The Highest Capital in the world

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Dec 16, 2008

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Greetings from La Paz, Bolivia - one of South America's most interesting cities, and at 12,000 feet it is the highest capital city in the world.  (The highest city in the world is Potosi, Bolivia - I'm going there next week.)

La Paz is like a big cereal bowl, with ochre buildings scattered up the steep canyon walls and high-rises down in the bottom.  The city is surrounded by mountains and two giant snow-capped peaks accent the horizon .

It's an unusual blend of traditional and western culture - walking down the streets, you see men in shiny suits mingling with little women in their traditional outfits of long shiny skirts, brightly colored woven shawls, long black braided hair and a cute bowler hat balanced on top of their head - and I would say 25% of the people you see on the streets are in traditional dress, which is surprisingly high for such an urban center- however, they don't appreciate being photographed, so I had to be discrete when getting shots of the locals.

La Paz also has a unique contrast of architecture - cobble stoned streets with ancient colonial buildings are next to glass high-rises, and you see magnificent mansions down in the valley and cinder-block slums dotting the canyon walls. 

The streets definitely equal or may even exceed the steepness of San Francisco - except they are 12,000 feet higher , so you have to stop to catch your breath about every ten steps. 

La Paz is a market city - it seems like everyone is selling something - from the narrow cobble stone streets which are lined with little shop after shop, packed to the ceiling with brightly colored and exceptionally high quality woven products, to the markets where hundreds, if not thousands of little newspaper-stand sized booths are lined up side-by-side, to a surprising number of people walking the streets trying to sell the one or two items they have in their hands. .

An elderly man approaches me with a pair of aviator sunglasses he's trying to sell for $6.  Another man in his 20s has a pocket full of trilobite fossils, or a little man trying to sell a screwdriver set.  Hundreds of rural men and women lay down little blankets on the sidewalk and try to sell woolen wares, necklaces, or jewelery - again, surprisingly high quality and shockingly low prices.


The markets are clustered together - if you want electronics, you go to the electronics area, where you have stall after stall selling basically the same set of cell phone accessories, memory sticks, headphones, batteries, etc.  If you want woolen items, you go to the artisan market, where you have shop after shop selling basically the same items.  I'm not sure how one shop distinguishes itself from another.

Probably the most interesting is the Witches Market - where you can get a good luck talisman to protect you on a journey, find love, or get a magical potion to repel any evil spirit that may be troubling you. 

Dried llama fetuses are especially powerful, and they recommend burying one under the cornerstone of your house to protect you and your family.  More disturbing were leopard and puma skins for sale, and you could buy stuffed caymans, armadillos, buy dried toucan beaks, dried frogs, as well as a wide assortment of snakes, dried herbs, and little dark vials containing extracts of unimaginable things. 

The witches market is authentic - and tourists are only tolerated.  I had one of the witches make me a potion to help protect me in my travels, as well as help the DMAN stock price increase - she put it in a little glass vial and I'm supposed to keep it in my backpack.  So far, it seems to be working.  Only then would she let me take photos of her llamas.  

Overall, Bolivia is exceptionally cheap.  I'd say La Paz is about 1/3 the price of the States.  You can get a large cappuccino in a swank cafe for about $1.40.  A steak dinner in a nice restaurant is $6.  My first two nights, I stayed in a high-end colonial style bed and breakfast for $48 per night, and moved to a basic but very clean room in an ideal location with a balcony overlooking the cathedral, private bath, and excellent breakfast for $28 per night.  Dorm rooms are only a couple dollars. 

Next stop - Mountain Biking the Road of Death, and Ice Climbing, and conquering my first 20k peak.

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