Friday 7 March – day one in La Paz. Wake up to a very basic breakfast in the hostel we have booked into for 3 nights. Make a plan for the day – first find another hostel to stay at as we intend to be here a good 10 days or more. Second find a language school and enrol for a week of Spanish classes.
The view northeast from the hostel
We are at the Hostel Maya Inn, in Calle Sagarnaga, 5 minutes uphill from Plaza San Francisco, and slap bang in the middle of La Paz’s tourist (or gringo) area. It’s not really us, although the hostel is fairly OK and standard for the area – its just seen to many bums on its cracked plastic toilet seat; the towels & sheets have been boiled clean a thousand times; and a clean room means, well, not really clean at all. So we spend an hour researching options and come up with a shortlist of likely places, access to a kitchen being a requirement for us veggies.
Prison visiting rules
We set off first for what may be a long shot, and a 30minutes walk away. Our senses are bombarded by traffic & human noise, images & smells all around us, the pavements are narrow, as we twirl around all eyes and hope we dont fall under a van or into a street food stall. We head south-east parallel to La Paz’s main drag, El Prado. Ten minutes gets us to Plaza San Pedro, famous for its infamous prison, inspiration for the book ‘Marching Powder’. San Pedro prison holds approx 2500 prisoners, not the 400 it should have. Most are inside for minor offences and drugs. There are no more than 20 guards…who stay outside and leave the prisoners to run the place with their own rules and hierarchy, and economy & drugs. Women & kids live there too. Apparently tourists used to be able to take a tour inside. We consider the craziness of all this, then walk on.
Another ten minutes and on Ave 20 de Octubre we pass a brightly arty pinkish house named ‘Vergen de los deseas’. Feminist images and slogans are prominent, and we don’t realise it then, but this is the house opened by the controversial & angry ‘Mujeres Creando’. To the right of it a group of indigenous women are queuing beneath a sign ‘Mujeres en busca de justicia’. Plenty of graffiti nearby reinforces the message.
We continue into the ‘bohemian’ area of Sopocachi, a mix of the old and new. After some confusion, not least the absence of any hostel signage, we find option one on our list of hostel options. Surprisingly, things go well, we can get in on Sunday, for 8 nights, and its a class above where we currently are, at only $3 a night more, quality breakfast included.
An hour later and we have enrolled at a languages school 10minutes from the new hostel. One of us gets 5 daily 2 hour classes, one-to-one, at complete beginner level. The other has to complete a bloody language test, written and spoken, and ends up in a lower intermediate group class of 2-4 people, again for 5 days x 2 hours. It works out at £50 each, we start Monday at 8.30am.
On a roll! Its 2.30pm and we stumble into a ‘bohemian’ cafe. The ‘almeurzo’ or lunch menu has veggie options, for 30 boliviarons (£2.80) each we get a mixed salad, quinoa & veg soup with tomato bread, huge tortilla, ice-cream, and juice. Stuffed. Have an espresso nearby, and they even have a smoking area! Back to the hostel for a rest time.
Go out about 7.30pm for a wander around Plaza San Francisco & nearby streets. On a whim we enter a bar with a distinct English theme. We’ve avoided such places like the plague so far, and expect the worst – drunken lager louts singing Ingerland. But we don’t have to turnabout and exit, we seem to be the only Brits there, the rest are locals with a few gringos. If you ignore the overpriced Heineken & Strongbow (40 bols each), you can sup on some proper Bolivian cervezas (lagers). We do – Parcena, Autentico, and the like come in 620ml bottles for about £1.80 each. Saya beer, blonde or negra is on tap as a pint, and the strong Hock bottles are tasty too. After ten minutes we notice someone smoking inside. Five minutes later we politely ask for an ashtray…and it turns into our first real drink-up since leaving the UK, backed by some half-decent 80’s music on a loop. After a couple hours we are given 2 free vodka shots from the bar, a problem for one of us but the 2 for the other! We stagger away around midnight, and sleep very well. Like it here!