La Paz, Bolivia


We were sound asleep on the semi-cama bus from Potosi when we arrived after ten hours traveling overnight to La Paz, Bolivia's de facto capital city. Thus we missed the glorious sight of our first city view, that of downtown La Paz in the bottom of this topographical bowl hemmed in by boxy houses clinging on the sides of the canyon. It's barely 7 in the morning and I'm bleary-eyed as I got my backpack and took a taxi with some members of our group to the hotel.

Bolivia is one of those countries that is torn between two cities vying to be called the capital city - that is, La Paz and Sucre. The latter was the capital city until 1899 when an upsurge in political and economic power struggle led to La Paz sharing the title. Today, President Evo Morales and his Congress holds court in La Paz while the judicial branch of government stays in Sucre. All foreign embassies and major businesses meanwhile call La Paz their home.

Had I flown directly here from a sea-level city like New York or Manila, I would have easily succumbed to altitude sickness. Not only is La Paz' dizzying altitude at 3,660 meters above sea level make it the world's highest capital city but its airport in El Alto is even higher at 4,060 meters above sea level! Having traveled through much of the Bolivian altiplano, I felt acclimatized anyway that I even stopped taking Diamox. I could now walk up and down the steep streets of La Paz feeling like a llama.



Anne, our indefatigable tour leader, herded us all to 100% Natural, her favorite Cafe for breakfasts. Their "big breakfast" is incredibly cheap, I paid less than 3 US dollars! Almost everything in Bolivia has been cheap by western standards and we're surprised that in a big city like La Paz, one can also live on a shoestring budget here.

The markets of La Paz is all over, they even spill into the sidewalks not much different from the ones in Manila. The women tend to their businesses wearing bowler hats, puffed skirts and colorful shawls. Walking along what's left of the sidewalks, I find random things being sold - mobile phone covers, trinkets, lotions, perfumes, bootleg CDs and street food exposed to carbon monoxide emissions - beware! There's the Black Market (Mercado Negro) for small and big electronics and the more interesting Witches Market (Mercado de Hechiceria) where strange herbs and potions mix with the spooky fetuses of llamas. Bolivianos believe that burying a llama fetus under a house/building being constructed brings in good luck and fortune.


And of course, there's the usual tourist trap markets selling the gamut from Alpaca bags to Alpaca scarves. Knowing it's almost winter in North America, I bought some handwoven scarves for less than 4 US dollars each! There's plenty of kitschy souvenirs to buy but I limited myself to what I can possibly squeeze into my backpack without it breaking apart.

Tonight is our last night together as a group. I'm flying tomorrow night while Gary, my roommate spends a few days in La Paz. The rest of the group: Marnie, Andrew, Johanna, Eric, Chris, Tom, Alistair, Helen, Kara, Jacinta and Linda will be travelling onwards to Peru which I've visited last year. I wanted so much to join the group's biking trip tomorrow - along the so-called World's Most Dangerous Highway - but Anne said I don't have much time before catching my flight. Looks like I have a good reason to return to La Paz in the future.

We had our farewell dinner at Maphrao On, an Asian-themed restaurant in the swanky area of Sopocachi, a little way out from central La Paz. I had Chicken Tikka Masala with naan bread (I just love this bread!) while the rest tried some Thai entree. The Tom Yum soup I ordered didn't really impress as it lacked the kick of lemongrass to it. Nevertheless, our dinner went well with little farewell speeches and a token of appreciation (in an envelope of course) was given to Anne for a splendid job of making things right down the road.

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