By Erin Hancock
La Paz is a huge, busy city. It is not a gorgeous city or a particularly friendly one in my experience, but there are some things to check out if you find yourself there (perhaps on the way to the Uyuni salt flats which is a top destination for visitors to Bolivia).
We took a few days to head from Copacabana on Lake Titicaca (Peru border) on to La Paz to check it out. The drive to La Paz included a spectacular sunset.
One really wild thing about La Paz is a prisoner self-regulated prison. Although some tourists take sneaky tours of the establishment, it’s illegal so I just learned about it from outside the gates. San Pedro Prison is beside the park shown in the above pics – Plaza de San Pedro.
More fascinating info about San Pedro Prison:
-Too many guards were being killed so the government had to abandon sending in external guards, so this is where the idea of self-management emerged from.
-Prisoners can have their partners and children living with them inside the prison. Many volunteers go to the prison to make prison life better for the children.
-Unlike in North America, the legal principle in Bolivia is one is guilty until proven innocent after being accused of a crime. This puts the onus on the accused to prove their innocence. Some would say it is possible many innocent people live in San Pedro, so lucky for them they get to live with their families and even have a plasma screen tv!
-The majority of prisoners are convicted of drug-related offenses.
-Inmates elect a leader and a secretary per arm of the prison and collectively agree on rules for their area.
-Stabbing is used as a method to keep order within the prison
-Each prisoner must pay 5000 bolivianos (roughly $725 USD) per month to stay at the prison and complete their sentence. If a prisoner cannot pay this, they must work or run an enterprise to generate income. For some this means renting space in the prison to run a small store, a barber shop or a restaurant. For others it means selling cocaine.
-It is said that the cocaine-selling prisoners walk the roof of the prison at night and prisoners can tap on the ceiling to buy.
-If you want to learn more about this prison, an Australian tourist sentenced to 3 months in the prison wrote a book about his experience there called “Marching Powder” by Rusty Young
The markets are pretty neat in La Paz. Although bartering is not warmly welcomed, there is one thing to know; if you mention “casara” or “yapa”, the vendors may throw in a little something extra for you at no extra charge. I tested this and got a couple extra carrots. It’s a way of saying I will be loyal to you and buy from you and in return you will make it worth my while.
You have to take the Mi Teleferico (cable car) up the hill to the Al Alto part of the city where you’ll find the largest flea market in South America. Anything you desire from socks to struts for your car, whitening body lotion to chia seeds is available for a good price. Enjoy the incredible view of the city on the ride.
On the way up to Al Alto on the cable car you’ll see the graveyard district too which is vertical (coffins stacked), an efficient approach for a city this large.
But the coolest market of all is the witches market. For any wish, spell or hex you are seeking, there are lots of charms, potions and odd ingredients to peruse. This includes llama fetuses, essential oils and herbs to burn. Only take pictures of the women after you ask (and buying something from them often helps too).
Eating in La Paz is alright. Coming from Peru with pretty delicious food, it’s stiff competition, but we found the Star of India restaurant as well as tons of fresh fruit stands. Having a little Spanish under your belt really helps at the smaller establishments.
Doing a walking tour of the city is definitely a must-do in La Paz. Red Cap Walking Tours does a great job. So if you’re only in the city for a short time, they get the job done for seeing most of the interesting spots. Above see Plaza Murillo as well as the Presidential Palace (where the clock runs anti-clockwise….takes a minute to process it at first), and the Congresso Nacional.
A bizarre and notable experience in La Paz is watching Cholitas Wrestling. This has become a popular event for both locals and tourists alike. We found it a little cheesy but were glad to pop in for a few rounds. Picture Hulk Hogan in elaborate traditional dress, but all of the schtick of WWF.
Above is a video I took (if the video doesn’t display for you, you can go direct to this youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RMsWxjSLbw). Unfortunately the woman may have broken her arm on the last fall. A group of people rushed her away moments after I ended the video. Par for the course I suppose but I felt for her.
The night life in La Paz is not bad. We didn’t find La Paz to be particularly friendly which meant the atmosphere at the bars was a little cooler, but we gathered some foreigners together and made a night of it. Nicole and Julia, you were great travel buddies!
Ciao for now Bolivia