Witches selling poisons and llama fetuses. People dressed as zebras demonstrating to pedestrians how to cross roads. Endless parades of out-of-sync, out-of-tune marching bands blocking the road. Inmates giving tours in max-security prison. An authentic Dutch restaurant with hutspot, bitterballen and roti. A cow strapped to a pickup truck. A housewife wrestling a soldier who’s hitting her with a belt. La Paz is the craziest city in all of South America, no contest.
The last item on that list, thankfully, was fake. It’s called cholitas wrestling and features women, Mexican-style luchadores, a clown, a samurai and a man in a werewolf suit battling it out in the ring while I sit courtside munching popcorn, egging them on. At one point the fight spread into the stands and chairs and barriers started flying – total pandemonium.
This was still nowhere as crazy as my visit to San Pedro prison, a fully operational detention facility where for 50 euros the guards can be bribed to let you in, after which the prisoners show you around. You meet drug dealers, corrupt police, murderers, hell you even meet their kids and wives that live with them (they leave the prison in the morning to go to school/work, and come back in the afternoon). The prisoners run the show inside, holding elections for section president and treasurer, organizing karaoke nights, cooking drugs, running restaurants, and occasionally stabbing each other or throwing dynamite over the wall into a rival section.
It’s amazing to see their society at work, with its own rules and certainly its own brutalities, but also a surprisingly high level of order and tolerance. It’s more of a small town where a handful of the inhabitants can’t leave for 3 to 30 years. Absolutely a highlight of this trip, especially as the prisoner showing us around, Jose, is a great character. In the four hours you spend inside he tells you more about the international drug trade than you’d ever thought you’d need to know. He’s in for a variety of offenses, including attempting to traffic 120,000 kilo of cocaine (!). I think he’s quite bored in there, and set up these tours to meet people and add some variety to his lifestyle. I’m glad he does it because it was an amazing excursion.
So La Paz is pretty much insane, and it’s easiest to keep your head up (and a hand on your wallet) and smile at all the bizarre, random stuff that happens all around you. I’ve run into Vegard, Andre and Gina, 3 Norwegians I’ve now met in every country, and am having a great time hanging out with them. Though not so much in the mornings as Andre has a tendency to force tequila shots on everybody…
I reached La Paz by way of Lake Titicaca, where the cliché is that “it will take your breath away – literally”. Indeed, being at 4 km altitude means it’s easy to get short of breath, and it’s a strange sensation to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air.
I thought the lake would be a bit stupid but it was anything but. Such colors! As the clouds drift and the sun shifts, the lake itself changes colors. Walking on the Isla del Sol in the middle of it was a pleasure as every corner turned would reveal a new, incredible panorama that would make you stop and stare. And catch your breath.
Here’s some photos I particularly liked, and you can find the full album on Facebook here.
Tonight I’m off to Cochabamba to make an attempt to head into the jungle near Samaipata. After that it’s onwards to Sucre and Potosi, to visit the mines. Bolivia is shaping up to be a great adventure.