Sunday, June 21, 2015

Up and down in La Paz!

Hello La Paz!
Oh La Paz ... you're high, you're cold, you make walking around difficult, you have witches' markets, good coffee, indigenous women wrestling, amazing museums, spectacular scenery and amazing markets! I could finish the blog here really!  Oh you do do delight, and the best part about you is really that you are just you and that simply walking around you is a delight!

Nuestra Senora de la Paz (Our Lady of Peace), or La Paz, as it's more commonly known sits in a bowl surrounded by the high mountains of the altiplano and sits in elevations of between 3200 and 4100 metres above sea level. Although very cold at night, it's not uncommon to be walking around in a t-shirt and pants during the day whilst looking out to the triple-peaked Illamani in the distance; always snow-covered and it can be seen from many parts of the city.



Illimani, La Paz's guardian!


I was back!  I felt like I had found my long-lost sister. First things first ... finding a place to stay. We arrived nice and early and it was indeed nice and cold.  I had forgotten how frenetic and full-on La Paz was, but I will confess to quite liking that vibe.  Although we headed for the centre and checked a few places out, we ended up at
Arthy's Guesthouse.  Despite being on a very busy road, what lay behind the bright orange door which was its entrance was a veritable clean, cosy and tranquil oasis.  The owners were helpful and treated us like their family.  The kitchen was a winner.  I am not going to lie, I have not been overly impressed with Bolivia's mostly fried-fare but the markets have some of the greatest variety I have seen anywhere in the world.

La Paz street art.
La Paz has grown and expanded over the years, and most certainly since I was here in 1999.  El Alto used to be the 'slum-city' that sat five kilometres away on the outskirts of La Paz.  The urban sprawl has grown so much that this once suburb of La Paz is now really just part of it.  It's one of Bolivia's largest and fastest-growing urban centres. It's also the highest point of La Paz at a little over 4100 metres above sea level. The views from El Alto are breathtaking, needless to say! It has a very interesting history and past; populated largely by Aymara (Bolivia's two biggest indigenous groups are the Aymara and Quechua) migrants from the surrounding Altiplano it was officially recognised as a separate municipality from La Paz in 1986.  It instantly became the fourth biggest, poorest and fastest growing city in Bolivia.  Along with this were included all the problems of a poor city that grows that fast! It actually has a bigger population than La Paz!

El Alto Sunday market.

Aerial transport, La Paz style.
La Paz has done something brilliantly.  It has created Mi Teleferico (My Cable Car), not as a tourist attraction but as an aerial cable car urban transit system.  It was actually planned in order to address a number of problems, the most prominent being a precarious public transport system that simply could not cope with user demands.  Built by an Austrian company, and opened only last year in 2014, there are currently three lines in operation and six more are in the planning stage. The first two lines, the Red and Yellow, connect La Paz with El Alto and blow-your-socks-off views are afforded.  As it's not a tourist attraction (yet!) and a means of public transport, we had lots of fun using the various lines several times.  It was not just the views that blew our socks off but also the sheer size of La Paz which continues to grow like it's on top-end baby formula!

El Alto Market ... something for everyone!
Needless to say the cable car is how we got to El Alto's famous Sunday market. Market?  It was a 'suburb' of street to street vendors selling everything from llama  foetuses to top-end Bose sound systems. You name it, they have it!   It was absolutely chockers and it just went on and on and on and on.  These once-poor-people have carved themselves out a decent income and good on them. It reached a point where it was just too hard to take it all in.  Without a doubt one of the biggest markets I have ever seen ... and with a brilliant view of la Paz to boot! With its dusty streets and sweeping views, it looks like something out of a wild, wild west movie! Keep in mind that it's the world's most active 'rebel' city and the scene of frequent protests and crippling  strikes!



El Alto is also home to La Paz's Lucha Libre or 'Cholitas Wrestling' as it's more commonly known and I can highly recommend it. Much more than entertainment and profits however, Cholita wrestling is a way for Bolivian women to prove their worth in a 'man's world'.  Having been abused, humiliated and discriminated against throughout history, the ring is one place where indigenous women can hold their head high, do their job with pride and be on equal footing with men!  You go girrrrrrls!!!!!!!


That's the way gals!
This is both an absolutely hysterical as well as bizarre event where women in their indigenous attire go out and wrestle.  Locals and foreigners alike love it!  I don't normally like to do 'tacky' things on the tourist trail, but I succumbed and we went.  Inspired by the USA's World Wide Wrestling and Mexico's lucha libre, this is really more about entertainment than skill.  Nobody gets hurt and I must say, good laughs are provided all around! There are a couple of different places that you can go to; we went to

La Paz, you were so much more than spectacular scenery, markets and dizzying heights!  Every nook and cranny was packed with culture, information and protests! The Mercado de Hecheria, or Witches' Market, sells everything from herbal and folk remedies to toucan beaks! Interesting to walk around and watch the vendors doing rituals for everything from the purchase of a new house to getting rid of unwanted negative energy.


Llama foetuses anyime?

Or perhaps a potion of some description?





















Charangos.
Plazas, churches, museums ... La Paz abounds in all.  One of my absolute favourites, however, was the Museum of Musical Instruments.  This place has an exhaustive hands-on collection of unique musical instruments, including those that are specifically Andean.  It's a must see for musicians and we lay-people alike. A private museum, it was founded in 1962 by famous Bolivian 'charanguista' and the inventor of many musical instruments, Ernesto Cavour. Every Saturday night the museum holds a concert, showcasing some of La Paz's and often Bolivia's most seasoned musicians.  The concert room is very small and the entry fee is around USD$3.50.  Anywhere else in the world this type of talent would cost a fortune! Underrated, understated!

What a collection of instruments.

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We were fortunate in that the night we visited, we saw the master himself!  What a truly talented man. His speciality, clearly, is the charango, a small Andean stringed instrument. Along with a couple of other artists, including Franz Valverde who played the muyu-muyu (like a guitar with strings on both sides!) and Rolando Encinas on the pan pipes, we were totally entertained over a couple of hours. The museum also happens to be on Calle Jaen, La Paz's finest colonial street; cobblestoned and free of traffic, it's like an oasis of tranquility in a chaotic city!


Of course we visited many markets and parks, but we also took some time to hang out and simply take in the La Paz life.  I have seen lots of changes in the 15 years since I was here last.  Without a doubt there is still a lot of poverty, bit this seems a world away from suburbs like Sopocachi which abounds in lovely restaurants and funky cafes.

Central Park .. a view 'above' the rest ... La Paz.

La Paz by night.
La Paz has been described as chaotic, frenetic, dirty and dangerous, but we loved it!  It charged our batteries and with a renewed zest, we were ready to move on. Coroico is usually the next stop on the tourist trail, which is what I did in 1999, but I had heard that it had become super-touristy.  La Carretera de las Yungas, the road between La Paz and Coroico, is known as the most dangerous road in the world.  I know!  I did it! "It's estimated that 200 to 300 people travelling on it die each year.  the thin road climbs jungle-clad mountains to a height of 4650 metres, winding and turning all the while with nauseatingly deep canyons below. Dozens of vehicles went off the road each year, and with vertical drops of up to 1000 metres over the edge , annual fatalities reached into the 100s". No thanks, been there done that.  These days, it's mostly used by cyclists on Death Road cycle tours. Fortunately, there is an alternative road to Coroico ... some use it, some don't.  I played Russian roulette on this road once and I was not going to do it again!  Some things in life are to be repeated and some just are not!

Rooftop view, La Paz

Soooooooo,  we looked at the map ... and chose Chulumani close by ... it would prove to be one of the best choices we made, and a South American highlight!


Ombi

"I have found that if you love life, life will love you back". – Arthur Rubinstein

Next: Chulumani and Lake Titicaca.

Street art.

Around La Paz.

Cholitas.

Cars, buildings and protests, La Paz.

Out and about in La Paz.

A night of entertainment.

Jaen Street.

Bolivia's sad past.

Artists draw it as it is! Or was!
Expanding La Paz.

Precarious living?

It's a hot air balloon?  No, it's a cable car!

La Paz ... houses everywhere!

Cable cars run over the top of the entire city.

Evo ... patria o ratria?

Cable cars, La Paz.

La Paz just keeps growing!

Women looking for justice.

Everything's up for grabs at the El Alto market.


With our Swedish friends Sara and  Mark at Arthy's Guesthouse.

Lucha Libre.

The La Paz shoe shine ninjas!

More street art.

Saying goodbye to Reuben at Arthy's.



View of La Paz at the top of the cable car line.

Shopping at El Alto.

Fruit juice anyone?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Cochabamba ... life's good at the top!

Cochabamba street art.
On the way back from Toro Toro National Park we decided to stop in Cochabamba for a few days, seeing that we had to pass through it on the way to La Paz anyway. Besides, we had been told that it was Bolivia's food capital! Sold! Synchronicity!  How I love it! We had only just arrived and found ourselves in the central plaza discussing potential places to stay, when we were greeted by Raquel.  We had recently met Raquel and her husband in Samaipata.  Lovely people, Raquel is a batik artist and Roy Querejazu Lewis is a university professor and Andean rock art specialist. Raquel invited us over for lunch the following day.


After lots of walking  and checking of places (I am very fussy, I know!) we finally ended up at Hostal Colonial.  The owners were never going to win the hospitality award, but it was a quiet, safe and comfortable place, which would serve us well for a few days.  Good eating, relaxing and reading.  A few years ago my wonderful friend, Linda Drew, gave me Eduardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America to read. A book which analyses Latin America as a whole, I believe it's a must read for all Latinos and indeed anyone who is passionate about Latin America and its history.  So, I bought the book in Spanish and thought I'd give it a crack!  Amazing reading!


The next few days were really just about chilling out, eating good food, drinking good coffee (Bolivia has really impressed us!), partaking in one of my favourite pastimes (visiting markets, of course) and simply taking in the city sights.


Almost at the top!
We visited the Cristo de la Concordia, which effectively looks like Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.  We caught a cable car to the top of Cerro (hill) de San Pedro, where the statue sits atop of and were offered sweeping views of Cochabamba and its surrounds. And here's a bit of information; both statues are 33 metres tall because Christ supposedly died when he was 33 years old.  After some chill in' at the top, we took our time walking down.










It's a good life at the top!

View from the top!

More sweeping views from the top.
Meanwhile, back at the bottom, we did some exploring of the city!

A variety of potatoes!

Looking up to Cristo de la Concordia.

Cochabamba's central plaza by night.

Street art; what some had to say about the church!

Cochabamba's central plaza by night.

Bolivian weavings.

Veggies anyone?

Local bus.

Gorgeous little boy, sadly begging!
With Roy, Raquel and Mariel.

The highlight of our stay in Cochabamba was our lunch with Roy, Raquel and Raquel's daughter
Mariel. We had a wonderful time chatting about a multitude of things from politics to the many books Roy has written on rock art.  He has even published a book on Bolivian flora.  He gifted us two books and signed them both.  These are the magical travellers minties moments!







Alex and Roy having a beer.

Roy's work in an Australian Rock Art journal.

The girls; Raquel, Mariel and I.

After a few truly wonderful days, it was time to move on.  La Paz awaited us!  I wondered how much it would have really changed since my last time here in 1999?  But then I suppose a lot has changed since then!  Last time I was in Bolivia I was only weeks away from meeting my soul mate and the love of my life in Ecuador.  We have now forged a brilliant life together and are exploring the continent of his birthplace together.  Ain't life grand!

Ombi

"The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it". – Michelangelo

Next:  La Paz you did not fail to impress!

Always ready to take a good shot!

A room with a view, cable car to the Christ.

One of Cochabamba's many plazas.

Not everybody is having fun!
Goodbye coffee with Raquel.


Dedication: To Raquel and Roy.  Meeting people like you is what makes our trip truly special!  Thanks for offering us your friendship and an insight to your country that no guidebook could ever do. 



Dedicación: Para Raquel y Roy.  Encontrar gente como ustedes es lo que hace que nuestro viaje sea verdaderamente especial.  Gracias por brindarnos su amistad y darnos una mirada adentro de su país que ninguna guía de viajes te pudiese haber dado.