Bolivia has definitely been different than I expected. I had heard little in the way of good things about La Paz. It was supposed to dangerous, chaotic, unfriendly, all bad things. I have so far found it to be the exact opposite.
While it’s a big city, it’s not that big — far less intimidating than I’d expected. It’s European feeling in many areas, with people hanging out at plazas and on the steps of churches, in markets. I never once felt unsafe, like anyone was targeting me. Most spaces didn’t even feel that crowded that I was especially worried about getting pick-pocketed or anything like that. I expected it to be much more crowded. And I had heard that the people were unfriendly, didn’t like foreigners. Everyone I interacted with was more than friendly to me. And I’ve actually seen far, far less beggars here than I saw in Europe. Probably the most dangerous thing I’ve encountered has been crossing the street, and even the traffic here is far less chaotic than I’ve seen in other parts of the world.
I also expected people to be more harassing, and men to be more forward. I remember even when I was in Peru, men would sometimes whistle or hiss at me…Even in Europe, places like Italy, it’s common. So far I’ve encountered almost none of that in all my time in South America. People say it’s not common in Argentina or Chile, but in Bolivia I was expecting it. So far, I’ve had one Bob Marley wannabe teenage guy call me “linda” (pretty) and that’s it! Nothing offensive or discomforting in the least. I suppose maybe I will see more of a difference in Peru, but it’s been far from a problem so far.
I arrived into La Paz this morning after a much more pleasant night bus. Suite cama was of course not as nice as it was in Argentina, and there was no food so I basically skipped dinner, but it was definitely comfortable. In fact, in the beginning the heat was so strong I had to take off both my sweaters and my socks and roll up my jeans. But by nighttime the heat seemed like nothing and I was huddled in the provided blanket which gave just enough warmth to sleep without really feeling cold. My water bottle, which was sitting on the floor by the heater, however, was almost evaporated! Haha.
I had heard good things about Loki Hostel (a chain in South America) so Ray (who happened to take the same bus from Sucre) and I made the about 20 minute walk super easily (pretty much all downhill) and saved ourselves a few Bolivianos from a cab. Like my hostel in Sucre, the dorm beds here are really big. Which sure, is a good thing, but seems to beg couples to share their beds. I walked into the 8 bed dorm to find two of the beds occupied by couples. This was also the case in Sucre. It’s kind of annoying, and it just reminds me that I’m alone and I miss my Swede! Oh, well.
I walked around the main, I guess touristy, area of La Paz first. I read in my guidebook about this Witches Market which is supposed to be filled with stalls selling crazy potions and llama fetuses and things like that. It’s supposed to be this place you have to experience, blah blah. Well I went down the street where it’s supposed to be, and apparently the vendors must have realized they would make more money just selling crap to tourists. The entire street was filled with shops and stalls selling the same South American sweaters and hats, keychains, etc. that you find everywhere else. What a disappointment. I found only one stall, down at the end of the street, that seemed to have what I guess were llama fetuses? I don’t know, they looked like just dried dead bodies of small/baby llamas. It was a little bizarre, and I imagine it would have been a pretty interesting place if they had more stuff like that.
I found myself more interested by a mercado further down the road, which the guidebooks all just kind of glazed over as just another market. This market, which was called by a couple different names, the only one which I remember being Mercado Buenos Aires, was huge. At first it was all people selling fruits, vegetables, and meat. Later there were vendors selling everything under the sun! It reminded me more of the markets in Thailand, which are great to walk around (though easy to get lost in!). They sold everything from stuffed animals and clothes to DVDs, laundry detergent, cereal, you name it. At this point though I was getting overheated in my two sweaters, expecting that high altitude still meant cold when in reality sunny La Paz is very warm! I eventually gave in and went back to the hostel (stopping in a mall to look at jeans on the way — won’t be buying any as they’re all over $100!)
I relaxed a bit then headed out again, getting lost in the city — of course always happens to me but is the best way to see things! I found a wonderful little plaza not far from my hostel and relaxed on the cathedral steps, surrounded by locals — couples holding hands, parents and kids eating ice cream, old ladies relaxing with their dogs. It was really nice.
Now I’m back at the hostel relaxing. I signed up for a lasagna dinner (yum!) here so hopefully that will lead to meeting some people. It’s a really big hostel so it’s a bit harder to really find people who aren’t coupled or grouped off. I think Monday I will see about flying to Rurrenabaque for a pampas tour to see some wildlife. Tomorrow I will explore La Paz even more. I’m going to see if I can get a tour into the San Pedro prison, a prison with no guards that is basically run by the prisoners, where they work for money and those with the most money can have basically a really nice house/room/area, tv, cell phone, etc. Apparently it’s like a mini city for criminals. It sounds pretty crazy, so I’m going to go check it out (at least from the outside, last I heard it wasn’t open for tours earlier this year).
Well, that’s it for now. And don’t believe everything you hear/read (unless it’s from me!) La Paz is not at all how people make it out to be. This big, scary, dangerous city just isn’t true. Bolivia in general is far from the dangerous and third world place people say it is. It may be the poorest country in South America, but you’d hardly know it (until you get outside the city centers, at least) and in general I find it to be a fairly safe, friendly, and inviting place.
Accomodation: Loki Hostel – 48 Bs (just less than $7) for an 8 bed dorm w/bathroom – Loki is OK. It has a lot more amenities than many other hostels you’ll find — wifi, tour desk, bar/restaurant, free breakfast, etc. It’s a bit harder to meet people if you’re solo, though. I’ve heard Wild Rovers might be a better bet (and is the same price or cheaper) to meet people, have some fun, and also offers the same (if not more) amenities. And it’s right around the corner. I would probably choose there instead if I did it over again.