Our Bolivia Adventure: Discovering La Paz
Guest Blog by Lili Mahlab
Today was a very long day. We woke up at 4:30 AM and were out of the hotel by 5:00. As soon as we walked out the door, we were hit by a cold blast of air. It was about 22 degrees Fahrenheit that morning so our driver gave us blankets since it was super cold in the van. The drive from Colchani to the airport in Uyuni took about 40 minutes.
It was so early, we actually caught a glimpse of the moon setting over the horizon.
Our Amazonas airlines flight left at 6:45 and landed in La Paz about 50 minutes later where we were greeted by our guide, Cesar. We first made a breakfast stop in the old city at café Banais. You know it’s cheap to travel in Bolivia when American breakfasts for 6 people cost $20 for everyone.
After breakfast, we headed to the southern part of La Paz to the Valley of the Moon, an area with incredible formations similar to the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon in Utah albeit these were grey versus the brightly hued earth tones in Bryce.
The Valley is situated at one of the lowest altitudes in La Paz, about 3,000 meters, just shy of 10,000 feet. This is also the part of the city where the wealthiest Bolivians live. As we drove through the city to arrive at our destination, we passed boulevards that had a distinct European flavor. The major embassies are also located at the southern tip of the city.
We spent about 45 minutes hiking along the trails that led to various vista points with magnificent views of La Paz and the Valley below. One surprising fact that we learned from our guide, Cesar, is that 70% of the buildings in La Paz are at risk for damage due primarily to the porous rock coupled with mudslides that occur during the rainy season. In fact, the Valley of the Moon is closed during the rainy season. And, after seeing how porous the rock was, it was easy to see why they’d close the pathways to the vista points.
After finishing our hike at Valley of the Moon, we meandered through the Cochacata neighborhood replete with beautiful homes surrounded by high walls – some with electrified fences and camera security systems.
On the way back to the old city, we stopped at the Killi Killi vista point since Michael hadn’t seen it given that he arrived the day after Jean, Joe, and I. From there, it was off to the Plaza Des Armas where Cesar explained some of the history of Bolivia that we had learned the prior Thursday from our cab driver.
Then, we took a short tour of the San Francisco Cathedral, which was only finished at the time of the papacy of Jean Paul II. It took 100 years to build and was designed by Italian architects. The interior of the cathedral is a mix of Greek and Roman architecture with Greek columns and rounded arches. The stained glass was also designed by Italian artisans. What was a tad jarring is that the features of the saints were distinctly western given that they were designed by Italians. I think it would have been far more authentic had the features of the saints looked more Andean.
The air in La Paz and Uyuni is so dry that we made a quick stop at the farmacia to by some much needed hand cream. Then, off we were to Jaen Street, the only surviving colonial street in all of La Paz. This is where the vast majority of local museums are located. As we were nearing lunch time, most of the galleries were closing. So, instead of going to the Gold Museum, we visited a local art gallery at the end of Jaen Street where they had beautiful native art.
We capped off our half day tour of la Paz with a visit to the Mercado de las Brujas (Witches Market), where we found all sorts of handicrafts, clothes made of Alpaca and of course, the requisite talisman’s required for a various of festive events honoring the God of the Sky, of the Earth and the Underworld.
One wasn’t so nice to look at — tiny llama fetuses that were naturally aborted and preserved for events that at one time, required the sacrifice of a llama. Today, these preserved fetuses are used to symbolize the sacrifice of a live llama.
Since our flight for Lima was leaving at 4:55, we had to head to the airport around 1:30. Boxed lunches were provided for us which we ate in the car. However, instead of taking the main road to the airport, which is totally choked with traffic, our driver took us the back way through neighborhoods and streets that we hadn’t seen before. The final stop was at an amazing vista point, the highest we had been to thus far, which gave us an incredible view of the city and the snow capped mountains that towered above it.
We got to the airport at 2:15. We had been advised to be there roughly three hours in advance. Check in at the LAN counter was quicker than we anticipated. Our guide stayed with us until we were fully checked in. By that time, it was only 2:40 and the security screening area wouldn’t open for another half hour. So, we had to sit and wait at an airport cafe until the doors to security gate opened.
Security is slow, inefficient and tedious. After handing in the green paper (make sure you don’t lose that when you enter the country or you’ll have a major problem) that we were told to hang onto until exiting the country, we had to have all our hand luggage checked, and I mean checked! Every item in my back pack and pocket booked were taken out. They even checked my wallet to see how much money I was carrying. My husband is a photographer by avocation and carries a backpack filled with expensive camera bodies and lenses. They made him open up everything to a full inspection that took about 15 minutes. THIS is why they say to get to the airport early, because of this hand luggage screening process.
After waiting in the gate area for about an hour, we finally boarded our flight and headed to Lima. Upon our arrival, we simply crossed the sky walk to the Ramada hotel just across the road from the airport. After the hotels in the altiplano of Bolivia, the Ramada felt like a palace. It was also super convenient given that we had to catch a 5:40 AM flight from Lima to Iquitos the next morning. After the very cold temperatures of the Bolivian altiplano, the weather in the Amazon was a welcome relief. What a pleasure to trade in our thermal underwear for flip flops and shorts.