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Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz

La Paz literally translates to mean ‘The Peace’, however, this city is far from peaceful.

Bolivia’s most energetic metropolis, it is easy to mistake this for the capital but (fun pub quiz fact) technically, it isn’t. Although, compared to the ‘real’ capital of Sucre, it should be. The rammed streets filled with colourful Cholitas, packed with street stalls, and overrun by the 15 seater collectivos delivers a unique insight into Bolivian culture.

As most of our readers know, we find it hard to warm to the larger cities, yet despite the high altitude and chilly evenings, La Paz hugged us tight, hugged us close and we genuinely enjoyed its embrace.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
These are ladies you do not wanna mess with

And when we say unique, man do we mean unique. With everything from the famous Cholita Wrestling, a sport that consists of women of all ages flying across a wrestling ring with long braided hair and pleated skirts, to the world’s most notorious prison, where inmates live comfortably with their wives and kids in rented cells, to one of South America’s biggest outdoor markets and only witches market; try not to marvel while exploring the eccentric city.

Table of Contents

From Copacabana to La Paz:

Considering La Paz is the transport hub of Bolivia, you will have plenty of options to reach here. From the classic overnights to riding buses on boats (yes, you read that right) there is no corner of Bolivia that doesn’t include a bus journey to the fake capital.

Those travelling from Peru will most likely have ventured from Puno to Copacabana. All buses parked along Copacabana’s Plaza Sucre lead to La Paz but to ensure you avoid being charged the Gringo rate and bag a seat for half the tourist price, click on over to our detailed blog here.

Those travelling from Puno in Peru, although we didn’t travel directly to La Paz but instead made a stop in Copacabana (we loved our time in this little lakeside town), can jump over to our ‘How To’ blog here.

Accommodation in La Paz:

Bumping into a friend we met in Peru on arrival was a touch of that famous Irish luck that myself and Luke don’t have too regularly.

We were brought to the centrally located and budget-friendly Hostel Intiwasi located on the salon and barber-ridden street Calle Murillo, two blocks from the San Francisco Plaza.

At just 35B (€4.30) per person per night for a private double room with a shared bathroom, how can you go wrong?

If the large rooms, all fitted with two double beds aren’t appealing enough, the smoker-friendly open-aired common areas and rooftop might win you over (don’t worry, it is slightly covered so there is no chance of rain and despite it being a smokers paradise, there is no smokey atmosphere for those who prefer to avoid the cancerous sticks).

A rarity in Bolivia, the shared kitchen, although basic, offers two stoves and enough delph for all. Each floor has two toilets and separate showers with steaming hot water. After so long without it, dare we complain? It’s too hot!

Our only warning is to BYOT, bring your own toilet roll. While cleaning takes place every day, the toilets never have the stuff. Like, NEVER. But you need to get used to this whole Bolivia dissing toilet roll attitude. On the plus side, the Wi-Fi in the common areas is decent and if you’re lucky it might even reach your room!

 

Street Food:

Across from the San Fran Plaza is the never-ending Avenida. Swing left and pop into the Mercado Lanza, here is also a good place to buy groceries. Open until 5 pm, the top floor is where you can find all the cheap ‘menu del dia’. To find delicious street food at night, walk the perimeter of the Mercado Lanza or head towards the Plaza Comercial. For burgers, hot dogs etc. cross the road from San Fran Plaza.

Things To Do in La Paz:

San Pedro Plaza:

Our La Paz highlight, fans of ‘Marching Powder’ will have heard of the infamous San Pedro prison; where inmates live carefree in a world that has a voting system, rental system, a chance to work, earn money and all while sharing their luxurious cells with their wives and kids.

It was here at the San Pedro Plaza where we met Crazy Dave, an American and ex-convict who spent 14 years in the notorious penitentiary. We spent the afternoon with Crazy Dave, someone who we now class as a dear friend and wish to see his life turn around for the good.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
Our pal and the local legend, Crazy Dave

Dave asked us to let our readers know that he is at the San Pedro Plaza every day between 12 pm – 1 pm, and would love the chance to meet his fellow gringos to tell some tales and share his life story.

We loved this experience so much, that we dedicated a blog to his story which you can read here.

Witches Market:

After failing to find Peru’s hidden Witches Market in Lima, we were content in knowing that we still had the popular spell shops in Bolivia to visit.

At first, not realising we even passed the market that is on Calle Murillo when it was pointed out to us, we’re sad to say that we were hugely underwhelmed. It’s more of a Holland and Barrett with voodoo dolls. Specialising in lucky and traditional trinkets to hang in homes and capsule and liquid-based herbal remedies for every ailment under the sun. The llama carcasses were some sight, however!

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
The Witches Market, where the skeletons and souls of llamas are for sale

To get your superstitious kicks, instead, visit any of the witch doctors who can cast spells and read your fortune. Prices for tarot readings start at 10B (€1.25) and depending on what spell, expect to pay a minimum of 50B (€6.25). The witch-crafty folks are sitting along the San Fran Plaza opposite the right-hand side of the church. Find them behind the row of tents, all owned by those who are homeless, sadly.

El Alto Market:

Known as one of the largest outdoor markets in the whole of South America, a big statement but a true one, a trip to El Alto market is a decent day out and one you will enjoy. Stretch the imagination, and know that whatever you think of, you can purchase it here. A fairly “gringo-less” market, join the locals for a spot of shopping every Thursday and Sunday.

It also gives a good excuse to take the teleferico over the city, not that you need an excuse. For the best of both worlds, ride up during the day and back as evening settles. The nighttime views are spectacular.

In saying that, to reach the market quickly in order to have more time to explore before our Cholita Wrestling Match (more on that in the next suggestion) we did take a collectivo up and the teleferico back down.

Collectivos to El Alto leaves from directly across the San Francisco Plaza. Mention your destination to any screaming ayudante and prepare the 2B (€0.25) fee. It’s a quick 30-minute drive, dropping you under a bridge near the market. Head up the hill and spot the sea of stalls.

Cholita Wrestling:

Using the same transport method as the above, Multifunctional de La Ceja, the famous wrestling ring where, every Thursday and Sunday, the Cholita Wrestling matches take place.

There is the option of booking a tour with any agency for around $13. We heard this includes transport, a drink and the entry fee. A tour also guarantees you front-row seats which are a number of plastic garden armchairs placed in front of the ring.  We don’t think locals have the option to buy such seats, so for us, we felt this was a tourist privilege and had way more laughs sitting and screaming with the locals.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz

There are two arenas and two shows, held on Sunday at 4.30 pm; the Multifunctional Arena is the largest, with the smaller arena being more of a sports hall, as you can see above. Either way, they’re both hilarious and entertaining and definitely worth your time.

We decided to double whammy by visiting the busy El Alto Market during the day before catching an afternoon match.

It cost us 50B (€6.25) a ticket, paid at the door. So the DIY method will save you at least $5. Let it be known that there will be large queues from 4 pm, with the fight kicking off at 4.30 pm, so arrive early.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
A Cholita tour flyer for those interested, but it’s easy to do DIY

If you would rather skip the market, take any collectivo leaving from across the San Fran Plaza and tell the driver or ayudante that you’re heading to “Cholitas” and they will drop you off outside the small, school-like hall arena.

If on foot, walk in the direction opposite the overhead telefericos and the wrestling arena can be found along the main bridge, next to the end of the market. Ask any local or walk along the ‘Panoramica’ road towards the hospital.

To get back to the city, jump a collectivo along the Autopista (busy main road on the left-hand side as you exit the arena) heading to San Francisco Plaza or float high over La Paz on the telefericio, and enjoy the star-like streets below.

The teleferico costs 3B (€0.40). You won’t miss the lines overhead. Follow them to find the station and wait for the last stop called the Estacion Central. From here it’s a 10-minute walk back to the San Fran Plaza.

Valle de la Luna:

The Valle de la Luna is a large and interesting landscape that was once submerged under Lake Titicaca. Over the thousands of years, the lake levels dropped and dried, leaving behind these pretty impressive calcified stalagmites.

Rumour has it, that it got its name when astronaut Buzz Aldrin visited and compared it to the surface of the moon.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
Where’s Lukey?

Whatever you do, don’t book a tour to visit here. Although you can spend as much time as you want at the attraction, you will see everything you need to within an hour or two. We imagined a tour cost was not worth it and noticed visitors shuffled in and out at record speed. Do this one DIY for little transport costs and an entry fee of 15B (€1.90).

From the corner of Calle Murillo and Calle Sagarnara, near the Witches Market, look out for any collectivo with either ‘Mallasa’ or ‘Zoologico’ displayed on the front. Another option is to take the no. 43 yellow school bus that passes the San Francisco Plaza.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
Caught between a rock and a hard Valle de la Luna

Mention to the driver you want to jump off at Valle de la Luna which is just before the town. The bus costs 2.60B (€0.35) and takes no more than 45 minutes, depending on the traffic leaving the city.

You could take the opportunity to go early and grab some lunch or explore Mallasa, the nearby town, to then walk to Valle de la Luna or vice versa!
Alternatively, if you are close to the teleferico ‘green line’ for 3B (€0.37) hop on until Irpavi and then walk to Calle Calacoto. From here find the collectivo to Mallasa for 2B (€0.25). The less direct, and a little more expensive option, but a good chance to ride the teleferico if you haven’t already.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
A pretty unique view

Take any collectivo that passes the entrance back to La Paz.

Cementerio General:

For some, this might be a strange suggestion but one we do recommend. Go visit La Paz’s large and local graveyard. This is nothing like we have seen, a complete contrast to our gloomy, morbid places of rest with large engraved stone slabs, rotting flowers and a cold chill, even on the warmer days.

Whereas the Cementerio de General is a place of celebration. Where life begins, and the beautiful corridors are aligned with love, gifts, and smiling visitors. A visit may not be for everyone, but to indulge in a bit of local culture, or to witness a different outlook to life and death, go!

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
Looks like anything but a cemetery

We were lucky to visit La Paz in early November so we had a chance to see the graveyard transformed into a party, where locals gathered to celebrate ‘The Day of the Dead’ on 2nd November.

Feel free to jump over and read about our experience here.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
The Day of the Bread

And remember, as the local poet Gregorio Reynolds so perfectly put it: “To live without hurting others, and to die suddenly, that’s an enviable life and an enviable death”.

Be a Zebra For the Day:

Fancy doing something extraordinarily different to other tourists, having a laugh, playing dress up and raising awareness? Well then go be a zebra for the day.

A government scheme was introduced to help with the rising traffic accidents in the insanely busy La Paz city; local residents and volunteers gather every day, dress up as a zebra and dance and entertain the traffic waiting at traffic lights. This is to encourage all drivers to slow down, and even help people safely cross the road.

So if you do have a spare day, why not get out there, shake that ass, make people smile, have some fun and practise your Spanish? The guys are more than happy to welcome volunteers, and are in need of an extra pair of hands, or should we say stripes!

On arrival, we contacted the organisation to see if we could join them but unfortunately, it took them a little longer than expected to reply. By the time they did, we had moved on to Rurrenabaque.

However, we still spoke to the team at the Cebra Educadores Urbanos y Voluntariado via Facebook who told us to visit their offices located on the Street Federico Zuazo, called Csapek (found beside Entel) to get more information.

Just want to grab a selfie and give a high five? You won’t miss these giddy striped safety wardens who are always jumping around the main junction near San Francisco Plaza.

We do believe that La Paz is a little like Marmite. Some love its tasty but unique rugged texture while others cannot stomach how overwhelming it is.

Bolivia: The Cholitas, Prisons and Witches of La Paz
A happy Hogan with her Cholita

Travelling from North to South, we call Bolivia our “Central America” of  “South America” and our two weeks in La Paz was the stamp that made our rough and raw feeling real.
We both loved it, and one of us doesn’t even like Marmite.

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