Flying High in La Paz | Bolivian Detour Part One

Having the opportunity to pick up and change destinations on a whim is incredibly liberating. This is exactly how I found myself in Bolivia over the holidays. Adventures were back on tall order in this first of two parts on my week long stay.

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The only thing you can count on when backpacking is that everything you’ve carefully planned out can and will blow up in your face. With chaos ensuing all around me in Peru, violence erupting in the streets, roads closed by angry protestors, and airport tarmacs destroyed, I thought it’d be best to cut my losses and head home. However, that little voice inside kept nudging at me, whispering things like I wasn’t ready to leave, this isn’t how I wanted the trip to end, and there are so many things still left to see! I did what any sensible lad would do, I listened!

Instead of flying home early, I bought a one-way ticket to neighboring Bolivia, a destination that has always been on my shortlist. Bolivia’s often overlooked on a lot of people’s agendas, and that’s fine by me. Sure, it’s not glitzy and glamorous, or for the gram like Bali, Petra, Cebu, or Bern. But where else would you be able to send it down a narrow canyon road from 16k feet to 4.5k in a couple of hours on a mountain bike? Bolivia, that’s where.

I had no real solid plans, making the spur-of-the-moment detour all that more exciting. I did have a few things I absolutely wanted to see and do, but the first stop is checking into La Paz and figuring out the rest.

No Travel is Without Surprises

Get your paperwork in order, is what I should’ve said to myself when booking my flight from Lima to La Paz. Back in 2019, I’d planned this grand year of backpacking through South America that included Bolivia on the docket. Forward to now and my dumb ass standing in front of customs in Santa Cruz at 5:05AM trying to make the connection leaving in 25 minutes to La Paz … without a TOURIST VISA. When I researched a few years ago travel visas for Bolivia were NOT a requirement for U.S. citizens, but things don’t stay that way forever. $160 was charged to the card, an entire page was taken out of my passport, and one happy customs agent later I was running towards my gate in great doubt that the plane was still there. Unsurprisingly … it’s delayed, a common theme in Latin America. Oh, don’t forget to show them an exit ticket, they’re going to want to see it, trust me.

By the time I landed in La Paz later that morning, I was reacclimating to the high altitude. Breathing in that cool, crisp air at almost 12,000ft above sea level wakes you right up. My bag came around the carousel and it looked darker than normal. Once retrieved I found that it was pretty much soaking wet. The airliner didn’t care much for it, leaving it in the rain while swapping planes. When going through my things later I realized everything inside my pack was in fact soaking wet. Already annoyed, I grew even more irritated with how that morning have gone and this was my first introduction to Bolivia.

When it rains it pours as Tupac once said, but we’re fucking here now, I would rebuttal.

What’s the Move

I arrived on Christmas Eve with plans to stay past the new year giving me a week +/-2 days before attempting to head back into Peru. The idea is to spend a few days in La Paz, checking out the city digs, catch a wrestling match, bomb down a hill, and then head further south towards Uyuni for some time in the salt flats and desert region. After a few weeks of lazily hanging out on beaches in El Salvador and Honduras, I was ready for this reintroduction into adventures.

La Paz

Navigating this concrete jungle can be a tough one, mostly because you’ll be trying to catch your breath everywhere. I stayed at The Rooftop Hostel while in town which was conveniently located across the street from the big bus station. The digs were basic, a hotel turned into a hostel, but the location was pretty solid. A ten to fifteen minutes walk in any direction for the tourist attractions, plentiful street food, and cable car stations, it was a no-brainer to stay here.

Not Your Average Trinkets
Looking for a souvenir to bring back that is spooky in all the best senses? Head down to the Witch’s Market to find that special something from dried llama fetuses (yes, they have this here) for prosperity and good luck, a plethora of soapstone figurines, aphrodisiacs of all kinds, to your usual knickknacks of keychains, shot glasses, and magnets. All of the tours that run throughout the country can be found in this general area as well. Not a bad one-stop place I’d say.

You can get your hands on some bolivianite, a quartz stone with a mixture of amethyst and citrine with zones of purple and yellow or orange. A beautiful gemstone found almost entirely in Bolivia alone. I couldn’t get any in a ring band for myself but you jewelry lovers out there don’t overlook this!

Where and What to Grub Down
While in the area I highly suggest you head over to the Lucky Llama for a full Irish breakfast. Yes, I know you’re in Bolivia with great food, but this was recommended to me by friends I’d made and had nothing but rave reviews about the joint. If an Irish benny isn’t in the cards for you there are plenty of great sit-in cafes serving up traditional eats with a modern twist. A few I suggest you check out: Cafe del Mundo, Curry House, The English Tavern, The Local Dish, and Bolivian Popular Food (this is a real place.)

So, what do you eat locally then you might ask? Try some of these on for size if you get the chance:

  • anticucho (grilled offals on sticks, often salty and eaten with local corn)
  • saltenas (local version of empanadas stuffed with meats, beans, and cheeses, eaten as a breakfast item but is good all day long)
  • api morado (purple corn drink that is super thick and delicious, you can eat this with fried puff pastries dusted with powdered sugar)
  • mondongo (beef or pork tripe in a vegetable soup or stew) and
  • yuca sonso (baked or grilled topped with cheese, perfection)

These should satiate your appetite for local fare. I didn’t try too much street food this time around because I got a bit cautious after a few bouts of traveler’s tummy during my stint in Central America. Don’t let that deter you as I still often ate to my stomach’s content and left happy and extremely overcome with food coma.

1. Full Irish Breakfast. 2. Indian llama curry. 3. Llama burger. 4. Comida tipico de Bolivia.

Getting Over My Head (Cable Car)
Want to see all of La Paz from high above? Easy, catch one of the many cable cars surrounding the city on the Teleférico. Seriously, I don’t think you’re more than a ten-minute walk in any direction to a cable car station. Clocking in at a staggering $0.25 per ride it’s a great way to catch the many sights and neighborhoods of La Paz. For an incredible bird’s eye view catch the blue cable car line to the top and enjoy the views from El Alto. Before leaving you should walk through the 16 de Julio Market (off of the blue line) to see what kind of funky stuff they got. Be warned, this market stretched for MILES, it took me riding the entirety of the blue cable car to see where it finally ended.

Catch A Cholita Wrestling Match
Want an indigenous women’s history lesson and some high-flying moves in the ring? Hit up the Cholita’s Wrestling show in El Alto and you won’t regret it. Don’t go into this thinking they’re masked luchadors from Mexico, no, these are indigenous women in traditional attire duking it out before your very eyes!

For a long time, the term cholita was used in a derogatory manner to describe the indigenous women of Bolivia. Not only were they looked down upon in Bolivian society, but they were also often the subject of domestic abuse. To combat this the woman took back the definition of the word and used it to empower them in and out of the ring. Now they are revered for their courage, beautiful indigenous clothing, culture, and way of life. You can often find them on the top rope about to cross-body slam any would-be opponents.

If you’re sitting front row be ready to be part of the show because these women do not hold back!

Send it Down Death Road She Wrote
One of the few places in the world you can fully send it from 16,000 feet to 4,500 feet on a mountain is certainly Bolivia. The Death Road, made famous by a little car show named Top Gear, was one of the many reasons I wanted to come to the country in the first place. Before the new major highway was built the traffic passed through a rather incredibly sketchy mountain pass aptly named the Death Road. At points no wider than 1.5x car’s width you can often spot passenger buses, 18-wheeler lorries, and the soccer mom minivan all vying for a spot of real estate. Needless to say, there have been fatalities traversing this stretch of Bolivia, making its namesake all the more harrowing.

Fast forward to the present day and the road has now become more of a tourist attraction. Flocks of travelers like myself come here in search of that all-familiar adrenaline rush that skirts the line with death. I enlisted through Barracuda Biking for my day of fun. These guys run a professional outfit with great bikes and gear to keep ya safe without having to head to the hospital. Transport, snacks, and a late lunch are provided while you enjoy a high-speed downhill ride through rough gravel roads, underneath waterfalls, and views that will leave you smiling ear to ear. Yea, you’re really here, baby.

After spending a few days in La Paz I booked a bus ticket towards Uyuni where I would spend the next three days on a tour of the salt flats. Reflecting on my short few days spent on the outskirts of busy downtown revealed a lot about the disparity we often overlook. I was just any ole other gringo backpacker enjoying their privileged opportunities to travel the world while locals were starving in the streets meters from the refurbished hotel turned hostel I was staying in.

Travel is brutality in both the beautiful and ugly sides of human society. We often push these images of negative things far away from our minds. But we shouldn’t and this kind of travel reminds you that there should be more humanity in the world. Be appreciative not just for your own position in life, but for all of it in general, beautiful people, culture, and experiences come from both sides of the same street.

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