Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Breathless in La Paz

View of La Paz

Palacio de Gobierno

Calle Jaen

Cathedral in Plaza Murillo

Cholitas in Bowler Hats

Street off Calle Commercio

Masks at the Ethnographic Museum

Cliff in Colocoto

A River in Zona Sur

Valle de la Luna

Calle Montenegro, San Miguel

The capital of Bolivia can leave one breathless. A few minutes after landing at El Alto airport I began to feel the effects of the altitude: headache and breathlessness as I walked past immigration.

I spent the first 15 minutes in Bolivia in oxygen therapy at Praxair Clinic a few steps from the baggage carousel. It took 3 days, a couple of sorojchi pills, and a diet of soup and salad to get me going albeit in slow motion.

The altitude of La Paz ranges from 4060 metres (13,320 feet) at El Alto down to 3,000 metres (9,842 feet) at its lowest. Downtown is halfway down (or up) while the south end, Zona Sur, is the lowest. The highest part, El Alto is on a very flat plain, the rest of the city sits in an oval bowl shaped valley, like a huge geological rift in the vast Andean plateau, the Altiplano.

The scenery in La Paz is dominated by hills, cliffs, pinnacles, canyons in dusty brown or rust red hue. Flowing through the city are over 100 rivers, but the city does not sport a lush and verdant look. On the contrary, water can be in short supply. The result is something out of science fiction, a city of 2 million people in a lunar landscape.

La Paz is actually quite modern with pockets of the colonial city in centro historico in downtown. Plaza Murillo is the main plaza (plaza mayor) where the Cathedral, the Presidential and Legislative palaces are located. Quaint streets with quaint buildings from the colonial days, radiate from Plaza Murillo. Between Calle Comercio and Calle Jaen, I found a few old villas with unpretentious but interesting museums: Etnografia, Costumbres, Casa Murillo, Musical Instruments and Art Gallery.

Further down from plaza mayor, are Calle de las Brujas, (an indigenous Aymara market of "alternative" healing), Obelisk, Church of San Francisco, and the modern downtown.

The districts in Zona Sur are modern, affluent and less hilly. About 10 minutes from San Miguel district is a park called Valle de la Luna or valley of the moon. Not too difficult to understand why it is so named.

El Alto is the district on top of the city, leading to the altiplano. It is as flat, treeless and dusty as the North American prairie minus the wheat fields. The district seems to be undergoing a construction and population boom. Unfortunately, visitors are not exactly encouraged to be walking about in this neighborhood.

La Paz is not a walking city. Winding roadways connect one zone to the next bypassing hills, skirting rock formations and crossing rivers. Some districts even have "alto" (high) in part of the name to indicate its vertical direction.

The natural topography makes La Paz a fascinating city. Instead of skycrapers, one can be mesmerized by cliffs, canyons, rivers, steep hills, and rock formations while catching one's breath.

My Trip Advisor of La Paz: In the Valley of the Moon