What To Do in La Paz, Bolivia
What To Do in La Paz
La Paz is probably the weirdest city I’ve ever been to. Any manner of curiosities meet you at each turn, and no matter how many weeks you stay, you never quite feel like you know the city. The roads are congested and chaotic and the pavements are exactly the same, with the rapid hustle and bustle taking you sharply away from the sleepy streets of Sucre. Toothless shopkeepers smile and coarse cholitas glower in crumbling shops and vibrant markets, and each local, young and old, sports their traditional dresses for a pop out down the road.
You can watch native women wrestle in these traditional dresses, or else learn about their courtship routine. If a young Bolivian native man rather likes the look of a young Bolivian native woman, a cholita, he will proceed to throw rocks at her. If she feels like reciprocating, she’ll flash a cheeky look at her calves at him. At this point the man will then circle her in what seems like a fairly menacing fashion. After that he’ll bugger off and they’ll be game for a pretty serious relationship. He can tell she’s single by the positioning of her tiny top hat, the placement of which indicates your relationship status. The top hats became a part of the custom when a British merchant accidentally imported a number of miniature top hats, and proceeded to convince the local woman that all the women in London wore them in the exact same fashion. The voluminous skirts and shawls were actually the typical attire of slaves in the Basque country, at the time that the Spanish conquered South America. They enslaved the native population of Bolivia, ransacked their resources, and forced the women to dress like their slaves at home. The cholita is the unwavering backbone of Bolivia, she’s kept it standing through their turbulent and tragic history of exploitation.
In the markets you’ll find avocados larger than your head next to petrified llama foetuses, and in the bars you’ll try to order drinks and be told they only serve cocaine. You’ll attempt to eat absolutely god awful food and then realise that it’s easier to embrace your altitude-fuelled lack of appetite. Bolivia may actually have the worst food of any country I’ve ever been to. I’ve been to 70 countries. It’s not good. Yet the markets are incredible, with thousands of options for beautiful, fresh fruit and vegetables. Plenty of potential if you want to cook, or plenty of places to buy smashing juices if you embrace my liquid diet.
But what is there to do?
1. Mercado Rodriguez
The city’s largest food market, and the heart and hub of La Paz. Brimming with vegetables you’ve never seen and meats you wish you never had, weaving through the haphazard streets of stands will always bring you fresh discoveries. Test new sights, new smells, many, many, many new breeds of potato.
It’s ginormous, stretching far outside of the covered section, thick with fresh treasures. Buy armfuls of herbs for pennies, tiny mangos, so ripe that they slip straight out of the skin, myriads of spices of every kind and creed, or the plumpest, freshest vegetables you could hope for.
A local guy told me that every one of them has their mother, and they have their market mother. One cholita that they go to every time that they come to the market, for anything they may need. Produce, life advice, someone to set them up on a date.
2. The Witches Market
A very different kind of market. You won’t find fruits and vegetables and hundreds of locals in the witches market. You will find spell guides, predictions, and varied herbal cures for erectile dysfunction. Pachamama, mother earth, is an incredibly important feature in Bolivian culture. As such, there are a number of ‘witches’ dedicated to carrying out rituals based around Pachamama. For instance, the llama foetuses. Aborted and petrified, the llamas hang above the stands in the market. They are intended to be buried in the ground at the site of the construction of a new building, to bring it good luck. Apparently, this tradition has only recently started being preformed with llamas. Previously, according to a La Paz native who may have been messing with me, this was something that was typically preformed with human sacrifices. The most common method would be for the building owner to find someone who wouldn’t be missed, normally someone living on the street. They lured them in with the promise of drink or food and drugged them. They then proceeded to bury them alive. The local told me that this isn’t really something that people talk about, that tourists generally read about the llamas, but that there were 8 bodies found under the foundation of the new government building in La Paz. Who knows, hey?
3. Take the cable car
In the stead of Medellin, La Paz built their own cable car system between the city and the neighbouring mountain city of El Alto. Leaving the city is actually one of the best ways to see it, and the view will be familiar if your bus happened to enter La Paz via El Alto. If you fancy staying up in the neighbouring city, I’ve heard the markets have excellent fake designer merchandise, especially on Sundays. I’m not much of a shopper, so opted out. El Alto never felt like the safest part of town, so as a solo female traveller I decided I wasn’t too bothered.
Much like Medellin, travelling out of the centre of the city, or over it, gives a far greater respect for life in the city. The poverty in the Bolivian capital is widespread and spreading wider, and the ramshackle shanty towns that pile upon each other up the surrounding mountains will give you a far greater perspective on life in La Paz. You can also check out my guides to the comunas of Medellin here.
4. Watch cholita wrestling
Those indominable aforementioned cholitas take to the ring every Thursday and Sunday night, to wrestle, still in all their skirts and frills. Cheered on by boisterous locals and slightly uncomfortable looking gringos, who had paid the premium for the best seats in the house and were now right in the thick of it, the cholitas dole out high-flying moves in an incredibly bizarre display. Like I say, Bolivia’s pretty weird.
There aren’t hundreds of churches or palaces to explore, no abundance of beautiful gardens. You’ll probably be sick from the altitude, I could barely walk downstairs without being exhausted. You may get robbed; one girl I met was mugged 4 times in 1 week in La Paz. Yet, I would never recommend that anybody skip it. It’s absolutely bizarre and endlessly colourful and the 1.5 weeks I spent in the city weren’t close to enough to see all its eccentricities. Come for the stop over, stay for the city, get stuck for the parties.
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