Jan 30, 2010
Sep 12, 2010
. The Bolivian and the Indigenous Flag fly side by side here. There are armed guards everywhere, some in the Buckingham palace red and white uniform, sweating beneath heavy hats. In keeping with this country's recently-won fright to freedom of speech, we encountered protest marches and gatherings frequently. Brass bands blared and strident voices squawked into megaphones, often punctuated by the ear splitting bang of fireworks.
We took a city tour to the south of La Paz, and got a look at the wealthy suburbs (likely thanks to coca trade, still one of Bolivia's top economic sectors). We passed a reeking dead "river", now little more than runoff for factory effluence and other putrid liquids. La Paz's smog problem is well known, and we suffered from choking smog in busy streets, so severe that we found it hard to breathe at times.
Still, the geography of La Paz is it's most striking feature. Houses and apartments spill down into the valley on all sides. Night falls fast, and suddenly thousands of windows light up against the darkening hills. La Paz at night, quiet, still and glittering as if sprinkled with fairy dust, is the image that endures.
At 3,660 meters, La Paz lies in a bowl shaped valley in the shadow of three towering Andean peaks; the tallest, Illimani, is 6,438 meters (over 21, 000') above sea level. La Paz's city center is bustling, modern and attractive; wealth and western influences are evident everywhere. We found brewed coffee here for the first time, a treat after weeks of the ubiquitous Nescafe. In contrast, outlying El Alto, sprawled around the rim of the bowl, is populated by the poor, indigenous under class. These workers come into the city center to sell their foods, wares, and handiwork in street markets. Here we see the iconic Chola, scowling beneath the too-small bowler hat perched atop her head. (Don't let the petticoats and lace shawl fool you: these are tough business women who never spare a smile for the curious tourist.) The heart of La Paz is Murillo Plaza, with flowering trees, benches and vendors selling balloons and ice cream. Ringing the plaza are an opulent and enormous Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, and other grand government buildings