Nuestra Señora de La Paz, more commonly known as La Paz (the peace) is the highest capital in the world at 3,600m above sea level. Obviously it also claims to have the highest Irish pub, golf course, soccer stadium, hospital and pretty much everything else. However Potosi, the mining town some 9 hours away by bus is actually the world’s highest city at 4090m.
I arrived in La Paz by bus (surprise, surprise) across the border 8 hours from Lake Titicaca. You enter via the city of El Alto – the fastest growing city in Latin America – which sits along the flats above the valley of La Paz, and then wind your way down into the valley amid the spectacular views of La Paz, red brick buildings clinging to every available space in the canyon.
La Paz is famous for many things – San Pedro prison (made internationally famous due to the book Marching Powder), witches markets, markets, altitude sickness, and of course, being in a valley, walking many many hills. Lucky me, I experienced it all (except inside the prison).
San Pedro prison is right in the middle of the city, and takes up an entire block. To be honest, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, it could be a giant windowless factory or similar. There are no patrolling guards outside, however there are women patiently waiting outside a door in one of the walls – food in hand.
San Pedro prison was built for 400 men, however currently there are around 2000 living inside. It is very different to other prisons as inmates at San Pedro have jobs inside the community, and buy or rent their accommodation. The wealthiest area “La Posta” provides inmates with private bathrooms, a kitchen, and cable television, although it is reported that several of the wealthiest ‘residents’ have jacuzzis and multi-storey cells. Some inmates may also live with their wife and children inside (especially if the family will fail without support). Children living inside the prison cross the road outside to go to the local school Monday to Friday, and the wives may visit the outside freely.
To earn money, the inmates previously produced the finest cocaine in Bolivia. Because the prison is only constructed of mud and stones, it was quite easy for the inmates to make holes in the wall as long as their arms and drop the manufactured cocaine to associates to sell on the outside. Of course, this is also how the last prison escape was done as well… I don’t think he has been recaptured yet.
Visiting the witches market in El Alto (apparently a bigger and better one than La Paz’s) was an eye opener. I have been to the witches market in Mexico City which has the same sorts of potions and charms available to people to find love (come to me, come to me), increase their sexual stamina or place/remove the effects of the evil eye. However it is the first time I have encountered dried llama, pig, dog and alpaca fetuses readily available…
Because Pacamama is female, she likes candy and flowers (of course) and so when asking for something from her, you buy offerings that include candy, sparkly stuff and things in the colour pink. For big requests – like blessing a new house or business or asking for good luck for your pregnancy or business, you must also purchase a llama foetus. The whole thing is burnt (because Pachamama is Mother Earth) and then you should be fine for another year.
Traffic in La Paz is nuts. From what I have observed, red lights are a suggestion, there are no lanes, even if they are painted on the road, pedestrians are annoying and could be run over if they don’t run fast enough (a little safer though than Peru where cars are number one, two and three in importance, and pedestrians congregate on crossings only to make it easier for cars to get them). I saw a van take the entire front panel of a car off at an intersection. It was a slow peeling of the car as they both tried for the same line, and then the car ran over its own headlight to add more insult to injury.
To educate children (and through the children, their parents, on road safety, the La Paz government has decided zebras are the best option – not zebra crossings though, people dressed up as zebras. Standing on those dangerous roads, in costumes where they are lucky if they can actually see out of the mesh that is their zebra nose – you can totally imagine this is a popular job…
La Paz is chaotic, dense, and at altitude so spending time here is not as easy as say – the Maldives. It also has a reputation for being unsafe, something I did not find – I think if you are sensible you will be OK. I found the altitude really hard here as coca leaves are sold everywhere, but not the candy I found so helpful in Peru, so I spent the majority of my time breathlessly sucking down air in an oh-so-attractive way. 4 days in La Paz was enough for me.