On my own in La Paz

Trip Start Sep 28, 2006
Trip End May 04, 2007

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

We got to El Alto, a suburb of La Paz, around 5 pm. I had met many travelers whose day packs had been stolen at this stop, so I held onto mine tightly. Because El Alto lines the rim of the valley in which La Paz sits, my first glimpse of the city was looking down into the massive canyon. This view reminded me of Quito, although La Paz is far less attractive. Most of the buildings are brick colored and thus blend into the surrounding mountains, which is interesting in a way but at the same time incredibly ugly. I wondered why much of the architecture in this city was so bland. I was told that many people leave their buildings unfinished on purpose in order to avoid various taxes. Regardless, I am sure that the view from El Alto is spectacular at night!

Gary, Louise, Claudia and I split a cab from the bus terminal to our respective hostels. I am staying at a fairly new place called Hostal Maya Inn on Sagarnaga street, a massive hill above Plaza San Francisco. They went to a slightly cheaper place called Hostal El Solario, which Gary later did not recommend. I am sure I will run into them again, as we are all planning on biking the Death Road. For now, however, I am glad to be doing my own thing. I checked into my hotel, which is not as fantastic nor as cheap as I was hoping, but it will do. I caved and got myself a private room with private bath, even though I had promised myself I would at least start to share a bathroom to cut costs. Oh well! I managed to bargain them down to about $8.50 a night, so it really was not that bad. My room has a nice big window, a decent bed, TV with tons of channels, and is very centrally located. It is on the fourth floor and faces the plaza. I was quite out of breath after climbing up the stairs with all my stuff, as La Paz is at an altitude of 3600 meters. I later discovered that there is an elevator, and have since been quite lazy.

La Paz is a shock to the system after Isla del Sol. Even though there are tons of gringos running around the center of town near Plaza San Francisco, I was feeling a little out of place my first day. I decided to consult my LP and chose Cafe Sol y Luna for dinner. It was the first time in awhile I had had dinner by myself, and I spent most of the time writing in my journal, reading, and people watching from my cozy corner booth. It was Saturday night, but my stomach wasn't feeling so hot and I was pretty tired so I thought that this cute cafe/bar would be a good compromise. It was really mellow, played good music, and was the perfect place to just chill for a few hours. Sure enough, not too long after I had arrived Gary and the girls walked in to get some drinks. The cafe is fairly close to both of our hotels, so I guess I wasn't all that surprised. Gary was really sweet and supportive as I told him I was not really feeling all that great, physically or emotionally. It was nice to see him and simply to have a friend around to talk to.

I left the cafe around 10 pm and walked the five minutes back to my hotel. Cochebamba and Murillo streets were very dark, and although there were some cars and an occasional police officer around, I did not see too many people. I think that moment was the first time I felt slightly unsafe, whether it was truly warranted or not I am not sure. I turned left onto Sagarnaga, which is lit, and climbed up the hill a couple blocks to my place--another very non flip-flop friendly city! I almost slipped and killed myself several times. You'd think by now I would have learned my lesson.

I intended to go straight to my room but on the third floor I heard some voices so I thought I would check it out. I discovered that my hostel has a TV lounge, and about 8 or so people (4 from Sweden, 1 from Canada, 1 from New Zealand, and the rest I am not sure) were all hanging out drinking and smoking. I figured I should take advantage of seeing other people for once in my hostel and hang out with them, so I pulled up a chair and talked with them for 1 or 2 hours. It was not exactly my scene--many of them were doing coke, and that is the HUGEST turn off for me--but it was still nice to socialize for a bit and they were all nice. If nothing else, it made me feel like less of a loser on a Saturday night! :) They decided to head to a couple of clubs and tried to convince me to go out. Although I did want to check out La Paz's nightlife, I opted to go upstairs and get some rest instead.

I woke up feeling slightly better on Sunday morning, having finally gotten some sleep. Breakfast was the usual insufficient bread with butter and jam, although at least the coffee and juice were good. I decided to explore central La Paz, begining with Plaza San Francisco. Compared to Cusco, it was very unimpressive and not much of a plaza. Next, I headed up Sagarnaga towards the Witches Market, which was fairly quiet given the fact that it was 9 am on a Sunday. Some things were starting to open, but most of the shops were closed. However, there were a couple that opened up early and I was able to check out their goods and chat with the workers about their meanings and uses. The man at the first store was particularly nice and patient with me as I asked him questions. Each store sold a variety of objects, which you either burn, bury, or keep with you for good luck or for other specific desires. The ones pictured here comprised a part of an arrangement you make and then burn. I bought my sister  two figurines, one of two people embracing side by side (representing friendship) and another of two people embracing face to face (representing love). This picture demonstrates how you arrange the various colorful materials that they sell, which you then burn to attain your desires. I am guessing you can personalize the arrangements, but I am not sure what all the objects represent. They also sold dried llama fetuses, among other dried whole animals and animal skins. You are supposed to bury one of these under the corner stone of your house or store for good fortune. Here is a shot of slightly larger llama fetuses. Poor people use llama feces, whereas rich people sacrifice a live llama. The whole thing was pretty odd, but it was fascinating to learn about this aspect of Bolivian culture.

After the witches market, I wandered up Calle Santa Cruz towards the black market and through various other markets. I don't think I ever actually found the black market, as La Paz seriously becomes one huge market on Sunday so it was hard to tell. Whatever, El Molino in Cusco was enough for me! Around 10 am, I saw a large crowd of locals around this batido cart, all drinking what looked like ice cream (but what I discovered to be raw egg whites whipped with sugar) scooped into a glass and then filled to the top with malt beer. Now, I am not a fan of beer, and I (should) know better than to eat street food let alone raw eggs from a street cart, but after chatting with a Bolivian man and his young children (all of whom were drinking this stuff) I decided to give it a go... Oddly tasty, a twisted root beer float! I discovered another delicious La Paz treat as well--chocolate bread! It is round, thick, looks like a scone but is softer in texture. It is subtly chocolatey and SO tasty. I ate three at once, they were so good. I definitely spoiled my appetite for lunch between that stuff and the canela ice cream I got later on in Plaza Murillo, where my walking tour ended. I wandered back via Mercado Lanza, where I bought some delicious cookies (forgot to mention my third discovery). I meant to save them for later but of course ate them all. So I had a nice lunch of chocolate bread, beer with egg whites, ice cream, and cookies! Just another day on the road for me...one meal always looks something like that! Mercado Lanza was quite nice, and I finally managed to snag a shot of the shoe-shine boys. Apparently they wear ski masks to avoid social stigma. I don't quite get it, and seeing tons of people running around the streets in ski masks (especially at night) just creeps me out. And I never will understand why all of them keep trying to shine my running shoes.

I walked down El Prado, the main avenue, to Gravity's office to book my bike trip for Tuesday, but sadly they were closed. I did internet for a bit and then had a late lunch at 100 Percent Natural, what I am sure will become my "regular" place for the next week as it is tasty and next door to my hostel. I was sitting by myself and an Australian girl named Priscilla sat down at the table beside me. We started chatting after I helped translate what the waitress had said to her (just like how I met Gary). I asked her what she was up to this afternoon, and she said she was about to meet up with some English friends at 3:30 pm to go to some sort of wrestling match involving cholitas (indigenous women). Wrestling definitely is not my thing, but she invited me to come along so I figured I would at least go to the tour agency in Hostal Cactus to find out the details. There was a mini van parked outside filled with other gringos, and sure enough, the English guys to whom she had referred were the guys I met in the internet cafe in Copacabana. There were a bunch of Danish people in the car as well, who I had seen in the cafe the night before. It cost 80 bol, which was a bit pricey for something I knew nothing about, but it was one of those really random, spontaneous situations that you just can't pass up. It was the most ridiculous experience--really disturbing and insanely fun. No photos, videos, or words can do it justice! Nevertheless, in my next entry I have posted many pics and videos and will do my best to at least give you a taste of my evening of total madness.
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Where I stayed
Hostal Maya Inn
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