Nuestra Señora de La Paz

Posted by on Sep 12, 2013

Nuestra Señora de La Paz

To think that a week in a place makes one able to articulate the sense of that place is perhaps ambitious, but of my experiences to date in Bolivia, La Paz was in every way the capital of Bolivia. Nuestra Señora de La Paz stands at between 3,500 and 3,800 meters above sea level where, crammed hopelessly into a valley, it breathes the rarefied air, languishing in plain view of snow capped mountains and to some degree, its own smog. Here cheap concrete constructions dominate the hillside, rising on all sides of the valley from the city centre below. Very steep and narrow streets, colourful buses crammed full of people and ubiquitous street venders are all part of the flavour of La Paz.


I arrived with Sara, my French travelling companion who had taken the same Uyuni tour as I had. As we descended towards the airport on the plains above La Paz, a dazzling view of the city spread out beneath us. Off to the left the jagged snow covered peaks of the Andes, a number of them reaching above 6,000 meters could be seen, partially obscured by cloud.

The traditional aspect of Bolivia which makes it so popular as a South American destination is very visible in La Paz, perhaps amped to some degree for the benefit of the tourists in the central areas but also just present in the everyday life and happenings of the people. Older women dress in the traditional garb which is a very distinct Bolivian flavour. As mentioned in the previous post, they carry aguayos, brightly coloured bags made of a woven material similar to the traditional tais of East Timor. It is not just the bags which catch the attention of foreigners, but their entire dress up: the basis is a classical dress with a colourful bodice flaring out at the skirt in many layers of a satin like material, often trimmed somewhat garishly in netting and decorated with beads. It’s the five-year-old ‘Princess in the Garden’ dress, only for adults. Although the designs of the dresses vary, it is commonly accompanied by a shawl wrapped around the shoulders or the colourful aguayo. They wear their hair in two braided plaits, sometimes tied with colourful ribbons and topped with a bowler hat; a European custom adopted because the indigenous women though it ‘looked nice’. Despite the cool temperatures, it is common to see them wearing an elegant sandal although modern sneakers are also a fixture. The overall result is quite distinct and I can’t help but appreciate the work that getting dressed would mean to these women and I can tell them….it was appreciated!


As mentioned, I spent exactly one week in La Paz, and it was filled with activities, each of which will be covered in its own post, but it engendered a certain business which had me walking the steep and narrow streets in search of agencies, not that walking about to see the markets isn’t excuse enough! Both Sara and I devoted one whole day to visit the ‘tourist market’ in the centre; a place filled with shops selling every imaginable woollen product, clothing, souvenirs, and, in the witches market, creepy things like dried baby llamas hanging on hooks, various dried insects as well as incense and amulets. A sober fact of clothes shopping here is that much of the often heard ‘baby alpaca’ is, in fact, synthetic baby alpaca! All over Bolivia, the same jumpers can be purchased from the stalls erected in touristy places, the same designs and the same lie perpetuated for the hoards of Europeans and Anglophones who pour through these places every day. In a certain sense, one deserves the other and each reflects the other. While I was a part of this, I was not blind to it and soon recognised that this was all an industry and the remote and exotic nature of Bolivia as a destination was now available in tour packages, meticulously planned to fit a tight enjoyment schedule. The hip ‘let’s do Bolivia’ in your friends circle. What had once been the destination of the intrepid traveller was now pre-selectable in numbered or colour-coded packages in travel agencies all over the world. And they came with added miles, a carbon offset, and maybe a free baby alpaca jumper. This also applied to Peru, perhaps even to a higher degree. It’s ‘standardised adventure’, and it’s still an adventure and an experience, and the jumper you get is really a jumper…but what does it consist of? I rushed my time in Bolivia, I bought a baby alpaca jumper, I didn’t plan my trip, and I really enjoyed it, but I feel I also need to return and do different things.

All of this became clear to me as once again I found myself walking the streets of the city – only this time it was at night. It was a return to normal as the pretense of day was dropped, and these thronging markets were now the realm of Bolivians, who, finished for the day, were packing up, eating dinner and talking amongst themselves. There was no hard sell to the foreigner as I walked by, wrapped in my new jumper. Here street vendors grouped together around a brazier to eat and chat while the Anglo-peans were now grouped in restaurants or busy uploading their photos.

La Paz was my base, from where I forayed out into the surroundings to do activities and tours, the first of which was a walk of the Choro Trail – the three day descent from the ice to the jungle along a mountain track which clung to the sides of the mountains as the flora and fauna changed around it. The track was actually a part of the old Inca trail which extended all the way to the Inca capital of Cusco and other important sites in the Sacred Valley…