Tijuana on Steroids

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
Trip End Dec 22, 2011

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, November 5, 2011

Any arrival into La Paz makes an impression, and a certain wow factor hits all the senses at every turn.  First impressions in the very poor suburb of El Alto sprawling atop the flat Altiplano are merely the appetizer for everything La Paz will soon dish up.   Picture riding along a bumpy street dotted with speedbumps about every quarter mile.  Seriously, what is the point of this?  Our bus managed to speed up fast in between them and then had to slam on the brakes causing us all to lurch forward.   Seems inefficient to me, but I digress.   Run down midrise brick buildings line these streets and chaos seems to reign all over the muddy sidewalks at about 13,500 feet above sea level.

Without warning this road comes to the cliff where La Paz proper sprawls thousands of feet below in a valley.  Poor neighborhoods clinging impossibly to the cliffs plunge down off the Altiplano, and I have heard gravity gets the best of some of these precariously built homes from time to time.  A main boulevard lining the valley floor sends traffic even further down the chute, and the city goes up in either direction from left or right of this wide street.   As densely built La Paz progresses southward, it drops in altitude to just under 10,000' where the wealthiest neighborhoods lie.   Think about the height difference between the most affluent and poorest areas here.   The average mountain in North Georgia is about this tall and can you imagine brick buildings climbing up one?

Downtown where I am staying squeezes into the upper valley floor at 11,975 feet and qualifies La Paz as the world's highest capital.  Any walk around town involves both a steep descent and climb, and honestly after a few blocks of this both lungs and legs just say oh hell the f word no.   It's a cost-benefit analysis really...the rewards of seeing beggars, dirty street vendors, run down buildings and the feeling of not being safe do not at all outweigh the costs of negotiating this mountainside Tijuana on steroids.  

As much as I want to find the good in a place and say no bad things, I am just having a hard time wrapping my head around La Paz.  I vaguely remember it being this way from a visit three years ago, but then again, the more I travel, the more I tire of gritty third world cities and the way people live in them.  Been there and done that many times over and in this phase of my life, give me some awesome outdoors like Colca Canyon any day over this urban maelstrom.   Wouldn't anyone rather smell the eucalyptus on Isla del Sol than some urine soaked woman looking for a handout next to the hotel door?

My travel buddy from Peru and I have met up again and we set out to find something edible today.  In fact, I haven't had a truly memorable meal since Iquitos or Lima, and my nutritional intake is full on suffering.  Food hygiene also takes a back seat in these parts due to lack of education and something else most people don't think about...because of the extreme altitudes here, water boils at a lower temperature than at sea level.  Not all bacteria are killed in that boiling brew, and most visitors descend off the Altiplano with tales of intestinal woes and just how bad the food in Bolivia tastes. So far so good for me because the altitude has zapped my appetite and fatty meats and greasy pastries don't look particularly appetizing anyhow.

Our Food Quest La Paz 2011 stopped in front of a particularly dirty indigenous woman selling "fresh" pork rinds on the street, but of course with no intention of buying from her.   Apart from needing a break from a 3 block ascent, what got our attention was how she so deftly picked lice out of her young daughter's thick matted hair and flicked the offenders into the sidewalk.   Man what a skill she has to do that barehanded while serving up bags of rinds at the same time.   

Traveling is all about learning from other cultures and scenes like this remind us to be ever so careful about what we ingest.    Desert was served just as we were catching our breaths and questioning what our eyes were showing us when one of the recycled school bus turned city buses inching up the hill bathed us in a noxious sooty exhaust cloud. Someone please just make this sensory overload of the wrong kind stop and show us the road to some food that is familiar.

As much as I bash on American chains encroaching on the world, La Paz is one place my buddy and I really sought the protection of all things American after lice mama's display.  The Golden Arches may have given up on Bolivia a few years back, but thank God Burger King still lets all in La Paz have it their way at an outlet downhill from the main square.  And have it my way is just what I did $7 later with a double whopper combo, fries, and orange Fanta, no ice of course.   And yes, I supersized the hell out of that bitch and enjoyed every greasy, gut busting, bad for me calorie.   What has the world come to when some La Paz Burger King brings me to new gastronomical heights and I am fawning over two beef patties of dubious animal origin as if this is something rated in a Michelin Guide?

Yes, I am glad to have stopped in La Paz since it gives my journey balance.  How can we appreciate the jewels like Cartagena or the comforts of Miraflores unless we see how the other half lives.  Many indigenous people come to La Paz seeking a job and then become trapped in poverty and urban blight.  I feel blessed I have the money in my pocket to get out.
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