First Impressions

The mere sight of La Paz sent me thinking once again like a soldier.

“This city is indefensible. A force of one hundred could lay siege to it.”

Like multisided dice hurled onto a table, La Paz consists of a stylistic smorgasbord of buildings arrayed upon the landscape in chaos. The city begins at the high and level plain of El Alto and continues straight down into a deep pit, as though its denizens fear nothing more than the sun. Or perhaps, given La Paz’s chilly high altitude setting, they seek the warmth of the Earth’s core. Few roads climb from the depths of La Pit up to El Alto, affording paceños scant routes of escape from their nearly subterranean city.

La Fiesta del Gran Poder

Despite La Paz’s everyday congestion, the city closes several streets throughout the months of May and June for an annual celebration called la Fiesta del Gran Poder. Translated to English, this means the Festival of the Great Power, where the “Great Power” refers, of course, to Jesus.

It sounds full-frontal christian, but the fiesta has some pleasantly subversive roots. In the early 17th century, a young nun named Genoveva Carrión donated an anonymous and controversial painting to the city of La Paz. The painting proved controversial for two reasons. First off, it depicted a human representation of the Holy Trinity, which was then forbidden by the Catholic church. Secondly, the trinity in this case had been painted with mestizo features, which was frowned upon by the ruling white minority (on a depressing side note, little has changed regarding this ruling minority in 400 years).

The indigenous Aymara residents of La Paz, however, loved this painting to such a degree that not only did they venerate it as a potential wish granting source, but they began a tradition of holding a festival centered around it, through which they succeeded in disguising many indigenous traditions under christian trappings. Four hundred years on, these native traditions live on under the same trappings, even while christianity has become the dominant religion.

Dancing Zebras

After seeing a half dozen people dressed as zebras dancing on street corners, we began to suspect that something was afoot.

The zebras embody yet another interesting history. Prior to 2001, paceños had fatal misunderstandings regarding zebra crossing (note to Americans: these are what much of the rest of English-speaking world call crosswalks). As part of a public education campaign, the city hired people to dress as zebras and call attention to the crossings.

The ongoing campaign has shown mixed results. Some drivers, enraged at being hindered from exercising their god-given right to trample all traffic laws as they see fit by kids in zebra costumes, have resorted to man-on-zebra violence. Perhaps a more effective mascot would have been an angry American wearing nothing but an automatic rife and a tattoo of the Second Amendment.

Siege

My initial assessment of La Paz came back to haunt me the morning that we attempted to drive to the famous Uyuni salt flats. Our GPS led us up a street so steep that I literally had to weave to maintain traction on the road. The speedometer read zero. At the summit, a group of the elderly manned a makeshift roadblock in protest of a new law that sought (in very broad strokes) to bring order to La Paz’s sprawling hillside barrios, which frequently consist of hastily built shanties not subject to any form of oversight.

Our attempts to bribe our way past the blockade having failed, we spent the rest of the morning driving through the city on a journey of discovery. This day’s discovery was that literally all access routes to the city were blocked and that the police simply could not be bothered.

An AirBnb host later told us that protests are so common in Bolivia that paceños once took to the streets in outrage over a new time slot for The Simpsons. We chuckled at the image before learning that this actually happened.

Street Food

Like any good ambush, I never saw this one coming. I had wanted to try some typical paceña street food and found a vendor selling Bolivia’s most iconic culinary item: the salteña. Much like an empanada, the salteña is a hand-sized pastry with an outer shell of fried dough. Unlike an empanada, the salteña dough is sweet because Bolivians regard anything without sugar as a crime against God and all things good in the world.

I took a bite, focusing exclusively on the contents of my hand. Pain hit me from all sides. I became immediately disoriented. My breath caught in my throat.

I discovered in that moment that the salteña’s resemblance to an empanada is mere camouflage. Whatever you think is inside them, stop. You’re applying logic, which won’t work here. Inside a salteña awaits hot soup, which at that moment had burned through the outer layers of my fingers, tongue and palate and clung to my shirt and pants in a steaming, unpleasant mess.

La Paz from El Alto.

Another Bolivian empanada look-alike is called a tucumana. What makes a tucumana different from an empanada? Nothing. They are literally just empanadas with another name, although not all Bolivians accept this truth, as exemplified in our interaction with a street vendor.

“Can I have an empanada?”

“I don’t understand you.”

“I’d like an empanada, please.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“You have two empanadas on the second shelf of your display case. I’d like to buy one.”

“I don’t sell empanadas. I sell tucumanas.”

The World’s Highest, Driest Ski Resort

Just outside La Paz’s confines, sits a mountain called Chacaltaya. Once known as the world’s highest ski resort, Chacaltaya fell early victim to Bolivia’s climate woes. As average yearly temperatures rose and winters became steadily drier, snow stopped falling on Chacaltaya’s slopes.

The mountain remains a popular weekend getaway for families, but the resort now lies abandoned, a silent witness to Bolivia’s worsening water situation. Despite the locale’s grim history, the views made for a stunning first impression of Bolivia for our friends Annie and Don, who had flown in to travel to Uyuni with us.

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