I arrived in Nuestra Senora La Paz, or Our Lady of Peace, the capital of Bolivia by bus. The station was a whirlwind of activity, with vendors calling out routes from the many offices within its bright, neon confines. We stumble into taxis, which whiz us away to the traveler’s ghetto, the cross streets of Sagarnaga and Illampu.
La Paz is the world’s highest capital city, at 3,660m above sea level. The city literally takes my breath away. The snowy peaks of Mount Illamani, over 6,000m tall, form a dramatic backdrop to the sprawl of the city. Cabs honk, zebras help the elderly across at pedestrian crossings, and people swirl around the historic buildings of the city centre.
In the Witches Market, Aymara healers sell dried llama fetuses, pre-packaged offerings to the spirits, colourful clay tablets for Pachacmama and all types of teas purported to cure all manner of ailments. La Paz offers the best shopping I have experienced so far – cheaper than Peru, Chile or Argentina, with more choice. There are textiles from the highlands, coca tea leaves for chewing, electronics and clothes for sale at the Mercado Negro.
There is a fiesta one day and from the window of my hotel, traffic grinds to a halt to allow the parade of dancers, both men and women, as well as a loudly blaring brass band to pass by. It is an anniversary of some sort, and there are people dressed up as ancient Incas going to the local Catholic church down the street. Of such contradictions is La Paz made up of.
Bolivia and La Paz have a special place in the revolutions of Latin America against the Spanish. It was here, in a little room within the San Francisco Monastery, that conspirators, led by Pedro Domingo Murillo, ignited a spark of revolutionary fever that would spread across the region and ultimately result in independence from Spain. The monastery is open to the public and is a pleasant way of whiling away a few hours. There is an internal garden bordered by graceful arches and brilliant blue walls, as well as a bell tower with a view across the rooftops of La Paz.
An easy day trip from La Paz is a visit to Tiwanaku, a pre-Inca, UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site was once the capital of a vast empire, lasting 500 years. The Tiwanaku people built in stone – stepped pyramids, drainage systems, impassive monoliths and perfectly fitted and finished stonework. They invented a system of irrigation, called suka kollus, necessary in the high, dry altiplano, which kept crops moist and warm enough to grow in the arid, cold climate.
Most impressive of all were the giant monoliths, carved from a single block of stone. They were timekeepers, calendars, and ritual objects. The Tiwanaku people practiced ritual sacrifice, offering humans and llamas atop the stepped pyramid known as the Akapana. They also practiced cranium shaping, with many skulls found in the area having a pointed end. This was created by using blocks of wood tied to the heads of young babies and children, to mould the skull while the bone was still soft.
The entire culture and civilisation disappeared just before the Inca empire gained strength, in the north. Theory has it that the Tiwanaku, for all their knowledge of farming and astrology was in the end, no match for a changing climate, and they fell from power when the weather dried up and their crops, and ultimately their food supply, failed. The precursors of the Incas left behind no written language or histories – only the ruins of their temples, courtyards and the unblinking, unfathomable expressions of their stone monoliths.