We went from the most expensive country in South America to one of the poorest countries in South America – Bolivia. This makes it popular amongst budget travelers, especially the long-term backpacking types. Vegetarian food, because more affordable, is everywhere. It’s easier to navigate as language is not at all a barrier. Pretty much everyone in the tourism industry speaks reasonable English. Yet speaking doesn’t translate into understanding or even listening. Every logistics question or request is answered with the most popular “Si, Si, No Problemas”. It means “Yes, Yes, No Problem at all”. Well, in our experiences, when we heard this with a head nod, most times things didn’t go according to plan. It is a land of Promises – free of cost, packaged with the head nod, only missing the Danger warning label ‘Likely to backfire’ or ‘Guaranteed to result in unforeseen incidents’. Only, the beauty and adventures that Bolivia has to offer make up (a bit) for the lack of honesty in Tourism industry.
Bolivia was overwhelming for us, and La Paz epitomized that feeling. It is the highest elevation capital in the world at 3640 m (11942 ft). And, flying directly from sea level meant also dealing with altitude sickness (especially for Gautam). Also, unlike visits to other capital cities, La Paz can maybe be compared to a big town in any other country. The city is in a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by the mountains of the Bolivian Plateau (most extensive such plateau outside of Tibet). The brick colored houses dotting the hills offers a very unique city landscape during the day and also at night. Some of these tiny dwellings can only be accessed on foot.
Nuestra Señora de La Paz, the full name of the city, means Our Lady of Peace. It was anything but. After struggling to get anything more than a cold shoulder in Brazil, we got our first taste of too much attention from people trying to sell us tours & expedition. Low cost of living, meant a lot of long-term backpackers living there for weeks, chasing cheap thrills (of all kinds) and notching up the chaos in the tourist sections. From avoiding the city center with an almost certainty to be robbed, to taking public transportation or navigating the bus terminal, it seemed all very unlike South America.
Despite some of these shockers, we loved that old traditions and cultures are still an integral part of the Bolivian life. On one of the main streets near the center of the city is the “Witches Market”. The numerous shops sell concoctions for health, wealth and prosperity. The locals still believe in old rituals and worship the natural elements: Sun, Moon and Earth. Every wish has its own special ritual on a special day. Also, the time when a particular ritual should be performed is very important. A Bolivian woman – Cholita – wearing a traditional long petticoat, a ‘bowler’ hat and long hair braided in two parts is a common sight. Women are hard working and can be seen working in every sector.
One of the evenings we decided to take a ride to the outskirts of the city to watch the Cholita Wrestling championships. It is a local Bolivian version of WWE. Women dressed in traditional clothes wear face masks and wrestle. It was loud and entertaining but really long. Towards the end we were ready to get back to the Hotel room. Despite of being held in a closed arena, it was cold and windy as the location is on a hilltop. During the interval, we got some pictures along with the champion Cholita. One of the Cholitas was an iron lady; she easily picked me up to pose for a picture.
One of our highlights in the adventure department of all our travel has been the Death Road biking tour. The tour started from La Paz early in the morning. The group was given a trial run and critical safety information before being driven to the downhill start point in a mini bus. The descent is 69 Km (~43 Miles) of narrow gravel road that we shared with not only other Bikers, but frighteningly with vehicles & trucks. As we started, I got really scared & was almost tempted to call off my attempt, ride the bus and follow the group. But I kept at it even though I was last in the group, which ended up having its own perk – my own dedicated guide to assist me. The narrow winding gravel path and the speed at which the bike is flying distracts from the beauty of the valley. All I remember is the valley was really deep and the quick turns were scary and it was hard to control the speed. After the fact when we saw all the pictures, it kind of dawned on us that it was also a very beautiful ride. It was an adrenaline rush throughout the ride. As soon as we got back to our Hotel, I was tempted to sign up again and do it all over again.
Valle de la Luna (Moon valley), made primarily of clay, is the remnant after erosion of the mountains. The topography is spiky and has various colors due to varying mineral contents. We clicked a few good shots of the optical illusions. Another interesting story of the city – Apparently, there is a Prison in the middle of La Paz where families of the committed are allowed living in. It is a popular spot for cooking Drugs. Everyone knows about it and no one talks about it, kind of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I say apparently coz we did not visit the Prison neither did we hear this from a local in La Paz, it probably is true though. Again, Apparently an Aussie is writing a book about it.
We went to Atacama in Chile from La Paz and came back to catch a flight to go to Colombia. On our final day in the city/country, we witnessed a crazy street party for the celebrations of La Paz Day. A big stage was setup in the middle of Centro, almost all of the city’s population was on the streets partying, drinking local brews and feasting on street food. Our merriment didn’t last long as were forced to pay fines to exit the country because of confusion related to our Visa (single or multi-entry). It was a long argument before we gave up and over paid for our “free” visa in this so-called cheap country..
La Paz set us straight, and it gave us an introduction to the Bolivian way of doing things. One might think we must have learned it all and rest of Bolivia must have been a breeze. Oh well, we are quick learners, we don’t repeat the same mistake with the same person again, but we do repeat our mistakes. Like excited naïve kids, we remained spellbound to “Si, Si, No Problemas !!”