100 metres under the sky – La Paz

Walking through the streets of a Bolivian town, I pass the sad faces of women. Their eyes are grey and devoid of shine. They bend under the weight of the goods which are about to be put up for sale on a huge street market.
The bodies of many of them, tightly hidden under traditional folk costumes, are full of bruises. It is possible that in their minds, there still remains the scream from a man who by force, proves that he has power over them.

Domestic violence is the order of the day in Bolivia. Nobody reacts to it, nobody tries to change it.

I ask one of my hosts, a 55-year-old Bolivian, why women don’t react? Why they don’t fight for their rights? Why they don’t leave men who treat them badly?

Roberto looks at me sadly and shakes his head. He told me stories about women who protect their oppressor because they are afraid to be left alone. He explained that a girl who doesn’t have a husband is considered worthless. That is why none of them reports crimes committed by men.

The more stories I hear, the less surprised I am about the smile less faces, hard-worn hands and hostile looks.

I’m walking down the streets of one of the Bolivian towns while trying to avoid groups of men whistling at me cheekily and I don’t want to be here at all. I decided to leave the country after 4 days..

But suddenly, just as I told everyone I wasn’t going to spend more time in this country, I found a place full of magic.

La Paz

I get off the bus ‪at 5:15 a.m. South American time.
The sky is still dark and I have the opportunity to admire the view of million lights coming out of street lamps.
I’m looking at it with wonder and for a moment I forget that I am in one of the (supposedly) most dangerous cities in Latin America.

Suddenly I heard two men whistling at me; it quickly brought me back to Earth.

I put the backpack on and head for the center: fifteen kilograms of luggage are heavy on me and my lungs require more oxygen.

Here, in the highest located capital in the world (3200-4100m), many tourists experience altitude sickness.

Interestingly, the constitutional capital of Bolivia is Sucre. But in practice, since 1889 the capital has been La Paz and it is here where the seat of the President, Government and Parliament are located.

When I get to the center, I can’t shake the feeling like I was back in India: hustle and bustle, hundreds of street vendors offering a wide variety of items. From clothes, electronics and toys to freshly squeezed fruit juices and food.

I walk up to one of the women sitting on the street; in front of her there are two huge baskets full of warm, steaming rolls filled with cheese and cream. I ask about the price; 2BOB, which is about 0.25$. I buy two rolls and the woman thanks me with a wide smile.

This is the first sincere smile I’ve seen since I came to Bolivia.

Despite the warnings of my Bolivian host (you can’t eat on the street! You will get sick!) I become a regular client of this woman and (fortunately) I don’t have any stomach problems.

During the next few days I wonder if these women trading in goods (there are practically no men on the stalls) go to sleep at all. From the early hours of the morning, they are already sitting on the road trying to sell as much as possible. 
In the evening when I returned to my host’s apartment they were still working, wrapped in several layers of sweaters and blankets.

From time to time I also met children, ‪around 7-10 years old, who circulated in streets and petrol stations selling sweets or juice in plastic bags. A friend of mine told me that until a few years ago, children of similar age worked in buses and collected tolls from passengers. Now, it is banned.

Despite the poverty and difficult life situation here, the inhabitants of La Paz are not as isolated and hostile towards tourists as the people I have met in other parts of Bolivia. 
Greetings can be heard on the streets, many people respond with a smile, and carefree laughter in bars and restaurants is abundant.

I look at the streets in front of me and decide to stay here longer. I found myself in the chaos of the city.

Train to the stars

You can walk in La Paz for hours. You can also ‚fly’ above the city.

Just go to Mi Teleferico station, buy a ticket for 3BOB and get in one of the carriages of the longest cable car in the world.
From a bird’s eye view you can admire the highest located football stadium in the world and the city panorama stretching for miles.

Mi Teleferico, however, wasn’t just a whim of the city authorities or a lure for tourists. The topic of the cableway has been discussed in La Paz since the beginning of the 1970s and it was supposed to solve a series of problems such as: unstable public transportation system, traffic jams, growing demand for diesel and petrol, noise, air pollution, etc.

The cable car was also supposed to shorten (geographically and temporally) the distance between La Paz and El Alto, which is about 400m high (1300 feet).

The project was repeatedly on the President’s table, but each time it reached a stalemate and didn’t become reality.

Finally, a study on the potential demand for cableway travel was carried out in 2011. It was found that the city handles 1.7 million daily trips, including 350,000 trips between La Paz and El Alto. The data collected during this study was so convincing that finally, in 2012, Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma drafted a bill on the construction of a cable car, which was financed by the State Treasury, thanks to an internal loan from the Central Bank of Bolivia.

The first phase of Mi Teleferico consisted of three lines (red, yellow and green) and started operations on 30 May 2014.This mode of transport has taken over very well among the inhabitants of La Paz and on 1.07.2014 the Mayor of the city Evo Morales Ayma announced a project to build six new lines that will extend the railway to more than 20km (12mil).

As of May 2018, 6 out of 9 lines are in operation.

Each of them has a maximum capacity of 6000 passengers per hour (each coach can hold 10 people and they leave every 12 seconds), while the total number of cars is 909 (443 ‚cars’ on the red, green and yellow line, 208 on the blue line, 127 on the orange line and 131 on the white line).

The three other lines (Purple, Sky Blue and Silver) are under constructions. The estimated cost of the project is 506 million dollars.

Step from the abyss

La Paz spares no impressions to people who instead of gliding in skies prefer to walk hard on the ground. 

All you have to do is go to the Yungas area. Here you will find the „Death road”, built between 1932 and 1935 by the POWs of Paraguay. It is 80 km long and is considered to be the most dangerous mountain road in the world.

According to statistics, around 200-300 people die here every year.
Despite this, there is no shortage of volunteers who ride motorcycles, bikes or cars along this route in search of adrenaline and unforgettable views.

The first stage of the road leads through a modern asphalt street; around it there is the panorama of the mountains. The snow-capped peaks shine in the sun and in their valleys there are reservoirs of water which supply La Paz through a long tube system.
The views are beautiful and nothing heralds the difficulties that we will have to face in the next kilometers of the route.

However, the asphalt finally ends and we enter a narrow road covered with gravel and stones. With each mile we ascend higher and higher. The air becomes colder and the clouds slowly obscure the visibility. After about 40min of upward travel we are unable to see anything further than 6 meters in front of us, because thick clouds cover the road like fog.

We go through hundreds of bends on a sandy road softened by clouds. Several times waterfalls appear next to us, flooding the path with streams of water. Roberto tells me that in the rainy season, these harmless streams turn into huge fast-paced streams. They often make it impossible to get to the other side of the road.

After a few hours of driving we finally rise above the clouds and fog. I look around and I’m enchanted by the beauty of nature and for a moment I can’t get my voice out, feeling tears fill my eyes.

At my feet there are mountain peaks and hectares of tropical rainforest. Around me there is silence interrupted only by the sounds of nature.

I look in the direction of my friend Roberto and in my mind I thank the world for putting this man on my path. Without his help I would never have made it here.

We have the last few kilometers to go until the town of Coroico, which is located at the very end of Death Road. We are going to stop there for lunch and gain strength before returning.

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