Our Lady of Peace

La Paz, Bolivia

Neustra Señora de la Paz, our lady of peace, or just La Paz, is a city of superlatives. The highest capital city and the highest commercial airport are two claims to fame. And the geography is mind-bending. The “bowl” or valley that the city sits in does not have smooth sides. There are ridges rippling from top to bottom and these, combined with the 3,000 ft difference between the top of the city and the bottom, make it a very hilly place.

Three funiculars or gondolas – they call them telefericos – run across portions of the city, transporting commuters high above the fray of vehicular traffic, which can be nasty, and affording sight-seers like us spectacular views of the various ‘hoods. Such a clever idea for a place such as this.

Down on the street, the rabbit-warren maze of lanes and alleys is a bit labyrinth and it is easy to get lost. Our first day, after walking almost an hour in the wrong direction, we figure out that b/c this is the southern hemisphere, the map we are using has south at the top and north at the bottom. Duh! And the sun is in the north, adding to our disorientation.

The mix of architecture – colonial, neo-classical, art-deco, republic, modern – is not always harmonious. Many buildings are neglected and crumbling. And don’t get me started on the wiring!

Art and craft shops abound. I have an image of millions of indigenous ladies knitting sweaters and scarves and weaving textiles 24/7. Otherwise there is no way to supply all of the shops.

And people everywhere. La Paz is one of the most crowded cities we have ever been. My sense is that people’s apartments are small and cramped and as a result they take to the streets to eat and socialize.

Our first night here we walk a few blocks from our hotel to a small cafe called “Sol & Luna” – sun and moon – for dinner. A couple of guitarists arrive and start playing a kind of jazzy flamenco music. The very left-wing counter-culture feel of the place has us talking politics.

Bolivia in general has a strong socialist bent. Evo Morales, the president, and an indigenous Aymara, is the first indigenous person to be elected to so high an office. He is resisting the US on their pressure to reduce the amount of coca (the basis for cocaine) produced in Bolivia, claiming it is part of Andean culture. He is challenging the oil and gas companies by increasing state control of these resources. And he is working to include indigenous people in social, economic and political arenas. The Bolivians love him, partly b/c Bolivia is no longer the poorest nation in South America, which it was when he took office.

The clock that sits atop congress is completely reversed, apparently as a statement of anti-capitalism.

Not every day is a great travel day and we have one stinker. Saturday we get on a bus and head out to Tiwanaka, ruins dating from the second century BC. The ruins themselves were ok insofar as a pile of rocks can be, but we have seen much better. Our guide, Leo, seems a bit hungover and his English is so bad that is is easier to make sense of what he is saying in Spanish. The ride home, a mere 75 kms, takes 2 hrs! Road work, detours, several religious processions that had the streets closed, and the usual La Paz congestion. AAARRRGGGHHH!!!!

The next day, Sunday, is much better. In fact the trip we make to Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) in the south of Bolivia is brilliant. So brilliant that the day deserves its own blog entry. Stay tuned ….

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