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South America: Bolivia

Delving into and Discovering La Paz

by Gwynne Hogan

La Paz, the world’s highest capital city, teeters along the edges of an exquisite valley at 3660 meters above sea level. La Paz’s colonial structures perch along streets that approach being vertical, while the horizon behind them is jagged with stark, snow- capped peaks. Despite its altitude, Bolivia’s capital teems with energy and activity.Sprawling street markets, curving colonial alleys, brightly colored buildings, and majestic plazas make it a superb location for exploring.

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Take your time in La Paz, the altitude will have you huffing and puffing if you try to rush it (and will probably have you huffing and puffing even if you don’t). A good place to start your La Paz adventure is perhaps the most touristic section, but worth it regardless. Along the streets Murillo and nearby Linares, you’ll find the cities concentration of traditional artesian goods. Soft wooly sweaters, trendy leather bags, funky embroidered boots, and traditional andean instruments explode out of street stalls and from the insides of shops. If your making a multi-country journey, La Paz is a good place to stock up on souvenirs and gifts seeing as Bolivia produces most of the goods you’ll find in nearby Peru, Chile, and Argentina.

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The most unique part of this area is between streets Santa Cruz and Saganarga where you’ll encounter the Witches Market (Mercado de Hechiceria). More than witchcraft, you’ll find a concentration of herbal and spiritual remedies for diverse occasions and ailments. The freeze-dried llama fetuses and a do-it-yourself colonoscopy kit are some highlights. From here wander west, or up hill and you’ll be in the thick of more authentic, street markets where locals go for food stuffs, supplies and everyday clothing.

Sunday afternoons are an exciting time in la Paz thanks to Cholita Wrestling. Every week, a host of different arenas in El Alto (a nearby suburb), host wrestling matches. Theatrics, fake punches, and ridiculous costumes abound make these matches quite a spectacle. The really interesting part of these matches, however, is that cholitas, women in traditional dress, participate. Despite their dainty shoes, layer- caked petticoats, silky shawls and precarious bowler hats, these feisty ladies manage to push the men around.

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Before leaving this marvelous city, peak into a few of its quirky and cheap museums. Along Jaen Street is a good place to start. Here you can buy a joint ticket to four different museums along this flamboyantly-painted, colonial avenue. Don’t worry, its only 4 Bolivianos in total (40 US cents). Each one of these museums presents a different collection of ancient artifacts, gold work, colonial furniture and faded maps. The truly wonderful Museo de Etnografia and Folklore a few blocks from there is worth
the extra investment (15 Bolivianos or 2 US). This expansive complex filling a whole square city block, showcases everything from modern art to traditional ceramics. The traditional masks and headdresses made from tropical bird feathers are particularly memorable.

To read more from Gwynne Hogan check out her own blog

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