A large, friendly zebra carefully took the hand of a small child before looking both ways along a hectic main road. Then, calmly and upright, the pair began to cross to the backdrop of angry horns and revving engines. Once safe, the animal left the child and turned to repeat the process with someone else.
This safer roads campaign was of course, led by willing volunteers who donned their striped suit to help not just a good, but necessary cause. Bolivia’s capital was huge and the roads packed. The edge of the main square met a vast urban sprawl that didn’t stop until it hit the distant snow capped mountains. After weeks in desert campsites and tiny towns, it felt good to be back in a large city.
If you ever find yourself with a few days to fill in the world’s highest capital city, here are some suggestions:
This central square where the zebras hung out was a great place to people watch. The city’s heart beat from here, with friends and copious pigeons congregating around the fountain and vehicles of all shapes and sizes swirling around the circumference. Market stalls are everywhere and daily life takes place at quite a pace. I gave into some fried chicken – the Bolivian version of KFC – and was pleased to see that the locals also enjoyed the whole roast bird and a drink for less than £1.50!
A Coca Museum
La Paz is at an altitude of more than 3,600m. Luckily, I didn’t suffer from altitude sickness once on my journey, but I partly owe that to the humble coca leaf. Throughout the Inca Trail, I chewed the leaves in the back of my mouth for hours on end, and eventually became accustomed to the taste.
What better way to celebrate being in the worlds’ highest capital than learning more about this plant? The coca crops of Bolivia remain a contentious political issue and various schemes provide farmers with financial incentives for abandoning their crops. However good or bad, this humble plant remains an important part of Bolivian culture and indeed, its economy.
The Witches Markets
This isn’t where you buy a little something for lunch. La Hechiceria is a market run by witch doctors that sells all manner of potions and spell ingredients. There are recipes for everything from infertility, to the common cold. Probably the most iconic images that come out of the witches market are the baskets of baby llama foetuses, normally used by families as an offering to the gods.
San Pedro Prison
Rusty Young’s Marching Powder talks about life in San Pedro. Now world famous for being a society within a society, prison inmates hold jobs, wander its internal streets and form a hierarchy that mirrors the city outside its walls. If the book’s account is to be believed, it’s underground laboratories also produce a significant percentage of the country’s cocaine.
Just as oddly, visitors can now donate food and goods to the prison guards at the gates to get a guided tour of the prison.
Cycling Death Road
This excursion isn’t for the faint hearted and I politely declined. The road that links La Paz with Coroico provides brave cyclists with over sixty kilometres of unbroken downhill adrenaline rush. Death defying (in the true sense of the phrase) it was estimated the year before I passed through, that more than two hundred people a year lost their lives travelling its length. More recently, it was the stage of a terrifying scene in Top Gear. Morbid statistics aside, my friends who completed it and luckily returned unscathed, had a fantastic, albeit nerve-wracking time!