Loco La Paz

Trip Start May 27, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Laughed at bonkers La Paz

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, July 4, 2011

So, at the beginning of July we crossed over the border from Peru into Bolivia. It was pouring down with rain as we ran from building to building getting different things stamped and verified in offices which felt like they were in a 80's communism sketch (peeling yellowing posters of past leaders etc).

To say that Bolivian tourist buses differ slightly from the Peruvian superbuses would be underplaying it. The leg room would make the designers of Ryanair airplane interiors blush. But we were paying 5 to travel for 8 hours, so can't complain (although, I did at the time :)

We arrived in La Paz at night and it felt deserted, which is very different to how it is during the day. Thousands of stalls jostle for space in the streets around the centre, its chaotic to say the least. I loved it though – again its an opportunity to get hold of most things that you need without relying on Tesco (I spit on you Pig Dog).

The next day, we decided to pay a visit to La Paz's most notorious tourist attraction – San Pedro Prison. We sat down in San Pedro square trying to surreptitiously take photos of the armored vehicle and the armed guards at the front of the jail (see the slightly unsuccessful attempt below). When all of a sudden a black guy in his 40s appeared in front of us. He had no shoes, a scruffy John Lennon t shirt, and an 'addled' in look in his eyes. He was covered in tattoos with a broad New York accent.

“Hey guys, I see you are looking at San Pedro prison, I'm David and I've been inside for 12 years I get out in 2 weeks. I am on day release and go back in at 9pm tonight. I can give you a tour, its 50 Bolivianoes and you have a guard with you at all times... Its not dangerous because they've moved all the killers out(!)”

To say we were a bit wary was an understatement. He proceeded to tell us tales from inside the prison because we were too scared to move. It works differently to any other prison you could imagine. You basically pay for your 'stay', so the rich -drug lords mainly- inmates have big rooms, internet, Blue-Ray players etc etc and the poor ones sleep on the prison's 'streets'. The prisoners can also can have their wives and children in there to live with them if they can afford to feed & house them. There is also a communal courtyard with food markets and a football area, plus a pool and music room. But don't get me wrong mind, its not Butlins, its still a horrible place to be, but in the scheme of things if you've got money and power, you could continue to deal drugs / pimp etc and the guards turn a blind-eye.

David also told us that they are planning to close this prison down next year, which incensed the inmates so much that they went on hunger strike. The authorities are planning to turn it into a museum, which is not surprising considering its history. He also advised us to read 'Marching Powder' by Rusty Young which tells the story of a journalist who stayed in the jail for 3 months of his own free will to write the story of an inmate called Thomas McFadden. One of the most sinister parts of the book talks about the piscina (swimming pool) where the rapists and pedophiles were routinely drowned by other inmates. Essentially its marshall law in there, in the 70's a European prisoner apparently paid $30 to 'leave' the jail early!

David also said that 3 Bolivians tried to escape last year. They used twisted bedsheets to climb over the wall, two got away and one fell. The one that fell is now back inside in a wheelchair. The two that got away ended up in a bar room brawl, got arrested and also thrown back inside. Doh!

So after all the stories we were pretty transfixed by this charismatic guy, we said goodbye and that we'd meet him tomorrow at one for a tour.

It was only when we googled the whole situation later in our hostal room we discovered this guy is a notorious con man called 'New York Mike' or '*****head Mike' (those over 18 can fill in the blank there) and he has ripped off numerous tourists...

So we didn't take the tour! But here's an idea of what its like from Youtube -

As with Peru, Bolivia is constantly celebrating something, we happened upon a carnival on the main street in La Paz and the photos speak for themselves... we have absolutely no idea what its all about, but Trevor got some great photos!

There is also a witches market very near to the tourist area - its basically the Bolivian branch of girly science (ours being astrology, feng shui etc etc). You can buy spells, crystals etc to cure illness, help along your love life and get rich - the usual. The most unpleasant looking thing they sell is llama fetuses, which are put in the foundations of a new house to bring the family luck... apparently 99% of houses here do this. No judgement.

The finale of our time in La Paz was a trip to the wrestling, Cholita wrestling... yeap the little -oldish - ladies in the skirts, shawls and bowler hats (sans the babies though) get in the ring and wrestle. Possibly the Best Concept in the World. As it turned out it was every bit as silly, messy and weird as you'd imagine. Trev and a male friend of ours bought wrestling masks, the crowd threw monkey nuts at the wrestlers and the acting was terrible. It was brilliant!

So after getting used to the insania :) of La Paz, we got our flights booked for a few days up in the Amazon Rainforest.
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