Bogota, Quito, Lima, La Paz; these big South American cities are usually seen from the taxi to and from the airport. Most travellers spend little time in them generally because of high crime rates, chaotic traffic and dirty streets, and I too only spent a couple of days in each until I landed in Nuestra Senora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace) or more commonly known as just La Paz. I ended up spending a week there which was usually met by other people asking me, ‘Why?’ and I admit it wasn’t initially by choice. I realised I had to have a Brazilian visa BEFORE going to Brazil and so La Paz was where I lodged the application and had to wait. However, I came to love the city and really thought, ‘I could live here!’.
Maybe it was the time of year that exaggerated it, but I found the vibe intoxicating and fun. Being Christmas it definitely seemed like everyone was in a good mood and the streets were beaming with decorations and market stalls. The main plazas were always busy with families and children and I went to the Plaza Murillo every day just to sit on the benches with the locals eating a fruit salad and people watching. There were always speeches going on in the Plaza San Francisco and people crowded the steps.
Mercado Lanza was an unbelievable maze of ramps and levels full of everything you could think of, generally categorised and clustered together. Flowers, fruit and vegetables, household products, DVD stalls that often had a movie playing and a bunch of people standing around and watching and of course the best part, food. The comedor (dining hall) was great and I ate there most lunch times, always starting with a soup whether it be quinoa or peanut and then followed by a main, usually chicken or beef with rice and potato but there was everything on offer from liver to intestines.
In fact the markets were the highlights. The Christmas night markets on Commercial Street, Mercado Lanza, the artesian street for cheap souvenirs and witches market where baby llama corpses hang, but the best was the bi-weekly market in El Alto. I would have to say it would be the biggest market I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to many over the past year so that’s saying a lot. I spent six hours walking around and I definitely didn’t cover it all, I think I only covered maybe 3/4 of it.
El Alto is an interesting area in itself. It is the highest city in the world sitting at over 4000m and is home to the indigenous Aymara people who constitute 25% of the population in Bolivia. They regard El Alto as their capital and they look down on La Paz both literally and also in a way that shows their importance in the country. They have often demonstrated grievances by staging protests that cut off the road down to La Paz which is the main entry point in and out of the city. People make it very clear that La Paz and El Alto are separate entities despite it looking very much like a continuation of one another.
It’s also in a beautiful setting, surrounded by mountains. From the market in El Alto I could see snow capped mountains in the distance. From a mirador not far from my hostel I could see the rocky landscape in the opposite direction. A few hours drive north of the city and you begin to hit the very edge of the Amazon jungle.
I found it more beautiful than Bogota, kinder than Quito and more laid back than Lima. Lonely Planet describes it as one of the most dangerous cities in South America and dedicates a whole page to the common dangers and scams that plague the city. However, I used ‘unofficial’ taxis, took the local microbuses around town and walked in the evenings with no problems. I was always greeted with a smile and I was definitely sad to leave.
*post adapted from my trip here in December 2015 and from my previous site elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com