La Paz: Witch’s Market, Coca Leaves, Llama Foetuses

Hilly La Paz and its oxygen-starved streets is one of South America’s highlights, without doubt. It is the world’s highest capital city at 3,650 metres above sea level. You will notice the altitude the most when trying to walk up one of the city’s many hills, only to find yourself bizarrely puffed out barely half way. Bolivia has extremely high altitude points. At one point during a four day expedition out to the salt desert, we were above 5,000 metres. I can’t imagine how people with asthma cope (they probably don’t, unless they have a lot of puffers on them). La Paz is beautiful, felt a lot safer than some people had told us it would, and was a street photographer’s paradise given its narrow, hilly streets, bizarre markets, indigenous people (who are dressed colourfully), and the view to a horizon full of cascading homes, dropping down toward the city streets.

The two places which stood out the most for us were the Coca Museum and the Witch’s Market. The former is a museum dedicated to the coca plant, which holds cultural significance in Bolivia, as well as practical use for its energetic properties and alleviation of altitude sickness. Here, we learned about the plant’s historical use which has remained unchanged up until today. The museum also showed how the plant is cultivated into cocaine, especially in the USA, where “crack” is an issue in some impoverished areas. The general consensus amongst Bolivians regarding pressure by the US to stop harvesting the coca plant, is that whatever drug dealers choose to transform the plant into outside Bolivian borders has nothing to do with them. The museum has an upstairs cafe selling coca beer, coca liquor, coca muffins, and pretty much anything coca-consumable.

Don’t get it confused, however: This isn’t Amsterdam, and eating or drinking something containing the coca plant won’t get you high. It’s simply another ingredient, and in order to make the coca plant into its cocaine derivative, you’ll need sulphuric acid, kerosene, a wok, a bunch of leaves, and about one hour of cooking time. Yep, we’ve been freely told by guides how to become the next Walter White, although beyond cocaine being a drug for losers who can’t socialise normally, even if you loved the stuff, surely reading “sulphuric acid” and “kerosene” would be a turn off, right?

Maybe that’s why they highlight the ingredients prominently. For what it’s worth, Bolivians despise gringos who come here in search of a cocaine adventure. They often laugh when they hear about Route 36 — the infamous travelling cocaine bar — since they claim that no drug dealer sells anything pure to gringos. They sell them crap, and the gringos think that because it’s Bolivian it must be the best score in the world. That aside, they’re angry about the attention this bar gets and how it affects the reputation of the country, so the irony of a traveller coming here just to piss off the locals is just about on par with a giant cruise ship barging through the peaceful paradise of Mykonos. You just don’t do it — nobody wants you there. Be normal and respect the local customs.

The Witch’s Market was the other highlight of La Paz. A strip of stalls selling magic potions, coca leaves, and pretty much anything associated with black magic, it also sold… llama foetuses. Supposedly, people buy them to bury beneath new housing constructions for good luck. They’re hung up in the streets so are impossible to miss — dried up, shrivilled, and in some cases, blackened. It’s a surreal sight. Amongst these stalls are small shops selling beautiful paintings. There were far too many times that I wanted to buy almost all that I saw, but since we’re on the road for a few more months, they’d be too difficult to transport. Anybody who plans on coming to La Paz though should definitely check it out. Some of these back home would be worth a fortune, given how well they are painted.

Bolivia has been fun and eye-opening, and the people warm and friendly. We’ve felt safe everywhere we have been so far (except a certain park in Mendoza felt shady, and unfortunately a New Zealander was murdered there two days later), but Bolivia has felt the most safe. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but you just don’t get drunken idiots or drug-fuelled losers roaming around the streets (unlike parts of say, Melbourne). We get the feeling that Bolivians have far more important things to be doing, like trying to survive in such a poor economy. Family plays a big role here too, and unlike Australia and England, Latin America largely doesn’t have a binge drinking culture attached to it. The focus is on the food, we have been told, which suits us perfectly.

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