La Paz is a sprawling city with a lot of traffic. Another thing it has a lot of is hills, which when you’re already struggling with lack of oxygen at nearly 4,000 metres makes it hard going. Even when going downhill I found myself worrying because I know that what goes down will eventually go back up again.
On first sight I didn’t like the city much; it was too crowded and the traffic was manic with this constant tooting of horns. Then again, I felt the same way about Bangkok when I first went there, yet given time it turned out to be one of my favourite cities. Who’s to say that the same wouldn’t have happened with La Paz if I had given it time? However in the end I stayed just four full days (5 nights). It was a relief to leave and get down to lower ground.
My hostel was right on Sagarnaga street, a street full of shops. Very touristy but interesting all the same. The shops sell the usual array of inca-style bags, table cloths, jewellery etc, along with the ever-present alpaca sweaters and scarves. ‘Isn’t there somewhere less touristy to buy alpaca?’, I asked the tour guide, ‘I mean where do you buy stuff like that from?’ Well the answer is that they don’t; hand-knitted sweaters and woven scarves are popular with visitors but the locals don’t buy that kind of stuff. It looks like if I wanted to buy myself an alpaca sweater I was just going to have to bite the bullet and become a tourist for the day.
Just a block down is the famous witches market, where you can buy all kinds of things from a powder to make your latest crush fall hopelessly in love with you (very midsummer night’s dream) to llama foetuses (which you bury in the foundations of your new home/business to bring good fortune.
Another interesting thing about La Paz is the prison. It sits right on San Pedro square in the centre of the city, behind an imposing wall.
It has an interesting history. On entering the prison inmates purchase a cell; the wealthier inmates live in luxury with cable TV, Jacuzzis and a wifi connection stolen from a nearby hotel. There is more modest accommodation available for rent, however anyone unable to pay is basically left to the elements. Often a prisoner’s family will move in with him (to save paying two rents), although the family are, of course, free to leave.
It became notorious for offering (illegal) tours inside; at one point these tours were featured in the Lonely Planet guide. Many visitors went in order to enjoy some of the purest cocaine in South America, which was produced inside the prison.
If you want to know more about the incredible-but-true story of the prison I really recommend the book Marching Powder by Rusty Young, an Australian writer who spent time inside as a guest of British drug smuggler Thomas Mcfadden. I downloaded it from Amazon and it kept me quiet for the whole journey from La Paz down to Sucre. The story is compelling. The film rights to the book have apparently been bought up by Brad Pitt (in case you can’t be arsed to read the book and would rather wait until it comes out in a film version).
My first day in La Paz I was hanging out in San Pedro square, waiting for a walking tour to begin, when I had an encounter with Mad Dave (although at this point I just knew him as Dave).
Dave is a New Yorker who hangs out at the square every day looking for people to listen to him talk about his experiences inside San Pedro prison. According to Dave, he was locked up inside for fourteen years, after attempting to smuggle cocaine across the border. He was released from prison last year and is now sleeping rough in La Paz, hoping at some point to make it back to the family he left behind all those years ago in New York.
He tells his story very eloquently, so I was somewhat disappointed to learn (when I shared my story of this encounter with a tour guide) that Dave actually had never been an inmate. A more likely scenario is that he went inside as a visitor, back in the days when visitors were welcome to go in and sample the pure cocaine; many chose to stay for long periods of time.
Well he was very entertaining anyway; I still think my ten bolivianos (about £1) ‘donation’ to his cause was money well spent.