Contrary to most I’ve met on the road, I loved La Paz and ended up spending quite a bit of time there. It was gritty, beautiful, freezing cold, always full of people, sometimes a total pain in the ass (like when the ATM ate my credit card for no reason), and definitely third world. But there was a charm and an intrigue to this harsh city.
My first victory was simply getting into the country. Bolivia is not a fan of the U.S. According to the Bolivian embassy in the US, Americans shold obtain a visa in advance of arrival. We didn’t have time to get one before we left, and the embassy never returned my voicemail seeking clarity. Steven wasn’t worried, and we found conflicting Internet reports about getting visas on arrival at the airport.
The other issue was the long list of documentation apparently required to get a visa, including bank account statements, proof of exit ticket from Bolivia, etc. I rushed to at least print a copy of my passport at the airport in Lima since there were some online reports of that being required.
Once I got on the plane from Lima to La Paz (the last of a four leg, 12+ hour journey starting in Baltra, Galapagos), I figured I should probably be able to get in. That airline didn’t even ask for my proof of exit, which I have had to show for most flights of the trip. Long term travel tip – book a refundable ticket from somewhere in the continent and that worked for me as proof of exit. I was lucky as a few flights would not have let me board without showing them I had a flight booked home.
I was the first of the now three of us (our cousin Ben joined for the month between his clerkships) to arrive, around 2 a.m. local time. When the line minder identified me as a gringa, he pulled me into a much shorter line, the line to pay for a visa, and for $160 in non-torn bills (he rejected one of my 20s, make sure to bring extras) and nearly zero questions, I was given a 10 year visa and lost another page of my nearly full passport. Ironically, they had the long list of required documents on a poster right next to him. The good thing about listing my profession at immigration (abogada) is that I almost never have any scrutiny or questions at the border.
Victory – I had made it in the country.
Next up was getting to my hostel without getting robbed. Like Colombia, you have to be cauctions with what kind of taxi (or any kind of car) you get into in Bolivia. You can hail a cab in La Paz during the day, but need to get a “radio taxi.” Many taxis just have a sign in the window. Radio taxis have a sign on top, and are tracked by dispatchers. Get in the wrong cab, and you may fall victim to an express robbery where you are taken to a number of ATMs to drain you bank account. More on this and other scams on www.steveleavestug.com. It happened to people we met, so it is not that uncommon.
Well when I left the airport at 2 a.m., there were no Ubers around, and no radio taxis to be seen. There was a line of cars wrapped in “aeropuerto” graphics, and after taking a quick look around I reluctantly got into the car, following our route on Google Maps the whole way to ensure we weren’t heading off course. I checked into our private room at Loki and got some sleep. Steven arrived a few hours later with a much more interesting ride from the airport involving the police (see his blog). We slept in, and took the Red Cap walking tour to get the overview of the city while we waited for Ben to arrive. This was perhaps the best walking tour of the trip yet. It was a large group, but we had two great tour guides. Rather than simply pointing out sights, we learned a lot about the history and politics of Bolivia, which are fascinating. We also saw the witch market, and those are in fact llama fetuses for sale.
The boys ended up biking down Death Road, and golfing, so I explored the city on my own the next few days. I found a Spanish school and considered doing a few weeks there. I did another tour with Red Cap, this time the foodie tour and since no one else showed up, I got a private tour of some of the best street food and local drinks in the city.
Other than that, I wandered a lot. I found an excellent hipster coffee shop (The Writer’s Cafe). No more Nescafé (or as known locally, no es cafe) made Jen a happy camper.
Given we were finally in a city with people all around, it felt safe walking around, even at night. The hostel was also in a great and central location.
So Loki – this was the first what I’ll call “mega” hostel we stayed at. It was a 7 story building with a large rooftop bar. I think there were backpackers that didn’t leave the hostel other than to after party when the bar closed. We went up to the bar a few times, but it seemed to defeat the purpose a bit of being in another country and culture. But it had an in house travel agency we used a bunch to book tickets, and was very convenient. I even stayed in a dorm one night after the boys left. I was also probably in the top few oldest people staying there.
We ended up leaving for the jungle with not a lot of notice. That meant we had to cancel our reservation at Gustu, which was sad. However, on the food tour I discovered the best chorizo sandwich and fresh fruit juices at the market, so I was happy with my La Paz eating.
Highlights of the food tour:
Fast forward – we spent too much time in the jungle to stay in La Paz a few more weeks. So while the boys decided to leave altitude and go to Brazil, I wasn’t yet ready to give up on Bolivia. I headed back to La Paz to figure out what was next. Unfortionately a cold decided what was next and I hung out at Loki for a few more days, laying low. I had one good final day where I explored the gondolas around the city, and took a micro bus in El Alto – the city even higher up the hill.
It was topped off by a fantastic make up dinner at Gustu. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
A great dinner, costing more than a week in the dorm (Bolivia is the cheapest country we visited), but well worth it for the first fine dining in more than a month. All ingredients and wine are from Bolivia, which was nice to see.
A final note – altitude. La Paz is high at about 12,000 feet, El Alto (location of the airport) perches even higher at just over 13,000 feet. In comparison, this is higher than Mt. Hood, and only about 1,000 feet lower than the summit of Rainier. People get serious altitude sickness here. I took a prescription as a precaution, and other than being easily winded, didn’t feel the effects often. But others did and were miserable the whole time there. Much of Bolivia is at altitude, so prepare before you go, and take it slow with plenty of water instead of cerveza the first few days.
One other thing we did notice, no Americans. Bolivia in general was nearly all Europeans. And people were always suprised when we said where we were from. And we were always known as the gringos.