High-flyin’ La Paz

The first thing you notice walking around Bolivia’s high-flying capital is your lungs. They are working twice as hard to pump half the oxygen you are accustomed to into your brain.  Just ask FIFA, which once banned high-altitude soccer over games like this. The concept of flat doesn’t exist in the old city, built up the sides of a deep canyon that runs down from the Bolivian altiplano. Walking a few blocks up and down the city’s tangled cobblestone streets is a workout. La Paz, like the country it administrates, is worth the effort however. As a traveler, you’ll be hard pressed to find another city, country, or culture that makes you feel further from home in all of South America.

For two weeks, we cruised the city’s endless street markets and rubbed elbows with locals over 30 cent stews while investigating Andean glaciology and attempting and failing to summit imposing Huayna Potosi peak (more on that later). Among our best finds were Eddie and Cecilia Valdez, who adorned Mango’s backside with a crusading Pachamama, and the quirky Coca Museum, which recounts the history of the sacred Andean leaf and recreates a modern-day artisanal cocaine laboratory. Besides the headaches and traffic jams caused by Mango’s inability to climb the most banal of La Paz’s soaring streets, our lowest low may have come at the hands of one of the city’s famously tempermental cholita street vendors, who employed a banana projectile to remind Elliot that the act of taking a photograph can be lost in translation.

After 9 days we were ready to high-tail it out of La Paz, only to find the road blockaded for three days by striking bus drivers. Their quarrel with Big Brother Evo? A new law cracking down on bus drivers who drive drunk.  I couldn’t make this stuff up. The hiccup gave the crew just enough time to stare down the Grim Reaper on Bolivia’s famous Death Road.

-Andy, Photos by Elliot

La Paz, city in a bowl

Your average La Paz street corner. Handbags and mustaches are so 2010.

Plaza San Francisco under the bright lights.

Red Hot Chili Peppers. Making great music since 1984.

Bananas can be weapons. A vendor threw one at Elliot for taking this picture.

Bowler hats. The lynchpin of cholita fashion.

Golf-ball sized hail. Summer is the rainy season in the Andes.

Rubbing elbows with locals and eating well for 30 cents at the public market.

It goes on and on and on…

The cup spilleth over: here reside more than 20% of all Bolivians

La Paz’s death road enclosed in fog. All the better for contemplating impending doom.

The death road crew. Andy biked the road in 2008 and is too cool (poor) to do it again.