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La Paz, the better known and unofficial capital of Bolivia is a sight for sore eyes, some love it, some hate it, I found myself somewhere in the middle. Arriving off a night bus from Sucre I was wary of both the bus station and the taxi having heard bad things about both, I opted to walk the short distance to my hostel, The Adventure Brew House, a giant building just minutes from the bus station and not much further from many of the cities main attractions. With a few hours before I could get into my room one of the hostel staff suggested checking out the 'antiques market' at the top of the nearest gondola to the hostel. The journey up to the El Alto area of La Paz gave a real example of quite how big and sprawling the city is. Unfinished red brick houses reach from the valley floor as high as they can go without tumbling down on themselves. The scenes are reminiscent of the sprawling favelas I saw in Rio, yet here, this is reality rather than a poverty stricken area of the city.
The market, was more bric and brac mixed with bargain basement than antiques but offered an interesting insight into La Paz life. The iconic Cholita ladies, sat manning stalls selling anything from fruit to their famed bowler hats, styled like Victorian women with a twist, their hats are remnants from the time when the British were installing railways in Bolivia. Wanting to offer their style to the locals they ordered a batch of bowler hats to sell, in an oversight in measurement, they made the fatal presumption that as Bolivians are smaller than Brits, their heads would too be smaller. Alas, this was not the case and the hats fitted no one. Needing to shift the hats the Brits told the Bolivian ladies the hats were all the rage back home and soon enough Bolivian ladies were sporting bowler hats and an adapted version of British Victorian fashion, a style that is still worn today. To Bolivians the hat is a secret code, if a ladies hat is perched straight on top of her head she is either married or in a relationship. A hat to one side signifies the lady is single or widowed and one to the back of the head means her situation is 'complicated'. Cholitas are equally as passionate about their style as they are about not having their photos taken, for this reason I don't have any photos but I'm sure google will suffice for anyone intrigued. Moving on from the El Alto market, I descended the gondola before heading to Mercado Lanza for some food. The market here was a different to the one in a Sucre, set over several different levels it offered a range of different products from souvenirs and toiletries on the lower levels to fresh fruit juices and insanely cheap set menus of the Bolivian classic carb on carb on the next.
As ever, the best way to learn about the town is the free walking tour and the one in La Paz was no exception, meeting at San Pedro square, outside the famed San Pedro prison the tour started with an overview of the prisons history. Originally built to hold 250 people the prison is now the biggest prison in Bolivia and very different to any prison I've heard of before. Split into different levels of catering the inmates pay rent for their accommodation, (the best being rumoured to have hot tubs and Netflix) and also are able to run businesses from their cells / apartments. However, this is nothing when you learn that the prison historically produced the finest cocaine coming out of South America, and many of the inmates, being held on drug related charges, were still able to manufacture and deal inside. The corruption seems a whole new level and until about 10 years ago, backpackers could pay for the privilege to stay in the prison rather than a hostel. Rumoured to even have been on Lonely Planets list of sights and activities for La Paz, nowadays things are much tighter and thankfully backpackers are not welcome unless they have committed an offence. I have recently started reading the book Marching Powder which details one English inmates time in the prison and would highly recommend it.
Moving on from the prison the tour covered present day information on Bolivia's president, his views and how as a nation, they will protest anything from workers rights to the Simpson's being taken off national television. It is now apparently aired three times a day and the Simpson's creators even created a spin off on the protests. One of my favourite areas in La Paz however, was the witches market. Although very much in the present day, Bolivians still believe many problems can be solved by visiting a witch and buying or having a potion made. As a result of this the area is full of a mix of shops selling everything from love potions to llama foetuses. The area is also where the majority of the more touristic shops selling alpaca jumpers, scarfs, hats, gloves and more are located so it makes for an interesting wander. After two months of a shopping ban I finally caved here and did some souvenir shopping, so far I am the proud owner of an alpaca jumper, small bag and also a mini llama key ring. I'm sure as my trip progresses this collection will only grow!