Originally published on April 14, 2016 on the Where There Be Dragons “Field Notes Board” at https://www.wheretherebedragons.com/blog/trekking-la-paz/
Image from http://www.imgmob.net/la-paz.html
From the bus station in La Paz we expected to take cabs straight to the hostel. The drivers, however, deposited us on a busy corner by the market to lug our human-sized packs up the dynamic cobblestones of La Paz in an effort to avoid a street-blocking protest. The next day on the Prado we found ourselves ambling between fully equipped police officers complete with leather gloves and aviator sunglasses and multigenerational rows of seated civilians lining the sidewalks. I’m told this introduction to La Paz is a staple of the city.
Beyond the 10 or so blocks dedicated to sweaters and souvenirs, the streets seethe with local activity. La Paz is famous for its activism, and indigenous El Alto occupying the horizon adds to the legacy of continual reclamation of the people’s power. El Alto and La Paz are connected by a 15-minute teleférico ride through the sky and seemingly the winding staircases with houses at each landing whose length I didn’t register until I gasped at the 13,000-ft air on my way back up. All sides climb up and away from La Paz, reddish-brown houses forming a giant bowl dotted with cliffs and rock faces upon which more houses perch.
From the teleférico this is the biggest city in the world. Tall boxes with rectangular windows extend further than my comprehension allows and even the mountains — one blue and glaciated and the others brown, green and rolling into sharp peaks — are encompassed by the vast urbanity. Within the expanse, I stroll up steep hills with narrow sidewalks just wide enough to accidentally make contact with the butt of the woman passing by as it intrudes into my arm-swinging space that was never really mine.
La Paz is a friendly city. Young faces are lively and abundant and old ones lead the sit-ins, chewing coca and conversing in Aymara or Quechua with their tall hats and wide skirts. Vacant platforms sprout breakdancing rounds when the sun fades and two girls linger in an extended hug in the center of the cement dance floor. Much of Cusco, crawling with tourists and bars and Westernization, felt like a plastic front propped up to meet foreign expectations of authentic yet accessible, easy culture, like the cardboard town in Blazing Saddles or a carnival-style photo op. Cusco was beautiful, fun, and perfect for recharging. But besides perhaps the souvenir shops and absurd amounts of the same jewelry, La Paz doesn’t feel like it’s just here for me. It has its own life. I’m just lucky enough to hop in.
As I contemplate returning ‘home’ to Tiquipaya, and our short exposure to Huacaria in the jungle and Q’eros in the high Andes, the urban-rural divide becomes more present in my consciousness. I notice it when I wander through trendy coffee shops and gaze out over an impressive open-air amphitheatre. I find myself thinking, “yeah, I could live here” when I haven’t really felt it elsewhere. I feel a slight pang and a little let down by my own self when I realize this modernized, “cleaner” lifestyle might only be more appealing because it’s more familiar and comfortable. Simultaneously, I catch glances of tin roofs and dirt floors on the slopes of the city, and I certainly felt some home-like tugs in the spongy mountains of Q’eros. Maybe I’m just learning to leave a tiny chunk of me in exchange for a shard of each new horizon.