Nearly four hundred and forty years before, the Spanish had chosen this unique site for a city. At three thousand six hundred metres, the highest capital in the world, La Paz was sunk into a huge valley some four hundred metres below the altiplano. Supposedly chosen for its protection, to avoid the chilly winds and to further satisfy the Spanish lust for riches, as they'd found gold in the river at the bottom of the valley.
That initial view over the edge of the Altiplano and down onto La Paz is one of the most spectacular impressions to be taken by the traveller. And raise your eyebrow to the towering Mt Illimani, at six and a half thousand metres, guarding the city from the north.
The first days are spent staying at the very clean Hotel Austria, which, at a dollar per night, is probably the best value accommodation I'll ever get. The rooms are clean, there's a nice sunny reading room and there is hot water. Teeming constant and always scalding. That is, at least while there's power. Together with Reinhardt and two Austrian girls, we travel to see the sights.
The "artesenia", or handicraft market, has an endless supply of beautiful weavings, knitted gloves, pullovers, hats, musical instruments, silver goods, and more. There is the huge black market; there are specialised markets or areas of markets for everything. Woodworkers, metalsmiths, mechanics, clothing, vegetables and fruit. It's all out there on the streets and with the current rate of exchange, it's all very, very cheap. The black market changers hustling on the streets were illegal, but existing. Characters with instant calculators showing you how many Bolivian pesos you'd get for the quoted numbers of US dollars. There followed transactions in laneways, or you were taken to the back of a shop, where a happy business person would readily part with large wads of near useless pesos. Today's profit, tomorrow's toilet paper.
The system was simple. First you'd go to a "casa de cambio" or exchange house and check their official rate. Then you'd go to known areas where changers paraded. You'd ask a couple their rate and then you'd have an idea of where the targeted amount should lay. It was normal, rate for affluent tourists, rate for backpacker hagglers like myself. Rate for changing over a hundred dollars, one for travellers cheques, another for cash.
We go to the unique landscape of the Moon Valley and to the spectacular Mt Chacaltaya.
This mountain had the world's highest ski slopes. We could take a taxi to about five thousand one hundred metres and then walk up another few hundred metres before the combination of the altitude, cold winds and the drifting snow would turn us back a couple of hundred metres short of the five thousand six hundred metre summit. A small dose of altitude sickness inspires us to try our first coca tea, brewed with fresh coca leaves in boiling water and, soon feeling relieved again, we continue to enjoy the superb views and the unique feeling of walking around at this altitude. Three or four steps at a time, or the very slow and methodical "step after step" method. The only way to get around here, except for skis!
Our nights are filled with the sounds of pan-pipes and flutes, upon venturing out to try the flavours of the different penas. And gone are the days when I'd be cooking yet another spaghetti or rice dish on my stove for dinner. We've already eaten at some of the finest restaurants in La Paz.
I contemplate that one person's misery can be another's pleasure. Similarly, with Ecuador and Peru there were countless economic and social problems which left the common person drained. A country plagued with political and economic troubles. I had arrived at a very special time in Bolivia's history. Just six months before their exchange for the US dollar had been constant at twenty eight Bolivian pesos for one US dollar, and yet I was now getting around two hundred and fifty, and just two weeks before, it had been three hundred. This is a troubled and unbalanced economy, flailing in the middle of huge foreign debts, and a disproportionate import/export situation.
Living as kings we would taxi to the German club or Swiss restaurant, eat fillet mignon and fresh vegetables for a dollar, and then catch the bus back to the hotel for two cents. You cold catch a plane from one end of Bolivia to the other for nine dollars, and buy a beautiful hand knitted alpaca wool jumper for three dollars. But for the local people, without US dollars, and earning only dismal wages in pesos, it has become a dire struggle to live. Survival was the name of the game.
We had been forewarned not to leave our hotels on that Saturday afternoon, but, as usual, my inquisitive and adventurous nature took the better of me. Trundling down the steep cobblestoned streets, heading towards the main street. The immediate back streets had an uncommon stillness and, for a weekend, there were certainly less than normal numbers of people in the streets. Very few cars. Calm before the storm.
And yet, distant sounds told me that there were a whole mass of people below me. "The March for the Hungry" through the main street was illegal under current rule, as were all demonstrations during the reign of this military dictatorship. The fact that there were a hundred thousand people there meant that confrontation was inevitable.
I'm nearly steamrolled, as a water cannon truck roars through the narrow cross street in front of me. Then a line of nearly twenty soldiers trot past. They're armed with tear gas guns, shields and batons and ready for the inevitable. I'm just two streets away and can see the slowly moving mass of people carrying placards, and shouting different anti-government slogans. They punch their fists into the air with the desperate aggression befitting such poor people. Such hungry people. I had never known real hunger, I thought to myself. What was it really like?
Suddenly and without warning, people are running everywhere. I also turn to run and as I do I hear gun shots. There's confusion. Which way to turn, tear gas in the air, my eyes stinging and watery. Any shops that were open are quickly shutting their metal door covers. I manage to duck under one just as it's going down. They tell me to get out as they're closing, but I just pretend not to understand and, as there are more people trying to get in, they close it and we're sheltered. Safe. As luck would have it, I had chosen a cafe, so I enter and order a mineral water and some biscuits; listening to the sounds of the action outside. Sirens screeching, people shouting and running. Confusion and dispersion; desperation, the refined fuel of hunger. And me with my biscuits looking on.
A crowd of thousands has a lot of strength, but these smaller scattered groups didn't. The sound of the armoured water canons echo in the valley below. Something which sounds like a bomb goes off. A megaphone squelches. Dottings of gun fire.
"wholesome as a log ..... splinter weak." P.K.
Silence outside, and slowly the peoples in hiding, such as myself, move back on to the range. I make a direct line for my hotel, deciding that adventure could wait for another day.
Reinhardt leaves me two days later, homeward bound, and it is sad to lose such a good companion, a friend.
I had been to see my friends, Karin and Werner, whom I had met on my trip to the Galapagos Islands, and they had offered me the generous use of a room in their house. I decided to take them up on this offer.
A luxurious house, even by Australian standards, paid for by the German government, sitting on one side of the valley, overlooking central La Paz. My own room and private bathroom, key to the house and literally free use of it for as long as I wanted, was an extremely generous offer.
They were here as part of a three year teaching contract arrangement between the Bolivian and German Governments. They had a maid for the housework and a man to look after the grounds.
They would also hire a four wheel drive and provide me with a spectacular side trip to the Amazon side of the Andes. The Yungas.