Just a round-up of last thoughts and images from La Paz. Let’s see, several people have asked me if I recommend going there. The answer is, yes, but with some caveats. First off, in the city, unless you’re the sort like me who just likes to wander around and see what’s happening in a place, you won’t find a lot to occupy your time. There are some museums, but you could probably go to all the ones that interest you in a single day. There’s a bit of interesting architecture, but you have to be into that and there’s not a lot of it. And there are certainly cultural things to do, though none of them are big, splashy things (I’m sure there’s some of that, but most stuff seems to be more low key, community stuff). I would say that most tourists who go there are using La Paz as a base to go do more outdoorsy things – like I did the one day – the majority of tourists I saw and interacted with were heading out on day tours or 2-3 days tours to the salt flats and skiing, and jungle adventures and mountain biking on the infamous Death Road and other places. And if that’s your sort of vacation, La Paz is probably a great base point for you.
The people are friendly and helpful, and, like last year when I went to Asunción, I was assured over and over that, with the exception of a few places, the city was safe and secure to wander around in – other than the hotel’s warning about problems in visiting the El Alto Sunday market as a tourist, I never heard a single tale of anyone having problems, anywhere. And, I never at any point felt like I was under scrutiny as a target, despite openly carrying my camera about and snapping photos. One note on that – the Aymara, the major population of the city (and the women tend to be recognizable by their colorful dress, generally), for the most part do not like to be photographed, and will often get very upset if you even point a camera in their direction – be respectful – either simply don’t take photos of them, especially closeup, or be discrete – you’re not there to antagonize the local population.
The altitude is tough, even if you’re in good shape, and allow yourself a day or two to at least acclimate a bit, and avail yourself of coca leaves and tea, they’ll help. Rest as needed, there’s no reason to give yourself a heart attack just to see the next sight. The food, not surprisingly, tends towards the meat and potatoes world, and isn’t for the most part all that creative, except at a few restaurants that are trying to gain a more international reputation – I think there’s just not a lot of call for it – though it might be interesting to spend some time in the Calacoto part of the city where Gustu is located and check out some of what’s being done in that area, where there are more wealthy folk and more of the upscale international community. Wines, on the other hand, surprisingly were quite good – I was actually impressed with almost every wine I tasted – I didn’t even realize Bolivia really had that much of a wine industry.
On to the photos, more or less randomly….
I just like this multi-armed pedestrian bridge in the heart of downtown – gets you across the intersection of the major avenues in any of the directions you want to go.
I (as did every tourist around) noted that all the shoeshine guys wear full ski masks, all the time, despite the temperature being in the 70s during the day. So I asked around and got two different stories. First, and most common seems to be that this is considered a really menial job that is actually embarrassing to do, and it’s a way of hiding from family and friends that you’re doing it. Second, is that many of these guys are either wanted by the police or have criminal pasts, particularly in the drug trade, but that because of laws on the books that were put in place to protect the indigenous folk who wear their native garb, by extension, the police and military can’t require you to remove a mask, and therefore can’t identify you if you’re in a ski mask, allowing these guys to “hide in plain sight”. I can only guess it’s a bit of both, but who knows?
Almost immediately on arrival I noticed that the center of town has Hebrew language signs all over the place. Really, all over the place, but just in that area. That led me to a little online research – it’s not like there’s a big Jewish population in the country or city – the whole country at last census had only 350 self-identified Jews and 180 of them lived in La Paz, and after President Evo Morales’ endorsement or buddying up with now deceased Hugo Chavez from Venezuela, and also the president of Iran, an estimated 10-15% of those may have left the country, or more. But it seems that they’re concentrated, or at least their businesses are, in the center of town – I tried asking one shopkeeper who refused to talk to me about it, which is odd – I mean, they put the signs out there, it’s not like they’re hiding, and, admittedly, I only tried talking to one.
There was a big hullabaloo last year when the president kicked McDonald’s out of the country in defiance of American imperialism. It was, however, pretty much just symbolic, as there are still plenty of Burger Kings (actually according to their website there are only a couple in La Paz, but I saw far more than the ones listed on their site), and a chain called Kansas City Barbecue, and a few others. Still, I suppose McD’s has that image of being the big, bad corporation and was probably a better symbolic target. In reality, McDonald’s had pulled out of Bolivia as not sufficiently profitable back in 2003, though a few franchisees hung on until 2011 – so by the time the president made his big announcement, there weren’t actually any locations still extant in the country.
Just think about the juxtaposition of the various elements defining this cafe. That’s all.
While I was there, Bolivian Independence Day happened to fall on near my last day. But the festivities went on throughout the weekend beforehand. Interestingly, when the day actually fell, on a Tuesday, all there was was a bit of speechifying by the president at the main plaza, and then the day was pretty much over. But on the weekend, the parades were on. Especially on Saturday when every school in town had a part in the big student parade, including 50 marching bands. Oddly, most of what I heard them playing were things like The Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Halls of Montezuma, the Notre Dame fight song, and various other norteamericano marching band standards. I wonder if they even know, or get the irony given the generally anti-American stance of their government….
On my second to last day I wandered to the south part of the city – which is where the wealthier folk tend to live. And, pure happenstance, though one would be hard-pressed to tell from the type of building, but that last photo is of the president’s house. I figured it had to be some politico or military guy because the gates were all guarded by military police, and I was snapping photos from a little away as they waved me off when I started to take a photo closer – not surprisingly – but just as I was leaving a couple of Suburban type vehicles zoomed up that were labeled on the side as the presidential security detail, went in, zoomed out a few minutes later headed for the center of town, and shortly thereafter the prez arrived at the main square and started speaking to the people. A fairly modest house for a president, no?
And that’s it for La Paz. Back to BA, food and wine…. I’ll save the nightmare return trip on LAN for a late night story somewhere along the line.