There’s a great walking tour in La Paz that gives a nice insight into the sights, history, current affairs and quirks of the city. Both tour guides were excellent but I won’t mention their names as they spoke openly about corruption in Bolivia and I’m not sure how freely you are allowed to refer to this without getting into trouble. The tour met in Plaza San Pedro. At one side of the square we were pointed in the direction of San Pedro Prison. It’s the sort of place that you’d otherwise barely notice. The tour guides explained the set up of the prison which is somewhat unconventional. There’s only a small number of prison guards working there and they patrol the perimeter. The inside of San Pedro is controlled by elected presidents, each running their respective sections. Inmates are required to pay rent and the rate of rent determines the quality of accommodation. Some of the wealthier ex-politicians and gangsters have their own plush apartments inside the prison complete with satellite television, servants and so on. There’s supposedly an entire cocaine making enterprise inside with the products thrown over the prison wall and collected by outside accomplices. In order not to arose too much attention in the square this was explained using the code-word sugar. Considering the Spanish word, sucre, is almost the same it wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out what they were on about! San Pedro has gained somewhat of a notoriety among overseas travellers through being the setting of the book Marching Powder, chronicling the experience of a British drug smuggler inside the jail. Along with the likes of The Killing Fields, On The Road and The Motorcycle Diaries, this book has become popular with backpackers, resulting in San Pedro Prison being a bit of a tourist attraction in itself. Up until about ten years ago, tours of the prison were widely available, even to a point of being mentioned in mainstream travel guides. However some unsavoury incidents put a stop to this. While illegal, it is apparently still possible to do tours with some prison guards being bribable. The walking tour guides strongly advised against this, citing all sorts of horror stories of tourists being left inside and having to part with substantial amounts of cash to get out. While some people have a natural lust for danger it seems incredibly naive that anyone would voluntarily want to go anywhere near such a place. I’ve seen Midnight Express and enough of those Ross Kemp documentaries to be petrified.
Walking around La Paz, it appears that a lot of the city is an open-air market. Most residents like to use market stalls for a number of reasons. Supermarkets are few and far between and even if they were readily available, the market stalls are still cheaper. People have been using markets stalls for their entire lives. The local markets are a community in themselves and individuals can build up a rapport with their regular stalls who may offer fresher produce or a favourable deal. We also called into the Witches’ Market, which although a bit touristy, its merchandise is popular among Bolivians who believe in a lot of the stuff on sale there. There’s potions and traditional remedies on sale their that will supposedly cure any imaginable ailment. What caught the eye was baby llamas that were hanging up. It was explained that if a llama foetus was put into the footings on a building it would supposedly bring good luck to the construction workers and the property in the future. Initially I thought that these were toy llamas but as you got closer they were actually the real thing. A slight consolation to animal welfare advocates is that the baby llama had to have died of natural causes in order to be used.
It was then up to Plaza San Francisco, a large central square with the picturesque San Francisco Church as its centrepiece. I asked one of the tour guides why the many shoe shiners in the square wore balaclavas. Apparently it’s because feet are perceived as being extremely dirty in Bolivia and therefore anyone cleaning shoes is seen as having an extremely low status in society. Therefore those who do it are ashamed and embarrassed so therefore don’t show their faces. Cleaning shoes seems like a perfectly honest way to make a living to me. I’d put them way ahead of estate agents, car salesmen and paparazzi in terms of honourable professions. I questioned whether to take a photo of a shoe shiner. While the chances of any of their family/friends/neighbours recognising them on this blog is millions of times less than them being recognised in person working at one of the busiest spots in La Paz, it still didn’t seem right. Instead I took a photo of one of the more positive quirks La Paz has to offer, the zebras who help people cross the road.* La Paz traffic is a bit crazy. Therefore a scheme was put in place to both help pedestrians and to create jobs for otherwise unemployed younger people. Essentially their uniform is a zebra costume (presumably referencing zebra crossings). The La Paz zebras stand at busy intersections and when the lights on the crossing change they walk across the road with people. If this idea was implemented where I came from, the naysayers would have a field day, deriding the idea as a waste of public money and being incredibly humiliating to the people dressed as zebras. It seems to work in La Paz though. The zebras are really cheery, saying hola to anyone who passes. They’ll even give you a hug if you’re into that sort of thing! As well as increasing road safety awareness it also makes most of the pedestrians who encounter them smile, which is surely preferable to having miserable-looking people walking around.
Like a fair bit of Latin America, La Paz is no stranger to a bit of counterfeit merchandise. There are plenty of outlets selling the usual non-authentic clothing, sunglasses, DVDs, etc. However never before have I seen fake mobile phones for sale. There’s a shop on the pedestrianised high street that advertises copies of Samsung Galaxy S7 phones. Who knows if they’re authentic enough to spontaneously catch fire?
The next stop was Plaza Murillo home to some of La Paz’s most significant building including the cathedral and the government palace, as well as some of the highest concentrations of pigeons I have ever seen. This square is often the scene of protests. We were told that Bolivians love a protest. Not so long ago there was plans to replace The Simpsons with a reality show, leading to demonstrations and The Simpsons not being cancelled. Some of the more darker events in Bolivian history have taken also place here, such as the serious civil unrest that occurred in 2003. You can still see bullet holes in some buildings following a shootout between the army and the police. We finished up at a bar with a sample of the national drink, singani. Here we were told some political anecdotes that the guides weren’t willing to talk about within earshot of the guards at the Palacio Quemado. I was vaguely aware of Bolivia having an eccentric president. It made news back home when he signed for a top-flight club to become the world’s oldest professional footballer at the age of 54. Evo Morales has been the longstanding president of Bolivia. As the first indigenous president of the country he has passed legislation to stop racial and gender discrimination. Evo, as he’s widely know, has also attempted to combat poverty by introducing social security measures for the less well off. His critics will argue though that Bolivia has remained up there among the poorest countries in South America. Evo has also famously but his foot it in on numerous occasions. One of the most high-profile of these was when he denounced the capitalistic Coca Cola and the fried chicken fast food restaurants that are very popular in Bolivia. He urged Bolivians to avoid them, stating that drinking Coke would make you bald and eating hormone-filled chickens would turn people gay. Unfortunately some people in this part of the world are not especially enlightened regarding sexuality. The next bit is fairly obvious, with the president being photographed enjoying a fried chicken meal, accompanied by a glass of Coke!
I’ve heard La Paz described as a love it or hate it kind of city. It’s certainly has a bit of an edge to it, and is definitely unpolished! Last night when we were driving around, it didn’t look great. I saw a mixture of aggressive driving, roads strewn with rubbish and run-down deserted backstreets. However most places don’t look great when you arrive in the dark and La Paz has certainly grown on me today. While walking around during the day seemed reasonably safe, I didn’t really fancy venturing out too far at night unless it was part of a big group. Therefore the hostel bar seemed ideal for a couple of evening drinks. The only trouble was that it was currently not selling any alcohol. Apparently it doesn’t have the required license and yesterday they were tipped off about a potential upcoming raid. This lead to a frantic clear out of all the booze. It’s amusing how in the bar there were fridges with nothing in them, huge gaps on shelves where the spirits were once housed and hundreds of pint and shot glasses sitting underneath the bar itself. On the drinks specials board were milkshakes!
*I thought that I’d taken a photo of a zebra but when I was uploading the images it didn’t seem to be there, hence the borrowed photo below.