A Travellerspoint blog

August 2008

Coke dens and dwarf tossing

Loving Bolivia, where lunacy still roams


View MAP OF THE JOURNEY on AnnaMickus's travel map.

After flying over the Andes with a sardine can for a plane we landed at the highest international airport in the world at an altitude just over 4000m. Some planes actually have to ascend more in order to descend to La Paz airport that lies about 500 meters above the city. Relieved that the mini plane made it we took a bus down to the city only to find a colourful bustling place with lots of people and lots of life. To get to our hotel we had to pass some narrow streets filled with vendors of all sorts and women in the witches’ market dressed in traditional clothes with huge skirts and funny hats selling all kinds of herbal remedies like San Pedro and offerings like dried lama foetuses. This was going to be an interesting town.

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Big plane, huh?

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La Paz

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Llama foetuses

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More foetuses and other offerings

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Child mummy

La Paz seems to be a place where anything and everything is possible as long as you want it badly enough. There are all kinds of different people and nationalities, there are bars, night clubs, cafés and restaurants serving all sorts of people, there are 24h coke dens, dwarf tossing and wrestling... You can even pay to go to jail! Yup, we actually did just that. Jim and Gen got their hands on a phone number to one of the inmates in the San Pedro prison and a date was set. The day we were supposed to visit there seemed to be some trouble in the prison. Our contact’s phone only worked sporadically and at times somebody just answered and said ”no visitors today” or then you couldn’t hear anything else than scraping noises. Despite the trouble we went to a side entrance of the prison at 13 o’clock as planned. The guards just sent us away and told us it wasn’t possible to enter the prison. Damn. We hanged around the prison and tried to phone our contact but with no luck. Suddenly a woman appeared and asked Jim if he was Jim. Huh? How did she know that? She turned out to be the friend of one of the prisoners and who was living partly inside the prison... She told us it wasn’t possible to visit that day because there were some problems with some of the inmates... Ok, maybe better not to even try anymore...today...

The next day we were good to go. The guards at the side entrance were in a better mood and let us in. We wrote our names on a paper and got a stamp on our hand and in we went. Our contact took us up to his room where we sat and chatted for a while over some whiskey we bought from him. He told us his story and how he had got there. He only had 3 weeks left before he would get out of there. It was unbelievable that we were inside a prison in Bolivia. This was the famous prison that actually has a coke factory inside it and that Rusty Young described in his book. It was very exciting and in a way awfully nerve-racking.

The guy we were visiting had it quite well there. He had actually two rooms, one of which had a TV that was showing the Olympics. We were taken on a tour around the prison where we saw their filthy social area and some run down gym that nobody seemed to be using. We also passed some smaller cramped cells where some of the prisoners were living. We gave them some cigarettes that we had brought as gifts. This time we actually only saw the part of the prison where they only keep the international prisoners. The national prisoners were on the OTHER side. We were told we wouldn’t last even 10 minutes before getting stabbed or beaten up on the other side... In fact, we caught a glimpse of the other side from another entrance and it looked lightly speaking pretty nasty.

Another crazy thing we got to experience was watching some wrestling. And not just normal wrestling (if you can call any of it normal), but here they also had women wrestlers. To be more exact we saw Cholitas wrestling. Cholitas are indigenous women that dress in traditional dresses and have long braids. And they were tough, I tell you. They were tossing each other like mad women up there on stage. One of them even wrestled with a big man. And this wrestling event went even further than what I’ve ever seen: at one point one of the wrestlers lit a long stick of wood on fire and started swinging it in the air and on his fellow contestants.

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We experienced also another mad thing that must be only possible to do in Bolivia. One day we joined a biking tour and biked down what is called the world’s most dangerous road. There is a small road that used to be the only road between LaPaz and Coroico, which is located at an about 2000 meter lower altitude. The road is very narrow and of course there are no fences to prevent cars (or bicyclers for that matter) from falling down some 300m if they happen to drive over the edge. So the road starts from some 4000m and ascends down to about 1700m to Coroico. It was a marvellous experience and very exciting. We all managed to get down in one piece although there were some close calls... Jim managed to make a vault with his bike and ended up underneath his bike. He screwed up his knee and is now seeing a physiotherapist for a couple of weeks. Armon braked to fast and flew with his head first on a stone. Luckily he was wearing a helmet. After the ride we spent a while in a hotel located beautifully on the edge of a mountain in Coroico with a stupendous view. We took a spin in the swimming pool and had a nice lunch in the restaurant overlooking the gorgeous scenery.

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A more touristy trip we did was visiting the pre Inca site of Tiwanaku. This is one of the most important archaeological sites in Bolivia that was founded some three thousand years ago and that had at some point as many as 50 000 inhabitants. One important thing Tiwanaku is famous for is the way they managed to cultivate huge amounts of produce despite the rough weather conditions. The key feature of their system was the use of sukakollos; raised fields in-between which there was water that stored the warmth of the sun making the growing conditions much better for the crops growing in the fields. Another thing we thought was cool was how they deformed their heads. The heads of children to priests were deformed from birth to become more conical. As a result from the deformation, water built up in the brain, and in order to get out the excess water they drilled a hole in the head. Fascinatingly the priesthood was also the ones taking strong hallucinogens and being excellent astronomers. One barely dares to ponder what the combination of these aspects could do to ones mentat capabilities....better go and get the Black&Decker. At some point the city was abandoned and the city was left empty. The ruins were almost untouched until the Spanish came and destroyed a lot of it by looting the buildings and tearing many of them down in order to get material for building new churches and houses. Great.

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We also visited a special museum, the Coca museum, where you can learn about the history of the coca leaf and the important role it plays in the Andean life. The leaf has been used for ages for chewing in order to get energy and as an ingredient in all kinds of provisions. The leaf is incredibly nutritious and it is good for a variety of ailments. It also helps in fighting the altitude sickness and it makes for a delicious tea!

The rest of our time in La Paz we have spent blowing our noses due to this terrible flu we got and wandering around the steep streets of the city doing some serious shopping. There are heaps of shops selling all kinds of handicrafts and lots of clothes and shawls made out of alpaca. And it is cheap! The downside is that the city is built in a steep valley, and the main street runs all the way down at the bottom. So wherever you need to go you always have to climb steep streets, and stop for catching your breath almost all the time. Blame it on the altitude :)

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Having drinks with Jim, Armon and Genevieve

Posted by AnnaMickus 15:22 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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