Witches, parades and the birthplace of the Sun.

So La Paz! You hear and read a lot of things about La Paz, it’s the highest administrative capital in the world at 3,650 m and has the reputation of being the most dangerous city in Bolivia (it’s the adjoining city of El Alto that is the worst really) with bandits, kidnappings, knife-point robberies and murder relatively common in the recent past. Due to rapidly running out of time due to having Machu Picchu booked, we decided to only take two days, which meant we decided to skip the “Death Road” (though I slightly regret that now) but you can’t have everything. So when we arrived, walked to hotel and decided to chill out for a bit as I had got sleep but Gav was still very tired, within moments of getting into our room there was the rather ominous sound of drums, then a brass band appeared outside our room! Another parade!

Later we stumbled across this:

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This was the full military commemoration of Dia del Mar, the main road was blocked off and people surrounded the square above (outside the San Francisco Church) We watched it for a while but it was a very sombre affair.

Anyway other than that we organised our onward travel with Bolivia Hop -with them we could get to Cusco (with a few stops) and avoid doing the (apparently extremely) dangerous Bolivia/Peru crossing on our own- there was a severe lack of information on onward travel options from there, so we didn’t want to chance it. Also it was quickly approaching Easter weekend and by all accounts  all of La Paz was leaving that evening to walk (!! 150 odd km!) to Copacabana, a small town on the edge of Lake Titicaca. Our next stop would be the Isla del Sol which could only (well easily) be reached from Copacabana, the place was going to be rammed and as the hotel had no internet we got the lovely staff at Bolivia Hop to book a place for us. All very easy. That was our main goal for the day plus finding an ATM, food and having our first beer since we entered the country. Oh and they do really good pastries here, there is a massive market selling nothing but tasty treats right next to the square above.

Following morning (which was day 365 of travelling!- after the best nights sleep in a month) we decided to do the Red C&P walking tour of La Paz (20 BOB/ £2 pp) with our guides Marisol and Brian (who was Bolivian but grew up in London-that was slightly confusing). The tour started at the Plaza San Pedro (aka Plaza Sucre) right outside the famous San Pedro prison- made  infamous by the book Marching Powder (which we read earlier in our trip). In fact the tour of the prison was at one point THE thing to do in La Paz. The tours have been stopped now though and anyone offering them is probably out to rob you blind.

After that it was a walk round to the local market where we were given some information about the local ladies with the famous hats that we saw all over Bolivia (and later Peru), in La Paz called the Cholitas.

The introduction of the hat came about when the British, who were there working on the railways, ordered loads of them for their workers, but when they arrived they were too small so rather than throw them away they gave them to the indigenous women. To get them to wear them they told them they were the fashion in Europe. They have been wearing them since the 1920s and have special hats imported from Italy for special occasions. The standard hat cost 150 BOB (£15), but the more expensive ones are $500.

The big multi-layered skirts, serve two purposes firstly to keep them warm- as the climate here has such a wide range and they set up their stalls at 3 am when it is freezing and secondly to make their hips look bigger. Chubbyness is also very sexy here. When it comes to flirting- the boys throw stones at the girls feet to catch her eye, then he has to chase her a bit and if she is interested she flashes him some calf, if it’s a strong calf then there are wedding bells! A strong calf means she’d be well able to carry two kids as well as a load of stuff to sell.

They have this great tradition when they throw a party, they last days and never run out of drink. If you are invited you must bring beer- crates of the stuff, a bottle of wine and you’ll be laughed out the door. The amount you bring is noted down by the host for if they are invited to a party by that guest they must bring twice the amount that the guest brought to their party!

Next up was the Witches Market, where you can buy all sorts of potions as well as llama fetuses.

For every building you have to make an offering, using a witch doctor (a chap who amonst other things must have been struck by lightning), to Pachamama- sugar, coca leaves, alcohol and a llama foetus (these, we were assured, died of natural causes and are dried at high altitude). However for big buildings, bridges etc. they require a larger sacrifice, what do you think it is we were asked. I piped up with a live adult llama-since that seemed the most logical leap. I was incorrect. Apparently the larger sacrifice is a human. The witch doctor will disguise himself/herself as a drunk and befriend a homeless person, who hasn’t seen their family in some time, plies them with drink and then gives them 96% alcohol so they pass out. Quickly they are removed to the building site and placed in the pre-prepared grave. It’s important that the person is still alive when buried.  This is also one of the reasons to be careful on a night out in the “party city” of La Paz and not accept drinks from strangers as gringos are preferred by Pachamama apparently (also express kidnappings, rape and murder are not uncommon here). They allege that this is slightly more than urban legend as there have been bodies found under the foundations when buildings have been demolished.

It is also where you can by love potions of many different types in cool boxes.

Next up was the Lanza market, this was near our place, grabbed a juice and a papa rolleno here.

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This lady made many tasty drinks.

Then it was on to Parliament square (Plaza Murillo) and the Presidential palace. We happened on a local wedding party here.

We were told some of Bolivia’s more colourful history here- such as one president who was a bit nuts, gave a horseshoe-shaped piece of Bolivia to Brazil in exchange for a horse (the horse was also a general of the armed forces for a time). They ended up hanging that guy as Chile started invading and he was ignoring it.

Then the current guy, Evo Morales, the first indigenous president, has done some great things for the country- stabilised the economy, increased tourism, gave half his salary to improve the lives of the poor. He re-nationalised a lot of things, rewrote the constitution, renamed the country- it is no longer the Republic of Bolivia but the Plurinational State of Bolivia. However he’s been a bit controversial too and suffers from a lack of internal filter so he says exactly what he thinks. They have a book in Spanish with all the quotes (like the Bushisms book).

Some of his gems were:

Bolivia has the most Bolivians living in it (a revelation after his trips around the world).

After hearing that chickens are given female hormones to increase growth- You must stop eating chicken it will turn you gay -he had to apologise for that one. No one in Bolivia would stop eating fried chicken, they love it. Seriously love it!

On hearing that the population was too low for the size of the country- he wanted to tax women over 18 who did not have kids and ban contraception or make it prohibitively expensive- again had to issue a massive apology to the ladies as they were ready to string him up.

Recently they had a referendum, (he is on his third term or second as the Plurinational State of Bolivia- a loophole so he could stand again) on whether to rewrite the constitution so he could stand a further two times (which would be over 25 yrs in power) but he got narrowly defeated.

After our tour we went and did some shopping, grabbed some food for tea and headed back to the hotel to get ready for our early start the next day…

La Paz gets a bad rep, we actually really liked it and would have liked to have stayed another day to see the wrestling (Thursday and Sunday only) and to do a cable car over the city. However we had booked our tickets for Machu Picchu; the date was rapidly approaching and we still had a few places to visit before then. Plus Easter weekend was approaching and if we didn’t leave then (Holy Thursday) we would be stuck  in La Paz until the following Monday.

So the following day we were picked up at 6.30 (a bit later than our window of 6-6.10) and were whisked off in a little Bolivia Hop minibus.

I think I was the only one awake as we hurtled across the flat plain to the small ferry port to cross the Estrecho de Tiquina. We had to get out and all our bags and the bus headed off with the driver on one ferry while we watched it from the pier. Once everyone returned from the toilet (very thankful that our guide Alejandro (I think), who lent me the 1 BOB for the toilet!) we pursued our bus by boat, got back on the minibus and continued on our way to Copacabana.

Copacabana is basically a small town/large village built about the church dedicated to the Virgin of Copacabana, Bolivia’s Patron saint. We got here before the pilgrims arrived so it was quite a nice sleepy little village.

We had paid for our transfer with Bolivia Hop, it made it all very easy and after a quick wander round Copacabana we were off to the birthplace of the Sun, the Isla del Sol. This was a bit like a more extreme, high altitude and hilly version of 4000 islands in Laos, there were no cars, no bikes with only donkeys for transporting goods. People have to walk though, which is fine…we thought.

That evening (after dodging the landlady/owners eccentric mother who wanted us to get dinner at the hostel-we were still stuffed from lunch), we went off to try get the sunset, hitting the highest points of the island. It got cold very quickly..

So after a cold start we went off to explore the island, its bigger than you think so we only really had the morning to explore before we had to get the boat back to Copacabana to get the Bolivia Hop bus to Peru.

By the time our ferry arrived back into Copacabana at 5 pm the sleepy backwater had turned into a carnival, literally people everywhere. We were so delayed on pick up and drop off that we barely made the border to Peru…

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