La Paz. As the administrative capital of Bolivia – home to both the executive and legislative branches of government and the Presidential Palace – is arguably the highest capital city in the world, averaging around 3,600m above sea level. (Sucre, depending on who you ask, was/is the true capital as it is the constitutional capital of Bolivia, home to judicial branch of government. Months later in Quito I will have a pointless beer-fuelled debate with Patrick the lovely Australian midway through our salsa lesson. FYI I’m on team La Paz).
As crusty as seadogs from out salt adventures, we hop on an overnight bus from Uyuni to La Paz for a bargain 130 bolivianos (BOB) – around £16 (or not – it’s clear I need to dust off my haggling hat as I later learn others paid just 90 BOB). We arrive around 5.30am into the main bus terminal of La Paz , uncharacteristically early for a South American bus journey, exactly an hour before our ETA. We grab a taxi for 10 BOB and head over to Isobela de Catolica a large roundabout downtown, which hosts both the Ritz hotel and the apartment of our couch-surfing host. Despite my dishevelled and downright salty appearance the Ritz night manager is a soft touch and we tap into their WiFi to awaken our host and head to his apartment.
So unlike our previous couch-surf stays in which I applied directly to hosts, this stay was the result of our first publicly advertised trip. Essentially I just posted our dates and a little bio and hoped that a good-hearted soul would open their door to us. And that was exactly what we found in Nappa. A now self-proclaimed Italian, he is the only South Korean tour guide working in Bolivia. With bleached hair and colourful attire he welcomes us into his huge apartment over looking potentially one of the most manic roundabouts in La Paz. (At one point I tried to count to 10 between the car horns and the furthest I reached was a measly 6 during the middle of the night). Forwardly unknown to us today was Nappa’s birthday and he welcomes us with traditional Korean birthday soup. Over this rich and salty breakfast he shares his crazy tale of how he turned his back on the conventional Korean life of endless study, followed by endless work and bounced his way through the UK, Europe, America and now South America. The man is an inspiring enigma.
Following a necessary nap, we leave Nappa to attend his birthday affairs and wander into town. As we stroll, we pass many women sat along the pavement in traditional dress, each attending a small stall. These women are affectionately known as ‘Cholitas’ and their traditional dress consists of multiple layers of long, colourful skirts and two long plaits hanging down their backs beneath a bowler hat. A few days later when we join the free city walking tour (which we eventually found after a cat and mouse game around the city centre – we need to learn to be on time) I learn the origin of these hats. When the British were in Bolivia working on the railways, they imported bowler hats to try and sell to the workers. When the hats arrived however, it became clear the sizing was seriously underestimated and so the importers were left with hundreds of hats too small to market to the Bolivian men. Some genius then saved their business by coming up with the imaginative idea to market them to women instead. They clearly ran a successful marketing campaign and their deceptive talk of the high fashion statement the bowler hat was for European women clearly had its effect; the bowler hat is now a staple of the traditional dress of the Cholita. Despite humble appearances, these women are often quite affluent by Bolivian standards. For these women working long hours, even late into life, is seen as something to be desired, respected and gives them status.
(Another interesting tale we learnt on this walking tour was that of the dead-baby llama fetus’s. So in the religion of the indigenous people of the Andes, for every building constructed a sacrifice must be made to the Pachamama (mother earth). This consist of sweets, alcohol and the dead baby llamas. I know, gross, but on the plus side the babies have to have died of natural causes and so it is pretty grim, but not barbaric. That takes me to the next twist in the tale. La Paz is made up of hundreds of high rise buildings; the bigger the building, the bigger the sacrifice for Pachamama. The story goes that when a new construction is underway a Witch-doctor heads out and befriends the local homeless drunks and addicts. If he discovers they are estranged from family and friends, he fuels them with booze until they become drunkenly comatose. Then he takes the poor soul to be sacrificed alive, concreted over in the foundations of the new building. What. The. Bloody. Hell. The guides laugh and say it is just an old wives tale, though they keep the suspense alive by throwing in a final sensationalist comment that human remains have been found during demolitions of old buildings. Yuck.)
Another misconception is debunked as we wander. La Paz is almost formidably grey, and I have heard countless tourists before me talk of it with little affection. Large high-rise buildings flood the sprawling valley and in the centre the somewhat futuristic park, boasting a maze of elevated walkways does little to inject colour. Despite the grey, the noise, and the smog, I am entranced. The mountains wrap around in all directions, their jagged snowy peaks dauntingly awesome. I am beginning to realise I am a mountain girl.
As we wander the streets we begin to notice a flow of human traffic with a uniform of coloured shirts, hats and scarves. We join the stream arriving at the national stadium. 80 BOB each later (£10) we find ourselves seated in the stands. It’s a national game between Bolivar and National Potosi and unknown to Ste this is my first attendance at a football game. Unlike Europe no alcohol is permitted in the stands, however horns, kazoos and giant drums are. Despite the stadium being only around 30% full, the northern end of the stands is generating an electric atmosphere, fans pogo-ing in unison to their chants. I am torn three ways watching the fans, the game and simply absorbing the Spanish profanities being screamed in all directions.
After the game we head back to Isobela de Catolica and reunite for dinner with the wonderful Gerit and Sabina. These guys travelled all over Bolivia, to Sucre (the other capital) and Potosi (the highest city in the world) and experienced the oddity that is a tour to the silver mines. As a tourist you have to purchase a stick of dynamite as a gift for the miners as you head underground to watch them at work. Bolivia is strange. Following dinner, the altitude combined with days on the road gets the better of me and I head for bed as Ste and Nappa head out for his birthday celebrations. Keeping up the standards Ste falls into our room around 6 am and curls up asleep on a bundle of our clothes. Classy.
After finally awakening the boys, we head out to El Alto market. El Alto is the highest part of La Paz, sitting at around 4150m above sea level, and the ‘Mi Teleferico’ system (cable-car) is required to scale the height. This cable car system is new to La Paz and each route is a different colour. You need a pre-loaded card to skip the large queues and Nappa uses his for the 3BOB (around 40p) each per one-way. We scale up the red route and the slight swing of the car combined with the ear popping climb means this would not be a pleasant trip for those with height induced jelly-legs. El Alto is one of the poorest areas of La Paz and as we amble through one of the largest markets in South America, it’s advisable to keep valuables and coins close. The market is sensational. Each stand sells more random and varied items, from car parts to cooking pots, shampoo to pet food, we lose hours just strolling.
As you travel the continent, South America has a pretty much set path of South-North or North-South; ‘The Gringo Trail’. The beauty of this means sooner or later you will cross paths with those heading on the same bearing and our first experience of this occurs in Bolivia. Helene, a charismatic Norwegian we had the pleasure of sharing wine with and Eleanor the beautiful Canadian soul, both of which we met at ChiliKiwi, are in La Paz. Nappa decides he wants to host dinner of traditional Korean food and so we get the girls over for a wonderful evening of incredible food, questionable wine and fabulous company.
Eleanor is in La Paz visiting her Canadian friend Abi (great name) who has just started working in journalism in the city. The pair have a plan to go hiking to a spot known as ‘Muela del Diablo’ (Devil’s molar) and invite us to join their adventure. This tooth-shaped, extinct volcanic plug is situated around 3,850m above sea level and offers spectacular views across the mountain city.
Thanks to both girls being fluent in Spanish, we catch a local colectivo out of the city centre to Los Pinos (1.25BOB) where we start our climb. You can get a specific bus to a little village nearer or a taxi almost directly to the base of the climb, but our drop-off added an extra hour from Los Pinos for which we were rewarded with spectacular views during our initial climb.
We pass through a quiet village and eventually arrive at the base of the large rock formation scaling the last 150m ascent just in time to catch sunset over La Paz. Our hike down turns into a breath-taking night walk as the city glitters below us.
We make it down almost unscathed, until a headtorch-less Nappa investigates a dark pathway and is immediately seen off and nipped by a less than welcoming dog. Though unfortunate for Nappa, this leads to a hilarious evening running from clinic to clinic trying to locate a rabies vaccine, whilst trying to appear sympathetic and not falling apart with laughter at Nappa’s award-winning opera rendition as he has his bite cleaned.
The following day is our last with the wonderful Nappa (we had already extended our stay with him twice) and we have three key tasks on the agenda. Rabies shots, haircuts and a full English. In return for the delicious Korean food, Ste manages to find the ingredients to rustle up as near an English breakfast as he can. Even the black pudding. Needless to say we can’t eat a thing for the rest of the day.
Stomach’s severely stetched we first head to the final clinic hop to get the prescription for Nappa’s seven required jabs (ouch). We enter a room with Bolivia’s answer to Laurel and Hardy who babble nonsense between them in Spainsh, fringed with the most infectious laughter and random out bursts of ‘Bad Dog’ and cackling. Paperwork done we head to a hairdressers near Nappa’s apartment. Ste’s shampoo is clearly laced with miracle-grow as he currently resembles Donnie from The Wild Thornberrys with a neck beard. For 50BOB (£6.50) I get a cut and blowdry worthy of any over-priced salon in the UK.
Through broken Spanish, pictures and miming, the hairdresser successfully turns Ste from jungle creature to the latest member of One Direction – Daniel Radcliffe’s German brother. 80BOB (£10) as she insisted on a cut throat shave. She’s my hero.
Bags packed, it’s a very sad goodbye to Nappa and an early morning taxi to a random hostel on the other side of the city. We had signed ourselves up for Peru Hop (a hop-on, hop-off bus that would take us from La Paz to Lima for $199 each). We were off to the less famous Bolivian Copacabana and the very famous Lake Titicaca. Hop on.