We arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, not knowing exactly what to expect. We'd heard lots about the city - both good and bad - but couldn't wait to explore it for ourselves. Fortunately we were already well acclimatized, because the bowl-shaped city is located at roughly 3700m above sea level.
Our bus from Cochabamba first stopped at a terminal in El Alto, which is a hugely-populated (more so than La Paz proper) flat area located at 4000m at the top of the bowl in which La Paz is situated. From the El Alto terminal, the bus wound its way down a steep, minibus-choked road that ringed the city and descended into the heart of downtown.
We took a cab from La Paz's bus terminal into Sopocachi, which is an upscale residential neighbourhood full of restaurants, embassies and accommodation. We were surprised to see tons of hip, international food options and ended up having delicious crêpes for dinner from a cute cafe run by a couple of young Frenchmen.
Our original plan was to store some of our gear at the hostel and then head out the next day to complete the three-day (downhill!) El Choro trek from a high point just outside of La Paz to the resort town of Coroico, more than 3000m lower. Unfortunately, the crêpes didn't agree with Pravin and he became very unwell very quickly, forcing us to change plans and move from a hostel to a nearby B&B where he could get a better sleep in the hopes of recovering quickly.
The next day, Pravin was feeling a bit better, so we headed out to do a walking tour of the city. It was one of the most informative tours we've taken so far, with a couple of very enthusiastic young paceños leading our group through a series of markets and other points of interest in the downtown area.
In the end, we scrapped our plans to do the El Choro trek and instead decided to simply take a minibus to Coroico for a couple of days of tropical heat. The old road to Coroico is the infamous "Death Road" that used to be known as the world's most dangerous road. Nowadays, it's only used by tourists on mountain bikes and a new road (thankfully with guardrails) has been built for vehicular traffic. The old dirt road reaches 4700m at its highest point, and then winds its way down a steep mountainside to 1200m. It's a narrow track cut into the side of the mountain, barely one lane wide, and yet was plied by buses, trucks, and cars going both directions. Vehicles were even required to drive on the left-hand side of the road, with the rationale being that the driver on the outside needed to have a clear view of exactly where the edge of the precipice was so that they wouldn't drive off and fall hundreds of meters down into the abyss. Shockingly, it was estimated that 200-300 people died in this manner each year.
A dose of heat in Coroico was very welcome after the chill of La Paz. We splurged a bit for a private room in a large hotel with beautiful grounds, a pool, and views to die for. Overall, the complex had seen better days, with the intense humidity of the jungle wreaking havoc on the walls and wood, but the mountain views couldn't be beat.
We enjoyed a couple of days parked with our books on the various terraces around the complex, and other than playing with the resident dogs and going into town for dinner, we really didn't get up to much - which is exactly what Coroico seems to be meant for!
After Coroico, we made our way back to La Paz where the next morning we were meeting up with our friends Mayumi and Sahan from Vancouver! We were SO excited to see them and it was so much fun to be able to explore La Paz with friends from home.
The most exciting part of the day was taking a ride on the Teleférico, which is a new cable car network that connects La Paz and El Alto, among other neighbourhoods. For us Teleférico was very affordable, costing only about the equivalent of $0.60 per ride. However for residents of La Paz, it works out to be more expensive than taking a bus, and doesn't allow for free transfers, so the pricing is somewhat contentious for the new system.
Pravin might have a different view of what constituted the most exciting part of his day, as he ended up shaking the Vice President of Bolivia's hand! We were strolling through the plaza on which the government buildings are located, and we saw a group of people huddled around some government vehicles that were parked in front of the Palacio Quemado. A distinguished-looking gentleman with white hair appeared to be the star attraction, and so Pravin ran up and joined the group of people clamouring for a handshake, and managed to get one. We still had no idea who the guy was, so I asked someone standing nearby and he let us know that it was Vice President Álvaro García Linera.
Most of our time with Mayumi and Sahan was spent eating, drinking, and catching up. We started off our evening at a wine bar called Hallwright's with a platter of Bolivian cheeses and meats, including llama jerkey. We also sampled a few Bolivian wines - some hits and a few misses. Our next stop was Magick, a cozy bar run by a friendly Danish expat. Pravin and I had stumbled across the place the night before, highly intrigued by their 3x1 gin specials. This time we stuck to Bolivian beers, and had quite a variety between us before moving on to a late dinner at a small new restaurant that Pravin had found, called Humo.
It was the single best dining experience we had ever had, and it was so good that the four of us ended up going there the following night as well! The restaurant is only a few months old and run by 2 young Argentinians that are passionate about food and using innovative Bolivian ingredients. We were instantly welcomed by the staff and they brought out plate after plate of interesting dishes for us to try. The most unexpected with alligator ceviche with a roasted Amazonian ant on top. It took Mayumi and myself a bit to warm up to the idea, but we both went for it and aside from the crunch of the ant, which I was not a fan of, the flavour of the alligator was excellent.
All of the entrées we had (lamb asado, Amazonian river fish, trout) were equally tasty, and the prices were unbelievably reasonable for the quality of the food - roughly $12 CAD per entrée.
Once we finished our food, it seemed that the owners sensed we weren't ready to end our night, and they invited us to check out their new bar next door. It was slightly hidden and we hadn't noticed it coming into the restaurant, and it seemed like it wasn't quite open to the public just yet. We had lots of fun trying unique cocktails made with Bolivian liquors and fruits, and possibly even more fun laughing at Frank, the saggy-faced resident bar dog.
Eventually, our time with Mayumi and Sahan had to come to a temporary end as they headed out for a quick trip to see the Salar de Uyuni. We were lucky enough to get to spend one more evening with them on their way back from the Salar, and we had a great time hearing about their time on the salt flats and reminiscing about other adventures we had shared back in Vancouver.
Pravin and I spent the next day hiking to the Muela del Diablo, a rock outcropping high above La Paz that offered amazing views of the city.
As we reached a ridge line at the top of a slope that we had been walking up, we were surprised to see a green oasis in what almost seemed like the crater of the mountain. In sharp contrast to the dry, dusty roads we had been walking up, the other side of the ridge was green and fertile and housed a small community. We wandered through the area, taking in the view, and eventually scrambled our way up most of the actual Muela del Diablo, where we spent quite a long time examining the city from above.
As we made our way through Argentina and Chile, we constantly heard travellers talking about Bolivia as if it were some kind of dangerous Wild West, where people are constantly out to rip you off and quite possibly rob or assault you in the process. Even flipping through the Lonely Planet guidebook or any one of numerous popular travel websites might have you thinking twice about entering the country.
The experience that we had in Bolivia was completely the opposite; we found Bolivian people to be the most welcoming and friendly of anywhere we have been so far.
Our first stop in Bolivia was Tupiza, and the first thing we did after dropping off our bags at our hostel was to find an ATM. We came to a spot where there were ATMs from two different banks right next to each other, and we paused for a moment to consider which one to use. Immediately, a woman walking by stopped to offer assistance (as we clearly look like foreign backpackers) and explained the difference between the two banks and asked if there was anything else that we needed. It was a lovely introduction to the country and things proceeded in this manner for the rest of our stay in Bolivia.
In terms of being ripped off, we never experienced anything like this - which has not been the case in other countries. It's not that we were just ignorant of prices; we legitimately researched what we should be paying, for example by asking locals or hostel employees about cab prices before taking a taxi. In La Paz, contrary to every other city we have visited in South America, we were never once quoted an exorbitant rate for a taxi and instead were quoted a perfectly fair price by local standards each and every time.
Of course, regardless of preparation, bad luck can happen to anyone, but we have been fortunate enough so far on this trip not to find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.