Dizzying heights in La Paz

IT reader Don Carswell embraces altitude sickness and avoids deep-fried guinea pig to discover the unique appeal of Bolivia’s unofficial capital, La Paz.


Gazing out over the sun-scorched, cobblestone labyrinth of lanes and alleys that is La Paz, Bolivia, I did a quick altitude comparison.

La Paz is the world’s highest de facto capital city (Sucre is Bolivia’s official capital) at over 3500 metres. That’s as high as the peak of the first mountain I ever climbed in New Mexico when I was a teenager.

But as if that’s not enough, the airport is located in the suburb of El Alto (Spanish for ‘the high’) at over 4000 metres. There is an oxygen lounge and a medical office in the terminal, a fact that might be more meaningful if I point out there is little else there.

If you are afraid of heights, never mind the airplane – it’s the ride in to the city that will raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

My taxi zipped down the almost 500 metres of altitude between airport and city as if it were on a Formula One test track. We careened down an impossibly steep series of hairpin turns and perilous switchbacks along the side of a mountain while the driver nonchalantly checked his cell phone, barely missing several stray dogs and small children; once crossing over to share a lane with oncoming traffic when ours was blocked.

My seat belt was a non-functional vinyl strap with no buckle. Don’t worry, I told myself, this is not the most dangerous road in the world. That honour belongs to Death Road, several kilometres from here.

The effects of altitude are overwhelming and inescapable in La Paz. The most basic activity becomes exhausting. Compounding the issue is the fact that no matter where you want to walk, the route goes either up or down, or both, and every minute or two you find yourself stopping to inhale deeply.

Luckily, there is much to see. The well-worn buildings in the city centre depict the Spanish style of the colonial era. The downtown area lies in a picturesque, bowl-shaped valley surrounded by arid, earth-coloured mountains. Haphazardly scattered brick-and-mud dwellings cling to the slopes, rising hundreds of metres further to El Alto and beyond.

I walked slowly, so as not to aggravate the dull altitude-induced throbbing in my head. Eventually, I found myself in the middle of el Mercado de las Brujas (the Witches’ Market), a jumble of streets bustling with colourfully dressed Bolivian women in their traditional bowler-style hats. The effect struck me as very odd, as if somehow the millinery style of wealthy, early-20th-century British bankers drifted across the ocean and became fashionable among elderly Bolivian market women along with their brightly striped shawls and frilly skirts.

Strolling the narrow lanes that were draped with an extraordinarily colourful array of Inca blankets, scarves, clothes and bags, I reviewed the offerings of the stalls, wondering what type of items might be on the shopping list of a typical Bolivian witch. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see a staggering number of dried llama fetuses (who will buy them all?, I wondered), packages of coca leaves, alpaca wool and various other witchy wares.

Coca leaves, a far cry from the chemically refined drug that can be extracted from them, are a mild herbal stimulant culturally analogous to coffee and tea in other parts of the world. They are ubiquitous in Bolivia, and are frequently chewed as is or steeped in hot water to make tea. Reportedly their effect is to help those consuming them to stay alert, to reduce hunger pangs and lessen the symptoms of altitude sickness.

The nearby square is a beehive of activity with peddlers, commuters, brightly coloured buses expelling smoke as if they were on fire, and traffic of all kinds. The square is dominated by the church of San Francisco, its most recent incarnation dating from the 18th century, a beautiful example of Spanish colonial architecture.

Needing a bite to eat, I trolled the main streets reviewing the fare on offer at the various dining establishments. Variations of beef and chicken predominated, but for the gastronomically adventurous cuy, or guinea pig, was also available. Envisioning my daughter’s furry pet at home, I opted instead for the familiarity of fried chicken.

As the sun eased behind the jagged mountains, the dusty streets cooled and my headache abated. What had begun as a descent into chaos in every sense of the phrase had been almost magically transformed into a feeling of inner peace as I contemplated the cultural experiences of the day. La Paz indeed means ‘The Peace’. Perhaps the witches know a thing or two after all.


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This article appeared in issue 9


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One Comment
  • Lisa Priebe says:

    Wow, Don, I felt like I was in La Paz with you! I can’t travel the world, but if you’ll keep writing, I’ll just tag along!