Today was another early morning. We had an inconveniently scheduled 7.30 am flight from Cusco to La Paz and had a taxi pick us up at 5.30 to get us to the airport on time. We made our way quickly though the quiet streets as it seemed only the stray dogs and us were awake this early. No one was even at the gas station when the taxi tried to fill up his tank. He instead worringly drove the whole way with his gas light on.
We arrived at the airport and hopped in a fairly short line to check in to our Peruvian Airlines flight. Despite their motto being Punctuality and Service, it took the check in folks nearly 45 minutes to make it through the 7 people in front of us. After some initial concern about our lack of visas for Bolivia we assured the check in guy that we would be getting one on arrival and he let us through.
Tickets in hand we walked over to security only to see that it wasn’t yet open. So we instead went upstairs and found a quick breakfast of cinnamon bread for Lynn and a ham and cheese empanada for me. By the time we got back downstairs security was open and we quickly made it through, cleared customs, and sat down at our gate to await our flight.
30 minutes before departure, an announcement came on in Spanish and everyone got up and started heading to another gate. We checked the screen and it seemed our flight had moved from gate 11 to gate 3 so off we went to gate 3. Confusingly though, upon arrival at gate 3 they were getting ready to board an entirely different LAN flight. We headed back to our old gate and there was literally no one in the entire terminal. Not even an employee we could ask a question of. As we were walking around looking for anyone who could shed light on the situation a man poked out from behind some tinted glass, asked us if we too were going to La Paz, and waved us into a hidden waiting area. It seems we were at secret gate number 9, despite what the monitors said, and thankfully this man had noticed our frantic searching and helped us find it.
We eventually boarded our plane, 30 minutes un-punctually and with very little in the way of service. The flight was fairly quick though a bit rough as we crossed the mountains. We passed the time listening to the latest installment of Serial and decided neither of us ever want to be held captive by the Haqqani. As we approached La Paz, we circled the city for a while before landing with a lot more speed than either of us are used to. We later learned that La Paz’s airport is the highest international airport in the world (13,325 feet) and planes need to maintain extra speed to stay aloft in the thin air.
Safely on the ground we, made it through customs, easily obtaining our Bolivian visa in the process. It was $160 each but at least it’s good for ten years. The customs man was quite insistent that we should make sure we come back.
After a little trouble finding an ATM we managed to get a cab to our hostel. Our brief tour into the city showed us a La Paz full of traffic, mid-rise terracotta apartments, lots of political graffiti, and hundreds of billboards welcoming Pope Francis from his visit last July. Our taxi had to take a couple of weird turns because there was either a protest or a celebration blocking some of the roads – our taxi driver wasn’t sure which. Eventually though we made it and checked in to our decidedly non-party hostel (yes, we learned our lesson terrible Mendoza hostel).
After settling in we headed out onto the streets to explore and hopefully book some tours now that we were here in Bolivia and could go to their store fronts. We tried swinging by a Cuban restaurant for lunch on the way but it was closed on Mondays. We next stopped at Gravity Bikes and booked a Death Road bike tour for the next day with the original and safest company offering downhill bike tours of the World’s Most Dangerous Road according to a study done in 1995. After some credit card issues, we got it all sorted and headed over to Crillon Tours to see about a Lake Titicaca tour. They were closed, despite several people appearing to be working inside.
Instead we settled for lunch at a nearby saltenas restaurant. Saltenas, we learned, are basically empanadas with more broth in them and a slightly sweeter crust. We each had two and split a pitcher of lemonade with milk (surprisingly good) for less than $4.
After lunch we had planned on what else but a city walking tour, so we headed over the plaza where they meet but were a bit early. We decided on some people watching in the plaza to pass the time but briefly left to go buy umbrellas when it looked like a rainstorm was moving in.
Our tour began promptly (on Bolivian time, not Peruvian time, as they like to say) and our guide was the lady who had helped us book our Death Road Bike Tour earlier in the day. As she showed up in the square, tourists came out of the woodwork and made up a group of about 20 people around her. Our tour started right there in the square where she talked about San Pedro prison across the street. The prison is unusual in that there are no guards inside and the prison is run as an isolated community with prisoners owning cells and renting them out to other inmates. There are also small businesses like cafes, restaurants, and barbers. The main money making scheme though is cocaine. During the late 90s a British inmate starting selling tours and overnight stays of the prison and wrote a book about his experiences called Marching Powder that Brad Pitt has just purchased the movie rights to.
Our tour next took us through several markets where we learned about traditional Bolivian culture and why the cholitas dress in 19th century gowns and derby hats. It seems they were trying to imitate high European fashion at the time with their dresses and the look stuck. The story with the derby hats is that English miners ordered a crate of derby hats from Italy but they were all too small so they started a fashion trend among Bolivian women so they could sell them. We also made our way through the witches market where we learned that modern Bolivians are equal parts Roman Catholic and shamanistic. The witches market still sells powders and potions that help you through life and even dead llama fetuses that a witch doctor (which you can only become by surviving a lightning strike) uses to bless a new building.
We had a break inside the main commercial market of the city where we snacked on avocado sandwiches, fruit juices, and potatoes stuffed with meat. It was all quite good and it seems that La Paz benefits from being able to grow food on the altiplano on which it sits (potatoes and such) as well as the nearby rainforest basin (tropical fruits). After our quick snack we headed across town to Plaza Murillo where the Parliament, Presidential House, and main cathedral are located. Here we learned about Bolivia’s tumultuous political past and saw the bullet holes in a building from riots in 2003 (there’s now a movie out about it called Our Brand is Crisis starring Sandra Bullock). Bolivia has apparently had 80 presidents in its 180 year history, a Guinness World Record for the most.
Our last stop was inside the safety of a westerners bar where our guide talked about the current president Evo Morales. We were here because it is illegal to talk badly about the government, and not that our guide did so, but she would rather be safe than end up in San Pedro prison (in Bolivia you are guilty until proven innocent and spend 8 years in jail before your trial). Evo Morales is the first indigenous president of Bolivia and has implemented a number of reforms to help the native population. He also has already been elected the two times allowed by the Bolivian constitution and so changed the name of the country from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia. He has never been elected president of the Plurinational State and so can now run two more times. That’s a loop hole if I have ever heard of one.
We ended the day with dinner at a pretty good Mexican restaurant since we were both craving spicy food and went to bed early so we could be up for our Death Road Bike Tour in the morning.
Daily Walking Mileage: 7.7 miles
- Bolivia has three official languages: Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua (which is where Rimaykullayki comes from).
- While Sucre is the official capital of Bolivia, La Paz is the seat of government where the President lives and works and where parliament meets.
- Bolivians, we learned on our tour, love to strike. There was a strike a few months ago because a TV channel was going to take the Simpson’s out of its lineup. There has also been one that shut down the city for two days because a fried chicken restaurant was going to close.