Honestly, this trip is not for everyone. In Bolivia, consider that altitude will be your constant travel companion. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world (3,700 m.), Lake Titikaka is the highest navigable lake (4,000 m.) and Potosí, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one the highest cities (4,090 m.). If all this does not scare you, welcome to a challenge. The first prize is to find yourself having to travel in time. This is a bittersweet story of a whole rainbow of feelings, from sheer joy to deep, hopeless pain and sympathy. I met the contrasts of reality and counted my blessings.
There are many different ways to arrive in La Paz, Bolivia, but none of them beats my way! I started in the Northern city of Arica, Chile and an 8-hour bus ride elevated me in a few hours, from sea level to crossing Andes mountains touching the clouds at 4,700 meters. I confess I have never taken so many photos in a single bus ride as I did that day because the landscape was changing dramatically every few hundred meters! Leaving the Pacific, we crossed giant dunes and fertile valleys, rising little by little, we crossed the Atacama and its solitudes to reach Putre village at 3,550 m. and kept going up along a winding road that gave a new meaning to the expression “bird-eye view”! After 5 hours we reached the stunning Chungará lake by the Pomerape and Parinacota volcanoes. A breathtaking, wow place we only see in postcards or documentaries.
I remember feeling dizzy, dragging my suitcase to the customs office. Going from 0 to 4,700 meters in just a few hours is a real challenge for a coastal dweller! Was it the spectacular wonder of nature or the thin air that kept my heart pounding so fast? A few meters away Tambo Quemado customs office announced “Bienvenido a Bolivia”! The road mesmerized me at every single meter! God had poured some watercolor over the mountains and little llamas received us all dressed up with colorful woolen ornaments!
In the early evening, I saw in the distance the majestic Inti mountain with its giant white crown, proudly guarding the city of La Paz which kneels down at its feet. I had never seen a city with endless, cluttered, orange brick buildings, laying so close together, as if there was no more room in the world. The skyline was abruptly interrupted by huge cathedral domes, tall, pointy towers, and crosses from ancient colonial times. Our bus started descending. It sounds ironic to “descend” to 3,700 meters to reach La Paz.
Bolivia is the cheapest country to tour I have ever encountered and that is great. This exotic destination has so much to offer the traveler! Nature in its splendor, ancient history, and archaeological sites all abound. One can see the way people live in the Andean highlands, by Lake Titikaka or in the Bolivian Amazon jungle with the Jesuit Missions ruins, silent testimony of the selfless priest who came to this new world 300 years ago and tried to make a difference.
Bolivia is rich in architecture because 500 years ago the Spanish set their greedy eyes on its richness and left impressive buildings and hundreds of exquisite churches in exchange for all the gold and silver that made this nation a wealthy one. It is said that the Spanish could have constructed a silver bridge to Spain and still had Bolivian silver left to carry across it! While walking up and down the entangled stoned streets I get the feeling of a country that still has a bleeding wound made by an undeserved history. I am an alien in a new world where nothing is familiar. People are different, dress differently and speak my own language with an unfamiliar melody. They are so nice, so respectful. They live life with a different rhythm, a slower pace. I loved them all!
My attention was strongly drawn to a short, squalid woman who barely walked under the weight of her 2-year-old twins she is carrying on her back, wrapped in a colorful manta. She looked so tired and aching as she tried to make her way. A tourist started flashing a camera half a meter away from her face. The poor lady tried to stop the flashes like someone tries to stop a hunter’s bullets but she could barely move under the weight of her not-so-small babies! How can people be so disrespectful?! I saw an old man who was walking slowly, his back bent under a big bundle of wood and when he reached me he said: “Watch out how you reach old age”! He blew my mind with his statement, so true, so moving!
I struggled to cross the streets; despite being a capital city, very few traffic lights really worked! I walked, seeing different scenes from the past. I saw an old woman kneeling down on the sidewalk selling grapes and she held this ancient balance with a piece of iron. She put the iron on one side and grapes on the other to make it rather even. There are women cooking on the streets, frying, stirring, wrapping food in big green leaves. The smell from the pans floods the street and people are drawn to this scent like moths to the light. Street vendors take over the sidewalks and fight with the cars for some more territory. Products, vendors, clients and cars, they all mix with the smell of the snacks and the sound of the horns and create this unreal world which I found, at the same time, chaotic and enchanting.
In La Paz, do not forget to visit the one-of-a-kind Witches Market. You have not seen anything like this! Walk slowly along with blocks of shops and stands with the most incredible products: dead frogs, llama fetuses, stuffed armadillos, essences, stones, herbs, and other things (?), each of them with a certain purpose. If you want to attract the money you need to do this… if you want to find true love, you need to do that… and if you do it right and if you do it with faith, the Pachamama will grant your wish!
Do not miss enjoying the many different folk dances. Between Charangos and Pan flutes, you will discover how much Bolivians love their land and the richness of their culture. I took my chances with folk dancing one forgetful night; after the show, one of the dancers invited me to join him in a merry melody. I went on stage with him just to be reminded, after a minute, that I was at 3,700 meters above sea level! The expression “shortness of breath” is not enough to describe how I felt! I think it was more of a “lack of breath”! As I said in the beginning, keep Altitude in mind!
Mandatory is a visit to The Gold Museum and the small but stunning Bolivian Moon Valley. Feed the pigeons at the main square after admiring the ancient cathedral and the Government Palace. Visit the high lookout with an imposing, triumphal arch and enjoy the breathtaking city view. All this was part of the cheapest, private, city tour I have ever taken in my life!
Traveling is all about falling in love with a new place, landscape, history, people, a different worldview, and learning from it. Falling in love with the chaos I find in some places and with the peace, I find in others. Every time I am a different person because a part of me simply stays there and refuses to leave. On that, my first trip, Bolivia definitely kept more than a little piece of my heart and calls me back again.