La Paz is not just the highest capital city in the world, it towers over its nearest rival (Quito) by a full 800m. It is a city that takes your breath away. Literally. People who fly in directly from lower altitudes often suffer headaches, pains and other symptoms of altitude sickness and need a few days to acclimatise. At ground level La Paz is anything but peaceful: traffic-clogged streets, old buses belching fumes, poor homeless sleeping on the street, rubbish. Yet I love this city. There is a vibrancy and industriousness that many places lack. A hearty snack (though often of dubious benefit to the well-being of your stomach) is only a few footsteps away, markets spill out onto the steep streets, Aymara women tend stalls where you can buy traditional herbal and folk remedies, from coca leaves to dried lama foetuses, old and new jostle for position on an all-out urban assault on the senses. Then climb up the hillside to El Alto (The Heights), the slum that has metamorphosed into a thriving city in its own right, and peer down at the metropolis, not quite unfolded, as the sheer valley topography creates creases and crinkles in the patchwork of brick houses. Terracotta is the dominant colour, shining in the high altitude sun, as most can't afford to paint or plaster their walls. And above it all, lording over the fine panorama, is Illimani, Bolivia's second-highest peak. Only down in the teeming calles of the city proper can you get away from its hypnotic presence. And then you wonder whether you're out of breath due to the altitude, or because of the view before you.
|Illimani looming over La Paz, as it tries to squeeze into every last nook and cranny afforded by the valley topography.|
La Paz has a quirky vibe to it that is hard to dislike. For example lucha libre, the extravagant wrestling soap opera that is so popular in Mexico. Colourful masked characters with strange names such as El Paillaso Loco (The Crazy Clown) and Mortis prancing around in barely-disguised pyjamas. But Bolivian lucha libre comes with its own twist: cholita wrestling. Cholita is the local term for indigenous, highland women, usually dressed in the typical hat and puffy skirt, with their hair braided in two long tresses. Here they let the squat divas go at each other inside (and outside - there's plenty of audience participation in lucha libre, with spectators encouraged to pelt the grapplers with soft vegetable produce) the ring. Of course the whole thing is scripted, yet that doesn't mean that there aren't bumps and bruises. I saw competitors limping off with black eyes and a bit of bleeding from the head. No-one likes coming away from a fight without seeing a little blood.
|Although punches are pulled during cholita wrestling, the action is still quite intense (and in case you were wondering, yes, the referee is dressed as a clown).|
As things stand I seem to be on a bit of a roll lately with turning up in places at the right time. And so it was with La Paz. My stay happened to coincide with the Entrada de Gran Poder. Before the event, when I asked about it, I was told that it was a religious procession that would be carrying a statue from a church in one part of town to another. Cool, I thought, that should be quaint. That description in no way prepared me for what the Entrada was really about. It started around 7am and I could hear the procession passing near my hostel by 8am. I didn't get ready and meet up with my friends until 9:30am and I was worried I might have missed the best part of the proceedings. I needn't have worried. The procession is composed of discrete groups that perform a set, traditional dance (there were about half a dozen different ones that were performed during this entrada) and comprise dancers in various, often flamboyant, costumes, sometimes with masks, and one or several marching bands providing the rhythm. Think Carnival in Rio but without the floats. Each group had around 500 performers or more, requiring about 10mins to completely pass any given point and the whole circuit took about 5 hours to complete ... and there were 60 separate groups. The whole thing lasted well until midnight!
|A procession of over 100 plumed, demon princes (at least that's what I understood them to be) shuffling along in time to the brass band's rhythm, just one section of a group's parade.|
Luckily, due to our ignorance, we (we being a Frenchman, Australian, Pole and myself - the standard mix you get when travelling) turned up early and managed to snag good seats on the stands lining the main avenue of the procession. We were then regaled with several hours of a constant wave of humanity and raucous music. It was funny to see how some groups would be enthusiastically cavorting away, whilst others, who must have already been marching for 3 hours, were plodding along, having a beer, smoking a sly ciggie, or chatting on their mobiles. Meanwhile us spectators were having it easy as food, drinks, ice-creams, sweets, beers, and even fluffy toys (for the younger members of the audience) would be brought right to us so that we wouldn't have to move and miss any of the action (and also because we were so tightly packed on the stands that getting back down to street level became an exercise in sharp elbows and acrobatics). For six hours we watched troupes of jumping cowboys, scantily-clad, young cholitas shaking their miniskirts, hunchbacked demons, hip-swinging grannies, prancing jesters, and dancers with giant, circular feathered head-dresses, before exhaustion took its toll on us and we left the more energetic revellers carry on the festivities.
|Example of the fantastical masks on show during the entrada.|
La Paz's attractions all have an aspect of the absurd or over the top, but they aren't limited to human oddities. As the city has expanded it has flowed downhill along a valley (chosen due to the abundant gold that was to be found in the river) to the bottom before continuing up the other side in a chaotic, organic, sprawl reminiscent of some 50's horror movie. It's even reached the far side of the bowl in which it's situated and slipped over the other side. At one point the city reaches the mouth of a steep ravine that descends from the hills above. If you wander up this gorge just a little way you enter a geological wonderland of spires, turrets and towers, all creations of obscure, natural processes that look like a petrified Manhattan. The resulting dreamscape, created by the erosion of the soft conglomerate rock over millennia, is called Valle de las Animas (Valley of the Spirits) by locals, who believe that the pinnacles resembled ascending souls. And if you hike up through the canyon to its rim you look beneath you and see that it isn't just the one valley, but numerous similar chasms that dot La Paz's neighbourhood. A wonderland of lithic needles that promise endless days of exploration. And all just a short bus ride from the city centre.
Nuestra Señora de La Paz, is to give the city its full name: Our Lady of Peace. One of the greatest geographical misnomers in the world. La Paz is anything but peaceful. Loud, chaotic, frantic, silly, noxious, dizzying, colourful, exhausting are all words that are more apt. And thank god for that!