A Week in La Paz

La Paz from El Alto

As I descended from the town of El Alto to the world’s highest capital city, with a view of the harsh climate and towering glaciers above, I couldn’t help but wondering why.  Why did someone put La Paz here?  Perhaps a  more relevant question at the time was why did it take me 24 hours to cross the border to get to this point?

I left Puno, Peru, for the Bolivian border in my normal fashion, completely ignorant to the customs regulations I would encounter.  I sometimes consider purchasing a guidebook to the countries of where I‘m traveling to, but when I encounter guidebook prices equivalent to a three night’s stay in a cheap hotel, I quickly rationalize that a more care-free, unguided voyage is a superior style .  We arrived to the border just an hour before closing time, and once the official flipped open my passport, he sent me to a private office.  That’s usually a sign of a good story… But not this time.

“Your passport, vaccination record, and a 135 bucks,” demanded the impersonal customs officer.

Hearing too many stories of corrupt customs officers, I called his bluff.  “I don’t think so,” I said in my cocky bastard voice.

“Fine then, go back to Peru.”  And so I did.

The officer wasn’t bluffing at all.  Two years ago, our beloved ally Evo Morales reciprocated the same visa fees that foreigners pay to enter the states.  And as a result, we statesers (BTW, I avoid the word Americans) have to pay one hundred bucks to cross the border into Bolivia.

On the surface, it seems like a fair exchange, but when I realized why these fees were put into place, I justified my right to be bitter.  In the U.S. there is a great deal of processing that goes into visas, in an effort to police illegal immigration.  In Bolivia, this is not the case.  The only cost at the immigration office is the ink to stamp your passports, and in an instant Evo walks away with 100 bucks and a slap in the face of every United States backpacker.  Sadly his new regulations hurt the wallets of both U.S. travelers and Bolivians.  Bolivia should be recruiting tourism to fuel their economy, not turning it away.  Strapped for cash, I contemplated skipping Bolivia altogether and going directly to Chile, but soon remembered that I had a volunteer commitment in the interior (that caps off the irony of it all).   Watching my fellow travelers from Europe, Canada, and Mexico breeze through customs with a quick stamp of a passport made the four hour ride back to Puno to retrieve cash even more grueling.  I was a little mad at everyone, the U.S. government, Bolivia, and all the other countries that hinder travel across borders for anyone.

Take 2.  With a freshly loaded wallet, I awoke in Puno at five to catch the first collectivo to the closer Desaguadero border.  Three hours later, I arrived to the most chaotic border crossing I had ever seen.  Thousands, and I mean thousands, were waiting to cross.  Apparently there was a “feria” across the border that day, and all the local Peruvians were trying to get across to sell their goodies.  Some had been waiting in line for five hours.  This was not my day to cross here, so I grabbed a bus back to the interior, and then another to the border at Copacabana.  I arrived to La Paz, 24 hours behind schedule.  Thankfully, the city welcomed me with a phenomenal view.

Plaza San Pedro with the infamous San Pedro Prison in the Background

Everything about La Paz is just a little bit different from the rest of South America, including the altitude (it is the highest capital in the world), the wild drivers, the witch markets, and disheartening gap between the rich and the poor.  One might remark that these qualities pervade all of South America, but La Paz ups the ante.  One block from my hotel, lay the infamous San Pedro prison.  It’s well known among travelers because tours used to be available through this quirky confinement.  Prisoners here are mostly held on drug trafficking charges and actually use their riches to rent “upscale” apartments in the penitentiary.  They often live with their children, and the living quarters are completely governed by the prisoners.  That means that guards rarely actually enter the prison space.  Tourists report a different world inside the prison, and supposedly its prisoners produce the highest quality cocaine in all of Bolivia.

Tours of San Pedro were never legal, but were never turned away by the corrupt guards out front either.  That is,  until spring of last year when some mad tourists decided to post their tour on YouTube  (check it out here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpPhwmgWok8 ).  Following the videos, tourists showed up in the hundreds, and an embarrassed government quickly fired all the guards and shut the tours down.  Such a blow to the inner prison’s economy fueled a rebellion inside the prison in the days following.  Apparently tours can still be arranged, but when I talked to some prisoners near the entrance, I was immediately met by the guards outside, who yelled “go!.”  I decided not to push it, as I figured all the money for the tour probably contributes toward drug addictions anyhow.  In the next year, San Pedro Prison will become even more famous, as Brad Pitt will be starring in a film based on the life inside, a story documented in the well-written book, Marching Powder.

International School in Bolivia

On my third day in La Paz, a local superintendent of an international school invited me for lunch.  He didn’t have any job openings for me but was intrigued by my resume and by my travels.  As it turned out, he used to live a life quite similar to mine and we spent the next hours discussing life decisions in the restaurant of a five-star hotel.  The best piece of advice he gave me:  “Don’t stress over the little things.”  I knew what he meant as this is something I still do, and now I’m trying to do it less.  I was so floored by this man’s generosity and willingness to share his time with me.   We toured his school, the neighborhood, and a local park, and he vowed to stay in touch about future job opportunities around the world.

In Valle de La Luna, right outside of the city

Since I was already acclimatized to 12,300 feet, I figured I might as well bag one of the nearby peaks.  Huayna Potosi (20,000 feet) was the standard for newbies to the area, and I deemed it to be a safe solo as well.  What I didn’t realize was how many tourists would be on this mountain.  Hordes of agencies in La Paz tout guided 3-day summit attempts of Potosi for travelers who have never even tried on crampons before.  They typically arrive in packs of 3-10 at the base camp, where they spend an entire day learning how to put on equipment  On day 2 they hike up to the higher refuge, where their guide pampers and feeds them.  And then on day 3 the guide wakes them up at midnight and drags them to the summit (in many cases, quite literally).

I had the luck of sleeping in a 16,000 foot-high hut with 30 of these such tourists, one of which was a group of 12 Israelis.  I hate to say this and no offense to my friends there, but Israelis have stolen the U.S. reputation as the world’s loudest tourists.  Many come out of the army and travel in large groups in Latin America, book guided trips and dominate destination areas.  And the tourist agencies hate it.   I feel funny writing this, but  I do have to say that Tel Aviv would now make my list of top destinations for a party destination.

I awoke at midnight to 30 people looking for their headlamps, bumping into each other, and trying to figure out whose crampons belonged to who.  This went on for 2 hours.  I eventually conceded to the fact that I wasn’t going to sleep and went outside to have a look.  Snow was flying and visibility was limited to about 15 feet.  Common sense told me that I would not be climbing this thing anytime soon.  Apparently there was a shouting match between a guide and his clients who insisted on attempting the summit that day.  I saw about 20 tourists march out of the refuge in their full gore-tex body suits and soon disappear into the fog.  I felt like I was watching the making of the “Into Thin Air” disaster on Everest .  As one group led the rally cry of  “No peace in Palestine!” as they walked onto the glacier (I am not joking…surreal moment) , I faded to sleep once more.

I did end up summitting that day.  The skies cleared at five in the morning, and I enjoyed a challenging solo climb, encountering some slightly technical sections that were a bit spicy.  I encountered one guided group stuck on steep icy section, which I dubbed the “Hilary Step” (aka the last challenging section of Everest) for it caused a bottleneck of screaming tourists.  One group took more than 30 minutes to climb just five meters!   In another mixed section up high, the Bolivian guides were actually short-roping and pulling their clients up the steep bit.  This was a wonderful climb, challenging mostly for the altitude, with a dramatic summit ridge.  My experience up there that day confirmed for that me never want to be a mountain guide.

A few days later, I was off to the miserable town of Oruro and then onward to the pleasant city of Cochabamba.

Israelis stuck on the Hillary Step

Near the summit of Huayna Potosi

On the Summit of Huayna Potosi, 20,000 feet above sea level


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