Our Bolivian Adventure: Arriving in La Paz
March 3, 2015|Posted in: Bolivia
Guest Blog by Lili Mahlab
We arrived at 5:25AM at the La Paz airport. Llama Expeditions arranged to have a guide and driver pick us up to take us to the hotel. Check in at La Casona, a newly renovated hotel (renovated 8 years ago) and a landmark in the heart of the old city, was very smooth. After catching another couple hours of sleep, we had the complementary breakfast in the hotel dining room.
Last year, I didn’t take Diamox when we went to Cusco and I had a hard time adjusting to the altitude. This time, I started taking Diamox two days before our departure. La Paz is even higher in altitude than Cusco. But with Diamox, I had only the very faintest of headaches. Diamox The drug really works in terms of building up your red blood cells so you have more oxygen and can hit the ground running when you arrive. On the flip side, Diamox is not without its side effects. First, you have to drink a lot while taking it or you end up with a really bad headache. Second, it’s also a diuretic. So, between the water you have to drink and the pills, you end up going to the bathroom quite often.
La Casona is right near the Witches Market and the Basilica of San Francisco. So, we took a walk in the late morning in search of an ATM.
We found one and OMG – it took my ATM card and didn’t return it OR give me my money. We ran back to the hotel so they could help us make the appropriate calls. My bank, TD Bank, was super efficient and they immediately took care of it and canceled the card. They even alerted my branch in Manhattan to let them know that my husband would be coming in to get me a new card. Thankfully, he had planned on joining me a day later. So, he was able to take care of it within an hour of the ATM “eating” my card. While I had a back up card with me, I wasn’t taking any chances and only changed money on the street with the local money changers. They are quite good and take a fraction in commission – around 70 cents. I even got a better exchange rate than at the local bank.
After walking around a bit, we ate at an interesting and typical Bolivian restaurant – Layka. It included a buffet along with items that could be ordered off the menu. I had quinoa soup and shared a brochette of llama with a mushroom sauce. I had never tasted llama meat and wanted to try it. It’s similar to beef, but definitely a tad on the tough side, albeit the sauce with the mushrooms was excellent. If you’re not that hungry, there’s a wide variety of things to eat at the salad bar (buffet style). The entire meal for three of us including the tip was $36. If you just go for the salad bar, it’s only about $5 a person plus drinks and a 10% tip.
Upon returning to the hotel and drinking more cocoa tea for the altitude, the concierge got us a cab driver to take us to the Killi Killi vista point. WHAT A VIEW! It was spectacular. The cab driver didn’t speak any English, but at this point, my Spanish was getting so good from all our South American travels that I was able to understand 80% of what he said. I translated for my friends, as he identified many points of interest along the way, including the Plaza de Armas, which is the main square in the old city where the presidential palace is located.
La Paz is a city of three climates. It ranges in altitude from 3,200 meters at the low point (approximately 10,400 feet) to 4,100 meters at the high point (approximately 13,500 feet). The upper class lives at the low point where it is relatively warm. The middle class lives, of course, in the middle. Our hotel was at around 3,600 meters (approximately 11,800 feet). And, the poorest people live at the highest points where it’s coldest. The airport is at the high point, which now explains why it was so cold when we deplaned.
We spent about a half hour taking photos at Killi Killi before going to one of the local parks.
May is officially akin to November in New York since La Paz is in the southern hemisphere. Upon our arrival, the temperature was -3 degrees Celsius, which is about 26 or 27 degrees Fahrenheit. During the day, when the sun was shining brightly (and it is SUPER strong), it was in the low 60’s and felt even warmer. At night when the sun set, the temperature dropped rather precipitously into the upper 30’s. We asked our cab driver if it snows in La Paz in the winter. He said they get much less than they used to. Of course, the surrounding mountains receive quite a bit of snow since they are at elevations of 16,000 to 20,000 feet!
As we passed the University of La Paz, our driver talked a little about the education system. The University of La Paz is the best university in Bolivia. It is very hard to get into and they only accept students who score exceptionally well on the entrance exams. Even the professors have to vie for spots on the faculty by taking tests. The best are accepted, while the lesser professors end up teaching in elementary or high schools.
The government is really trying to elevate their standards. So, professors have to work and study hard in order to get the good jobs. They are paid relatively well, though. That said, the average income for a Bolivian male is about $200 a month or $2,400 per year. This is not much by US standards, but certainly enough for a family of four to live fairly decently. In the cities, the average number of children is roughly 2 per family. However, the majority of the indigenous people have very large families of 8 or 9 children. Therein lies the root of their poverty.
We also talked about their government. Nine years ago when their new head of state was elected (he claims to be an indigenous Bolivian, but has a very Spanish last name), our cab driver said he did a great job and really made a lot of positive changes. But, in his second term when he won by more or less a landslide, he has done less well and is becoming somewhat of a dictator.
Then, the conversation meandered to the treatment of the indigenous people. They used to have a very high mortality rate because mothers would give birth at home with sometimes only their husbands to help. Often, either the child, the mother, or both would die.
Now, the government gives them free medical care during pregnancy and is trying hard to help them by giving 200 Bolivianos a month when the child is born, which is about $28. This helps pay for proper nutrition, clothing, school, and so on.
While the public schools aren’t free, they are very inexpensive. They also feed the children two meals a day (breakfast and lunch).
Most of the indigenous population lives from farming. Previously, the government would simply expropriate their land and make them move. Now, they at least pay them for the land when they take it away from them for expansion projects. Not ideal but better than it used to be.
One thing we noticed in particular is that the indigenous people are quite large, especially the women.
We thought, originally, that it’s due to fried food and a lot of carbs – potatoes, beans, bread, etc. and not much meat and vegetables. However, our driver explained that Bolivians love to eat. It’s a cultural thing. Besides breakfast, lunch and dinner, they have several snack times a day. The most important one is around 10:00. It is called the “merienda” and consists of coffee or tea with usually fried or baked goods.
They have even adopted the British custom of having high tea at 5:00 (called “tecito”) when everyone has more tea or coffee and more fried or baked goods.
Ice cream is also a popular treat. Whenever we passed a school around the time the children would be let out (whether it was in La Paz or in the highlands), the ice cream vendors were there in full force.
Walking around La Paz, we were amazed by the street vendors selling a broad variety of foods, such as fresh coconut and orange juice, fried snacks, etc. Of course, the majority of these vendors were quite large themselves.
This tendency towards obesity was all the more surprising given the steep inclines people walk up and down each day.
While Bolivia is definitely socialist leaning, there are signs that the country is starting to trend towards capitalism. This is due to the fact that their best and brightest are leaving the country to go abroad and work for private companies that pay them well. To stem the exodus of their most educated young people, the government is giving them incentives to stay. They are even paying for extra training abroad as long as they come back to Bolivia to help grow the economy. The middle class has seen significant economic growth so things are beginning to change.
According to Pedro, our driver who picked us up from the airport, Bolivia used to be like Venezuela several years ago with protests and demonstrations. Things were very bad and tourism was at an all time low. Nobody traveled to Bolivia and it was very tough to make a living. However, things have improved and the economy is on the uptick.
We ate at the hotel on our first night in La Paz because we were all pretty tired. Dinner at La Casona was excellent and very inexpensive. We had trout with steamed vegetables and an excellent Bolivian red wine.
The following morning, our cab driver planned to pick us up at 9:00 to take us to Tiwanaku, about 90 minutes outside of the city, to see some really interesting pre-Inca ruins. So, we turned in shortly after dinner.