The overnight bus from Sucre to La Paz was far from comfortable, and we arrived early in the city exhausted, cold, and suffering from altitude sickness. Our first impression of La Paz was not helped by the fact that they had a public holiday the day before, and the previous night's revelry left the streets filthy, smelling like one giant toilet. Needless to say, we were not particularly inspired to go exploring, and instead went to bed feeling sorry for ourselves.
The next day we decided to organise a city tour to see the highlights in one go, rather than trying to find the motivation to do it ourselves. This turned out to be the perfect solution! We found a cool guy called Ben who runs Banjo Tours around La Paz. There are free walking tours, but they only go around the central city, which we figured we could just do ourselves. This tour went off the beaten track, taking us through different areas of the city by walking, on local buses and in a private van. Highlights included a lesson on the dark history of the city, a visit to San Pedro Prison, being blessed by a shaman, wandering through the witch's market, having our fortunes told, and returning to the city for some traditional food and drink. It was a bizarre day, but totally worth paying for a guided tour to get that extra insight into such a crazy place!
La Paz – not so peaceful!
We began our tour wandering through the old colonial streets of La Paz. There is a clear divide where the Spanish town stopped and the indigenous town started, which was exaggerated to the point that until recently, indigenous people in traditional dress were not even allowed in the main plaza. Things have progressed with the election of the country's first indigenous President Evo Morales in 2006, but La Paz has a dark history that is still in most people's recent memory.
Walking around the main plaza, our guide pointed out bullet holes in the buildings surrounding us. In 2003 the police went on strike in La Paz. This was dealt with by the military stepping in with orders to shoot anyone who resisted, including the police. Not something you would expect just ten years ago, but these things don't always get highlighted in international media in the same way that they would if something similar happened in a western country.
We also passed by several dilapidated buildings, which looked abandoned. While most people may have presumed that they were in fact empty, it was recently brought to light that these buildings are being used as “suicide houses”. Apparently, the idea is that anyone who has lost the will to live (mostly homeless people or drug and alcohol addicts) will go to one of these houses where they will be put in a room with a bucket of alcohol, which they drink until it kills them. Being practical, I asked what they do with the bodies without raising suspicions (given there is a police station right across the road)?
Good question. Apparently there is somewhat of a black market for human bodies (dead or unconscious) to be used as sacrifices in construction in a similar way to the llama foetuses that bring good luck to the foundations of building sites. While we were in La Paz we heard various people talking about stories that they had heard regarding this issue. Its all a bit hard to believe that is would really happen, but in a place like La Paz, you just never know.
San Pedro Prison
We stopped by San Pedro prison, which was made famous in Rusty Young's book Marching Powder. The book follows the story of an Englishman arrested for trafficking cocaine in Bolivia, who spends several years in the unique social environment that is San Pedro prison. Our guide pointed out that there are security towers on each side of the block where the prison sits, however they are not manned as the prison is essentially independent of external guidance and security.
Prisoners buy and live in apartments in different areas of the prison, depending on how much money they have. Wealthy prisoners (mostly corrupt politicians and drug traffickers) have cable televison and all the comforts of home – including being allowed to have their families live with them. Until recently there were children living inside the prison with their parents, leaving the complex to go to school during the day and returning at night. An incident where a young girl was raped led to all the children being removed just a few weeks before we were there.
It was possible to go inside the prison on a tour until recently as well, however, another incident (where two tourists were separated from the group and raped) led to the authorities stepping in and stopping it from becoming a tourist circus. It is afterall a prison with convicted criminals inside. As such, we only saw it from the street, which was interesting enough after having read Marching Powder.
We took a van up to a lookout over the whole city, with stunning views of the mountains in the distance. It was here that we were going to be blessed by a shaman in a commonly used change of luck ceremony. We were told to sit and wait while the shaman made a fashionably late entrance.
A women lit coals on a burner while he arranged various stones, small parcels of herbs wrapped in paper and little bottles of liquid. He gave out different things to people eg. one guy had a rock up his sleeve, another held a piece of rope. I was lucky enough to be chosen to have a parcel of herbs put into the front of my shirt (which he later retrieved and burnt).
The ceremony combined traditional indigenous customs with a Christian blessing. He used the bottles of liquid (alcohol) to create puffs of smoke and fire, touched us on the head, blessing us all with luck and well wishes for our family and for our travels, all the while repeating what sounded like a Christian Hail Mary.
We continued in the van to El Alto, which is a separate city from La Paz located on the steep surrounding mountain. It is one of the more dangerous places and not many tourists go here by themselves. Apparently it gets pretty violent at night, but during the day it seemed fine. The markets are the initial wholesale supply area for the city of La Paz, so they were packed with fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, spices, nuts, popcorn, popped pasta and all sorts of other unidentifiable things.
Th infamous Witch's Market is also located in El Alto (a smaller touristy version can be found in the central city of La Paz). Here you can find all manner of spells, herbs, llama foetuses, llama babies, wax figurines, starfish, and armadillos, all to be burnt on fires for change of luck ceremonies and rituals. There are spells for everything. A truck driver might go in and buy a wax figure of a truck, with a selection of herbs and spices, to be burnt for safe travels. The dead llama babies and foetuses are used for good luck in construction, to be buried in the foundations, and are surprisingly expensive. But this is big business and people pay for it because they believe in it!
We wandered around the market stalls, looking in awe and horror at the selection of spells for sale. It was a really interesting insight into Bolivian culture, and definitely not something you see everyday!
The ritual began when the shaman scattered coca leaves over a cloth, picked a few up, and told us we would all have money in our futures (is that because we were all tourists who clearly had more money than the average Bolivian?). He also told us that one of us would be the victim of an envious person, but we could change our luck by buying one of the spells from the Witch's Market and having a shaman burn it while performing a ceremony (as we had experienced earlier in the day). There wasn't much more to it than that. We were all a little sceptical, and his legitimacy was not helped by the fact that he was clearly drunk and could barely speak coherently.
We returned to the city as it was getting dark. Ben shouted us a giant Bolivian cheese empanada and some chicha, which is a thick, warm, purple corn drink. We said our farewells to the group and wandered off in search of dinner. Mark was cold so he bought a poncho, then we stumbled across more festivities for no apparent reason. There were people singing and dancing in traditional costumes out the front of the San Francisco Church. We stopped for a quick look, then went back to the hostel to contemplate what was one of the most bizarre days we have had in South America over a nice cold beer.