“It looks like an Eastern European war zone.” – A guy on our bus as we arrived in one of the more desolate parts of La Paz.
La Paz, Bolivia is around 3,650m (12,000 ft) above sea level. It’s airport is 4000m (13,100 ft) above sea level. It is the highest I have ever been outside of a plane. My experience in the city was more defined by the things I didn’t do than what I did. The city offers a lot of curious attractions for the more adventurous tourist, and I wasn’t curious enough.
The first thing on some tourists mind is Route 36 – a bar dedicated to cocaine. With faux speakeasies popping up all over gentrified cities, I can understand the appeal of Route 36. It is a real speakeasy, selling a substance that is still prohibited in a bar atmosphere. People told me I had to go just for the experience of it. They also said the cocaine is a pretty poor quality. Route 36 has no set location, the simplest way there is to ask a taxi driver to take you, they should know it. I didn’t go.
The other popular attraction is death road. This one is at least legal. Yungas road connects La Paz to norther Bolivia. It is on the edge of a cliff and about the width of a single vehicle. But it is a two way street. A lot of cars and buses have gone over the edge, earning it the nickname camino de la muerte – death road. The most dangerous part is not used by many cars anymore since alternative paths have been made, and that has attracted the thrill seekers. Mountain biking at ridiculous speeds down death road is a common tourist activity. I heard so many people talking about it, but it never appealed to me. I’m just not big enough of a cycling fan to risk my life doing it.
Back to illegal tourism options, have you heard of the prison tour? El Penal de San Pedro (San Pedro Prison), gained a lot of notoriety after the publication of Marching Powder by Rusty Young. It tells the true story of a prisoner from Liverpool, England, who used to offer tours of the prison to any tourist willing to pay him, and the guards. The tour even was featured in a Lonely Planet guidebook, which didn’t mention that at the end of the tour, tourists are offered cocaine manufactured directly in the prison. Rumour has it that it’s the purest cocaine one can find in Bolivia. The prison is run by the convicts, the guards simply stay on the outside. But inside, convicts have to pay rent for their beds, or cells, and need to have jobs. One of which is tour guide/drug dealer. And while this book was published over 10 years ago, nothing has changed. The tours are illegal, though there has never been any report of a tourist getting stuck inside, or getting in any kind of trouble. Still, it’s a scary thought to illegally enter a prison. I looked at it from the outside, it looked more like a boring school than a prison, but I wasn’t tempted enough to go in and gawk at the miserable lives of it’s residents.
One thing I did manage was to see Cholitas Wrestling. First I checked that Cholita wasn’t an offensive term – it was at one point a derogatory way of referring to the native women in Bolivia, but it’s no longer offensive, though there is a nicer word for them that I can’t remember. Cholitas Wrestling has Bolivian men and women, but the focus is on the women, in a professional wrestling show. I’ve never been a fan of pro wrestling, finding it hard to take seriously knowing how fake it all is. But these ladies put on a hilarious show, and demonstrated amazing athleticism, agility and bravery while cracking us all up. The highlight was a biased referee who elected not to search one of the women, just shaking her hand, with her immediately bringing out a pair of nunchucks and swinging them about like Bruce Lee at her opponent.
Word of warning for any visitors to this city. I was fine because I came from the mountains of Peru and Bolivia into La Paz. But a lot of people that enter directly from sea level do get serious altitude sickness. Coca tea may not be enough for some people (it always helps though), there are over the counter pills a pharmacist can recommend, it’s better than getting seriously ill.