Four Days in La Paz
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Where I stayed
In La Paz, we checked into the Adventure Brew Hostel, where Patti and Shelley had really wanted to stay for its fun atmosphere. After they'd assigned us our room, the front desk staff asked us to hold out our arms, then attached paper bracelets to them that said something along the lines of: "If you find me lost or drunk, please return me to the Adventure Brew Hostel, Room 3.4," then provided the hostel phone number and address. What on earth? Personally, I think if you're going to lose control like that in a country as dangerous as Bolivia, you're likely to end up dead in an alley. Maybe the bracelets were a joke?
The top floor of the Adventure Brew had a bar that sold moderately expensive dinners and a good selection of beer. They even had Strongbow, my favorite cider in the entire world, but I turned it down because it cost the equivalent of $5 USD a can.
On the bright side, Adventure Brew is so named because they have their own microbrewery on the premises, and guests receive a free glass of beer every night they stay. On our first night, I had a dark red beer that was ok; but, on the second night, I drank a glass of pale ale that was really good. The hostel also served a free all-you-can eat pancake breakfast that sounded better than it turned out to be because, once again, the pancakes were oddly sweet and very dense. The coffee, on the other hand, was rich and buttery and totally delicious.
The real disappointment in staying at the Adventure Brew Hostel came when I used their laundry service. I think I've mentioned before that do-it-yourself laundromats aren’t the norm down here. Almost every hotel and hostel has an inexpensive laundry service.
To make a very long story short, I sent my laundry out and had the nicest item of clothing I’d put in it stolen. It was one of those high-tech North Face tops that works as a thermal base layer, wicking away moisture and keeping you warm. The worst part is that I almost didn’t put it in the bag, because I was afraid they’d do something stupid to it (like shrink it). I’d been hand-washing it up until that point to keep it safe, but ultimately decided it needed a good deep clean and that it could survive one round in the dryer. At the last minute, I put it in the bag. Boy, do I regret that now. After repeated in-person conversations, phone calls and emails with both the hostel staff and the laundry company itself… nothing came of it. No one reimbursed me or in any way apologized. I was so frustrated because I really needed that top for the Inca Trail. I hadn’t packed anything else like it and I knew it would be expensive to replace since I’d have to pay full retail prices plus the extra cost of importing the top from the US. There are no local brands of things like that down here.
In the end, I had to rotate wearing the other two long-sleeve tops I’d brought until I bought a replacement in Cuzco. It cost the equivalent of $70 USD, just as I'd feared. That price was actually the end result of fervent haggling that reduced the price by 76 soles (like $25 USD).
For our last two nights in La Paz, we moved back to the Estrelle Andina, which was my pick. It was as relaxing and comfortable as it had been the first night we’d stayed there. I fell in love with the hotel all over again for its comfy beds, delicious breakfast buffet, fast Internet and satellite TV.
We spent much of our time in La Paz shopping. One place in particular turned out to be so great. It was called Artesania Sorata and it’s a clothing and handicraft shop with a strong commitment to fair trade practices. The prices are much higher than what you’d find in the regular Bolivian markets (similar to US prices) but the goods are much better quality. Also, the profits go straight back to the women who made the products, rather than most of it getting lost to the middleman. I fell in love with the tapestries, pillowcases and hats because they were all made from alpaca or hand spun sheep’s wool, with natural dyes that produced more muted colors than I’m used to seeing down here. The woolen goods at the markets usually come in various shades of hideous neon, with harsh black stripes running through the colors and shoddy stitching that looks like it’ll fall apart quickly.
We actually visited Artesania Sorata three times during our stay in La Paz, because the higher prices made us hesitate. Ultimately, we decided our purchases benefited a good cause, and we all fell in love with certain items that we couldn’t bear to leave behind.
I bought an adorable pink and white knit cap with a flower on the side, plus a lavender pillowcase made from baby alpaca wool with a gray tree stitched on it that almost looks Japanese. Shelley bought a rose-colored pillowcase with a different tree on it, and Patti bought a small tapestry in shades of green and gray depicting a scene from Adnean village life.
We also tried to shop at the famous La Paz "Witches’ Market," but we weren’t greeted very kindly there. The market is known for selling all sorts of strange herbs, medicines and natural ingredients that locals use for medicinal and superstitious reasons (like good luck). You could buy everything from cats’ toenails to llama fetuses at the market, which was actually just several streets of small shops. We wanted to look through the crazy items, and maybe even buy a good luck charm or two, but the shopkeepers shooed us out the door.
Despite the rude treatment in the shops, we were allowed to stand on the street and observe a bizarre ritual that took place in the early afternoon. A woman and three men made a small pile of offerings in the middle of the street that included mixed sweets and two dried llama fetuses. Then, they poured rubbing alcohol and beer on the offerings and lit them on fire.
One of the only shopkeepers who would talk to us said that they were blessing the street in an annual ritual designed to bring in good business. (It wasn’t the right time to mention that courtesy towards their customers might bring in better business than burning llama fetuses.) We stuck around to watch for awhile, but the horrible smell drove us away before too long.
As the afternoon turned rainy, we ducked into the Museo de la Coca (Coca Museum). The museum is tucked away in a white house at the back of a pretty stone courtyard, and turned out to be a great way to spend a couple of hours on a rainy day. The front desk gave us thick packets of information containing translations of all of the Spanish captions underneath the photos and exhibits throughout the museum.
The exhibits didn’t seem to follow a logical layout. They skipped around from the coca leaf’s medicinal and ceremonial importance dating to pre-Inca times to growing conditions to modern day cocaine.
Coca is a green leaf that’s a useful antidote to altitude sickness, since it dilates the bronchioles so more oxygen can be absorbed. It's also stabilizes blood sugar and increases physical endurance. In this part of the world, the most popular method of coca leaf consumption is chewing. Most people chew the leaves and leave them in their cheeks for 10 or 15 minutes at a time.
Contrary to popular belief (and many countries’ foreign policies), coca leaves are not drugs. There’s nothing harmful about chewing the raw leaf or drinking the leaves in tea. In fact, Coca Cola still uses a tiny bit of the raw leaves to flavor their soda. The danger arises when people mix the leaves with a whole bunch of nasty chemicals to create cocaine. Because of this, coca leaves, teas, candy, etc. are illegal almost everywhere except Bolivia and Peru. That's a shame given all of the leaves' health benefits and the lack of negative side effects.
By far, the most memorable part of the museum was its use of terrifying mannequins. I don’t know what it is about mannequins down here, but they all have Satanic faces and creepy postures. Every time I pass one in a shop's doorway I jump three feet in the air and probably lose a year off my life. At the Coca Museum, mannequins were used to portray miners (who have historically chewed coca for endurance), soldiers in the war on drugs, and one particularly great rendition of a drug addict watching TV.
Once we’d finished taking illegal pictures of the mannequins (no photos allowed!), we hung out in the lofted café area, drinking coca tea and eating coca cookies. I’ve been drinking the tea every morning at breakfast to help with the altitude. It tastes like green tea and seems to have little effect on me either way, but I figure it can't hurt. The cookies tasted like regular old cookies with chocolate on one side.
On one of our days in La Paz, the girls chose to bike “the world’s most dangerous road.” I opted out due to continued symptoms of altitude sickness and traveler’s tummy troubles. I figured biking the side of a steep cliff was a bad way to test whether or not my dizziness and headache had gone away.
The road earned its gruesome reputation because it used to be a real death trap. It’s narrow - about 3.2 m wide - and unpaved, like most of the roads in Bolivia. On top of that, it's built into the side of the cliff so that one side has a straight drop of up to 600 m. For many years, an average of 26 cars per year went over the cliff, killing everyone inside. In 2007, a straighter road was built at a lower altitude which diverted most of the motor vehicle traffic off of the road. Now, thirty biking companies offer trips down the "death road," and only the occasional private car joins the small group of support vehicles following cyclists down the road. The scenery is beautiful, all lush green mountains, but the potential for danger still exists.
Unfortunately, 15 tourists have died here since cycling the route became popular. A guy went over in 2009, and a few years before, an Israeli girl died when her goggles fogged up and she tried to wipe them off mid-ride, with her sleeve in front of her face. Back in 2001, a girl’s brakes snapped and she, too, went over.
Although I didn’t end up going on this ride, I did tons of research on it, both in-person at the various agencies, online, and in books. Therefore, I feel qualified to give the following advice to anyone contemplating the trip: Use the rule of sushi. That is, you get what you pay for. It’s worth it to invest in a company that won’t urge you to bike faster than you’re comfortable with, that uses very new bikes (because the bumpy roads wreck them quickly) and that employs at least one guide for every six riders. Of course, Latin America is the land of salesmen’s empty promises, so a higher price is only the starting point. It’s important to do your online research and talk to people who have gone on the trips RECENTLY since guides and company reputations can vary drastically from year to year. It’s generally accepted that the best company out there is Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, and the runner up is B-Side.