La Paz, Bolivia is the highest capital city in the world at 3,500 meters above sea level (the airport is at 4,000). While living in Mendoza, hiking above this altitude involved acclimatizing for a day or two, so its no surprise that in our hotel coca tea as well as coca leaves where available around the clock. We took several days walking the city to acclimatize. Any uphill walking was an immediate reminder of just how high we were.
La Paz, and Bolivia for that matter, is a very different place from where have been living and traveling in Argentina and Chile. Over half the country’s population is indigenous and in the Altiplano this number is certainly higher. The indigenous in this area are largely Aymará speakers. The Andes are dramatic here, with charismatic, snow-covered peaks towering over the high plateau- the most prominent being Illimani, whose size and prominence never ceased to amaze me.
The streets of the city are like an unending bazaar. Vendors set up on the street, curb, and sidewalk, selling grains and nuts, potatoes, vegetables and fruits, coca, clothing, electronics, street food, and more. My favorite were the puffed grains. These sweetened chunks looked like over-sized Sugar Smacks (or any other puffed breakfast cereal). They were transported in bags twice the size of a human body. Watching porters walk with these bags strapped to their backs was like a cartoon. The sheer number of vendors and ready buyers spoke to the popularity of this food, which could be for munching, or served as a cereal.
Most indigenous women and some mestiza women wore multiple layers of skirts, known as polleras, and the curious bowler hats. Too small to fit over their head, the hats seemed to balance precariously, serving more as a marker of identity than as protection against sun or rain. These women are called ‘cholitas’, and by all appearances they seem to represent the backbone of the informal economy in the Altiplano, which represents 8 out of 10 jobs in region. These women are tough, working from dawn well into the night. They seem to spend most of the day seated, watching over their vast wares. They take no flack, and a camera toting tourist like me was reproached often for invading the sanctity and privacy of their urban realm.
La Paz has around 1 million inhabitants. However, up beyond the bowl in which the city is set, lies El Alto, a sprawling satelite city of adobe buildings with another million plus inhabitants of its own. While we didn’t see it for ourselves, El Alto hosts a massive flea market and is home to cholita wrestling- yes, skirted, braided women engaged in WWF-like wrestling! (I bought a DVD and the girls and I watched a YouTube video that profiles these wrestlers. Good documentary: Wrestling Women- Bolivia.)
The girls and Jenny trekked with a guide to the base camp of the Condoriri peaks. The trek brought them to about 4600 meters. The stamina of the girls brought much attention from other hikers!
Because of a bad weather day, the outing conflicted with my mountain bike ride with Gravity, Bolivia. We rode some splendid single track in the Sorata area. It was outstanding riding.
There was much more in La Paz, like shopping! So many textiles and crafts! We soon moved on to Lake Titicaca. More to come…