La Paz was a city we had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, we couldn’t wait to experience the mish-mash of colours, sounds and smells, hiking up and down cobbled streets, rubbing shoulders with khaki-clad policemen and indigenous ladies in colourful skirts and bowler hats. We were keen to see how we would cope being thrown into the thick of it – a country neither of us had been to before, and where I had only a slight advantage speaking Spanish. Another part of me was more than a little apprehensive – I had suffered a little from the altitude when I first went to Mexico City several years ago, and La Paz is getting on for double that height, so I was hoping against hope that we wouldn’t feel the fatigue, heavy limbs, sickness, and headaches that the locals here call “soroche”.
We needn’t have worried. Having spent the previous several days in Mexico City, we were already well on our way to the high life, and apart from some embarrassingly huffy moments making our way around the city (uphill is a killer and there’s plenty of that), we both felt fine.
For the first half of the week we were there, however, La Paz seemed to us a city of confusion and smog. Sadly, not exactly overwhelmed by the friendliness of the locals, we initially found it hard to talk to people and the grey weather and thin air often curtailed our exploration. Think of it as a place where everything is a whole lot of effort – both physical and mental. Wheezing up a seemingly interminable hill in the pouring rain in search of food you can both decipher and enjoy, plonked in front of you by very grumpy people in spite of your polite smiles and Spanish isn’t what I’d call a leisurely lunch. Occasionally though, the sun comes out, and when it does, the place seems transformed.
Let me give you a comparison. Here is what La Paz looked like most of the time we were there:
But when the sun was blazing, the whole city seemed that much more beautiful and alive:
Quite a contrast, isn’t it! One sunny day, we took the opportunity to explore a green space in La Paz we hadn’t been to in the peeing rain (little wonder). The Parque Laikakota Mirador is a small oasis for families and strolling couples centred on two children’s parks. The first is a funfair-type playground with candy floss on sale and colourful puppet shows at the weekend. The second is the Museo Kusillo Cultural Complex; an interactive space for children and young people to learn about Bolivian culture and history, especially that of La Paz, in a colourful and friendly hands-on environment. The whole place offered sweeping views of the city around you, and spectacular Mt Illimani in the distance. Certainly not aimed at gringo tourists, we were completely absorbed by the various crafts, games, dancing and focus activities on offer, all of it included in the small cost of the charming funicular railway you ride up to get there, and all seemingly run by volunteers. Once at the top, you hop off and enter a structure several floors high to get as involved or as messy as you like.
We were struck by the popularity of the place, and how families apparently from all social backgrounds were interacting with their kids and with each other. There was an educational message, but it varied from the geological and archaeological history of the city in one area, to encouraging children to think about positive lifestyle choices in another, right through to bubble blowing, papier mâché, and craft skills like weaving. There really was something for everyone, and we were glad to see that the local government had clearly invested so much in the place, and how much it was benefitting the people who went there. We enjoyed spectacular rooftop views of the city before wandering home via the purpose-built aerial boardwalk in high spirits.