Monday, July 25, 2011

La Paz

La Paz fairly takes the breath away and it’s not down to the fact that I’ve walked 10km through a blockade carrying 20kg+ of net backpack weight with me. Nor is it down to the fact that it’s at a jarring altitude of some 3,600m. No, it’s the city’s setting which causes a sharp intake of breath - houses everywhere dotted on the hills surrounding the city like hundreds and thousands sprinkled on a trifle. The city's altitude actually stretches from about 3,200m at its lowest (all the richer folk of the city live here as the air's better) to over 4,000m encompassing the city of El Alto ('The Heights'), home to most of Bolivia's poorer indigenous population, predominantly Aymaras.
It seems like the last place you’d choose to build a city of just over 800,000 people but here it is. Whilst you're more likely to see well-heeled fashionistas strolling the streets of Santiago than a member of the indigenous population of Chile, La Paz is a complete reversal. Bowler-hatted cholitas are legion, sitting by each and every street side selling everything for almost nothing. The streets are clogged with micros (minibuses), their windscreens emblazoned with glittered signs declaring “Jesús es mi pastor”. On the day I get to La Paz, the city is gearing up for their Independence Day celebrations on July 16th. So keen are they for the party to begin, they seem to collectively decide “Fuck it, let’s celebrate now” and so they start on the evening of July 15th instead and debauch themselves in a way that makes Saint Paddy’s Day seem the equivalent of a bunch of teenagers knackering some alcopops. Walking through the streets on this evening, it’s barely exaggerating things to say that everyone’s smashed on a delicious but dangerous liqueur that looks like Bailey's and comes from a blender. There are long tables dragged onto the streets for the sole purpose of downing glasses of the aforementioned brew - as if the altitude itself wouldn't give enough cause for headache.
But I’m not here to party, I’m here to trek and La Paz has innumerable top quality treks in the mountain ranges a stone’s throw (well, if Fionn McCumhaill threw a stone, say) from the city. Of course there are countless agencies promising to whisk you away and ensure you a ravishing time as you lose your Andean virginity but in the end, I decide to go on a 5 day/4 night trek in the Apolobamba region from the villages of Curva to Pelechuco. It’s a trek which features some 5,000m+ passes, many traditional villages, few other trekkers, potential condor sightings and, well, it’s the Andes isn’t it? What could possibly go wrong?

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