A City Chasm and a Witch Market

12 Mar

La Paz is perched inside what looks like an enormous chunk taken out of the earth. Squat red-orange brick buildings teeter all the way down the side of the cavernous gash, fading into modest skyscrapers and highrise hotels and condos at the bottom. Sharp mountaintops peek up from the sides of the canyon, making the city seem like a sudden spot of fervid energy and civilization in the middle of the rugged terrain of the Andes.

We found a hotel on the steep tourist street, Sagarnaga.

It was a painful ride – literally – from Uyuni to La Paz. My joints ached with every bump the bus encountered on the unpaved road north through Bolivia. I slept in five minute increments all night until the bus finally reached the upper part of the chasm that is La Paz. It was about 7am when the bus turned a corner and the earth opened up to reveal this impossibly built city. I momentarily forgot my pain and exhaustion as I stared at the steep cityscape out the window while the bus zigzagged down the side of the profound gorge.

Without hostel reservations, two of my new friends, Hollee and Mitch from Perth, Australia, and I spent the morning searching for a place to stay. Striking out several times at the front desks of a few places, we decided to settle into a cafe with WiFi and use the magic of the internets to make a reservation. An added bonus was that the cafe had a great atmosphere and great food. After booking a reasonably priced hotel nearby, we spent the rest of the morning chowing down an American breakfast until it was check-in time.

View of Illimani peeking up over the side of the canyon wall

When we finally checked-in to our hotel, my body was hurting with tiredness. I laid down for a nap and accidentally slept until the next morning. Whoops! An entire day of La Paz was gone.

Since I slept through half of my time in La Paz, I only had one day to see everything. I figured the best thing to do first would be to take in the city in all its glory from above, so I headed to Mirador Killi Killi, a hillside viewing point that provides an incredible vista of practically the entire city. The view was a hard-earned one, as my lungs were still not adjusted to the city’s high altitude. I huffed and puffed my way up hills and stairs before finally reaching the terrace of the mirador.

The city center, surrounding San Francisco Church, in the hollow of the canyon

The icy peaks of Illimani, La Paz’s eminent mountain, were glowing behind some clouds over the rough edge of the canyon. Plaza San Francisco and the domed towers of its baroque church were a historical mecca in the midst of the more modern highrises of the city center. And of course, the sides of the city hollow were completely covered with the city’s distinctive brick dwellings, served by roads crisscrossing up the precipitous incline of the canyonside.

Looking towards the southern tip of La Paz

When I had completed a circle around the terrace and captured each degree of the 360 degree view with my camera, I made my way back down the hill and towards the southern tip of the narrow gorge where affluent neighborhoods enjoy better weather than the elevated slums.

I crossed a busy intersection to the Plaza Arqueológica, a sunken square of archeological pillars that resemble totem poles. I continued on and ended up on a pedestrian bridge winding over and around Parque Urbano Central, the city’s Central Park. Not wanting to dish out the five bolivianos to enter the park, I admired the trimmed grass and thick hedges from the wooden bridge and strolled on. At Plaza Camacho, I went through a glass enclosure and down some stairs and found myself in what looked like an underground parking garage but was actually a market. Most of the market stalls were garaged up due to it being Sunday, so I turned right back around and kept walking south to the wealthy, mostly residential neighborhood of Sopocachi.

View of the Bridge of the Americas in the southern part of the city from the pedestrian bridge

My map promised another hilltop mirador nearby. I was determined to find this lookout point for a different perspective of the city, but somehow ended up lost in a maze of hills and confusingly twisting streets that was beyond the reaches of my map. After wandering around a neighborhood of gated condos and well-to-do residences, I finally stumbled upon the park, complete with a church, a gazebo, and southern city views.

A southern city view from the mirador in Sopocachi

It was early afternoon and I had only a few minutes to make it back to the city center to meet my friends. I rushed through the commotion of the city, past plazas boasting monuments, a sports stadium, and a prison taking up an entire city block, and back to the sloping narrow streets of the center, where artisan shops, tour companies, hotels, and restaurants make the area a haven for tourists. I burst into the hotel lobby to meet Hollee, Mitch, and Titus from NYC with thirty seconds to spare.

Some shops at the Witches' Market

We set out to explore the Witches’ Market, a street corner of shops selling figurines, herbal concoctions, coca products, tourist trinkets, and – a somewhat disturbing sight to see – llama fetuses. Rumor is the market got its name when a group of ladies visiting from Europe went home to say they had seen witches because of the products that are offered to cure ailments, bring luck or prosperity, or to otherwise influence the gods. The street has since become a tourist hotspot, presumably because of the lure the word “witch” produces.

A bowl of llama fetuses for sale

One of the friendly owners welcomed us into his shop and enthusiastically regaled us with the story behind the llama fetuses. Indigenous religious beliefs center around worship of Pachamama, or “Mother Earth,” the goddess of fertility. The llama fetuses are burned and the ashes are buried as a sacrifice to Pachamama to bring fertility and prosperity. The shop owner assured us that the llama fetuses are not killed because a llama mother carries five fetuses but can deliver only one alive. The sacrificed fetuses are the ones that will never be delivered live. Not knowing anything about llamas except that they are very funny-looking animals with humorously expressive faces, I decided to accept this explanation.

Me in the shop at the Witches' Market trying on a bowler hat, a fashion statement for Bolivian ladies, sideways on my head to signify that I am unmarried

Getting into the spirit of the religious practices of the Ayamara and Quechua indigenous groups, I bought a turtle figurine, which signifies long life because she was created as Pachamama’s daughter to take care of Pachamama in her old age.

We ended the night with a very non-Bolivian dinner of pizza, not wanting to venture too far away from our hotel because of the extreme cold of the night air.

My short visit to La Paz is over. Now I am squeezed in the middle seat of an overpacked van on my way to Copacabana, a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

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