon arrived in Copacabana. Copacabana would be a fairly non-descript town if it wasn't for the lake, Lake Titicaca is almost split in two except for a small strait on the Peruvian/Bolivian border, Copacabana is situated just before the
strait and you get wonderful views of the length of the lake. The other thing that struck us about the town was the, already evident, difference between Peru and Bolivia, only a few miles from the border. Peru is not a rich country (60% of its population live below the poverty line) but Bolivia is noticeably poorer.  This was also evident in our "new" bus which would take us the rest of the way to La Paz, the Peruvian bus had been a lot nicer.  Shortly after leaving Copacabana we came to the strait, I was expecting a small ferry or maybe even a bridge, instead we had small speed boats for the passengers and little more than motorised rafts for the bus (I held my breath as I watched the bus coming to the other side with all my worldly belongings for the year strapped to the top - I wasn't convinced it would make it), a little excitement the person who sold us the tickets hadn't mentioned! The rest of the journey was fine, the first glimpse of La Paz is impressive, it is set in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains - wow.

After sorting out a hotel we went for a walk around the city as we needed to find a bank. Our guidebook described the city as tranquilo compared to other Latin American cities - that was not the side we saw. It was about 18:00 and the whole city seemed to be on the narrow streets made narrower by the multitude of stalls fighting for space. Not what I was in the mood for after 7 hours on a bus. We found a bank and rapidly went in search for a bar! Beer helped, as did food, and the cable TV in our hotel room!

We only had one full day in La Paz, partly because our first impressions hadn't been great (us as much as the city itself) but mainly because the train we wanted to catch from Oruro to Uyuni only leaves 2 days a week. We had seen a bit of the city the evening before and picked a few sights from the guide book. The first was the Mercado de Hechicerža or Witches Market. The market stalls lined a street near our hotel, and if you want a dried llama foetus or armadillo this is the place to come. All kinds of oddities are sold here to cure ills or protect from evil spirits, although the market wasn't as large as our guide book map suggested (or we couldn't find the main part). Our second stop was the Coca museum, which told the history of the plant and its use, from the religious and social uses of the Andean societies to its use in pharmaceuticals (it was the first local anesthetic) and soft drinks in the west to its abuse as cocaine. You have to feel sympathy for the Bolivian and Andean people, they used the Coca leaf for years with no problem and when the west got hold of it they reaped the benefits (and the profits) and now are punishing the growers, who often live in abject poverty, for the supply of cocaine. The museum was very good and were came away with a load of new facts both interesting and disturbing, for instance apparently although that famous softdrink no longer contains cocaine, coca leaves are still used for flavour! More disturbing were the uses coca leaves were put to by the colonisers of South America, chewing coca leafs produces an insensitivity to hunger and tiredness (we tried it in Arequipa and it also tastes disgusting) and mine owners took full advantage of this with 48 hour days with no breaks for food and only coca leaves to chew. As none of the other museums particularly interested us, Dean decided to do something he has wanted to do since the beginning of the trip - go to a British Embassy. After a 2km walk (harder than it sounds at 3660m above sea level in a hilly city) we reached the embassy, our excuse for going was to let them know we were in the country in case of any emergency (it recommends you do this on the FCO website). We were kind of expecting a little bit of UK in Bolivia, which was kind of true - it was like a posh doctors waiting room except with a bit more security! Registering your presence in the country can be done online and we were just directed to a computer in the corner and left to it before been given some fairly common sense advice (don't walk down dodgy streets, keep and eye on your belongings etc). Not very exciting really!

La Paz seemed a nice enough city in the short time we had there, that said I don't feel like I have missed a great deal by only having a day there. Early bus tomorrow for Oruro and then on to Uyuni to see the salt flats!

Dean:  British Embassy -I was expecting commandos on the gates, snippers on the roof, and Ox-bridge graduates drinking tea inside.  All very disappointing!
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