Welcome to Our Lady of Peace

2013.Aug.03 Saturday · 1 comment

in Life

So, La Paz, Bolivia. I know some of you have been waiting for this. It’s one of those places that, well, none of us really know anything about. I mean, people talk about visiting Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro or Lima or any of a handful of other spots in South America, but who ever says, “hey, we’re going on vacation to La Paz”? It’s on a mountaintop, more or less, at around 4000 meters, or a bit over 13,000 feet. That’s somewhat misleading though, because the city proper is down in a valley in the center of a ring of mountains and is easily 1000 meters below the airport and the “city” of El Alto, where that measurement comes from. Unlike where I spent the previous weekend in Calamarca, however, La Paz has running water, electricity, bathrooms, internet, and humidity. And while it does get down to freezing at night, even at this time of year, during the day the temperature rises dramatically to around 70F – in the mornings, as the sun comes up over the mountains, you can actually feel the temperature rise steadily – it’s almost like you’re standing in front of a heating coil that’s steadily moving from off to full on – very bizarre – it only takes about an hour and a half to rise those 40 degrees. La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia, but not the official one, which is Sucre. The latter is both the historical and judiciary center, while La Paz is primarily just the legislative – imagine putting the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of, say, the U.S. government in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles so that they didn’t interact directly on a daily basis….

Dowtown La Paz

One of the first things a couple of people told me was to make my way from my hotel in downtown, the Rosario (#1 on the map of downtown above), to the nearby Hotel Presidente (#2), and go up to their restaurant on the 16th floor, where you could get a great wraparound view of the city, just by way of introduction. It doesn’t give a great fixed point for taking a panoramic view, because you have to walk around to different sides of the restaurant, so the perspectives and distances are slightly different, but I’ve taken the below eight photos and roughly stitched them together here (most of the vertical black lines are the window seams).

La Paz panorama
La Paz panorama
La Paz panorama
La Paz panorama
La Paz panorama
La Paz panorama
La Paz panorama
La Paz panorama

So here’s the way the city has been explained to me – I won’t vouch for how accurate it is. Originally, the whole area was one city, La Paz, and El Alto was simply a sort of adjunct community, until the mid-2000s (I’ve seen it described as both a slum and as a bedroom community, which seem in opposition to me). Now, these numbers seem incredible, but supposedly until roughly 2007, El Alto had a grand total population of around 79,000 people – now, I know that figure is wrong, because I’ve seen the 1985 census number of 220,000 – maybe in 2007 it was 279,000 and my informant just dropped the “2”. So along about 2007 the government decided to open up all those mountainsides you can see in the photos, and the plain above which you can’t in these views, which until then were basically vacant land, to a homesteading project – no cost, just stake your claim, pay for the building costs and a connection to the utility services that the government ran into those areas, and no taxes. Between 2007 and 2010 the population boomed to 1.1 million, equaling the population of La Paz city below and making it one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world. The population of El Alto is about 85% indigenous (76% Aymara and 9% Quechua, which is very different from the national population at 30% Quechua and 26% Aymara), and the balance are primarily mestizo of one or another indigenous group mixed with European (38% nationally).

La Paz streets
La Paz streets
La Paz streets
La Paz streets
Coca leaves

Because of the layout of the city, you’re pretty much always going either up or down hill. It’s tiring. Really tiring, especially the first day or so adapting to the low oxygen levels. But I have my little bag of coca leaves to chew on (2 bolivianos, or about a quarter U.S.), which got me through the first day – haven’t needed them since. But you’re always reminded of being down in the bottom of a bowl as you walk around. In the very center of town near to all the administrative and office buildings, they’ve taken “zebra crossings” to a new level, almost every major intersection has these costumed folk directing traffic – generally maintaining a high level of energy, dancing around, chatting with pedestrians and drivers – it’s actually kind of fun.

Plaza Murillo
Plaza Murillo
Plaza Murillo
Plaza Murillo

What was originally the de facto standard “Plaza de Armas” is now known as Plaza Murillo (#3 on the map), and it’s where the various legislative buildings are as well as the main cathedral, Nuestra Señora de La Paz – Our Lady of Peace, the official name of the city as well. It’s also a popular place for kids to come and feed pigeons, apparently.

La Paz - Iglesia San Francisco
La Paz - Iglesia San Francisco

And, nearby, at #4 on the map, the church, monastery, and museum of San Francisco, which I think is the largest catholic church in La Paz, if not all of Bolivia.

And that seems as good a spot as any to stop with the introduction to the city. Next up, markets, museums, and, of course, food.

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