26 November 2011

Bolivia day 10: A witches market and the Valley of the Moon


On Monday 7 November I flew from Sucre to La Paz. At the airport I bumped into a traveller I had talked to before – Sue from Beuly and her 4 friends had been at the same hotel as me in Uyuni and were now also going to La Paz – so I had some company while waiting for my flight. One of the highlights of travelling alone is the people you meet along the way.

The flight took just an hour and there were magnificent views of the Royal Andes mountain range and La Paz, as we headed in to land. Tony the tour guide was waiting for me and I was quickly whisked off to my hotel. I dumped my stuff, then headed down the road for a chicken burger and chips for lunch. Delish!

Tony and our driver returned at 2.30 and we started our exploration of this impressive city. First was the Witches Market, a fascinating area of stalls selling aphrodisiac formulas, a variety of the herbs used in popular remedies, soapstone figures representing the different creatures important in the local culture (like frogs for wealth and good fortune), and some of the bizarre ingredients used to manipulate the spirits that populate the Aymara world. Most revolting were the dried llama foetuses, which are buried in the foundations of new houses as an offering to the earth goddess Pachamama to bring prosperity to the inhabitants. I was told these are only used by the poor; the rich are expected to sacrifice a live llama!

A basket of offerings to Pachamama, including a dried llama foetus!
There were also statuettes of little men, hung with paper money and festooned with the various items desired by the owner, to be kept in business premises to bring good luck. Apparently, the Catholic church has decided it is better to accept rather than reject such pagan offerings, so the statuettes now get taken to church to be blessed as well. Nothing like covering your bases!

We drove on through the crazy traffic of the main street, then out through the suburbs, past security-conscious embassy buildings, the official residence of the president, and the headquarters of the Bolivian navy. I had to laugh at that one – Bolivia is a landlocked country, except for 40% of Lake Titicaca, and Chile has denied them access to the Pacific Ocean, so why have a navy?

As we descended further down the valley, the temperature rose by 2 degrees to 26°C, and it was greener and more lush, with palm trees and colourful flowering bougainvillea. Next stop was the Valley of the Moon, with its strange rock formations caused by rain eroding the clay soil. In fact, much of the land around La Paz looks similarly unstable and subject to erosion, and Tony said there are frequent landslides in the rainy season.

We drove back towards the central city through posh suburbs with grand houses that could have been anywhere in the world to the Killikilli lookout for another fabulous view over the city – it is certainly a spectacular setting. Back down in the CBD, we stopped at the main plaza, which was full of more pigeons than I’ve ever seen in one place before, and was bordered by the impressive cathedral, government offices and the legislature building, guarded by specially dressed members of the National Guard. The last stop of the day was the narrowest and prettiest street in the city, Calle Jaén, home to several museums that aren’t open on Mondays. I resolved to visit them the next day if I returned early enough from my next excursion.

Just a small part of the huge city that is La Paz
The National Guard

La Paz's main plaza


The Legislature building

Calle Jaen