No Robar, Me Colgaron

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“Don’t steal. They hanged me.”

In a city where the police are often accused of being ineffective at best, and corrupt at worst, effigies like this warn would be thieves what awaits them. Most of these can be found in the poorer slums of El Alto, where graffiti also threatens that criminals will be burnt to death. This photo, however, was snapped near the cementerio area of La Paz.

A postcard from Museo San Francisco

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Outside the streets are busy.

Cars beep their horns and minibus conductors shout out their destinations to passersby. Police blow their whistles to try and direct the traffic. “Helados! Helados!” rings out from ice cream vendors pushing wheeled cool-boxes. Throngs block the pavement, waiting for a chance to zig-zag through stationary vehicles. Children play on the steps, rolling, running and clinging to cholitas’ heavy skirts. Tourists take photos of San Francisco church, or confusedly search paper maps, or wander aimlessly in the direction of Sagarnaga, getting sidetracked by souvenir shops and over-priced restaurants.

Inside it’s another world.

Sunshine warms flowers, green leaves and old stone. Under archways, glass panels give a peek at the foundations of an older cloister. Birds flit from branch to path to fountain, while footsteps echo from the balcony above. Brocade-clad angels with avenging swords and golden curls look out from canvases. Metal chalices and religious clothes glitter in glass cases. Imperfectly translated information panels impart the history of Bolivia in terms of the involvement of the Order of San Francisco. A nun dusts off the alter in the dark Basilica, where a staircase leads up to the rooftop with bumpy, uneven tiles.

The bell tower overlooks it all, the outside and the inside, each aspect side by side though belonging to different worlds.

Museo San Francisco
Cost: 20Bs for foreigners
Hours: Monday – Saturday,
9am-6pm
Address: Plaza San Francisco Nº 501

Tiwanaku

It’s hard to believe that people once survived here on the harsh Altiplano, let alone built a thriving civilization. But the remains of Tiwanaku are evidence of how humans can create an existence anywhere.

Read more about our visit here.

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A hand-made model showing the alignment of the sun during solstices.

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The Sun Gate, with Jaguar and Condor Warriors.

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View from the Sunken Temple towards the Kalasasaya.

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An ancient model used to plan one of the large temples on site.

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Chocolate Caliente

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Chocolate Caliente is the sort of place that if you order a la carte ends up being expensive (for Bolivia, at least). Fortunately, they have a great set lunch menu and special offers (happy hour cocktails, for example) that make it affordable.

If you don’t want a dual-carbohydrate lunch that leaves you comatose from eating too much, this is the place to go. For 20Bs you get a good size soup, simple mains and a tea or ice cream. The soup is Bolivian but the mains are more international – burritos, quesadillas, pasta – although not totally authentic. Still, it’s all very tasty.

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Burrito and guacamole, sopa de maní

Like any fancy restaurant, the decor is stylish (think skylights, leather sofas and dubious artwork) and the service average (if you ever get a smile out of the waiter on lunch shift, let me know). But it is a good value place for when you want something a little bit different but don’t feel like paying for it. It also has the best llajua (spicy salsa).

Location:
Av. 20 de Octubre 2347, near Calle Gutierrez, Sopocachi

Chacaltaya

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On top of Chacaltaya, Aymara for “cold road”, there once sat a glacier. With the accompanying snow, it was Bolivia’s only ski resort, and at roughly 5,400 meters above sea level, the highest lift-operated resort in the world. With global climate change in conjunction with El Niño, what was left of the glacier finally disappeared in 2009. Besides the loss of skiing, a more serious problem is that the people of La Paz and El Alto depend on the melting snow for their water supply. Only a few scattered patches of snow can still be seen.
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We booked a tour to the old resort. A two hour hike took us a short distance to the peak of Chacaltaya. Even though we were accustomed to the height of La Paz, it was slow going at this altitude. But every time we stopped to take a breath, we took in the 360 degree views of misty peaks, sheer cliffs, and fantastical lagoons; so fantastical that I thought a dragon might fly over them. When it’s totally clear, which it wasn’t, La Paz and El Alto are also visible.
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The green lagoons contain copper, the orange and red iron and the dark blue lead. Algae mixes with some of these, giving the palate an even richer green.
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Much of the terrain is covered in loose slate, giving the impression that a massive explosion has just gone off.
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Huayna Potosí is also visible from Chacaltaya and the road leading to it. Despite our guide’s boast, it is not the model for the Paramount Pictures logo.

How to get there: Several agencies in La Paz, along Sagarnaga and Illampu, offer day trips to Chacaltaya and Valle de la Luna for between 75-85 Bs.

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Valle del Encanto

Sometimes my favourite places are the ones I never know exist until I visit them. We stopped off in Ovalle with the plan to do laundry – a visit to the Valle del Encanto was just a way to use up our time. But it’s ended up being one of the highlights of our journey so far.

You can read more about our visit here.

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El Jiri Ecolodge, Coroico

After nearly five months living at high altitude, I was parched. I needed a bit of tropical air and a weekend in Coroico was the remedy. We stayed at El Jiri Ecolodge, which sits halfway up the side of the valley, across from Coroico town.

20121006-172550.jpgView across the valley from El Jiri

Created and run by Mario Burgoa, El Jiri sits on the site of a former Jewish farmstead (grab a copy of the excellent book Hotel Bolivia, for more info about Jewish migration to Bolivia during World War Two). Mario explained that at the beginning it was tough because they had no electricity, but eight years on and they have ensuite cabins for guests and some very big fridges in the outdoor kitchen.

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Our two-day, one-night stay was full-board and included a program of guided walks and activities (although there was plenty of time for lazing in hammocks too). By far my favourite was the chocolate making.

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The agricultural products from El Jiri are all produced on a small-scale by hand. We helped shell and grind the roasted cocoa beans, before making a delicious vat of hot chocolate from the pure cocoa butter.

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The cocoa butter is sold to NamasTe for use in their restaurant and the coffee produced at El Jiri goes to Alexander’s (a Bolivian cafe chain). We saw the pre-roasted beans and learned that most coffee manufacturers don’t bother with removing the outer layer of the bean since it doesn’t impair the flavour and actually bulks out the weight of the product. But the highest quality coffee, sometimes called ‘green gold’, goes through this extra step and thus can be sold for a much higher price.

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With the help of a machete, our young guide took us on jungle walks to a waterfall, Incan terraces, agricultural fields and a lovely mirador.

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We learnt about the local flora and traditional agriculture techniques, as well as spotting lots of different kinds of birds (which were impossible to photograph).

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On return, there was always a filling meal waiting for us. The food may not have been the most exciting (this is Bolivia after all), but it was always heartily received and the outdoor setting was a lovely place to dine.

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At night we went to sleep early, listening to buzzing insects and whooping birds. The weather was not too hot at the end of September (although we were dripping with sweat after hiking along the jungle paths). I imagine in the rainy season it would be hard to get through all the mud and vegetation.

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And you do need to walk a bit, no matter what, as El Jiri is only accessible on foot or by quad bike. From the La Paz-Coroico road you should get off the bus at Yolosita and get a taxi to Charobamba village, where it’s a 20 minute walk up hill. Or like us you could get all confused and get a taxi to the Charobamba foot bridge and end up walking all the way up the hillside for an hour and a half. It’s a nice walk either way.

20121006-180210.jpgOnce you see this sign, just follow the path across the river and up the hill.

We booked our trip through Classic Travel Bolivia for 382Bs per person. You can also book direct with El Jiri. A bus to Yolosita from Miraflores in La Paz costs 20Bs, and a taxi from there to Charobamba is about 120Bs return trip.

A postcard from Museo Arte Contemporáneo Plaza, La Paz

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Most of the time, I don’t mind not having a permanent residence. I don’t mind never staying anywhere too long or not having more possessions than I can carry with me. Except when I visit places like the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Plaza.

At times like these, I really long for a home. I want to be able to buy art – etchings, paintings, sculptures – all of the beautiful, inspiring things I see in the world around me. I want to have somewhere to display them and people to show them to. I want a space where I can create my own works, to have something more than digital photo and video files.

At the Museo Plaza, many pieces are for sale. Prices range from $75 to over $1,000. When I consider that a replica print of some well-known painting could cost £20-30, the idea of owning an original piece (for a pretty decent price) seems really appealing. Not only would I get something unique, I’d also be supporting an artist directly, rather than giving money to whoever owns the copyright on some famous dead person’s images.

I really, really want to do this. But now, at this point in my life, it’s an impossibility. So, I’ll have to satisfy myself with visits to museums and galleries and dream of one day.

Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Plaza
Cost: 15Bs
Hours: 9am-9pm daily
Address: Avenida 16 de Julio #1698 (El Prado), La Paz

The £3 Haircut

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This is what a three pound haircut looks like. To be precise, £3.12 or 35 Bolivianos. It costs slightly less than a meal out in a ‘nice’ restaurant and slightly more than my hourly wage.

Peluquerias are everywhere in La Paz. I chose this particular hairdresser’s by a process of elimination. There are five places within five minutes of my house. The first two happen to sit on either side of a canine peluqueria. For some reason this rather put me off. The next place looks like this:

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I never made it to the fifth place because the fourth place was empty and I figured it had to be better than the previous three. Its windows are covered in cutouts of American celebrities. I figured if they could cut paper so precisely, they could probably cut hair well enough too. I’m not fussy.

And that was it. I showed the hairdresser a picture of me with the short, feathered cut I had last year. She wrapped a silver cover around me – which handily had holes for my hands – and plonked a celebrity magazine on my lap. Then she was off. With a spray bottle of water, scissors, a razor, and thirty minutes she transformed my shapeless, tangled mane into a nice textured bob.

I have to say, it was one of the best haircuts of my life. No, it didn’t include the head massage I used to get from my Taiwanese hairdresser, nor the vibrating chair in my London salon that massaged me while my hair was washed. But for the speed and efficiency with which she worked, and the £3 price tag, I don’t think it can be beat.

Here’s some before pictures, so you can really appreciate the workmanship.

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