4/16 Deeper into the Heart of the Americas
Just crossed the border into Bolivia. A dream 7 years in the making! Checked out of Peru, walked across the Rio Desaguadero Bridge, and here I am. I wouldn’t want to be in Desaguadero at night per se, but definetly not the sketchiest border crossing I’ve been through. The $135 visa burns a little, but should be cheap living here. Next stop La Paz!
La Paz First Thoughts
Holy shit! This place is crazy. I over heard this on the bus as it pulled into the station.
“Is La Paz dangerous?”
“Well……its not as bad as San Pedro. In La Paz the taxi drivers will just rob you. In San Pedro, they’ll kill you.”
Jesus. Welcome to La Paz.
I’m staying at the Panamerican Hotel, and although the staff is super friendly the street feels sketch. As I dropped my stuff I heard gunshots ringing out, and later saw there was a protest/roadblock downstairs and the police were firing warning shots all day. I am quickly jolted out of my mystic mountain thoughts and back to things like personal safety and watching all my stuff like a hawk. The sidewalks around the Prado are INSANE! Throngs of people shuffling around clogging the walkway. Traffic is JAM-PACKED, and constantly honking. And there seems to be a lack of…things. Restaurants, supermarkets? Any refuge from the melee? It took me the entire evening to find a tienda that sold beer and water. There is a thriving sidewalk economy with tons of kiosks selling water, smokes, snacks (but no beer I don’t think). Street food vendors have started coming out as night has fallen. Its been such a dream to come here, but I find myself taken aback.
I must be missing something.
One very important high point was the HOT SHOWER!! Not just tepid, but HOT, and with good water pressure. I was literally giddy, exclaiming “shit yeah shit yeah” to myself. My first hot shower in these frigid altitudes in 2 and a half weeks.
Not really sure what I’ll do tonight. Figure grab dinner, hopefully find a chill place for a couple beers and call it an early one I suppose. I booked a trip to Tiwanaku for tomorrow, so that should be more my current speed. Hopefully I can find my spots here in La Paz. I’m sure I’m just being a pussy, and there are spots around I just have to go out and find them.
I ended up getting dinner at Restaurante Sol y Luna in the touristy 4 Corners intersection. The place was definitely on the Lonely Planet crowd’s radar, but it was one of the more inviting places I saw on my evening hunt for food. I sat at the bar, and enjoyed some of their draft beer (a rarity in my past weeks). The menu was pretty extensive, but with a relatively small “Traditional” section (its Dutch run). I blindly ordered the silpancho cochabambino. A delicious mammoth of a meal, egg, fried steak, potatoes, on a mound of rice. Topped with a tasty pico de gallo type salsa. I was happy with my first Bolivian meal, and possibly full for the rest of the trip.
After dinner I brought some beers back to the hotel, and found the front desk girl (who I had a crush on), and a couple guys watching Bolivar (big La Paz team) vs Leon for an important Copa Libertador match. Its always fun to get wrapped up with some locals when their team is playing a big game. I joined them for the ups and downs of what ended up being an exciting game. First night in La Paz turned out pretty damn good!
Today was the trip to Tiwanku, one of the most important ancient sites you’ve never heard of. Our guide, Carlos, was a short, round man you could tell had lived through some shit. He hinted at being a revolutionary in his early days as a professor in La Paz until he had to leave Bolivia for New York City when the government closed the universities in the 70s. He lived in Greenwich Village when it was still cool, saw the Beatles at MSG, and ended up at Woodstock by accident. His story was the fodder for a movie to rival Forrest Gump. Tiwanku was made by the pre-Inca ancestors of the Aymara people who still inhabit the area. The site is impressive; started around 1500 BC and flourishing 300-1000 AD.
Besides the sheer antiquity of it all, and the skilled handiwork, the craziest thing to me was the Templete Semisubterraneo (Semi Sub-terrain Temple). It is insane! And another secret of the past that is hard to explain away/unknown to most people. I’ll just give the facts, and show you the pictures. You can decide. The about 90 X 90 foot temple is dug down 5 or 6 feet below ground. Its square, and lining the walls are heads carved of stone. Most look the same to my eye and are thought to be important priests of Tiwanaku. Then there are some that are clearly different. Not to be racists or whatever, but the facial structure of these odd ones are distinctly a viking, a grecian, a polynesian, and lastly a FUCKING ALIEN.
Hey man, I’m not that into the idea of aliens creating all this ancient stuff anymore (its shocking that we’d choose boogiemen over the ability of humankind), but take a look and decide what this is for yourself. My lens decided to break just prior to entering the temple so sadly I don’t have a wide shot, but the place has dozens and dozens of “normal” heads with just a handful of these mysterious outliers.
4/18 Last Day in La Paz
Had booked a night bus to Uyuni tonight, so didn’t have anything to do until 9PM today. Took advantage of the chance to sleep in, and when I went out around 10AM to find a quick coffee and maybe some bread I found a fucking ghost town. It was Thursday of Semana Santa (Holy week before Easter), and EVERYTHING was shut. I had found out last night at dinner that no booze was allowed to be served for the entirety of Holy Thursday and Sacred Friday (or whatever they’re called) which was annoying enough, but I didn’t expect the whole city to close its doors. I was seconds away from eating at an open McDonalds (oh the humanity!) when I stumbled across Alexander Coffee on the Prado. Thank god. This place is a nice, modern cafe chain with good brekkie and strong coffee. Life saver.
I decided to hop on the 2PM Red Cap Walking Tour (they do 11 and 2 everyday), and super glad I did it. Should’ve been the first thing I did here in La Paz. It was awesome, informative, and FREE. I felt a bit obnoxious walking with a group of 30 gringos through the narrow streets, but the guides were very spacialy aware (a pet peeve of mine). They picked their spots to stop and chat expertly, never clogging the way with their herd. We saw the San Pedro Prison, a fucked up commune of criminals with their own government and culture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Pedro_prison). You used to be able to do clandestine tours of the place, but due to violence and rapes the government has cracked down. Didn’t see that coming…
We perused the main markets, including the touristy yet eery Witches Market where Bolivians go to get their voodoo-esque commodities to appease the spirits. They told us that the Prado used to be a river (where gold was found, hence the Spanish choosing this unlikely spot for a city). On one side (my hotel’s side) it was all indigenous folks, and on the other it was for the Spanish. When we crossed over the now highway (my first time), you can tell the difference. Still fairly run down on the “Spanish side”, but obvious at one time this was probably a grand colonial settlement built on the rape of the minerals of the land.
We ended the tour with a great view of La Paz on the top floor of the Presidente Hotel. In true bizzare Bolivia fashion this also happens to be the place you can repel out the top floor window and down the 17 stories to the sidewalk. A bunch of the youngsters in the group clamored to be next, but I had enough adrenaline pumping from the jenky elevator up and down. The tour was great, view was nice, but happy to be back on tierra firma.
On the bus, pues hasta luego La Paz. I’m already hoping to come back and use it as a jumping off point for exploring the eastern portions of Bolivia. I’d like to see the last view of Che in La Higuera, see the jungle, and have a chance to eat more traditional food. Next time different expectations, and hopefully another Red Cap Tour.
I’ve told my friends now back in NYC that I didn’t really like La Paz, but as I re-read what I wrote at the time and think back on what was really going on I realize it was a matter of timing. I wasn’t ready for urban life after the recent fantastic experiences in the Peruvian highlands. I didn’t do La Paz justice, and hope for a second go-round.