There’s no way a city like La Paz should be where La Paz is.
Squeezed into a gully, red-brick houses tumble down steep slopes, and seem to dangle precariously, half-way between heaven and earth. It’s topsy-turvy crazy, with the poor people living on the canyon’s lip at 4,000m; (‘El Alto’ literally means ‘the high place’); the city centre about 500m lower, (referred to as ‘la hoyada’ or ‘the hole’, by residents of El Alto) and the richest living 500m lower still, in the desert-like environs of ‘Zona Sur’. The buildings may be ugly, but the location is spectacular, and the city is a constant eye-popping joy and strangely photogenic.
At street level La Paz is frenetic, congested, and dirty. Roads full of traffic, horns blaring, smoke belching. Chunky, brightly painted, old Bluebird school-buses career up and down steep thoroughfares, often offering standing-room only. Narrow pavements swarm with barrow-pushing street vendors, juice salesmen, money-changers, hippies selling jewellery, and indigenous folk hoping to entice tourists into buying woven cloths and woolly hats. International banks and high-rise buildings rub shoulders with the Mercado de Hechiceria, where vendors sell cures and curses (such as dried toucan beaks and llama foetuses) to appease spirits and gods. The city often feels like one gigantic, sprawling market; full of colour, and bursting with energy. The high altitude forces people to slow down, but underneath there’s excitement, bustle, vitality. There’s always something to look at; almost devoid of greenery and trees, but colour comes from other sources. Cholitas stand out, wearing a weird and wonderful combinations of stripes, flowers and dots, and balancing bowlers on their heads; vibrant street art is bold and enticing, and the natural landscape is stunning.
What the half-finished, bare-bones, red-brick buildings lack, the surrounding countryside makes up for. Raise your eyes past the tangle of phone-lines and electricity cables, past the high-rise offices, past the adrenaline seekers abseiling from the President Hotel; and the city with all it’s noises and frustrations is instantly forgotten. To the south-east, the magnificent, 6439-metre snow-capped Illimani dwarfs all. There’s also Mururata and 6088-metre Huayna Potosi. And when you tire of snow-capped peaks, the desert landscape, just beyond the suburbs of Zona Sur, is surreal, canyons of red-rock, organ-pipe-like pinnacles and cactus-covered slopes.
What a city! Odd, totally unique, and completely amazing. We spent 2 weeks here, and it was nowhere near long enough. Parties, parades and protests. A brand-new cable car to ride on. Day trips to what used to be the world’s highest ski resort, and along Death Rroad to a sanctuary for animals rescued from illegal trafficking. And Copacabana and the world’s highest lake only 75 km away. No wonder that the area around La Paz is sometimes referred to as ‘Little Bolivia’ – the variety of landscapes surrounding the city is like a microcosm of the whole country. Stunning.