With one day in the city we needed a plan of attack in order to feel as though we really got to experience it! Via an awesome walking tour, the teleforico, tasty food we ended up finding the best things to do in La Paz Bolivia!
Red Cap City Walking Tour of La Paz
We determined the best way to see and appreciate La Paz would be to do a walking tour of the city. After a nice slow morning we made our way down to Plaza San Pedro at 11 am to meet and do the Red Cap walking tour (only 3$/person!).
San Pedro Prison
It was a great tour! We started off by learning about the San Pedro Prison, probably one of the more interesting prisons I have heard about. Inside the prison you have to purchase your entry, cell, and bed forcing people to work if they don’t have any money coming in. This created a mini society within the walls where now there are multitude of businesses and some of the wealthy prisoners are even said to have swimming pools. There are not guards in the prison, the prisoners are said to lose privileges if things go awry therefore there is one ‘owner’ of each prison block and the wealthier prisoners keep things in line. In the past they used to do tours of the prison, however due to the numbers of stabbings, rapes, etc they had to stop the tours. A couple months ago a tourist bought an (illegal and illegitimate) San Pedro prison tour and at the end of his tour his guide disappeared. When he tried to leave the prison the guards didn’t believe he was tourist (not prisoner) and he ended up spending a fair amount of time there until his embassy could get him out after he paid a good chunk of money.
Next on the route was walking through Mercado Rodriguez, the open air fruit and vegetable market. I couldn’t believe the massiveness of the market and there were more potatoes than you can imagine!
Cholitas – Aymaran Women
Every person working the booth was a cholita, the traditional dressed Aymaran women. Their outfits consists of sandals with high socks, a long colorful skirt, a blouse and a bowler hat with their hair in two long braids.
The skirt is long (supposedly) because Aymaran men believe that big calves are the sexiest part of a women and the bowler hats because when the English came during the colonial times they convinced the women how fashionable they were when they received a shipment of too-small bowler hats and needed to get rid them (one of the legends on why they wear the hats 🙂 ). A bowler hat worn directly on top of the head signifies they are married, if worn on the side they are single.
Witches Market – Mercado de Brujas
We then continued to the infamous La Paz witches market. Here the brujas have their stands, selling potions for everything under the sun; love, pain relief, male enhancement, you name it.
The most startling image however are the dried llama fetuses hanging from the top of every stand. After learning that all the fetuses are collected from stillbirth or baby llamas that die during a cold night I felt a little bit better, however its still quite creepy and erie to look at.
Myths + Legends of the Brujas
To become a regular-street-salesman bruja you must get struck by lightening, to become a witch doctor (ability to perform large spiritual ceremonies) you must get struck by lightening twice. The indigenous people call Mother Earth the Pachamama (don’t you love that name!) and sacrifices must be made to show respect to the Pachamama. For instance whenever you drink a beer you must pour the first bit on the ground so Pachamama can have the first sip. Another Pachamama superstition is before building a house you must make a sacrifice to thank Pachamama for the land; hence the dead llama fetuses. Before starting the foundation you have to bury a llama fetus to give respect. Although many of the citizens in La Paz shake their head at this custom apparently a llama fetus can be found under almost every building in the city. According to legend (where things get real creepy!) the bigger buildings obviously need a bigger sacrifice…. a human sacrifice. This is where the double lightening struck witches come into play. Supposedly they steal an insignificant person from the streets (a drunk or unhelpful part of society that no one will really miss) and give him an extremely potent alcohol so he falls asleep, throw him in the hole of foundation and cover the hole with concrete. Pachamama has to be the one to take the life, hence why he has to be buried alive. Although it is all urban legend, human remains have been found under some of the older more impressive buildings in La Paz. (Cue eerie ghost noises)
La Iglesia de San Francisco
We then continued to La Iglesia de San Francisco, an interesting catholic church that collapsed a couple years after it was built due to an earthquake.
This church was one of the first ways the Spanish to tried to enforce and convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. After it collapsed they enlisted the help of the local Aymaran people to rebuild it, hoping it would help to convert them to catholic if they felt they had contributed to building it. What is so interesting is on the outside, next to the carved Catholic style insignia, are the Incan Gods; chewing coca leaves, giving birth to flowers.
However after the church was completed only a very small portion of the local people were attending and the Spanish figured out a trick to get people to church. The Inca people believe that your soul can leave you and you need to spend time recalling your soul to you in order to be whole and continue on to the afterlife. Understanding this the Spanish hung up mirrors all around the church and brought in the indigenous people to show them their reflection. Having never seen a mirror before, the Spanish told them that their reflection was actually their soul, caught in the mirror, and the only way to keep your soul would be come back every Sunday for church. You can imagine church attendance sky rocketed!
After a quick snack at Mercado Lanza of stuffed potatoes (yum!) and fresh fruit smoothies we continued to Plaza Murillo, the main governmental square. Recently in Bolivia there has been a lot of controversy over the rights and payment of the miners in another region of the country, Potosi. The miners held protests in Potosi for awhile, but did not feel like they were being heard and started walking to La Paz to protest. The day of our tour many of the miners had arrived to La Paz and police were guarding all the entrances to Plaza Murillo as the miners were known to be carrying dynamite.
Luckily our guides talked to the police and we were allowed through. Because we didn’t have much time there we just wandered around, admiring the beautiful governmental buildings.
Pigeon Attack in Plaza Murillo
In the middle of the plaza there was an absurd number of pigeons walking around. Jordan was taking pictures and I was trying to get them to fly around, but you could pretty much step on them and they wouldn’t move. All the sudden all the pigeons started flying together and I panicked thinking they were coming at me until they flew right by me to attack a person in the middle of the square. It was mom!!
She let out a small yelp and started running while they followed her. Jordan and I were almost on the ground we were laughing so hard. Apparently she had bought a bag of pigeon food and it had broke while she was holding it. The pigeons attacked in numbers.
We finished our tour at an English pub called Oscar’s Tavern where the guides gave us their perspective on the current president of Bolivia, Evo Morales and we tried a typical Bolivian drink. We were extremely happy with the tour, we learned a ton and our guides had been very entertaining.
Riding the Teleforico above La Paz
Our last to do list item in La Paz was riding the Teleforico. We walked following our map until we found the amarillo line that went all the way up to El Alto. Only 24 Bolivianos for the four of us roundtrip! We enjoyed our ride their and back; crazy beautiful panoramic views of the city. We even spotted a car stuck in the side of cliff on the way up.
Mexican + Cuban Food in La Paz, Bolivia
With an hour left before boarding our flight to Uyuni we grabbed a quick bite at a promising looking Mexican restaurant next door to the Cuban place we went to the night before. They had amazing margaritas, nachos, and quesadillas. YUM! I had missed good Mexican food!
We caught a cab to the airport and we were on our way to Uyuni. At the Mexican place we had met some girls taking the bus; when were settled into our hotel in Uyuni about 3 hours later we couldn’t help but feel happy we spent a little extra on the 45 minute flight instead of taking the 14 hour bus.
We stayed at Hotel Julia that night and went to a little pizzeria called Donna Isabel. The hotel was nice, a great last hot shower before heading out on our salt flat adventure the next day, and the pizza place was alright. We bought some more essentials we were going to need for the next day and tried to get a good nights sleep unsure what to expect for tomorrow.
Stay with our journey and check out our 3-day tour through Salar de Uyuni with Red Planet Expeditions! Salt hotels, crazy photos, cactus islands, flamingos, volcanoes, colored lagoons and geysers. Check it out here!