Few cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz, which, like its fellow Andean capitals Bogotá and Quito, is high up in the mountains, at a lung-challenging 3,600m above sea level (making it the highest capital in the world). The city sits in a valley surrounded by the Andes on all sides, including the permanently-snowcapped Huayna Potosí and Illimani mountains, with the colonial buildings, church spires, and office blocks of the flat centre slowly morphing into the gravity-defying houses of the ramshackle poorer suburbs, stuck precariously to the steep sides of the valley. And down at street level, there’s the usual assortment of squatting beggars, wandering salesmen, street markets, traffic jams, smoke-belching buses, and honking horns. So, not very different from many big cities in this part of the world, then.
But despite all that, and despite its lack of must-see sights, La Paz has some of the oddest tourist attractions in South America. My first stop is the city’s most famous market, el Mercado de Hechicería, the Witches’ Market. In and among the usual handicrafts are amulets, potions, herbal medicines, and folk remedies, all intended to either discourage or propitiate the various benevolent and malevolent spirits that live alongside us. In one shop, I’m browsing through the pickled frogs and jaguar skins when the proprietress points up to the ceiling and asks if I want one of her dried llama fetuses – they’re all hanging down from the rafters in various states of decomposition, empty eye sockets staring out and skeletal limbs folded in; and apparently, they’re often buried beneath the foundations of a new house, as an offering to Pachamama, the earth goddess, to keep the house and its occupants safe (at least, that’s what the poor people do, the rich ones sacrifice a live llama). In another stall, there’s a selection of similarly dessicated birds, from small, shrivelled toucans to an enormous thing which I think was once a condor, but which now looks like a fossilised pterodactyl. And outside the stalls, past the dead turtles and preserved snakes, weaving their way between the browsing locals and gawking tourists, are the yatiris, wandering witch doctors, who have a combination of medical and magical knowledge, and to whom the indigenous locals go, to have their fortunes read in coca leaves, or to get a cure for their physical and/or supernatural ills.
And speaking of the small green leaf, La Paz also has what I think is the world’s only Coca Museum. Coca has been used by many people in the Andes (especially the indigenous groups of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia) for thousands of years, to combat hunger, relieve altitude sickness, and in various religious ceremonies. To the rest of us, it’s more famous as the raw ingredient in cocaine, meaning that it’s as controversial as it is sacred. Coca pops up in numerous local recipes, from tea to sweets to beer to chocolate, and I’m constantly seeing people slowly masticating the tell-tale bulge in their cheeks on the bus, or sipping a coca tea in a restaurant. Thousands of people in Bolivia (and thousands more throughout South America) depend on coca for their livelihood, and with the Bolivian President being a former coca farmer, the leaf is everywhere here, despite the fact that the UN, the USA, and many other countries consider it an illegal drug. The small museum is surprisingly detailed, with exhibits on the history, chemistry, cultivation, and uses of the plant. There’s a how-to guide on making cocaine (it takes A LOT of leaves, and plenty of lovely ingredients like sulfuric acid and gasoline), an exhibit on the regular and pointless US-funded military attempts to eradicate coca farms (which do nothing other than make the impoverished coca farmers even poorer), and a section on how it wasn’t just legal in the past, but highly recommended, being in everything from wine to pills to fizzy drinks (and apparently, despite America’s loud anti-drug rhetoric, the world’s most famous soft drink still contains coca leaf extract, with Coca-Cola importing several hundred kilos of the leaf every year). I’ve tried coca already (in Peru), in tea, sweets, and chewing it. And all I’ve ever felt is a very mild buzz, similar to drinking a few coffees. But, as the chap in the museum explains, that’s because there’s only a tiny amount of cocaine in the leaf to begin with (less than 1%), and because there’s no extra ingredient to release all of it. He takes a handful of leaves from an enormous bag and wraps them around a small piece of lime (the rock, not the fruit) – the alkaline lime will help to release all the cocaine alkaloids in the leaves. And sure enough, after popping the ball into my mouth and chewing the quid for just a few minutes, I’m wide awake, and can’t feel one side of my mouth (he tells me to spit the lot out soon, as the caustic lime will eventually burn a hole in my mouth!). He also has some home-made coca candy, a mix of coca, aniseed, and honey. The black, putty-like sweet is surprisingly tasty, and within a few minutes of sucking I can’t feel the other side of my mouth.
Pleasantly numbed and newly energised, I walk back from the museum through Plaza Sucre, past the balaclava-wearing shoeshiners (they cover up because there’s a social stigma in doing this kind of work, and they regularly face harassment by the police and discrimination by the public; but it does make them all look quite sinister), and the bowler-hatted Aymara women (the Spanish forced the locals to wear western-style clothing, and after initially resisting they’ve now enthusiastically adopted it, giving them a 1950s London city gent look), to the formidable bulk of San Pedro prison. At one time one of South America’s most famous (and notorious) tourist attractions, it’s a self-contained city, containing shops, restaurants, rented cells, and rent-paying prisoners (and sometimes their families). It also once contained a drug ‘factory’ that produced some of the highest-quality and cheapest coke in the country, and was open to paying tourists to tour the facilities, all as described in the incredible book Marching Powder, the story of the prison and the jailed English drug trafficker who started the tours. Like most prisons in Latin America, the place is also critically-overcrowded, structurally-dodgy, and rife with diseases and violence. But it seems that the government has finally had enough of all the attention, so there are no more tours (they were always illegal, even when they were available, apparently you had to hang around the square and wait for a friend of one of the corrupt prison guards to approach you with details of how much to bribe them in order to get in!). And according to the internet, the prison’s actually going to be closed down for good ‘soon’ (although, this being Latin America, that could mean anytime).
After all that edification, it’s time for some entertainment. Walking across La Paz’s manic streets (aided by the city’s troupe of resident zebras, who guide pedestrians and stop traffic), I take the teleferico cable car up to El Alto, La Paz’s poorer and scruffier younger brother. On the rim of the valley, overlooking La Paz, and at over 4000m above sea level, it’s ridiculously high, bitterly cold, and incredibly windy, and I’m glad I had all that coca in the museum. El Alto is the self-proclaimed Aymara capital of the world, home to the highest concentration of this indigenous group (who’ve been here since before the Incas, and long before the Spanish). El Alto certainly isn’t pretty (it’s one of the poorest cities in Bolivia), but the views of La Paz and the mountains are stunning, and the place is humming with activity – el Mercado 16 de Julio is a staggeringly huge market that goes on forever, and seems to have everything for sale, from gramophones to guinea pigs and fake clothes to car parts. Buying and selling in the market are the cholitas, the numerous Aymara women, in their bowler hats and puffy, multi-layered skirts. And every Sunday, in the downmarket surroundings of El Alto’s ‘stadium’, they wrestle. It’s much more popular with foreigners than with locals, but there’s still plenty of Alteños about, cheering on their favourites and booing their bête noires. The wrestling is like Mexican lucha libre or American WWE, with sneering champions, bullied underdogs, high-flying maneuvers, and boisterous spectators. Except that all the people beating the crap out of each other, punching, kicking, slapping, and throwing, are women who look like they’ve just stepped out of a BBC costume drama. As well as being entertaining, the ‘Flying Cholitas’ have become a symbol of Bolivian feminism – once looked down on as nothing more than the Mestizo’s maids and cleaners (and often refused entry to various public places), Aymara women now occupy many different positions in Bolivian society, as part of an indigenous grassroots movement, which culminated in the 2006 election of the country’s first indigenous president. And the distinctive cholita fashion, a now-proud symbol of the women’s indigenous identity, with the voluminous skirt especially designed to make the wearer’s hips and bum look as big as possible, is now as popular on TV as it is in the street.
Finally, once you’ve had enough of the chilly city, why not escape for the day to lower elevations and warmer climes. And what better way to make the downhill journey than by bike, along the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’?! The Yungas Highway (aka el Camino del Muerte, the Road of Death), which traverses the mountains from west to east and drops 3500m from the Andes near La Paz to the Amazon in Coroico, was once one of the dodgiest routes in the Americas, with dozens of vehicles plunging to their doom every year (although, having taken public transport on some very iffy roads across Asia and other parts of Latin America, I’m not sure if it’s the most dangerous ever, or even it it’s possible to accurately measure it). Now that a bypass around the worst part has finally been built (the South Yungas Road), the route is much safer for vehicles; and the now-empty old route (the North Yungas Road) is famous as a biking day-trip. After driving up to the highest point at La Cumbre, at 4700m, we descend en masse by bike (having checked the brakes first!), all the way down to Coroico. The new road (on the other side of the valley) has multiple lanes, railings, paving, and all the usual, normal, safety features that we take for granted. But the old road is nothing more than a 3m-wide dirt track carved out of the side of the mountains, with a sheer wall of rock on one side and a 500m drop on the other. For almost the entire length, it’s no wider than the width of a car (so Lord knows how people passed each other), there are enormous vertical drops and no guardrails (so if you go over the side, it’s goodnight Bolivia), and depending on the season it’s either swathed in fog or covered in dust (so both visibility and traction are less-than-optimal). No wonder it was so dangerous. Apart from a few crazy motorcyclists, no one overtakes us all day, and (happily) no one meets us coming the other way (as I don’t want to be the one to have to move to the edge to let them pass). The old road may well have been dangerous, but what the statistics don’t say is that it’s also very beautiful. Starting in the Andes, and plunging through the clouds to the humid valleys of the Yungas (past the numerous crosses and altars dedicated to the road’s many victims), it’s an exhilarating (and occasionally terrifying) day, out of one of the most unusual cities in the Americas.