La Paz’s colonial/historical district is the most interesting part of the city, in our opinion. For our second day there we walked three blocks down to Catedral de San Francisco. It is a popular place for street vendors, street musicians, pigeons, and tourists to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Although the church still conducts mass, it is primarily a historical site. While the church was founded in 1548 along the banks of the river that flows through La Paz, this building wasn’t constructed until almost two hundred years later, in 1743. During this point in history, the Spanish had very strict rules concerning ethnic mixing. The indigenous population could not enter this part of the city, where the church was, under penalty of death, without a specific invitation by a Spaniard. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that the law was changed. Over the years, domes and steeples were added to the structure, until it is what it is today. We were particularly impressed with the sanctuary, which was intricately designed and decorated, but were not allowed to take pictures of it. The museum was about 15 bolivianos a person to enter, and it included a tour in English. It was enjoyable, especially climbing up and down stone-carved passageways to the roof and bell tower, so we would recommend it. All in all it took about 45 minutes of our time. Next we rode the Mi Teleferico, which is brand-spankin’-new and a great ride. It is the first reliable public transport system for the people of the La Paz area, and opened in 2014. Right now there are just three lines, but they have plans for four or five more in the next five years. Bright, shiny, quick, and cheap, the teleferico is practically a tourist attraction in and of itself. We hopped on the bottom of the red line, about an eight minute walk from the main bus station in town, and rode the whole distance (just two stops) up to El Alto.
Many people live in El Alto and work in La Paz, as any suburb anywhere in the world, but El Alto is known to be poorer, have less resources, and largely less developed. It is also at the top of one of the mountains, while La Paz is in the valley below. Getting to and from work was long and difficult, due to unmaintained roads winding down the mountainsisde, so the teleferico cuts the time to a quarter. One-way is three bolivianos, so it is also affordable. It was a great way to get a bird’s eye view of the city as well. We passed over some of the primary cemeteries for La PAz, which are all above ground. They reminded us of New Orleans, though with Latin American decor. We heard of a prison in town, San Pedro, that is one of the most notorious in the world. It is illegal to enter (if not an inmate), but many tourists get unofficial tours of the place by bribing guards and paying a prisoner to show the place off. At first we really wanted to do it, until we found out that the bribes can be fairly expensive. One website said in total it could be 57 USD per person, and that just wasn’t in our budget. Here is the entrance to the prison, in the middle of downtown. The woman is waiting for visiting hours. While the majority of inmates are Bolivian, that is not always the case. Reading up on it, the prison reminded me of debtors’ prisons in England two hundred years ago. Prisoners pay for better accommodations, find odd jobs to earn money, and usually support their livelihood with a robust cocaine trade through the facility. Illegal tours help, too. Guards are posted outside the prison, not inside, just to make sure people don’t escape. The prisoners sometimes have their families live with them (or visit by staying at the prisoin hotel) and maintain order by electing their own leaders and following their own codes of behavior. Up to 1,500 people live there, 200 being children, and just like anywhere else there are “safe neighborhoods” and “dangerous neighborhoods,” where the stabbings often take place among drug-addicted inmates. If you get the chance to visit, tell me about it! I want to know. Our last stop before leaving La Paz was to the Folklore Museum. It was 20 bolivianos per person to enter, and they have no English materials. We understood enough Spanish (and could guess the rest) that it was just fine. While this isn’t a must-see, it was enjoyable and we spent around two hours looking at textiles, village models, maps, and old currency. From there, we went on to Copacabana!