La Paz came alive on our final full day in the city. Our senses were flooded with taxi horns, trufi exhaust, and loitering crowds. We chose to spend our day with a walking tour through the city with the fantastic Red Cap Walking Tours, which offers free tours with an optional gratuity.
The tour began in front of San Pedro Prison, notorious for its corruption and, oddly enough, luxury. Within the heavily guarded walls, inmates have formed a hierarchical community. Inmates have jobs inside the prison, which allow them to buy or rent accommodation for them and their families within the complex. According to our tour guide, the unimaginable wealth of some convicts arise from trafficking cocaine into and out of the prison, as well as holding guided tours for tourists of the prison. These highly illegal activities are often overlooked by the prison guards, who in turn are heavily bribed by a cut of the profits.
The walking tour then led us through Mercado Rodriguez, the largest local market in central La Paz, where we were greeted with never-before-seen varieties of giant corn and countless species of potatoes. The market is a popular locale for cholitas, indigenous women characteristically donning bowler hats and puffed skirts, remnants of the aristocratic fashion of medieval Spain. These women are traditionally from rural areas and were, for a long time, discriminated against in La Paz. Nowadays, however, they are increasingly embraced as part of the fabric of La Paz and Bolivia, and the shifting social attitudes mean that they are integrated into everyday life. Indeed, there are even weekly cholita wrestling matches in El Alto!
Darting between dashing vehicles, we reached Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches’ Market, where dried llama foetuses hang from storefronts and are used as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for her blessings. Occasions such as the opening of a construction site are often marked by the burial of such tokens. Making our way down towards the centre, we passed by colourful stalls where ancient Aymaran traditions, such as fortune telling with coca leaves, were still being performed. Stores lining the alleyways hawked trinkets and talismans which would bring us good fortune, happiness, and love.
Stopping briefly for exotic juices and salteñas (a Bolivian pastry filled with meat and potatoes), we then reached Plazo Murillo, the central square which is home to the Presidential Palace and House of Congress. We were struck by the police blockades set up on all four sides of the plaza, the result of anti-government protests earlier in the year. The plaza was the key rallying site for political events and coups, marking the unstable political history of Bolivia. Bolivia has experienced at least 190 governmental changes since 1825, accounting for the sustained chaos of its troubled capital.
Following the tour, we attempted to find some of the local delicacies in the central markets but to no avail; eventually, we settled for a nice but unspectacular meal in the restaurant in Hostal Naira. Feeling adventurous, we boarded a cramped trufi heading for Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), 10km from the city centre. In contrast to the one in the Atacama Desert, this Valle de la Luna consists of surreal spires formed from the cratered mountainside. This site is not a valley at all, but instead provides a mazy path through canyons, rock formations, and sprouting choma, the hallucinogenic cactus which grows in the area. Arriving near the closing time of the site itself, we were denied a view of the entire area, but our brief visit certainly left a strong impression.
For dinner, we were able to reserve a table at Gustu, one of the best restaurants in South America, located in the wealthy neighbourhood of Zona Sur. Neighbouring Peru may hold the gustatory limelight, but Gustu has brought gastronomy into La Paz and Bolivia. Founded by Claus Meyer, also the co-founder of the world-famous restaurant Noma, Gustu emphasises the use of Bolivian ingredients from sustainable sources. Interestingly, Gustu has expanded its horizons to beyond a simple restaurant, transforming into a culinary school and empowering impoverished locals to become chefs, waitstaff, and sommeliers.
Seated in the wooden dining room, adorned with vibrant decorations hanging from the high ceiling, we opted for the seven-course tasting menu, arriving on beautiful slates and ceramic bowls, paired with Bolivian wine and cocktails. We were not disappointed by the dining experience. The tasting menu was a lesson in the diversity of Bolivian ingredients and landscapes. Our favourite dishes included a black quinoa-like grain served in a milky reduction, a “Bolivian carbonara” consisting of shredded palm heart, alpaca charque and, a perfectly cured egg yolk, and strips of slow-cooked lamb in an orange jus. For those who are interested, I urge you to read this New Yorker article outlining the origins and philosophy of Gustu. A tour through the kitchens and preparation rooms by the maitre d’ was the perfect bookend to our stay in La Paz.
There is no doubt that La Paz is still a city of struggle and strife. Compared to its more developed neighbours of Chile and Peru, Bolivia is relatively impoverished and unstable. Today, however, with the advent of tourism, this landlocked country is certainly becoming more prosperous, and visitors are treated to an intriguing mix of the past and the future.