It’s a weird feeling to be waiting for your baggage at the airport and feel like, as one Remote so aptly described, you just took a huge hit from a hookah. Light-headed, feeling the urge to take a deep breath every 2-3 breaths, kind of dizzy and disoriented… Welcome to La Paz, Bolivia! Altitude: 12,000 feet.
La Paz was one of those destinations I was not looking forward to. It sounded dangerous, not all that charming, and likely to make me sick, whether from the altitude or the food. Seven days later, and I am in love with this city and this country! It’s a place I probably never would have come, and I feel so lucky to be here. Before I get into this week’s highlights, some observations…
Altitude Sickness is a Real Thing
I was extremely anxious about the altitude before arriving. I had read that it can make you really sick, including serious cases like HAPE, which require immediate descent. Coming to La Paz with a cold didn’t help – I already couldn’t breathe.
The days leading up to our departure, I took it really easy, drank a lot of water (probably around 4-6 liters per day), and took ibuprofen twice a day. Once I arrived, I kept up with the water and ibuprofen, and added a nearly constant stream of coca tea (widely available and recommended here in La Paz, as well as in Cusco). I was one of the lucky ones with very mild symptoms. The worst I’ve experienced has been fatigue, a mild persistent headache, and difficulty sleeping. Others have gotten truly sick.
The other crazy thing is how out of breath you feel at high altitude. Walking up even the slightest incline is a challenge. Stairs require stops along the way. I can’t count how many times in the last week I’ve felt myself gulping as much air as my lungs would fit.
Happy to say I’m feeling pretty acclimated at this point (besides the whole out of breath thing), but it has been an unusual experience.
La Paz is So Different from Buenos Aires
I expected the people to look more indigenous. I didn’t expect cholitas, indigenous women with braids, skirts, babies or baggage on their back, and bowler hats, to be everywhere. Not in an ironic touristy sense either.
Another adjustment: Palermo, my neighborhood in Buenos Aires was quiet and almost sleepy during the day. We live in Sopocachi in La Paz, a downtown neighborhood. There are people everywhere, and for some reason, they are always running somewhere (probably to avoid getting hit by the cars, which will make no attempt to stop for pedestrians).
The one thing I’ll say, is the neighborhood we’re staying in doesn’t seem quite as third world as you’d expect. Yes, there are lots of street vendors, cars, pollution and horn honking, but there are also some beautiful plazas, all the brands from home you could ask for, and perfectly decent services – cable cars, for example! I also feel super safe – maybe even more so than Buenos Aires. There is less petty theft, and we don’t go out alone at night.
Oh, and we are normal people here. Rather than going to dinner at 10pm, we go to bed. Yes!
And Now Onto Week 1 in Bolivia (Or, This is The Weirdest, Most Awesome Place Ever)
- Sunday: Travel Day! It was easy to know what line to get into at the airport because of the local Bolivians travelling from Buenos Aires J. Our flights were smooth, as was getting to our hotel. I’m sharing a hotel suite with my first RY friend, Michelle. It’s not the most modern, but comfortable and convenient.
- Monday: Sunset walk to a lookout point over the city – my first time seeing La Paz valley in all its glory, with Illimari Mountain in the background.
- Tuesday: Trip to El Alto, the sister city sitting – you guessed it – on top of the mountains surrounding La Paz. The views were even more spectacular, and riding the cable car up was so much fun!
- Wednesday: Our Welcome Party, at La Costilla bar, aka one of the strangest events of my life. This bar was a collection of random objects, featured two drag queens, a yatiri (shaman) who read our fortunes in coca leaves, a crazy cat, appetizers that included cow heart, and two well-known Bolivian DJ’s with a live trumpeter. WHERE AM I?!
- Thursday: We went to another part of El Alto to check out the market, where I bought my first Bolivian textile. Then, we got on buses and went to Cholitas Wrestling. Indigenous women, wrestling WWE-style. It doesn’t get weirder than that. They wore their skirts and braids and everything! Again, WHERE AM I?!
- Friday: Took a small group to Allkamari, a shire-like eco-lodge 45 minutes outside of the city, to take advantage of the near-perfect stargazing conditions: new moon, no city lights, and Earth passing through the tail of Halley’s Comet. We drank wine, observed how little we are compared to the full Milky Way we were seeing, learned about some new constellations, and laid out on a trampoline sharing stories like we used to in summer camp.
- Saturday: Woke up to the most amazing view from Allkamari, which we missed in the dark on the way there, and spent the morning basking in the view/sun and reading. When we got back to town, I headed to the Witches’ Market, which turned out to be a couple of streets of shops, and bought alaca ponchos. My Bolivian life is now complete.
- Sunday: Tackled Death Road, the most dangerous road in the world, by mountain bike. (A word on this: it was once the most dangerous road due to the tight turns and lack of barriers. Lots of drivers perished in car accidents. Now, it’s a common tourist attraction for bikers and actually sees very little car traffic. This was something that was on my “I will never do this” list until earlier in the week, when I stepped into the #growthzone and signed up. So happy I did.)We traveled about two hours to the start of the path, got fitted with gear, and got on our bikes. The first hour was on paved road, which was easy and awesome – we rode through clouds and took in lush mountain vistas. Once we actually entered Death Road, we were biking on gravel/rocks, biking through rain (because we were IN A CLOUD), and trying to avoid the sides of the road with sheer drops. We ended up biking 40 miles from a height of around 15,000 feet. It was so much fun to take on something new, see amazing scenery along the way, and get the adrenaline pumping. After a well-deserved beer at the end and tending to our one victim (Casey, in our group, fell off her bike and ended up with a fractured collarbone), we headed for lunch at a hotel nearby. We hung out, made Mother’s Day calls (since obviously no one told their mothers what they were doing), and eventually made our way back to La Paz. The drive back was so beautiful. Pink clouds resting on lush green mountains as the sun was setting, open valleys below the cliffs – it was amazing.
And Finally… The Food
This week, I have had Vietnamese, Japanese, Mexican, a sandwich named “New Orleans,” a cobb salad, and no Bolivian food. It’s so bizarre that all these cuisines are widely available here, but it’s really delicious. Coming from the land of no salt/seasoning in Argentina, the spicy and savory meals here have been a treat. Luckily, I am one of the few who has not yet gotten any sort of food-borne illness. Unfortunately, this also means no vegetables (yet).
In the short 7 days I’ve been here, I have to say, Bolivia stole my heart. I don’t know that I’ve ever said “Is this real life?” so often before. For such a little-known place, it has all the potential to be one of the best destinations out there, full of adventure, determined people, and good food. I already love it here, and have done a complete 180 from my fears of arriving. I can’t wait to keep exploring this magical country!