La Paz & Valley of the Moon

My friend Sylvie and I have been travelling together for the past few days. We arrived in the highest capital of the world around 6pm on May, 11th. The trip from Copacabana was very interesting as we had to cross the lake at some point; I had thought there was a bridge, but there wasn’t. All the passengers had to get out of the bus to take a boat across the lake. Then, the bus was driven on to a large, wooden “ferry”. It was impressive to see this big, orange bus floatig on the lake. Luckilyy, everything went well : all our luggage was still on the bus and it didn’t tip over !

When we got back on the bus, I closed my eyes for a while. When I woke up, we were in a big city, where the houses weren’t finished and neither were the roads: no surfacing or tarmac. For a minute, I thought it was La Paz but we happened to be in El Alto, a suburb of La Paz on the Altiplano. La Paz is situated in a basin between 4’000 and 3’600 meters above sea level. When we were on the edge of the basin, we had an impressive view over the city.

When we arrived at the bus terminal, we took a taxi to our hostel which I booked the same morning. But when we arrived, surprise ! The booking was for the next day ! Yes I made a mistake… First the staff told us there was no availabilities for that same night but in the end they managed to find us two beds in separate rooms. The staff were so friendly and helpful. The name of the hostel is Pirwa, situated in the Sopocachi neighbourhood. It’s relativity new: they didn’t have many reviews on the internet. It’s not a party hostel but the atmosphere there is lovely. There’s a  roof terrace, decent wife and the kitchen is quite well equipped. The beds are also very comfortable, although try to book the four-bed dorm as this is much more spacious than the eight bed one.

The next morning, we went on the Red Cap Walking Tour, a really good way to see and learn about the city. Did you know that there was a prison, right in the city centre ? It’s the San Pedro Prison. Initially this building was meant for 250 inmates, but nowadays it holds between 1’300 and 1’500, plus their families (wives and children) so a total of 4’000 people. This place is a community unto itself; it has different neighbourhoods, for rich and poor; inmates have to work to pay their prison stay as they pay rent for their cell, food, etc. It is also Bolivia’s number one manufacturing centre for “white powder”. Indeed, most of the prisoners were sent to jail because of drug smuggling and drug dealing.

A few years back, there was an English inmate, named Thomas McFadden who was incarcerated for drug smuggling. Maybe you have read a book entitled “Marching Powder” by Rusty Young, an Australian author (I still need to read it). This book explains about life in the prison. Thomas McFadden started to propose prison tours to tourist (it was even suggested as the most bizarre tourist attraction in Lonely Planet at one point). At first, this was intended to increase contact with westerners as McFadden couldn’t speak any Spanish. But then he understood that money could be made from these tours – before it was made illegal. Nowadays, it is totally forbidden to do prison tours so if somebody offers you one, just say no ! After reading some articles and watching videos on YouTube, I must say that I would have liked to see this prison out of curiosity.

The tour continues to the San Rodriguez market, an open market. The stalls line the streets and, here, you can buy everything you need: meat, vegetables, fruits, spices, clothes, etc. As with other markets in South America, the colours are bright and the smells are pungent. A few streets away, you’ll find the witches’ market where you can buy, for example, all sorts of love potions.

Towards the end of the tour, the guides wanted to take us to the Plaza Murillo but it was unfortunately closed as there was a demonstration going on. Yes Bolivians are champions when it comes to demonstrations on the streets. There are often blockades allowing no vehicle to pass. When you’re on a long bus journey, this sort of things can happen and they can last for hours ! Apparently it’s very annoying. Luckily, I’ve never experienced them and I hope I never will !

we took a ride on the cable car. You cannot visit La Paz without going on the cable car ! It’s so impressive and a unique way to view the city from above. For the moment, there are 3 routes (yellow, red and green) which were opened in 2014 and they’ve already transported 40 million passengers. In the upcoming five years, five other new lines will be inaugurated. We took the yellow line from Sopocachi and went all the way up to El Alto. The view from up there is magnificent ! You can see the whole city and the cordilleras of the Andes with Huyana Potosi (6,088 m) and Illimani (6,438 m).

We stayed for a while at the top then went back to the hostel where we cooked a tasty dinner of pasta with lots of vegetables ! I like this hostel life, you get to meet many different people and there’s often the possibility of cooking for yourself, which helps both save money and avoid going to restaurants everyday.

The next day, we decided to go to Coroico, a village situated at the end of the famous Death Road and about 2 hours from La Paz. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling really well during this weekend so I’ve decided not to blog about it. I did have a good time in the company of Sylvie and Rinke, but I don’t feel inspired to write an article.

When we got back from Coroico on Sunday, Rinke left early to see a parade in the city centre of La Paz. With Sylive, we decided to take our time and got up later so we could have breakfast and travel during the day. We got back in mid afternoon and we went straight to the hostel to chill. Unfortunately, poor Sylvie got bitten by insects a hundred times on each ankle: they were really swollen so she couldn’t walk a lot.

On Monday, we went to the Valley of the Moon, situated at the lower part of the city. We took public transport as it’s very cheap and it’s good fun. In La Paz, the rich live at the bottom and the poor at the top. It’s really striking to see such a difference between both areas. At the top, I had the impression of being in Beverly Hills: the houses are absolutely stunning with beautiful gardens.

When we got to the Valley of the Moon, the bus dropped us at the entrance. The entry fee is 15 Bolivianos (~2$) and the tour takes about 45 minutes. You walk through rock formations which make you feel as if you were on the moon.

My original plan was to go to Chacaltaya, the highest ski resort on earth, situated at 5,350 m but the owner of the hostel said there was no point going there now as there’s no snow. Chacaltaya was previously a glacier. Since 2009 all the ice has melted and disappeared completely. This is a proof that global warming is causing chaos everywhere and not only in our mountains in Europe. Even at 5,000 m above sea level, the ice is melting quicker than it should be ! It would have been so cool to see snow in Bolivia, on the highest ski resort on earth. Bloody global warming, I hate you!

On Monday night, it was time to say goodbye to Sylvie. She decided to go to Uyuni to see the Salar, which I will see in a couple of weeks. We’ve been travelling together for a week, I really enjoyed her company and I hope we will see each other again one day !

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