Fri 13th Jul
La Paz at 3650m asl is the highest capital city in the world. Despite hiking mountains much higher, doing normal things at this altitude, u can definitely feel it. It sits in a basin surrounded by Altiplano mountain range and the snow capped Illimani towers over the city.
Today I’m doing the city tour by Red Cap. We are told on meeting that it isn’t free as in Bolivia you are not allowed to run any services for free. Therefore there is a 3$ charge plus guide tips.
We start in Plaza De San Pedro at 1100 (there’s another another at 1400). This square doesn’t actually exist on the map, the real name being Plaza Sucre but locals have named it so after the neighbourhood and church that’s here
Despite being another colonial square, the most interesting place here is the prison.
It was once a monastery but when given up was left to the government who used it as a military building and then it became a prison. It was only originally built for 400 inhabitants but me houses around 3000.
This isn’t your typical prison and literally runs like a city in itself. Inmates have jobs, they buy or rent their cells and often live with their families. Even to enter, you have to pay – the fee dependant on ur crime! Police are only on the outside – they act as a source to keep the prisoners in but don’t care what goes on on the inside. Inside is run by the prisoners themselves – they even have elected leaders. It’s also full of business and commerce – restaurants, hair dressers, real estate is a biggy – the more money u have, the better ‘cell’ and neighbourhood u live in. The biggest business is of course that of cocaine! Coca Cola even has exclusivity on the selling of its products!
A British guy – Thomas McFadden, was sentenced to this jail for drug dealing. There is a book about his experiences and setting up prison tours called Marching Order that I want to read. He apparently bribed the police to be allowed out for the night, met a girl in a club and brought her back to ‘his’! This started the business of prison tours, with the fittest inmates being employed as body guards. These tours were stopped a few years back when a tourist was raped.
From here we walk the short distance to Mercado Rodriguez. This is a big fruit and veg market that also takes over the streets in the weekend. There are no supermarkets in this part of town. These are run by the Aymara Cholita women. There’s a new pride amongst these women where their clothing and nationality is celebrated. The hats it is said cane from a mistake when they were sent from Britain for the railroad workers. Too small for the men and not wanting to send them back, they were given to the women saying they were all the rage in Europe, who wear them perched on their heads.
We then head to the famous Witches Market. A lot of the rituals and beliefs are still very strong here and the market is full of llama foetus’ and other offerings for Pachamama.
A lot is similar to what I saw and was told in Cusco.
We are told that to this day, despite being obviously illegal, offerings of real people – usually the homeless, are still given as offerings to Pachamama for big building projects.
Next is San Francisco Square and the big church
This a is a fusion of indigenous beliefs mixing with Catholicism and can be seen by some of the carvings in the walls – including Pachamama
The Spanish used the fear of the indigenous people’s own beliefs to get them into the church, installing mirrors to say their souls were trapped there and that they needed to visit once a week in order for them to be released!
After a good stop in Lanza Market it’s on to the important Plaza Murillo, the main square in La Paz. It houses the cathedral, Congress and presidents palace.
It is named after the revolutionary who freed the city from Spanish rule in 1809 but the Spanish returned 2 months later to reclaim the area and beheaded Murillo. It eventually declared independence in 1825 with efforts of Sucre and Bolivar.
Like other cities in South America, La Paz has a gritty history of politics and it’s presidents. Villarroel was murdered after crowds burst into the palace in 1946 after he brought in a tax most of the population opposed. His body was hung from a lamppost in the square!
President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada elected in 1993 was responsible for the countries economic collapse after selling off different industries, including gang of the salt flats to the US. At the end of his term in 1997, he fled to the States. Whilst the new president did his best to recover some assets, Sanchez de Lozada ran again in 2002 and somehow got elected! This term however was even worse and huge protests broke out when he introduced a tax on all workers except the army. 5 days of riots broke out where the police turned on the army and vice versa and many civilians were killed. There is still evidence if this in Plaza Murillo today with buildings loaded with bullet holes. The president finally cancelled this tax but with the country still needing money he sold the country’s gas company to Brazil not leaving enough reserves for Bolivia. Then broke out the civil war known as the ‘Gas War’. From this, the President and his top ministers fled the country, taking money from the national vault with him. He is currently in the States but with no extradition treaty, he cannot be brought back for any trial.
The period 2003-5 was a turbulent one. The country had no money, no president and no stability. Evo Morales was elected as the new President in 2006 – the country’s first indigenous president. He was motivated to bring the country back from the brink and improve stability, reduce poverty and in the influence of the US in Bolivia.
He has done a number of good things for the country – invested in and improved education, especially for the indigenous communities. It’s even been taken into the countryside so adults who didn’t learn now have the opportunity for some schooling. He brought in the anti discrimination act – can’t use the word chola as an insult to the cholita women, extends to sexual orientation, race, in the workplace etc.
He also brought in the cable car system which links several parts of the city together including Alta in the north to the Sur.
Following the War of the Pacific of 1879 where Bolivia lost their land and access to the sea to Chile. This has resulted in huge taxation charges on imports for Bolivia – as an example a car costing 5000$ in Chile will cost more than double here. Bolivia will never get the land back but things are now progressing through the courts to give Bolivia access to the seas without these charges.
Not being the sharpest tool in the box, he’s also had some wacky ideas. In his bid to increase the country’s population, he decided to ban condoms….he had to be told that these were used for far more reasons than just baby prevention – he removed the ban! Still fixed on the population rise idea he introduced a tax on all women over 18 who didn’t have children and of course this obviously sparked outrage! This idea too was abandoned after more riots and protests. He finally settled on giving a bonus to the first born child.
Despite all his good efforts, more recently things have and are changing and more and acts of corruption are being discovered – selling parts of the country and assets to the Chinese, not investing in education anymore, zero investment in healthcare (but bought the ex Man Utd plane for 35m $)!
The worst though i am told is the feeling that democracy has died. Morales managed to get in for a third team despite constitutional rule limits but as he changed the country to a new Plurinational state, his first term was under the old state therefore could run again. He wants to run for a 4th term and ran a referendum which went against him so he ignored it. He is hoping to stay in power in the 2019 elections. The question now is, is Bolivia heading the same way Cuba did and also Venezuela – something the opponents of Morales call the ‘Chávez Move’.
We end in a café with a sell on the lunch offer and the big hints of how they live off tips etc then I head for a wander around Gringo Alley and the rest of the tourist neighbourhood….and buy a thicker fleece as it’s bloody freezing here!