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…

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