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.|