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La Paz, chaos in capitals

Reading time: 13 mins

Country: Bolivia
Province: La Paz
Type: Major city
Language: Spanish
Time: GMT – 5hrs
Currency: Bolivian boliviano
Exchange rate: €1 = 7.67Bs
Number of days: 3
Accommodation: Boutique Hostel
Month: October
Average daily temperature: 19°C

Getting there

We booked a bus for the capital, the day after presidential elections. Other events on the continent would suggest this was a route with some potential complications but if we wanted to move through Bolivia by bus, we’d little choice.

We took a relatively short bus from Copacabana on lake Titicaca in the north. It took about 4 hours in total and involved getting off the bus to get a small boat across the lake while our bus was shuttled across separately. It was all pretty painless due to the amazing views of the lake for the majority of the trip.

Our first night came with a soundtrack that was now the norm in most South American capitals. Due to the government buildings being positioned 3 blocks away from our hostel, a protest moved right past our window. The supporters of Evo Morale’s opposing candidates gathered to object to the stalling of the vote count.

The Guardian: An explosion of protest, a howl of rage – but not a Latin American spring →

Discovering Bolivia today

The next day, our city tour went ahead with no problems. Armed crowd control police were seen moving about in large numbers and taking up positions around the city ready for the evening protests, but we moved about with no disruptions.

The walking tour started outside the famous San Pedro prison located right in the city centre. San Pedro is not your average prison. It runs more like a confined community. The wives and up until a few years ago, children of the inmates, live inside the prison and the guards operate only at the exits.

Everything within the prison costs money. Even the inmates bed and board. This prompts an entrepreneurial spirit within the walls. There are restaurants, barbers, shops, even taxis used for bringing visitors to cells around the prison unharmed. Almost everything you’d find in the outside world, you can find in San Pedro. 

Naturally this included ‘sugar’. This is a prison after all. It’s said that the best quality cocaine can be found inside the ‘prison’ and resourceful gangs used to transport it out by throwing a filled nappy out of the roof onto the nearby square, knowing no passerby would go near it.

Another money making scheme included giving tourists a guided tour and a parting gift of a small bag of “sugar” on the way out. While a tour sounded like an interesting prospect, they’ve been illegal since 2010. 

It was an entertaining and surreal story about this genuine Bolivian institution within the city. It also provided our tour guides with some of the funniest material we’ve heard on a city tour. 

A local perspective on Morales

Later on behind closed doors, our guides offered their perspective on the election results and the actions of Evo Morales. 

While they highlighted all the great things Morales had achieved as President (higher numbers attending university, more money for the elderly and single parents, the cable cars in the city – the list was long), they expressed their concern at how long he’d been in power and the methods he was using to stay in power. 

Morales had recently ignored a referendum result whereby the citizens voted, albeit extremely narrowly, to uphold a law preventing a president staying beyond two terms. And he was now trying to avoid a stand off with his nearest opposition Carlos Mesa, by illegally stopping the vote count and claiming an outright victory, when it looked like the gap was narrowing and he wasn’t going to make it over the line. 

The problem they faced, was that the alternative, Carlos Mesa, was not a great option either. He had previously been Vice President through a disastrous presidency whereby the government effectively privatised and sold several national assets to the US, where the then President had spent most of his life.

Undoubtedly, the Bolivian people were going through some tough choices and at this moment it was difficult to see what was best for them.

Too close for comfort

On our second night, events on the street escalated as police fired tear gas up and down our street and one landed right in the lobby of our hostel. 

We watched from the seventh floor with amusement thinking we were safe from it. Moments later and the gas was rising up the stairs and our room was covered in it. We struggled to catch our breath as a dry retching cough took hold. Our eyes started to water to a blinding degree with the tears creating an extremely sore burning sensation on the skin. 

With little choice but to stay in our room, we covered the gaps of the door with a blanket and moved around the room hopelessly trying to escape the gas.

Thankfully, there were windows that opened onto a side street and we were eventually able to get a gradual flow of fresh air to clear the room and ease the intoxicating feeling. 

Waking up to the continents unrest 

Every capital on the continent now seemed to come with its own unique set of complications.

Colombia – Farc announced the end of the peace deal days after we left the country.

Ecuador, Quito – we narrowly avoided trouble which lasted for twelve days. Government cuts to fuel subsidies saw the indigenous population descend on the city to protest, resulting in a heavy-handed police response. The conflict left eight dead, more than 1,300 injured and nearly 1,200 arrested.

Peru, Lima – our walking tour of the downtown area was cut short as we experienced street blockades aimed to prevent protests in front of government buildings. We discovered the current president had just closed the congress in an effort to push through anti-corruption reforms which the opposition government had been blocking for twelve months. Headlines stated Peru was a country with two presidents as a vote in congress (rendered ineffective due to congress being closed) had voted in favour of the opposition. The locals seemed to be as confused as us about the unfolding events.

Chile, Santiago – The continents most stable economy had descended into chaos with the death toll at 20 and the president declaring a state of emergency. Student protests, sparked by a 3% rise in public transport fares, escalated into the worst unrest in the country in three decades. The protests, which are about greater issues of inequality still continue as of writing.

We sat in our hostel room with many others, discussing the events and all hoping the following day would bring some calm; with most of us reconsidering routes bound for Chile. 

Taking ourselves out of harms way 

A few hours drive from La Paz, in the Yungas valley, lies the world’s most dangerous road. This being the chaotic continent it is, obviously there’s a tour where you can hop on a mountain bike and experience first hand just how dangerous it can be. 

We signed up to the tour with Gravity Adventures, a company with a good track record on Trip Advisor and high-end equipment. This is one tour we did not want to cut corners on.

Away from politics and protests, we were able to switch off and enjoy the great outdoors. The road now sees very little traffic as a safer road has been built, making it perfect for cyclists to take over. 

With that being said, cycling down is not without its risks. 22 people have died since the tours started in 1998. Our guide told us the sad story of how their company’s only death had occurred earlier this year, when a young man from New Zealand went over the edge.

Thankfully, our tour ended without incident and was undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating experiences of our lives. It was downhill over seriously rocky, muddy terrain for 64 narrow kilometres. It started in the clouds and droped down into tropical forest, past gushing waterfalls. The cliffs on each bend were terrifying. There were definitely some wobbly moments.

Overall

In spite of the protests taking place at the time, La Paz still felt like one of the safest, friendliest and most relaxed major cities on the continent (during the day) and like most other major cities, it had decent options for cafes, restaurants and the best bakery we’ve found in South America.

  • The Higher Ground
  • The Carrot Tree
  • Le Fournil Des Delices Bakery
  • The Writers Coffee

Google Maps of the places mentioned in the post →

La Paz’s streets aren’t the prettiest, especially after coming from Cusco, but the city makes up for it with grit and charm, and if you catch a glimpse of it with Huayna Potosí mountain in the background, it will win you over.