Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Days 288 to 291: Wonderful La Paz

We'd heard only bad things about La Paz. Over the last month, meeting other travellers and discussing with them past journeys and future plans, every time the name of La Paz had come up, it was accompanied with something like "it was a bit of a dump". The best we'd heard was in Arequipa from an English girl, who seemingly despised all of Bolivia. La Paz, she said, wasn't quite as bad as the rest of it. La Paz was not coming with ringing endorsements.

So why did we decide to go there? Probably, it was more Danielle's decision than mine - I'd have happily gone direct into Chile. But it was only a minor detour, and the Lonely Planet said that the bus station was designed by Gustave Eiffel. After seeing Eiffel's staircase in Arequipa, this was enough to convince me.

It was at this bus station we arrived, late afternoon, after a slightly ridiculous journey from Puno, which involved at one point everyone getting out of the bus, watching the bus cross part of Lake Titicaca on a raft, then getting ferried across ourselves. I wonder how many buses they lose every year.

After about nine hours, the bus found itself stuck in heavy traffic. From the endless stretch of ramshackle, near derelict, buildings all around, it was evident we had reached La Paz. Wow, I thought, this really is a dump. Dirty, muddy roads, a charmless sprawl of broken buildings, and insanely congested traffic which consisted mostly of colectivo minibuses. At any point, I expected the bus to stop and we'd get off, stepping into the void. But then something happened.

That's not actually my photo, I've borrowed it from Wikipedia as I was on the wrong side of the bus to take one. The moment came after about half an hour stuck in traffic: we rounded a corner and went through a gateway that, to my surprise, said "Welcome to La Paz". And then it came, the reveal. A number of people in the bus audibly gasped, myself included. We were on the crest of a ridge, driving down, and to the side was La Paz. A basin in a ring of dramatic mountains, it went on forever, a crazy mess of insanity haphazardly spread across the basin and right up the sides. Rocks and cliffs too sheer for even Bolivians to build upon speckled the scene. It turned out we had been driving through the satellite city of El Alto (literally "The Heights"). Now we were in the real La Paz. As an introduction to a city, I can think of no greater one I've ever experienced.

Things then took a bit of a detour.

Poor La Paz, how we neglected you. Upon arriving, we went for a very short wander, and liked what we saw, but then other issues got in the way. Namely drinking. Our recent weeks in Peru had been enjoyable, but not necessarily very social. That's fine for me, as at heart I'm a miserable recluse who prefers to scowl at other travellers, especially those with funny hairstyles or wearing stripy pyjama-like trousers (seriously, the latter are ubiquitous and astonishingly stupid - but I'll save this rant for another day). But Danielle is much more social, and in Arequipa got a little frustrated with the other travellers in our hostel being, well, a shade unfriendly. Mostly French or German, they hung about in compact cliquey groups and resisted much in the way of friendly chat. Danielle began wondering, what's wrong with me? Nothing, of course, some hostels at some times just happen to be more friendly than others. But with her craving some company beyond me (how can that be?) I decided to remedy the situation. And in La Paz, on our first night, we opted to stay in a party hostel.

A party hostel is pretty self-explanatory. Before these travels, I'd not consciously been aware of the term, but was aware of the concept. A dorm-based hostel with a bar, filled with young people, it is something I usually stay well clear of. Imagine a holiday in Ibiza or a garish Greek island, but condensed into a single hostel. Ghastly, noisy, tacky, uncouth... and actually quite fun...

Ours was the Wild Rover Hotel, an Irish-themed hostel if you can imagine such a thing. It was horrendous, but I can only praise it. It was done very well. The dorms were very comfortable, the food was excellent, the drinks were cheap and could be put on a tab, and the atmosphere suitable wild. The toilets were impressively clean despite the hostel-goers best efforts. Upon arriving, we were "tagged", a wristband with your name and bed number, becoming party hostel cattle, but no doubt it was a practical system (it allowed for food and drink to be put on a tab). My bed also had someone fast asleep it in. Inexplicably, he'd wrongly chosen a top bunk next to the light rather than his bottom bunk out of the light. I was happy to swap.

That evening and night, then, Danielle and I got drunk. Really drunk. The bar was heaving, packed with revelling youth, and a DJ spinning the kind of hip-pop-tat you'd expect. Bartenders, all drunk, jumped on bar and poured shots down people's mouths. We spoke to loads of people, had a good laugh, played the most diabolical pool I've ever played against diabolical opposition, and poured cheap beer and very cheap White Russians down my throat. Someone we'd met had been staying in the hostel a week, and had described it as nothing he'd ever seen before. Drugs, sex, vast amounts of vomit and incessant debauched youth being as truly disgusting as youth can be. I'm not even going to pretend its just the modern youth. All youth for time immemorial have been disgusting. Just in this case they were all packed into a single hostel in Bolivia.

The next morning, hell, the next day, doesn't need much description. It was awful. I'm not a youth, I'm a 35-year-old married man, and I can't handle the pace any more. Danielle was even worse, barely a shadow of a human. We were only - oh, thank God - booked in for the single night, and it took all my efforts to rouse Danielle and get ourselves checked out. We checked into another party hostel, the appallingly-named Adventure Brew Hostel, but this one much more sedate, and with private rooms and bathrooms. Danielle spent till about seven in the evening in a state of dreadful despair, claiming its the worst she's felt in years. She wouldn't wish her hangover on anyone, she said in a moment of lucidity, although when I pressed her on this she did manage to think of someone. It's not for me to reveal, so instead I'll reveal who I wish all my worst feelings upon: Jay Kay of Jamiroquai. Oh, how I despise him.

By the evening, we'd got our strength back, and actually enjoyed some more socialising and drinking in the hostel's terrific rooftop bar. But it was much more civilised, and much more my level.

This all meant that it wasn't until our third day that we actually managed to explore La Paz in any meaningful way. Sorry La Paz. But to make up for it, despite all the bad things we'd heard, we both thoroughly enjoyed exploring it. In fact, I can say without doubt that La Paz has been our favourite city so far.

Why? What is it about La Paz? After all, it's a heavily traffic-congested city with a strong reputation of danger. It's dirty, it's noisy, it's exhausting, it's chaotic, it's poor. It has almost nothing in the way of attractive landmarks. But wow, La Paz is great. All these supposedly negative things - they somehow work in its favour. It's all bustling mayhem that defies any kind of order, and it's a thrill just to walk around its streets.

For me, the layout of La Paz is what makes it. This is not a city to a grid plan. It is all over the place. Everything is on a slope. Nothing has been planned, it's just arisen. La Paz doesn't really go in for green spaces, but what small parks there are appear to be well kept and are small oases of (slight) calm. La Paz is higgledy-piggledy, all bits and pieces, a city that has been picked up, shaken very thoroughly, and then spilled across mountains. Wherever you are in the city, a dramatic peak can be seen. It's very scenic. And the buildings... sure, this is no Rome, but they contribute very well to Laz Paz's ramshackle charm. A mixture of battered old colonial, battered tower blocks, battered modern monstrosities, battered brick cubes, and a few sleek glass towers, La Paz is utterly incoherent and wonderful. It's a bit like meeting a town drunk, covered in his own filth, barely able to speak, but then discovering he's actually a hilarious, terrific, fascinating guy that you want to meet and buy drinks for every night.

We took a free tour (as ever, free plus tips), which was excellent and very much contributed to our enjoyment of the city. Bolivia's government over the last two centuries is every bit as chaotic as La Paz, with an endless series of coups and fiascos. One leader, in 1870, upon hearing that Prussia was attacking Paris, decided to send his army to defend Paris, simply because he liked the sound of it. Thousands of men marched to the then-Bolivian coast (now Chilean), only to realise they only had three boats. They turned round, and started to march through Brazil, hacking their way through rainforest, until the military minister got fed up with it and ousted the leader in a coup. The deposed leader fled to Cusco, where he fell in love with a prostitute before getting shot by her brother the following year.

As far as sight-seeing goes, aside from just enjoying the splendid chaos, La Paz has various markets, a fine cathedral, Eiffel's bus station (if you like that kind of thing), and, ok, it doesn't have that much. But it doesn't need it. I found La Paz a sight in itself. Certainly, it's not to everyone's taste, but neither is Stilton. And give me Stilton over Dairylea any day,

On our final full day in La Paz, Danielle went to a Spanish course for the morning, and we met for lunch and more wandering. We took lunch in the monstrous concrete market next to the 16th Century cathedral - oh, La Paz! Lunch was cheap and fresh and very tasty, and I followed it with a drink as monstrous as the market - the "Super Vitimanico". It contains every fruit known to man and is sprinkled with sugar puffs.

I'll be honest, if we didn't have a flight booked from Santiago to Easter Island on the 19th January, we'd happily have stayed longer in La Paz. There's plenty of stuff to do in the surrounding area, including Death Road and Tiwanaku, not to mention just the fun of exploring the city. Our hostel even offered free accommodation, food and drink for volunteer barstaff. In a different world, I think we might have stayed a while.

But like a holiday romance, sometimes it's best to keep things short and sweet, and the memories golden. La Paz, as other travellers have told us, is a dump. I agree. But it's one of the most fantastic dumps I've visited.

Arica, Chile is next.

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