La Paz

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La Paz is the seat of government for Bolivia. Sucre which was built earlier is the constitutional capital.

We spent 3 nights in La Paz. We were booked into Hotel Europa which is well located in the centre of la Paz and within walking distance of city centre attractions.This is a large modern hotel with large and very comfortable rooms and oxygen was available if requested. Euro Bistro Cafe on the ground floor serves good value meals all day.

There are safety concerns about La Paz. We were warned not to wear expensive jewellery, watches or carry money or passports while we were out. We were also warned about using taxis hailed on the street, not allowing anyone else in the taxi with us and ignoring anyone who stopped us saying he was police and insisting on seeing our passports. The tourist guides have warnings of tourists being kidnapped and not released until after they have withdrawn large sums of money from an ATM and worse still being killed.

In fact we experienced no problems in the areas we walked, but there were always plenty of people around. We did not go out after dark.

La Paz is built along the bottom of a steep canyon and side streets climb steeply from El Prado. At 3660m these challenge the lungs.

The older parts of the town are very congested with narrow streets and lots of traffic. Parts have become very run down with a lot of graffiti. People with money have moved to the outskirts of the town where there is more space to build big and expensive houses.

The houses on Calle Jean have been restored to their former glory and give an idea of what La Paz was and still could be like. It is a narrow cobbled street lined with colonial period houses with wooden balconies, red-tiled roofs and carved stone doorways opening onto quiet courtyards. These had been the houses of wealthy Spanish who moved to the outskirts of La Paz once electricity arrived. Over the years the houses had become very run down and uncared for but have now been restored and newly painted. Many are museums. These were shut when we visited so we just walked down the street and looked into the courtyards.It is quite difficult to photograph as the sun throws deep shadows. If in the area it is well worth taking a few minutes to walk down and enjoy the buildings

El Prado is the main thoroughfare running along the bottom of the canyon. Narrow streets run uphill off it. It is a wide street with gardens, trees and seats and lined with large houses. It was bumper to bumper with traffic crawling along El Prado and cars from the side roads trying to push their way in. There was lots of hooting of horns to try and speed things up.

There were small stalls set up along the pavement all selling the same things – fizz, sweets, biscuits. There are no rents charged and stall holders can set up anywhere. Most begin with a push barrow, progressing to a more permanent stall once they become established and later on to a proper shop with living accommodation above.

At the top of El Prado is Plaza San Francisco, which is a huge open space lined with stalls selling flowers and busy with back packers. The Witch’s Market is in the rabbit warren of streets behind it.

Iglesia San Francisco on one side of the Plaza has been described as the most beautiful church in La Paz. Most of the building is late 18thC financed by donations from mine owners after the earlier building collapsed under heavy snowfall. They certainly spent their money well.

It has a richly carved mestizo-Baroque facade with a statue of St Francis above the door. It is only open for mass and photographs are not allowed inside the church. The inside is huge with solid square pillars with Saints standing on pedestals with rounded arches above. The side walls are lined with large carved altars covered with gold leaf.

Plaza Murillo is above El Prado and is a delightful square with formal gardens, seats and statue of President Gualberto Villarroel who was dragged from the palace by vigilantes and hanged from a lamp post in square. There were lots of shoe shine boys around. They were probably mid teens and many were wearing a balaclava hiding their face. It seems as if it is not fashionable in La Paz to earn money by cleaning shoes. Many of the boys were embarrassed to be seen doing this and didn’t want to be recognised by friends.

The Plaza is surrounded by the Cathedral, Palacio Consistorial and Congresso as well as many old family houses which had been splendid in their time but were now dilapidated and run down. The square is always busy with people and is a pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by.

We had a quick visit into the Cathedral, which was open for mass. It is plain inside compared with many Bolivian Churches. It is built from big slabs of grey stone and solid grey pillars. There is little gold leaf or large decorated altars.

Outside to the left of the cathedral is the Tomb of Santa Cruz guarded by two soldiers in red coats which dated from the War of Independence. We were told the history of Santa Cruz (at great length). He was quite a kiddy.

The Museo de etnografia y Folklore is a short walk from Plaza Murilla in an 18thC colonial mansion built for the Marques de Villaverde. Entry was through a door off the street into a splendid courtyard with wooden balconies running along the street side and a huge stone staircase on the opposite side. Even if you don’t visit the museum, it is worth looking through the doorway to admire the courtyard.

Most of the museum is in a large and very elegant modern building built onto the courtyard. There wasn’t a lot in it, especially on the ground floor which had a few modern woven capes. Downstairs was a comprehensive display of coins some beautiful gold and silver coins and bank notes. Upstairs were pottery and feather head dresses (some marvellous examples but unfortunately no English). There was a display of masks in a dark room but as the lights kept going on and off we decided to miss this.

In the older part of the building there was a good display of different textiles with examples of Tarabuco and Jalq’a designs. Some were out on display with many more in drawers underneath.

The Jalq’a textiles come from around the Potolo valley and their weaving is alway red and black, although different shades of red including purple may be used. The material is covered with different designs of all shapes and sizes. Every piece is different. Many designs are inspired by dreams often fuelled by the use of hallucinogenic drugs. There is no written record of the different patterns. All are done from memory and passed down from mother to daughter.

Tarabuco designs are quite different. They are arranged in bands along the length of the fabric. The background is always white. Some bands are quite narrow with a single woven figure or bird, others are wider. The most stunning designs were in blues, turquoises and blacks. The different patterns all have names but their origins are lost in antiquity.

Iglesia San Domingo is close by and is open for weddings on Saturdays. Outside there were stalls selling white petals which are used instead of confetti. The Bride (dressed in white) was given a small tiara as she entered. The inside of the church was beautiful but very different to what we had seen elsewhere as it was built later than the other churches and the outside was not as elaborately carved. The inside felt light and airy as it was built using pale stone. The altar was white and the square pillars painted white. It was decorated with lots of white flowers for the weddings.

La Paz is big and bustling. We enjoyed it more than we expected.

We visited La Paz as part of a trip through Bolivia. I wrote an overview of the trip which can be read here:

The pictures we took in La PAz can be seen here:

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