Living on the edge in Bolivia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 July, 1997, 12:00am

Gasping for oxygen I went ever upwards. The buildings had already shrunk to matchbox size below. The houses I was passing were the little red adobe ones that, seen from down below, make a giant cubic pattern on the canyon wall.

La Paz, Bolivia - it's the highest capital in the world. That was why I came. Now I wanted to see it all. At a point up the canyon side, beyond which I couldn't go, I found a lookout - Mirador de Kili-kili.

From here you get an unbroken view of the city below and the canyon wall beyond. Away to the east is Illimani, the ice-capped peak that at 6,402 metres is the city's mighty guardian.

La Paz, to be sure, is a wonder. It is built in what looks like a crater on the moon. At the crater's edge is Altiplano. It is a vast, cold, almost treeless plane, 4,100 metres above sea level. It runs east from the Andes for 140 kilometres, and is 840 kilometres long.

To find respite from the bleak windswept freeze of the plane, the Spanish conquistadors opted for a settlement on a canyon floor, four hundred metres down. This settlement they called Nuestra Senora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace).

Gazing down on La Paz now, from the heights of Kili-kili, the puzzle I set myself was to find a patch of green.

Most of the people in La Paz are Aymara Indians. It is they who occupy these lofty adobe perches above the town; and they who get the view. The well-heeled choose to live in the lowest parts. Oxygen is at a premium in La Paz.

The oldest and liveliest part of downtown is found, as you might expect, where the Indians stay. This is at the city's more elevated sector to the west.

The action centres mainly around the splendid old San Fransisco Monastery. It is the largest church in South America. Its gold-leafed interior is seen at its gorgeous best at mass on a Sunday morning.

In the narrow streets that steeple up behind the church you find the Witches Market. On sale here is a bizarre assortment of silver trinkets, amulets, sweets and, amazingly, dried llama foetuses, some up to 30 centimetres long.

A basket of these 'goodies' is buried under newly built houses as an offering to Pachamama, the Aymaras' most important pagan god.

The black market is also in these parts. Open every day, it is an enormous sprawling fair - the biggest in all of South America. The people of La Paz clearly like to shop outdoors. Goods on sale range from potatoes to computers. Everything is duty-free and cheap.

Many North Americans, I was told, come here to furnish and equip their homes. Savings made on duty-free purchases more than compensate for the cost of their trip.

Others come for the handicrafts. The choice is similarly staggering - ponchos, alpaca rugs, masks, llama knitwear and silver jewellery.

The market also spills on to the city's main thoroughfare, Avenida 16th de Julio. Locally known as The Prado, it runs (with several name changes) through the centre of the city.

Every day there is some new kind of crowd-pleaser here. There are buskers, spontaneous theatrical performances and ever so convincing mountebanks.

According to one placard, on offer is a miracle cure for cancer.

At the fruit and vegetable mart on Iliampu Street, the Aymara ladies shine. Their eccentric-looking costumes make for great photographs, but you wonder at their practicality.

It is no surprise to learn they are a legacy of colonial times. With a fine sense of the arbitrary, the Spanish King Carlos III decreed that all Bolivian women wear a heavy flouncy skirt (pollera) and a bowler hat.

The bowler is worn on the side of the head if you are single, and on top if you are married.

The idea, it seems, was to set the Indians apart from the Spanish 'gentry'. There is a rumour also that the odd choice of head-wear resulted from an oversupply of bowler hats on the market at the time. What other reason could there be? In this 'traditional' garb, plus pony-tail, embroidered blouse and woven sack (manta) on their backs, the ladies of La Paz are an arresting sight.

It is deemed attractive, I was told, for women to be buxom around the hips. Hence the thick padding underneath their skirts, and hence also their awkward toddling gate. Attractive? Obviously so for the people of La Paz.

The colonial part of town offers little to compare to that of its Ecuadorian counterpart in Quito. Nonetheless, there are some intriguing old streets and plazas to explore.

Plaza Murillo is where the city's main public buildings are - the National Congress, the Cathedral and the Renaissance style Presidential Palace.

Known locally as the Palacio Quemado or burnt palace, this grand old survivor has suffered more than its share of burnings in its turbulent past.

My favourite spot in these parts was Plaza Riosinho. This neat little square is one of those rare green splashes in this brick and mortar town.

Here is where people come for a bit of leafy shade. It is hard to imagine that the laughing chatty schoolgirls here will one day opt for the sombre bowler hats and flouncy skirts their mothers wear. You somehow hope they won't.

I was not expecting the Aymaras of La Paz to be friendly. As in most South American countries, they have little reason to celebrate at the sight of a visitor.

After all, a string of 'visitors' have in the past (and not a lot has changed) robbed them of their land, and ruthlessly exploited them as labour in the mines.

Mindful of this, I was pleased with the conviviality I found.

So long as you don't thrust cameras under noses, or intrude on privacy, you will be received very well.

Almost certainly, you won't be robbed. The worst that befell me was to have a piece of fruit - I think half a tomato - thrown in my general direction when I was trying for a candid shot of a lady in the market.

Serves me right! After all, to the Aymaras, my camera was stealing a part of the lady's soul.

There are some interesting day trips offered from out of La Paz. The pick of these is to the mysterious and remarkably well preserved ancient ruins at Tiahuanaco.

With some of its stones weighing over a hundred tonnes, the 'city' is clearly the product of an advanced civilisation, the exact date and nature of which are still unknown.

More evidence of advancement is the sophisticated irrigation system in place. Parts of this are so well preserved as to be still in use by the Aymaras today.

The trip to Tiahuanaco takes around 1.5 hours, and itself offers some stunning views of the snow-capped Andes at the edge of Altiplano.

I was amazed to learn that many tourists to La Paz breeze in and out of town in a day or so. They are on their way via Lake Titicaca to Peru.

This extraordinary city, you feel, deserves a longer stay than that. I found enough to intrigue and to occupy me for a week.

And by the way, there is a cure for the altitude sickness that afflicts so many 'lowlanders' visiting here.

It is the staple drink of the Indians - 'mate de coco'.

It stimulates the respiratory tracts and warms the blood - just the thing for an enervating climb up a canyon wall to the dizzy heights of Kili-kili.