The highs and lows of La Paz

Title pun alert! I’m probably the 7,846th person to make an altitude-related pun in a piece of writing about La Paz, but I’d hope you’ll soon have me forgiven. See, La Paz is 3,650m above sea level.

Read that again. I said 3,650m. That’s high. And everything about La Paz, everything that makes it what it is, reminds you of its altitude one way or another.

First, because it’s bloody difficult to breathe. I was told and told again about altitude sickness in Bolivia; gruelling stories of nights spent lying on a hostel bathroom floor vomiting, of endless headaches – even one horrific tale of altitude sickness pills that ended up in repatriation to Europe. So, naturally… I was completely unprepared.

Interlude: I KNOW that anyone who knows me back home would not find ‘naturally’ and ‘unprepared’ to be two words that’d fit in a sentence about me. But that’s the way travel was going in South America.

Anyway. I got into La Paz at 3am after a coach driver lied to me about travel times (‘you’ll get there at 7am,’ he said, bullshit much), had a long chat with an excited taxi driver and found myself in a hostel in Sopocachi, the hipstery-bohemian neighbourhood. La Paz is built like a bowl, with the fancier districts at the lowest point, in the centre, and the poorer areas at the very top of the mountains. Sopocachi is sort of in the middle of that, and I spent my days there struggling and panting up steep hills to get home, wondering how I’d got so unfit after weeks of hiking through Patagonia. I’d lay in bed at night, feeling a pressure in my chest that made it impossible to fall asleep even with YouTube’s extensive library of ASMR on hand. I also was a bit too casual with the tap water and ended up feeding myself on bread and rice… So that’s the lows of La Paz.

The highs… The highs are the highs. There’s a cable car in La Paz that isn’t for tourism purposes, but rather is an actual transport system.

I took it with a brand-new friend as we went exploring the town, and then again as I went up to the very top of the hill, to El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city – contrary to what it may seem (or what may be said), La Paz and El Alto are two different cities. Walking through it does feel like a different place, because almost all of its population is indigenous. I was actually shown around the area by an Aymara girl who wore the traditional clothes, and walking through the huge (huge) market of El Alto, we saw dozens and dozens of Aymaras and Quechuas selling potatoes and weaved colourful cloths and sparkly knitted gilets and tubs of quinoa topped with grated cheese (called p’esque). And also iPods and car parts and ripped DVDs – literally everything you can think of.

We shared an apthapi with our guides – in the countryside, Aymaras will meet up and everyone will bring different foods to share, mostly various potatoes and roots, but here also boiled eggs and a spicy eggy dip. It was one of those little experiences (food experiences) that I absolutely love and seek while travelling. Some of my fellow travellers were a tad unimpressed but I happily munched away on potatoes and spicy egg. It’s the little things.

In spite of spending quite a few days in La Paz and really enjoying the city, I have very few photos to share. But I’d highly recommend it, even more so as I’d heard mostly negative feedback about the city before I went. And yet I loved its mix of cultures and the contrast between its busy centre, hip neighbourhoods and historical areas. I loved its micros, the little buses (sometimes barely more than random white vans) that carry every and all Bolivians around, whether they’re carrying a briefcase or a large sack of potatoes. I loved its little markets, its cobbled streets, its hot salteñas, its friendly people, its never-ending markets and its little old men selling cinnamon sorbet in the centre.

And I loved loved loved that I found a crêperie there. You can take the girl out of France…

Bolivia, country of whites: Salar de Uyuni

No matter how little you know (or think you know) about Bolivia, you’ve heard about at least one spot: el Salar de Uyuni. You might not even have known it was in Bolivia when you got shown photos of it by that random traveller, but you’ll no doubt remember the endless whites and perspective-twisting photos involving dinosaurs. It’s one of the top destinations in South America for backpackers both for its very unique landscape, and its convenient location: a three- or four-day tour around the Salar is also one of the easiest way to cross from Chile into Bolivia, or vice-versa.

So naturally, I didn’t do that. Having said a definitive goodbye to Chile the month before (until I come back one day to drink its wineries dry, of course), I chose to keep to a packed-full single-day tour of the Salar. That also meant limiting my time in Uyuni to a minimum, which was good because Uyuni is… pretty much a dead town. For real. Don’t go there.

There are dozens and dozens of tour operators organising tours through the Salar, and every single one does the exact same route. The first stop is always the train cemetery.

Back in the day, Bolivia had big plans to build up its transport system, mostly on the back of the mineral trade. Then between indigenous people taking a dislike to the system, and the collapse of the mining industry, trains fell into disrepair. Uyuni, which used to be a railway hub, became the resting place of many of the old wagons.

Next stop is the old salt hotel, now the lunch spot for all the visitors. It’s a completely uninteresting place in itself, aside for this:

This spot that feels in the middle of nowhere, alone against the blue-and-white horizon, filled with brightly coloured flags from pretty much everywhere around the world… including my home region’s Gwenn ha Du!

Not pictured: intense levels of internal excitement

And then… the salt flats themselves.

Do not wear black jeans to the salt flats. They will end up white.

I loved visiting Isla Incahuasi, a small island completely covered in cacti in the middle of the flats. From there you’ve got the most incredible view of the Salar, and you also get to feel Indiana Jones-like as you climb up bouldery hills without hearing a sound.

I spent my day in the Salar on a tour with four other people, all Spanish speakers. Two of them, filmmakers both, were really keen on finding water. I was blissfully unaware of that aspect of the area, thanks to my complete absence of research into Bolivia ahead of this trip, but the Salar attracts many in the wet season because of its mirror effect. It took us over an hour of what seemed like pointless driving… but it proved out to be well worth it.

This is one of those cases were the pictures actually tell a better story than the actual event. My day in the Salar was one of the most tiring and stressful I’ve had travelling. I only accidentally ended up in a Spanish-speaking group and it took a lot of effort for me to follow the day’s conversations, and the decision to look for water was one done through debate and arguing between passengers and with the driver, with the promise to pay him an extra fee. And yet looking through the photos now, and writing about the day, it comes back to me as a precious day of sorts – one of those that proves that travelling is worth it, in spite of the obstacles on the way. It’s all a matter of perspective…

And speaking of perspective…