Santiago was meant to be the place we would stop our travels and live. It’s big and cosmopolitan, with a nice subway, international restaurants, cheap student bars, and old buildings hidden away among mostly modern constructions. It’s the least intimidating and the easiest to deal with as a visitor. But it just didn’t feel right for us when we arrived. Of all the capital cities we’ve visited, it felt the least South American.
There’s no real reason that I’m comparing these two unrelated cities, except that we just got back from five days in San Francisco and, being that we flew there and back rather than slowly travelling over a series of days or weeks, the culture shock was pretty strong. We also met up with our old housemate from La Paz, and the conversation naturally turned to comparisons. So, here are some unqualified generalizations.
Cars and driving
Seat belts. They’re in every car. I didn’t even notice when we took a taxi for the first time – I just automatically assumed there wouldn’t be one as I’ve only been in one taxi with a seatbelt in La Paz. Not only are vehicles safer, but drivers are far more respectful of rules and pedestrians. They actually stop at red lights in San Francisco! Crossing the road was a piece of cake once I realized that drivers would actually give way to me instead of speeding up or beeping their horn in some weird intimidation attempt. It was so much more relaxing to walk about San Francisco than La Paz.
The urban density of San Francisco is 6,632.9/km2, whereas La Paz is only 1,861.2/km2, but you would never guess this when walking around. The streets in San Francisco are huge, with multiple lanes of traffic and really wide pavements, giving the illusion of spaciousness. In La Paz, many streets are single lanes and pavements are sometimes non-existent. You’re constantly surrounded by people and traffic and bottlenecks of both vehicles and pedestrians are common. It’s also really hard to get an unrestricted view since the city is built in a valley and everywhere you look there are buildings rising up the hillside around you. I’m actually quite at home in dense urban environments so the spaciousness of San Francisco took some getting used to (in fact the ‘bigness’ of the USA in general always surprises me).
People on the streets
Despite me saying that San Francisco has lots of space, the streets are still busy all the time (though slightly less busy on a Sunday morning). This is pretty similar to La Paz. Both cities have street vendors, but they sell different things. In La Paz, you can buy anything on the street; mobile phones, fruit, stationary, tights, empanadas, magazines…they’re all sold from tiny stalls or mobile carts and can be found on every street corner throughout the day. In San Francisco, most vendors sell food and drinks at peak hours to commuters. There are specialized markets selling organic produce or arts & crafts, but you have to go to a particular place if you want to buy these things, whereas in La Paz you can guarantee to pass a stall selling what you need while on your way to somewhere else.
Buskers, on the other hand, are all over the place in San Francisco. And not just a guy with an acoustic guitar, but whole bands with full drum kits and amps! I also heard live music from different venues as I walked past in the afternoon. This is a city that loves music! Of course, there is live music in La Paz too, but not on the streets. The only people I see playing music outside are campesinos – they come from the countryside to La Paz and sometimes end up making a living from begging – or blind people. In both instances, money is given as charity and the music is a secondary thing.
Which brings me to the third point; homelessness. There are plenty of homeless people in La Paz. Most are women, sometimes with kids, who come to the city looking for something better than the life they left in the countryside. There are also some old people, perhaps unable to work anymore. They beg from passersby, who often give them money or food, and they generally act in a very humble way. Like most big cities, there are also drunks and drug users (almost always men and young boys). I see them mostly passed out or in their own substance-addled world. I never feel threatened by them. But in San Francisco I saw some clearly disturbed people; the kind who have arguments with invisible opponents in the middle of the sidewalk or who ramble incoherently. I had forgotten how many ‘crazies’ there are in cities of America or Europe. I’ve also never been asked for money for ‘hangover beer’ or weed, but that happened in San Francisco.
However, the thing that surprised me the most were the number of homeless people who seemed relatively new to this lifestyle. They were ‘normal’ people. They had once had jobs and a home.They had pet dogs with them. Some had prams and shopping carts full of possessions (more than I probably own right now). Perhaps this is a reflection of the current economic situation. Having not lived in the West for several years, I haven’t been as aware of these things as I maybe should be.
I was told that the weather in San Francisco is a little like La Paz, as in it never gets very cold or very warm. You need to take a jacket when you go out in both cities as the weather can change quite quickly. It’s true, I did need a jacket when the sea breeze blew in, but I was able to wear a t-shirt for most of the day (although apparently the weather was exceptionally nice for this time of the year in San Francisco). On even the warmest day in La Paz, when you feel the sun burning your skin and searing your eyes, if you step into the shade you’ll feel a chill. I actively seek out the sunny spots to walk in because it gets too cold in the shadows. This temperature diversity is what happens at an altitude of thousands of meters. Considering this, I can’t understand how I got sunburned in San Francisco. I suppose it was the reflection off the water and the silver skyscrapers, plus the big open spaces ideal for strolling. These are all lacking in La Paz. Hills, however, are not. Sorry San Francisco, but you’re really not that hilly. I think the reputation is undeserved. There are some steep hills, but most the city seems to be flat or only gently sloping. In La Paz, you’re hard pressed to find somewhere that isn’t on a hill. The Prado, running down the middle of the city, is the only flat street in the centre of town. Everything else slopes up from here (or down, depending on which direction you’re traveling). So not only am I super fit from walking around La Paz for ten months, I also have way more red blood cells than I would if I lived at sea level, which means I’m practically superhuman. I was up Telegraph Hill without even pausing for breath, while others took slow steps. It’s too bad this effect doesn’t last long, but at least I’m able to acclimatize easier now I’m back in La Paz.
Vast, winding and sloping, Mercado Rodriguez is a network of cobblestone streets where everyday items such as vegetables, spices, meat, kitchen utensils, clothes and toys can be found. There’s also quite a nice collection of health food shops, selling whole wheat bread, herbal supplements, quinoa powders, cereals and so on.
This is a real market, not a phony witches market for tourists, so keep in mind that vendors may not appreciate you getting in their face with your giant camera. Still, it’s a great place for a stroll, and a good opportunity to see the kind of things normal Bolivians buy and sell. People are usually friendly if you treat them with respect, so don’t be that gringo who haggles aggressively over every penny. Everything is cheap as it is, and in my experience, I’ve never been ripped off.
Location Mercado Rodriguez begins at the intersection of Zoilo Flores and Admirante Grau in la Zona de San Pedro, one block from the Plaza San Pedro (also sometimes called Plaza Sucre).
Opening hours The streets are closed off to cars on Saturdays and Sundays, and the market is busiest on Saturdays around mid-day. Don’t bother coming super early, as La Paz is cold in the morning and it doesn’t really get going until at least 9.
I wasn’t entirely sure about wanting to go on a mine tour in Potosí. Every backpacker I met said it was a ‘must’ and I think half the population of Argentina had made a stop at Potosí while on their way to Machu Picchu, for exactly this reason.
But then I heard about Big Deal Tours (formerly Real Deal). It’s the only tour company organized and run entirely by ex-miners (some of whom used to work for another company) and consequently, all the profits go directly to the guides themselves. I decided that if I was going into the mines, this would be the way to do it. The fact that there was a tiny puppy sleeping on the desk in their office may also have influenced me.
We started off at the miners’ market to buy small gifts for the miners we’d meet. Our guide, Pedro, explained that gifts you can share (coca leaves or soft drinks, for instance) are better than buying something for just one man.
Next we put on protective clothing before visiting a processing plant. I was impressed they had a size to fit everyone – even the young Bolivian kids who were taking the tour with their parents and the lanky Australian with huge feet.
After learning about the process of metal extraction, we took a short bus ride to the mine entrance (with a one minute stop for a panoramic view of Potosí). For the next two hours we hunched over and trudged through underground tunnels; muddy, humid and incredibly dusty.
It made my back ache, but the only really difficult part was climbing up a cramped set of rickety ladders. We stopped plenty of times along the way, both to have a rest and to listen to Pedro as he explained more about the mine. We offered some 96% alcohol to Tío. We drank a few sips as well, and I actually found it to be not that bad (after just climbing three vertical ladders in a very small space where I couldn’t see above me, perhaps I needed something to steady myself).
There weren’t many miners working that day as most were out playing football or waiting for the air to clear after the explosions they had made earlier on. There were rail tracks in some tunnels, but the carts are all pushed by hand; Pedro explained that miners didn’t want to use much modern technology because it would mean job losses. I can’t help feeling this echoes a general Bolivian sentiment. Just recently in La Paz, the minibus drivers were striking in protest over reforms meant to improve the public transport system but which might require less drivers.
We emerged on the other side of Cerro Rico mountain and Pedro prepared a dynamite explosion for us (which the Australians had bought at the miners’ market). I’ve heard dynamite plenty of times now during protests in La Paz, but I’d never seen an explosion. The rest of the group jumped, but I didn’t. Probably because I was concentrating on getting a photo.
I can’t say if Big Deal Tours is better than other companies because this is the only tour I’ve done, but I suspect it is. The guides were amazing – informative and incredibly entertaining. The set-up was professional and the tour itself not too difficult or discomforting. Also, knowing that these are people in control of their own jobs and earnings, who have good relations with the working miners and who are working with young kids whose parents want them to get into tourism instead of mining, makes it feel worth spending twenty Bolivianos more than the tour offered at my hostel.
Big Deal Tours
Cost: 100 Bolivianos per person
Address: 1092 Calle Bustillos (at the corner of Bustillios and Ayacucho)
Time: tours leave at 8:30am and 1pm
Ever wanted to know more about life in La Paz (or about me)? Check out my interview on The Working Traveller.
While you’re there, take a look around their site – they have lots of great resources for working and volunteering while you travel.
A big thanks to Shane at The Working Traveller for inviting me to be interviewed!
Along with miniatures of money, houses, university degrees and animals, tiny newspapers are sold for Alasitas. These Onion-like periodicals contain headlines such as, “Sean Penn named Minister of Transparency” (Evo asked the actor to be an ambassador for the coca leaf, among other things) and “Chile offers 10 million bottles of seawater to pay off the maritime demand” (Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile in the war of the Pacific over 100 years ago and Morales has been pushing Chile for access to the sea).
There’s a section with numerous photoshopped images of the vice president and his new wife getting wed in every marriage tradition possible to prove their marriage is the real deal. You see, many Bolivians suspect the vice president is a closeted homosexual and/or he married the young journalist to align the government closer to the media.
These newspapers provide a nice contrast to the protests which occur weekly in La Paz, but still give somewhat of a glimpse into what at least some of the population thinks about politics.