La Paz Bolivia – The Worlds Highest Capital.
June 28, 2014 – July 5, 2014
Our next stop was La Paz, a city of massive markets, witchdoctors, superstitions, and buildings as far as the eye can see. It is also the administrative capital of Bolivia. At 3,650 m (11,975 ft) above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. Despite being so high it is still set deep in a valley with buildings growing and spreading up the sides and boiling over the top in all directions. Standing in the center of the city it looks like you are standing in a bowl of red roofed buildings.
Downtown La Paz is densely crowded and filled with traffic, as explained to us it is home of some of the worst traffic on the planet. With a constant line of unmoving cars throughout the city, all furiously honking their horns, we believe it.
La Paz Free Walking tour
Many cities we have visited have free walking tours, and we have tried to take as many of these tours as we can. We have found them to be a great introduction to each place we visit and we highly recommend them, and they’re free! They offer the free tour in hopes of getting a tip at the end, and since they are working for these tips we have found the free walking tours to be very entertaining.
San Pedro Prison
One of our stops on the walking tour was the famous San Pedro Prison. This unassuming old white building is La Paz’s oldest prison, and it is still in operation. This prison is unlike any modern prison, with its own self governed society inside the walls the guards only patrol the outside of the prison and never go inside. Inmates must ‘rent’ their cells from others and many businesses including coffee shops have sprung up inside. Wealthy inmates can even bribe their way outside with the promise of returning later, and most do. The biggest business inside however is making drugs, with packages of drugs being tossed over the walls. A great book which Krista really enjoyed, and soon to be movie on the prison is Marching Powder by Rusty Young, a true story about a British man who was imprisoned at San Pedro in this strange self contained and self sustained world.
The Witches Market
Witchcraft, magic potions and superstitions are very big here. We toured through the Witches Market downtown, where one can find little potions for nearly every conceivable ailment. The cure for STD’s, cancer, heart disease, impotence, love potions, spells to get rich, to be successful at business or to get your revenge along with countless others can be found for just a few dollars in mysterious powder form from those in the witches market.
A common and perhaps disturbing sight for some were the many llama fetuses for sale around the witches market.
A very superstitious culture, particularly in the past, the construction workers before starting any project would bury a llama fetus to ensure that the project would be safe and successful. For larger projects however, like a multistory building such as an apartment buildings a simple llama fetus would not be enough, for these larger projects a human sacrifice would be needed – as was explained to us. The witchdoctors would lure a homeless person to the construction sight and he or she would be buried beneath the foundation. Many say that this is just a rumor and gossip but as La Paz has grown and old buildings have been torn down to make room for new modern skyscrapers, many sacrificed bodies have been found beneath the old building’s foundations…
The San Francisco church, the oldest church in the city sits right in the town center. When the Catholics first built the church they had a problem converting the local indigenous people, who did not seem interested. Not to be deterred the priests were able to find an ethical loop hole and put up mirrors in the church and told the locals to go inside and have a look. Once they saw their reflections in the mirrors the priests explained that their souls were now trapped inside and they would need to come and visit often, and of course convert.
Urban Rush – Building Rappel
One of the activities Krista had been looking forward to, even before our trip started was the Urban Rush, La Paz, building rappel. Going to the capital of La Paz, Bolivia, finding a tall building and going to top and stepping off, was admittedly not my first thought when La Paz came to mind but Krista was very excited!
Krista was on her own for this one… because someone had to take the pictures!
Having safely made it to the bottom she was exhilarated and asked me if I wanted to try, however I explained that we were already at the bottom and for me to go we would have to go all the way back up to the top so…
The Museum of Musical Instruments
One afternoon we checked out this small but interesting museum about musical instruments.
El Alto – The top of La Paz
On the rim of the bowl shaped valley that makes up La Paz is an area called El Alto. It is one of the poorer areas, probably more dangerous and has an amazing view of the city below, so of course we had to go there! Being a fan of our free walking tour from a previous day we signed up again with the same company – Red Hat Tours – for a guided tour of El Alto.
At the top there was of course a lady selling fresh squeezed donkey milk, so obviously I had to try it!
Krista did not join me in trying the shot glass of donkey milk, so I had it all to myself!
Refreshed, energized and ready to get far away from the donkeys we started our tour of El Alto!
Visiting a witchdoctor
High atop the hill overlooking the city – literally right on the rim – is a street full of witchdoctors. Rows of tiny dilapidated numbered structures each with a witchdoctor ready to read your fortune, tell you the secrets to a happy and wealthy life or even cure you of any disease or ailment you might have, for a small fee of course.
How does one become a Bolivian witchdoctor you might ask? Well I’m sure most people already know, but just in case you don’t and your thinking about switching your career – You have to pass a test. You must be struck by lightning twice. Its not entirely clear who administers this test or how its graded but apparently once you have passed you get your medical degree in witchdoctory.
We paid one of the witchdoctors a visit and had our fortunes read. Fortunes for the group ranged from “All is good” to “somebody out there hates you.” And for me “Something weighs heavily on your mind.” With our futures safely nailed down we thanked the witchdoctor and went out into the evening to ponder the good doctors words.
The views out the back door of the witchdoctor huts, which butt up against a 200 foot vertical cliff, with no fence.
We ended up spending a week in La Paz because Krista was sick with a nasty cold. Normally three days would be sufficient for checking out this city.
On our way back down into the city we rode the new gondola system that was built to give the low income residents in the hills quick access to the city below.