We’ve heard fellow travellers say that you either love La Paz or you hate it. While “hate” is a strong word in my opinion, I’ll be honest with you – La Paz will not make it into my top ten cities of South America.
After visiting cities like Sucre, Potosi and Uyuni, all of which had a fairly relaxed atmosphere, La Paz hit me over the head with a brick of sensory overload. The city is very crowded, the sidewalks are so narrow that it’s very hard to simply stroll around, and there are many cafes catered only to tourists, which makes the city inauthentic. Did I mention the altitude? La Paz and its neighbouring El Alto are the highest cities in the world, which makes it challenging to walk up the stairs or even to walk up a hill. And there are a lot of hills in La Paz!
In addition, it was cold! Maybe we got a bit unlucky with our hostel, but our room was freezing, so much so that we slept under three heavy alpaca blankets and water bottles filled with hot water and tucked away under our sweaters. The shower also sucked, spitting either droplets of boiling hot water or a bucket-load of ice-cold water. There was no in between! We’ve read online many people complaining about the showers. It amazes me that a city so densely populated and so frequently visited by tourists and locals alike would have the worst showers in the country because they use an electric heater to heat up the water instead of gas.
Nevertheless, we did manage to have some fun in La Paz. In order to get quickly acquainted with the city, we went on a walking tour and learned very interesting tidbits about life in La Paz. One of the most interesting stories involved a prison that is situated in one of the main squares in the city. People who are imprisoned there actually have to pay in order to stay there! In addition, their wives and children can stay with them in the prison, but have full privileges of going in and out if they please. The children go to school every day, while the wives make money by selling fruits and vegetables in the markets for instance. In the evening, they all come back to their home in the prison. Apparently it’s much cheaper for the wives to live with their husbands in the prison as opposed to living away from them in the city.
We also learned a bit more about the cholitas on the walking tour. Cholitas are indigenous women in Bolivia, usually from Quechua or Aymara backgrounds. But the cholitas in La Paz are different from those we encountered in Sucre. First, cholitas in La Paz are predominantly Aymara, whereas in Sucre there were a lot of cholitas from the Quechua culture. We learned from our guide in Uyuni that the best way to tell the difference between Aymara and Quechua people is to look at their cheekbones. The Aymara people have very high cheekbones that stick out and their faces are more pointed, whereas the Quechua people have a fairly round face. We could tell right away that the cholitas in La Paz were Aymara.
The second major thing that sets cholitas in La Paz apart from others was their clothing. In La Paz, the cholitas wear skirts that are much longer than anywhere else that we’ve seen. The length of the skirt goes down all the way to their ankles, covering what’s regarded the sexiest part of the cholita’s body – the calves. As well, cholitas in La Paz wear very tall bowler hats. The story goes that British businessmen came to La Paz and wanted to introduce and sell tall bowler hats to men. But when the shipment of hats came from England, they turned out to be too small for the men to wear. So the British convinced the women to wear the hats by touting them as the latest fashion statement. And of course because every woman wants to have what other women are wearing, the tall hat trend spread very quickly. As a result, these tall bowler hats became a must-have fashion accessory for the cholitas, who are so adept at wearing them that they don’t even need to secure them with anything. They use their head to balance the hat so naturally that they can even dance without the hat moving an inch!
Apart from the walking tour, we rode the cable car to the city of El Alto. The cable car ride took about ten minutes, giving us plenty of time to admire La Paz from above. The city is sprawled among the surrounding mountain slopes in a sea of red roofs and occasional soccer fields. The ride made me wonder what it’s like to live on those mountain slopes and how long it would take to get down to the city center amidst the traffic and the intertwining streets of the city.
Finally, we attended a cholitas wrestling match. I couldn’t believe it either at first, but it is in fact a wrestling competition that takes place between the cholitas, who wear their traditional outfits, skirts and all. It was entertaining, but a bit disturbing since the cholitas were quite violent with each other, pulling on each other’s braids while some of the referees spit in cholitas faces. Of course, the entire wrestling match is staged and we could tell that sometimes they just pretended to hit each other, while acting as if it hurt. However, this was the first time we watched wrestling live, and to see it performed by women wearing bulky skirts was quite entertaining.
While La Paz was rough on us, I must admit that Lake Titicaca beat us up harder than any cholita. The bus ride to the highest lake in the world was quite scenic. At one point we had to take a boat across a small channel while our tour bus was ferried over separately. The town of Copacabana, which sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, was small and touristy, but the weather was warmer than in La Paz and quite pleasant.
The lake itself is just that – a lake. I’m not sure what I was expecting from it exactly, but arriving to Lake Titicaca was a bit anticlimactic for me. But the worst part of our journey began when we took a boat ride to the nearby Isla del Sol. This Sun Island appears to exist solely for the purposes of attracting backpackers. There are many hostels where backpackers can spend the night, but besides that, there’s not much else.
Of course the island is promoted as having ancient Inca ruins, of which the only one we managed to witness was the Inca stairs.
The island is also home to many donkeys, which are used to haul tourists’ backpacks or provisions up the steep slopes of the island. We had about four hours on the island, and being bored out of our minds, we ended up spending a lot of time in a restaurant. This is probably where we got one of the worst food poisonings of our lives.
We didn’t feel it until later in the evening, pretty much right before going to bed. Rami was the first to succumb to the illness, puking his guts out as I mentally tried to convince myself that I was fine. But soon enough it was my turn to stare at the bottom of the toilet, which turned into a very long night. We took turns being sick the entire night, with me breaking the record by throwing up five times! By the end of it, I had absolutely nothing left in me, and Rami didn’t even have the strength to stand up.
Our tummies were really hurting by the morning. I knew that this was no ordinary food poisoning since the pain and the nausea did not go away even after we puked everything out. My stomach was hurting so bad that I could barely walk. I basically had to stand in a hunched over position, while holding my stomach with one hand. We decided that we needed to get medical help immediately, and so we took a taxi to a nearby clinic. Using our broken Spanish and Google Translate, we were able to communicate with the doctors and we got a baggie full of different medications as well as antibiotic injections.
We stayed in Copacabana for one more night with the doctors checking up on us in the evening. After that we felt slightly better, but we wanted to get out of Copacabana out of fear that we might eat more food that could make us sick. You see, Copacabana is a tiny town that is very touristy. As a result, we believe that many of the restaurants just don’t care about food hygiene and quality. We needed to get out fast.
So we took a gruelling long bus ride, crossing the border into Peru and ending up in Arequipa. For five days straight, we had to take really strong antibiotics that made us dizzy and nauseous, and caused painful headaches. But the warmer climate in Arequipa and the atmosphere of a bigger city cheered us up and helped us recover even though we could only eat soup packets and crackers for the entire week.
Overall, we loved Bolivia due to its breathtaking landscapes and all of the memorable experiences that we’ve had, from taking Spanish lessons, to visiting the dinosaur park and rock climbing in Sucre, to descending into the darkness of the Potosi silver mines, and being blinded by the endless stretches of the salt flats in Uyuni. And despite the awful food poisoning, we would always have fond memories of Bolivia and would recommend anyone looking for an authentic South American adventure to put this exceptional country on your bucket list.