La Paz – a city of cocaine, adrenalin, witches and smoking skulls

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for photos of there.

Chaotic and strange, La Paz is a unique place. Indigenous spirituality and formal religion, rules and lawlessness, modernity and tradition are all loosely interwoven here creating a bizarre harmony of contrasts and clashes. With its narrow hilltop streets, dark alleys, blaring horns and flat, assessing gazes, La Paz is not welcoming. It is cramped, polluted and unpleasant. I really don’t like it but there is something compelling about this unsettling city. It both repels and intrigues. That is its power.

La Paz

La Paz

For us, La Paz became a fantastic mosaic of prison tales, belief systems, tradition, breathlessness and tummy upsets. Wonderful and horrible, these are the places and people that I’ll remember the most:

San Pedro prison

We decide to latch onto a famed Red Cap Tour to get our bearings in this warren of a city. We meet in a leafy plaza bustling with street vendors and shoe-shine boys. In front of us, massive and … interestingly pink, is the notorious inmate-run San Pedro prison. Our guide relates that the men’s prison is a “social microcosm”, populated by the prisoners, their wives and their children. There is no presumption of innocence in Bolivia and at least two-thirds of the prison population is on remand, awaiting trial. Quoting Marching Powder, an Englishman’s account of his time in the infamous prison, our guide tells us that the prison is also “a microeconomy that operates under basic capitalist interests” – money is king here. Cells are rented here, restaurants, shops and small businesses run and some of the purest cocaine in the world is produced within its walls. The comfort, health and safety of the prisoners are dependent on their resources, their ability to bribe and to curry favour. The prison is a city within a city and the police rarely enter. With enough money, it is rumoured that anything can be bought here, and in a system marred by corruption, this includes justice.

A well-placed bribe could carry us in the gate where tours of the prison are provided by the inmates. Hugely controversial, and not to mention dangerous, according to Dan Moriarty (National Coordinator of Prison Ministry for the Catholic Church in Bolivia) buying into an illegal prison tour  contributes to gang-related power struggles, exploitation of the prisoners and corruption. Interest mashed into perspective, we decide against crossing that threshold.

San Pedro prison, La Paz

San Pedro prison, La Paz

The Witches’ Market

We continue on our tour, weaving in and out of the constant traffic, past the Alpaca woollen shops, the stern-faced Cholitas at their potato stalls and the immense, beautiful Catholic churches. As we walk, we notice a gradual change in the wares for sale around us. Gone is the fruit, the bread, the juice. Now, dangling, desiccated, from the stalls are row after row of shriveled baby llamas and llama foetuses. We had entered the Mercado de las Brujas (the Witches’ Market).

Llama foetuses in the Witches' Market, La Paz

Llama foetuses in the Witches’ Market, La Paz – traditionally buried in the foundation of a new building as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth)

Under a thinnest veneer of Catholicism, Andean spirituality still thrives in Bolivia today. The blend of faiths works for the Aymara people – they perform sacred rituals in respect of their traditional beliefs and also attend mass on Sunday. The witches of La Paz are highly respected, offering advice on potions and spells, effigies, offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth), as well as medicinal roots and herbs.

Dried baby llama surrounded by brightly packaged potions at the Witches' Market, La Paz

Dried baby llamas surrounded by brightly packaged potions at the Witches’ Market, La Paz

All Souls Day

We soon come across another example of this blended faith. It’s the 2nd of November – Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), or, in the Catholic faith, All Souls Day. It is said the dead arrive from the mountains at noon, and depart at the same time the next day. In a culture of reciprocity, the living celebrate the dead in the hope that the dead will intervene with Pachamama to grant them health and prosperity. Tiered picnic tables are laid with candles, photos of the deceased, flowers, alcohol and their favourite foods. Bread effigies are brought and displayed – bread people with disconcerting china doll faces represent angels, bread donkeys wait to help the older souls arrive, a bread bull represents prosperity and bread ladders are propped to help the young souls to visit. There’s a friendly atmosphere and our guide leads us by the tables in the church square chattering lively explanations.

Bread for sale on All Souls day

Bread for sale on All Souls day

Huayna Potosi

An ordeal that deserves a post of its own! Please click here.

The Death Road

Two days following my escape from Huayna Potosi, I look and feel like this:


I don’t want to miss anything, wallowing sick in bed though so, naturally, when Damien suggests the Death Road cycle, I’m all in. I pop some more Diamox (altitude sickness tablets), hop on my bike and head off  like a lunatic on the Death Road cycle – besides robbing my face, hands and feet of all sensation, Diamox also divests me of all reason and fear! It is an amazing trip! Freewheeling for hours at speed down a jungle-covered mountain – it feels like flying!

Dia de los Natitas ( “Day of the Skulls”)

Often large cities seem to absorb, homogenize and subsume traditional culture. La Paz, however, the highest captital city in the world, seems a little different – yes, taxis, coffee shops, internet cafes form the ubiquitous modern, big city backdrop but here Ray Bans mix with angled bowler hats, mobile phones with effigies and colourfully swaddled babies peered at other tiny faces in shiny three-wheeled strollers. Tradition and modernity appears to blend seamlessly here. Nothing matches or fits but it seems to work.


This is especially true of the Dia de los Natitas (“Day of the Skulls”), an Aymara festival celebrating the dead. Feeling a little like a pair of ghouls, we made our way up to La Paz’s cemetery on the 8 November to see if we could unobtrusively observe this festival. We were in no way ready for the spectacle that awaited us beyond the graveyard gates. It was incredible! The graveyard was filled with jazz bands, banners bearing names and death dates, flowered alters, incense and laughing Aymaras cradling the skulls of loved ones.

Two Bolivan girls introduced to the natitas of their grandparents, Alejandro and Carolina

Two Bolivian girls introduced to the natitas of their grandparents, Alejandro and Carolina

As always, we stood out a mile but welcoming people pulled us this way and that to introduce us to the skulls of Juanito, Carolina and Alejandro. The skulls were honoured with alcohol, cigarettes, candles and music. They were paraded, displayed, cradled and spoken to.


Again a culture of reciprocity plays out with the living celebrating the dead in hope for an exchange for protection and luck. We felt so privileged to have witness this really special festival that we were disappointed when it was time for us to leave the living and the dead in La Paz and catch our bus to Lake Titicaca.


Any comment welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s