It was a long night; at the beginning, some 112 km to Cusco, then 389 km to Puno and another 148 km to the border of Bolivia that we reach in the morning. We cross it in the city called Desaguadero; it is our first land border in America and thus we are not used to it. We get off a bus and stand in a long queue. Before our passports are stamped and we get back on the bus, we will stop at another four counters, fill out two forms and see a few interesting things.
At the border as such, there is a barrier and a string which implies not to cross it... but it seems it hangs there only for us. Everybody walks under it with no embarrassment at all! From an old Indian woman to a man with a cart full of eggs! I don’t get it but it looks hilarious. Good Golly.
On the whole, unembarrassed enterprise is thriving! There is everything, an exchange office, even three of them standing side by side, so it is almost a financial centre! Nearby, there is a sky-high restaurant in which, on the tables covered with plastic tablecloths, you can eat something hot, provided you have strong nerves or you are not a tourist. FREEDOM is in the air; yes... here you can still feel it in your lungs!
86 km to go and we are in La Paz – the almost-capital which is situated highest in the world! After leaving our stuff in a hotel we are going to the town to exchange the currency and fill our stomachs. On our way we marvel at the local colours, e.g. half-automatic traffic lights. Yes, good guess, a policewoman stands on each intersection and turns such a switch to change the lights: green/red... This is what happens when the workforce is cheaper than technology.
We go to eat something in Ellis, on the one hand express pizzeria (you get a pizza in literally 2 minutes) and on the other hand quite pleasant bar festooned with the American movie posters. I strongly recommend delicious cookies! You can also admire the decoration for free and even take a picture with someone you like. When it comes to the Hollywood productions, I’m the most familiar with the masters of humour, which I think highly of to the same degree as of Monty Python group, i.e. brilliant Marx brothers! „I give you my honest word of an embezzler; I’m back in two minutes!”
On our way to the hotel, we stop off in Plaza San Francisco where the main thoroughfare of the city, called El Prado, has its start; it extends downward allegedly as far as the Plaza Universidad. At the Square, there is a St. Francis’s Church and, as usual, enormous contrasts; right beside the beautiful, rich church, similarly beautiful, but decaying and without windows, old tenement. There are also smudgy kids playing at the square as blithely as those clean, rich and well-dressed kids from Europe.
I’m not sure but I have a feeling that there isn’t here any institution in sort of a nursery school; children are always with their mothers who, in most cases, wear a scarf on their back. When children grow up a little bit, they help their mother with her wayside business... Once, I became speechless at the sight of a little girl who was doing her homework on her knees near the main street, aforementioned El Prado, in fumes and noise of the buses going by... I didn’t even take a picture...
As you can see, there is also a naval school; unfortunately, sailors can only exercise at Titicaca at best, since their defeat during the war with Chile they don’t have access to the sea.
Going back to this almost-capital... in every school they teach that La Paz is the highest situated capital to be found... It’s not entirely true, because the constitutional capital of Bolivia is Sucre but it’s in La Paz where the most important state institutions, the legislature, the executive and the financial as well as industrial centres are located. Here, we can also find the most important thing that is necessary for the civilised country to develop itself, i.e. brewery! And when the beer is average, so is the development... Sometimes Bolivia is called „a beggar sitting on a golden throne”, it’s one of the poorest countries in America and at the same time the one that has enormous natural resources, e.g. huge gas deposits!
The picture above reminded me about another funny, interesting fact, well, La Paz has the highest situated football stadium in the world; I wouldn’t write about it if it wasn’t for the fact that the Bolivian national team wins here almost every game! If one organised here football world championships, they would be the winners for sure! Why? More careful readers will certainly guess, and revealing everything straight away makes you less sharp.
In the street you can buy everything, meat, books and even an iron! All of this you can acquire even when it’s well after dark! The most charming place is Plaza Murillo, the square named in memory of Pedro Domingo Murillo – the leader of an independence uprising who ended up being hanged by the Spaniards on this square. In 1827, two years after regaining independence, in order to commemorate the decisive, winning battle, the name of the city was changed to the short La Paz. It seems to me that the monument standing in the centre of the square has also some connection with this.
Contrary to the all stuff that is written in different, inaccurate guidebooks, staying in Peru and Bolivia isn’t as dangerous as it is believed. I was walking alone in La Paz almost till midnight! While going back to a hotel, I happened to walk, by chance, into some completely empty and almost totally dark alley! Ok, ok, I do admit that once I thought that someone is following me and is about to kill me... but as Kazik (a Polish lead singer) was singing: „I was scared to death but nothing happened to me :)”. Nobody mugged or robbed me (as you can see I had my camera outside) and no Indian woman in a hat raped me! Buenas noches.
I got up in the morning and went for a breakfast to a dining room situated upstairs that was just being decorated (you can see it in the picture). I think it’s the right moment to write something about the Passport hotel. As you can see, the hotel has just been built and the finishing touches were being put on it; therefore the accommodation was (supposedly) cheaper, i.e. 10$ per night. Rooms were kind of curiosity (I can’t stand I’ve got no pictures!). To be precise, beside the entrance to each room there was a bathroom which had one window looking over the room and another one looking over... the corridor. It was a Venetian mirror which made it easy to look inside the bathroom and a person being just inside this bathroom couldn’t see if someone was watching! I’m not particularly shy, I can even tolerate someone watching me while I wash hair on my chest but when I can’t relieve myself without witnesses, then I think it’s a little bit too far! I would change the name of the hotel to the more adequate... the Exhibitionist.
As far as I remember, I didn’t see any dustbins, but it’s clean because there is someone who sweeps every now and then. By the way, it’s common knowledge that Bolivian cocaine is the best in the world (and cheap) but I advise you against buying it since, supposedly, every second dealer here is an undercover cop and the prisons in this country are famous all over the world, not particularly for being luxurious. It doesn’t look like the cocaine is going to be legalised so one has to do without it. One more thing, supposedly policemen commonly plant a drug during the identity check and extract bribes for letting you free. But none of it happened to me so maybe it’s another rumour one should not take seriously.
At the square there is a cathedral that was visited by John Paul II in 1988. I found a plaque on the elevation which commemorates this event.
Except for Plaza Murillo, La Paz didn’t take my fancy at all; a combination of rundown tenements often along with ugly tower blocks is not something I’d like to see in the city where there is such a number of “the best”. And the worst are buses which fume like hell, making a stroll along the main street being a nightmare! This in turn reminds me of another interesting thing about La Paz. Fumes that make it difficult to breathe in the city, cause it also to be the most fire-resistant city in the world :). Fire fighters don’t have much work to do, because potential fires... go out themselves :)! At this height, where the oxygen has such a small volume, there are slim chances for any bigger flame. No wonder I couldn’t breathe.
I visited the museum of coke. Frankly, I didn’t find there anything worthy of note, so I don’t recommend it. As you know, the leaves of coca are totally legal in Bolivia, Peru and Chile; someone tried to ban it but failed. Why? Because the coca leaves made it easier to rob of the Indians! Chewing the leaves of coca has many benefits, e.g. it lets you work many hours, even without food, so the chewing of the leaves was compulsory in the silver mines where white people forced Indians to slave labour. The efficiency was just going up! The beneficial effects of the cocaine were also appreciated by John Pemberton – a chemist who, on the basis of coca leaves and cola nuts, created a symbol of the western civilisation: Coca-Cola. This beverage is still produced according to the old recipe that means importing the great amount of leaves; I remember, however, that at the beginning of XX century, with a surge of the warfare against narcotics, the trace quantity of cocaine was started to be removed from the production process. It is said that the beverage was previously very energising; cocaine in such a small quantity couldn’t be harmful but certainly had similar beneficial effect as chewing leaves.
I managed to do one more museum the name of which, unfortunately, I don’t remember; there were some masks and brutal scenes of Bolivian history where, for example, some poor guy is being torn apart by Spaniards using horses. Museums are opened till 6 p.m. but I – being happy – didn’t have a watch of course, so well after closing I barged into another museum dedicated to Pedro Domingo Murillo... I was a little bit surprised not being welcomed by anyone, especially when the door was closed... nevertheless I was entitled to enter the museum having a ticket from the previous museum, so I began my tour when suddenly a guard jumps out and yells at me... Salida, salida!! Maniana!! So maniana... buenas noches.
Kolejnego dnia kontynuowałem w miejscu, w którym tak brutalnie przerwano mi zwiedzanie. Miałem szczęście, przede mną była grupa dzieciaków, którą oprowadzał niekonwencjonalnie ubrany przewodnik. Był rewelacyjny, dzieciaki słuchały z zapartym tchem, dopytywały się o szczegóły, odpowiadały na jego pytania. Lekcja historii w najlepszym wykonaniu. Nauczyciele, uczcie się!
And I of course couldn’t get my camera away from them! If I understood correctly, when someone throws a coin into a well (which is not so easy because you have to stand with your back towards it) his or her wish will come true. A girl form the picture missed.
In the end I visited a moon valley (Valle de la Luna) situated several kilometres out of La Paz. You can get there by cab for 12 Boliviano (remember to haggle, I lowered the price from 25!), the entrance fee is 15 Boliviano. Views, indeed, out of this world! I met a pleasant Indian from the Aymara tribe by the way and bought from him a flute (unfortunately I can’t play it yet) as well as took a picture with him.
I went back to the city centre to have some pizza and I met a very nice Bolivian. Rambling on your own has a one big advantage, i.e. it’s easier to make the acquaintance of the local people which are not scared away by double Dutch and a crowd of gringos.