Bolivia’s got the beat, man. It’s a zoo, an Alice in Wonderland adventure, and a Dr. Seuss creation. I loved this country and can confidently say this was my favorite country yet on our trip and it rivals China for its outlandish uniqueness. In this post, I’ll share some of the anecdotes we heard and observations that support my Seussian summary. As a heads up, some of the content in this post gets a bit morbid so beware.
Relationship status with the USA.…It’s Complicated
Bolivia has a complicated relationship with the US so getting into the country had significant hurdles. I apologize to the bus full of people who had to wait an extra hour for us to get through immigration. Sara wrote an extensive post detailing the border crossing if you’d like more information. As a teaser, hundreds of clean, pristine American dollars later and with our bus driver sprinting back into Peru with our passports and spending his own money to make photocopies for the Bolivian border guards, we made it in. The root of the trouble at the border stems from the US harboring Bolivia’s shady ex-president, Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada. This guy has an American dual citizenship and the US does not extradite US citizens. Bolivia wants him back to stand trial for a massacre of protesters and allegedly funneling the central bank into his pocket before he fled back in 2003. It’s a touchy subject. The politics of Bolivia are very intriguing if interested. Bolivia’s current president, Evo Morales, has an entire book dedicated to his odd quotes and ideas called Evadas. Reminds me a bit of a certain politician in the US.
Cholitas and bowler hats
Cholita is the common (no longer offensive) term used to identify local women dressed in traditional clothing which includes thick poofy skirts, long braids, and an unusually small bowler hat. The hat has a history and while top hats are popular around South America, this one is unique to Bolivia. During the colonial days, with all the Europeans in Bolivia for mining, a pair of entrepreneurs saw a need for classic bowler hats. They placed a huge order from some hatters in Italy but when they received the ship load a few months later, they were both the wrong color for what was currently in style and far too small. Since free returns didn’t exist back then, they tried to drum up interest with the local Bolivian men since they were smaller in size. Unfortunately, Bolivian men are nick-named potato heads by folks in neighboring countries because though they may be shorter, they have huge heads (I can relate to that!). These small hats had no chance of fitting on Bolivian men’s heads so the entrepreneurs went to the Bolivian women and began to explain that though the skirts and braids were beautiful, their outfits weren’t complete without a stylish hat and these small brown and black bowler hats were all the rage in Europe at the time. It eventually caught on and is now the distinguishing mark for Cholita women. In fact, these hats have grown to have meaning depending on where they are worn on your head. If you wear the hat flat on your head, this means that you are married or in a relationship. If you tilt the hat to the left side this means that you are single and ready to mingle.
We went to a Cholita wrestling match (think WWF wrestling but with women in traditional Bolivian attire). I had very high hopes after how great the Lucha Libre match was in Mexico City. Unfortunately, Cholita wrestling turned out to be a total tourist trap that made me uncomfortable sitting there. It didn’t help that they didn’t even have any beers to smooth over the awkwardness!
Uyuni salt flats
Our primary reason for visiting Bolivia was the salt flats where you can take the iconic perspective style photos on an endless see of flat ice. We went on a 3 day 2 night tour with a company called Red Planet that took us through the salt flats and nearby national parks from Uyuni, Bolivia to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. This was my favorite tour so far on our trip. On this trip, we raced through the salt flats and volcanic deserts in Lexus SUVs with lift kits and big knobby tires. We stalked flamingos, wild llamas, and emu-like birds and spent a night lounging in a volcanic hot tub. The scenery was the most stunning part of the trip and you felt like you were in a Salvador Dali painting – in fact, it’s rumored that Dali got his inspiration for his famous Walk of the Elephants painting from some of the rock formations in this desert. The Dr. Seuss style nature comes from the fierce winds carving rock into unnatural shapes and the odd minerals that turn lakes red, white, and green. A nifty fact – flamingoes in this area are born grey and as they eat more of the minerals in these desert lakes, they can’t digest the mineral and it gets stored in their feathers, turning them pink!
La Paz’s plush prisons
In La Paz’s primary prison, you pay your own way so if you are well off, you can have a plush time in prison. They used to throw massive parties in the prison that were outside of the law and even offered party themed tours. These have since been shut down due to tourists going missing or getting stuck in prison when trying to leave the party. Apparently, family members can also live in the prison so it seemed more like a heavily guarded apartment complex. The book Marching Powder gave the prison its infamous notoriety and put the prison on the tourist map. This also overwhelmed and eventually shut down the facility and tours. DON’T go on any tours that may be offered here. You will likely get stuck in prison.
It’s good to be a street vendor
My breaking point in China was when I needed some more dress socks and surrendered the haggle battle. I needed another pair of socks for work and went into the big market to the same lady who I’d bought socks from a couple weeks earlier. I was tired from work and sick from bad water and I just needed a pair of socks. I knew the price from the last time I’d bought them from the lady after 10 minutes of haggling. I walked up and mentioned this price and she just went straight to the rafters with her typical outrageous first asking price. I tried to explain that I knew the price but she knew I didn’t have it in me this time to haggle for ten minutes. After a feeble attempt to get a reasonable price, I raised the white flag and paid three times more than the last pair I’d bought from her.
On the other hand, in Bolivia, prices are pretty much fixed with some wiggle room on souvenirs but not much. I found it very interesting and pleasant that in the markets in La Paz, you don’t haggle with street vendors for produce, rather you continue to go to the same vendor and as they get to know you, they start saving the better quality items for you and may throw in some free things too. They’re also quick to offer up advice on your family, work, and love life and if you happen to overshare, the next time you show up, you may already be lined up for a couple blind dates. The street market culture in La Paz is so engrained into the city that there aren’t really any big box department stores or grocery stores within the city. Street markets take over miles of city streets on certain days of the week and while riding the fancy new cable car, you can see how far the carpet or orange tents covers.
Witches and mother earth
Bolivia is a predominantly Catholic country but unlike its neighbors, many Bolivians still also hold onto their pre-Columbus religious beliefs and have a deeply rooted spiritualism practice in harmony with Catholicism. We hardly scratched the surface but here are some pieces I recall.
Graveyards and the afterlife
There’s one gigantic above ground cemetery in the center of La Paz that seemed like a huge apartment complex except residents are confined to 3x3x7 foot apartments. Deceased family members hold an active role in families for some time after death. Grave sites can only be rented for a few years whereupon remains must be moved out of the city. During this time frame, living family members keep up the grave site “apartments” routinely bringing by flowers, alcohol, chocolate, and Coca-Cola for the small shrines built into each apartment opening and in return, deceased family members offer advice and protection. In this massive graveyard, graffiti is encouraged as well so there were some stunning full wall murals.
Additionally, for people who die unfulfilled or earlier than they should’ve, they can come back and choose people to link up with to help and influence. It’s a tremendous honor to be chosen by one of these spirits and this link is often represented by the chosen person maintaining the actual skull of the spirit’s body. We did in fact see some human skulls in the witch workshops. One can become a witch doctor through various accidents or experiences such as getting struck by lightning. Getting struck twice means you are an even more powerful witch.
There are multiple witch markets in La Paz. They take up multiple streets and had some creepy stuff for sale. You can have your fortune read in the coca leaves, receive treatment for illnesses, and communicate with the deceased. The witch markets sell specific candies and alcohol for shrines for the deceased along with many herbal remedies ranging from teas that help with the common cold to heavy hallucinogenic herbs. The most prevalent and shocking items were the mummified llama fetuses in various stages of development from tiny 3 inch ones to fully furred still born llamas. Llamas are very highly regarded in Bolivia so I was told that all the fetuses were natural deaths but I find that hard to believe since there were thousands of them hanging from each stand as far as you can see down the street. Regardless of how they’re obtained, they’re used in rituals to bless things like new construction. They are very expensive – the most expensive thing I saw for sale in Bolivia – and it is frowned upon to take pictures of them in the markets.
Urban legend spiritualism – llamas and human bodies
One use of the llama mummies mentioned above is to bless a building so that no workers are harmed during its construction and for good fortune for the family or businesses in the building. You are supposed to bury the fetus for these benefits. Legend has it that instead of a llama fetus, a human can be used for this ritual as well. Human spirits are more potent than llama fetuses so it’s rumored that for larger, more dangerous construction, construction companies sometimes require this next level of protection from injury or death during construction. For this ritual, an unattached, unmissed person is picked up and invited to a party. This person is supposed to get very drunk, then is lured to the construction site where they pass out in a hole and are then sealed up in the concrete of the foundation.
This is an urban legend but apparently there’s an account of a person who escaped from one of these construction sites. Additionally, there have been a few bodies found during demolition of existing buildings. Could also just be a tall tale to scare tourists away from getting too drunk and passing out in the street…
Other Bolivia tips
- Street food is great in La Paz. Restaurants were underwhelming and expensive but the street food had some great twists on American style burgers, hot dogs, and French fries.
- Traffic is horrific in La Paz since it’s situated in a bowl with giant cliffs and the suburbs on top of the cliffs. We walked a lot and the brand new, state of the art cable cars were a great way to get around above the ridiculous streets.
- There are protests in La Paz nearly every day with entire streets shut down as various groups perform sit ins on major roads. These protests can be quite loud too as they chant, sing, and shoot off fireworks. When we were there, a large group of old Cholita ladies were protesting a new government policy requiring street vendors to register with the government (and probably pay some taxes).
- La Paz is at very high altitude so it’s downright tough to breathe and one sip of beer gives you a hangover. Everybody seemed to walk slowly in the city too probably due in part to the altitude.
- There’s legendary mountain biking around La Paz and many tour companies with solid bikes and gear. Trips are expensive and they seemed to cater to newbie bikers unless you have a big enough experienced group. I definitely have to go back for at least a week of hard core mountain biking and book this in advance. Who wants to join?
My wife and I quit our jobs, sold our belongings and are hitting the road for nearly 2 years. We're blogging about our adventures, lessons learned, ideas, and recommendations. Take a gander at the content, leave a comment, or reach out to us to meet up on the road!