La Paz is full of quirks. And it’s an incredibly fascinating, grungy, diverse city. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, even though I was sick for about 24 hours after eating some street food (which is pretty typical for first-timers to La Paz). This post is more a list of fun-facts, not at all personal reflections, of which I decided to take a short break from writing about.
Even though constitutionally the official capital city of Bolivia is Sucre, La Paz is de facto, the world’s highest administrative capital, sitting high at 3,650 meters above sea level. It has a metropolitan area population of 2.3 million. Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace) is a relatively old city in South America; it was built on a river by the Spanish and officially founded in 1548. When the Spanish built the city they separated it into two sides, one for the indigenous population and the other for the European settlers. The indigenous where not allowed to cross the line that used to be the river; and so, the architecture varies quite a bit from one side to the other. Bolivia was the first country to claim freedom against Spain, but last one to actually get that freedom. After 16 years of war, and thanks to Simon Bolivar, Bolivia achieved it’s independence in 1825.
I was fortunate to take a really informative walking tour with Hana Pacha travel, where my volunteer guide Damien, a medical student, shared with the group some of what I am writing here.
For example, there are only 19 supermarkets serving the entire population of 2.3 million people. In Alto, a neighborhood in the greater metropolitan area with 600,000 people, there is only one supermarket. This is because in Bolivia, people do the majority of their shopping in La Paz’s numerous open air markets. It’s residents always prefer to support the local farmers and businesses, and all over the city it is evident that this is the case. And, shoppers have extreme loyalty to their sellers. Each street has one type of item, whether it be fruits, meats, grains, cheeses, and flowers. The sellers are aware they have competition beside them, but they know that their buyers have habituated to visiting one particular seller. Casera, or “special seller” is the word used when a buyer establishes a relationship with their preferred vendor. Contrary to what most people may think, buyers don’t bargain with food they purchase. It is actually considered an insult to the seller, who is most likely the actual grower of the food. After all, why would someone want to pay less than what the hard work in growing the food is actually worth? Instead of getting a discount, the buyer uses the word yapa, which means “a little more.” And so, the farmer adds a little bit extra food to the buyer’s purchase, which makes it a win-win for everybody. Bargaining is expected, however, for any other items other than food.
Many of the female vendors wear the traditional style dress, which includes a distinctive top hat. When women wear the hat straight across, this signifies that they are in a relationship. When worn to the side, they are single. The indigenous women with these high hats and puffy skirts are a reminder of the style of the European women who came to live in La Paz. Today, these women wear this outfit because they are proud of their indigenous heritage. Bolivia’s people today are 95% mestizo – mix of European and indigenous descent.
La Paz is known for it’s witches market, which has various products ranging from dried llama fetuses (which are always buried in the foundations of new constructions or businesses as a cha’lla, or “offering,” to the goddess Pachamama), potions, dried frogs, and medicinal plants. It is said that a woman or a man becomes a yatiri (witch) if they survive being struck by lightning. A man cannot pass down their gift, but a woman can pass on their talents to their oldest daughter, preserving the lineage for generations.
We stopped in front of one of the most fascinating prisons I have ever heard of. San Pedro prison lies in the center of the city, and is still in operation. Currently 2500 prisoners live in about 200 cells. What is so interesting is that the government lost control of the prison in the 1980s, and so there are only a handful of police officers guarding the entrance (it should be mentioned that Bolivia is home to the third most corrupt police force in South America, after Venezuela and Colombia). There are no police officers inside the prison itself. The prison operates differently than most. A prisoner pays an different entrance fee, depending if they are rch or poor. And so the “rent” for this cell can range from 12-15 Bolivianos a month (about 2 USD) to over 1000 US Dollars! These mega expensive cells have plasma tvs, internet, carpeting, and one of them has a hot tub. What is even more interesting is that the cell rent money goes to the previous owner of the cell, not to the government or to the prison system itself. The previous owner of the cell is the legal owner and the prisoner pays rent for use of his property. Prisoners have to pay for everything inside, including food, water, and clothes. People without money have to work, and oftentimes family members sell what is produced inside the prison outside within the city.
It gets even better: this prison is unique because of the privileges allowed by the inmates. Their families can live inside the prison with them, and all but the prisoner can come in and out without restriction. There is a public school next door where most of the students are actually living in the prison with their families. with most kids who live in the prison. Because life is so good for these prisoners (most of whom have only committed minor crimes such as drug dealing), there have only been 10 people to attempt to break out. There is even a bank right next to the prison building. San Pedro Prison was definitely one of the most interesting things to hear about in La Paz!
In Bolivia, many of the houses are unfinished. This is because the law is that if you finish your house, you have to pay higher taxes (in Sucre, if you finish your house and paint it white, you pay less taxes, which explains all the white buildings).
We ended our tour at the hostel I happened to be staying at – Loki. The building that is now Loki used to be one of the first 5 star hotels in the city. Che Guevara spent 3 months hiding in this building, and Richard Nixon spent a few nights there. Not bad for a hostel!