La Paz: witches markets, altitude sickness and llama foetuses

I do not have enough eyes to take in La Paz. There is so much to see and absorb! As soon as the bus turned its final bend (and there were a fair few on that 10 hour journey from Arica in Chile) the jaws of almost every passenger dropped. We saw La Paz from the great height of El Alto, the city within the city, looking down on more houses and buildings than you would think could possibly fit into one space. With the dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains, the cable cars disappearing into the basin of the city and the houses built in to the most treacherous angles of the mountain, La Paz was phenomenal and we hadn’t even arrived yet!

Today’s fact is that La Paz is the highest city in the world at 3,650m above sea level. This has its challenges, the most immediate being altitude sickness. We had been warned but nothing quite prepared us for the unpleasantness. We ascended to circa 5,000m above sea level within two hours to reach the border with Bolivia and the strange vertigo sensation took hold. As we got nearer to La Paz it was clear we weren’t the only ones, with a green faced guy behind throwing up at regular intervals. That did not help matters and by the time we reached our accommodation Jamie had joined in the vomming and I was lying flat out wondering why we had booked a revolving room. The next morning we did feel considerably better, a kind yogi friend had sent through some emergency breathing advice as I’m not a big fan of tablets. As the main cause of the horror feelings are lack of oxygen this helped no end and meant I didn’t need the medication, thank you Ashley Parkin!

The Modern and the Traditional are juxtaposed in La Paz in a way that we did not see in Chile. It is particularly noticeable when looking at the clothing of the women. The traditional women ‘La Cholitas’ wear long colourful skirts with big netted petticoats, shawls and bowler hats. Apparently the tradition of the bowler hat began in the 1920’s when a shipment of hats arrived from Italy intended for Bolivian railway workers and it was found they were too small for the men. The enterprising salesman decided all was not lost and introduced them to the women as ‘the latest European fashion’. It caught on and became an inherent part of the Cholita outfit. So much so that the hat is now an indication of marital status. Worn straight in the middle of the head means the Cholita is married, on the side means divorced or widowed and rumour has it that worn pushed back on the head is the Facebook classic… ‘it’s complicated’. Particularly intriguing when you see an 80 year old Cholita flaunting the pushed back style.

The street markets are the La Paceñas (people of La Paz) supermarket and you could find meat, fruit & veg, dustbin sized bags of pasta and rice and all the bread you could ever want. At night we sampled some of the street food at bargain prices and only a touch of salmonella. One of the local delicacies aside from the empanada was the papa rellana, a ball of stuffed potato. There are different choices from bolognese, cheese or chicken filling and are very tasty.

One of the famous markets in La Paz is the witches market, where amongst the toy llamas, ponchos and key rings you can invest in powders and potions for fertility, love and revenge. Not to forget the must buy… llama foetus. As we learned, when houses or small buildings are built in Bolivia they start by burying a llama foetus as a sacrifice to mother earth (Pacha Mama) to ensure a safe and prosperous building. When larger buildings are built the whispered stories are that mother earth demands a bigger sacrifice and a ‘won’t be missed human’ is found in a refuge or on the street. They are taken out, plied with drinks until in a comatose state and then buried alive head first in concrete (so their soul will go straight to Pacha Mama and not escape). When we were told this story it was emphasised that it was just an old wives tale but it was also added that anyone you ask will know someone who knows someone who saw it happen…

On our first day in La Paz we went on a walking tour with the red hat walking company. Informative guys who taught us a lot about La Paz and Bolivia. We started the tour next to the prison, apparently the manufacturing plant of the finest cocaine in the country if not South America. The prison houses circa 3,000 inmates and families of prisoners also live inside with the children going to school around the corner. Up until a few years ago there were legal tours of the prison but those have now been stopped. There are still illegal ones for the edgy tourist that want to enjoy the finest product the prison can offer in the comfort of a cell. We passed on that experience.

Bolivia has endured some trying times over recent decades and is still one of the poorest countries in South America. We learned a lot about the current President once our tour guides had got us off the streets where ‘there are always people listening’ and bundled up to the upstairs of a bar. Apparently Mr President has no personal censor and says whatever comes into his head when he is both on and off camera. Some of the highlights were:

  1. Following the results of a census showing a declining population, he blamed women and taxed those over 28 that didn’t have kids, gave a bonus to women that did and threatened to ban condoms.
  2. He went on television to tell people not to eat chicken as it has a female hormone that will turn men gay.
  3. He told people not to drink coca cola as it would make them bald.
  4. Believing women should take traditional roles in the home, when he visited a mines and found female engineers he asked them if they were doing the drilling or ‘being drilled’.

On the plus side Bolivians are big protesters and have taken to the streets for all of the above. They even protested when it was threatened that the Simpsons would be taken off television and replaced with a reality TV show. 1000’s of Homer and Bart’s took to the streets of La Paz and the decision was reversed.




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