In the fast-moving modern times of the travel business, how does one decide between, say, the Bahamas or Singapore? One brochure boasts luxury in Honolulu and another calls you to Paris. One hotel has a pool, the other free brunch until noon, the other free HBO. This is all tricky business. That is, unless you’re equipped with a sheer inquisitiveness for world culture at a primitive level: in which the local peoples shell out displays of inter-connected culture, customs of language, food, traditional rituals and fashion, and of course, themselves.
I happen to come across such pockets of culture in the thin air and wispy clouds of La Paz, Bolivia. Apparently the consensus is that La Paz is the highest administrative and de facto capital city in the world. Seemingly enough, much of your lack of punctual decision making can be attributed to the lack of oxygen in your brain at such altitudes. Hooray for cognitive functioning at an altitude!
Imagine taking a local bus into town with wafting aromas of chicken feathers and earthy spices. Roads wind down into the valley. Mountains topped with white snow stand in the distance. Ah, the mystical city of La Paz.
The city is a colorful crooked crag, enveloping a valley at the base of a chain of mountains. Veins of earth cut their way downward into the high-elevation valley that is La Paz. It smells of smoking mystic herbs, exhaust and dust-filled, high-elevation, dry Andean air. Bring a few extra red blood cells along with extra layers (the nights get pretty darn cold) and undiminished perception for a third-world culture quite untouched by the Western world. Welcome to the Wild West of South America.
For a taste of local Bolivian reality, view the sidewalk cluttered with a bewilderment of shuffling feet angst-stacked in unorganized lines outside many of La Paz's banks. Today, utility bills are due for many of the poorer locals. Surprisingly enough, they wait outside of the local banks to pay their utility bills. They do this process once a month. No PayPal account. No online banking. No stamp, mailbox and lick of an envelope. You wait outside the bank, cash in hand, hoping you'll have enough Bolivianos to pay your monthly utility bills.
For shopping, people watching or simply sheer shock, check out the “Witches Market" at the upper end of downtown. Lines of temporary propped clothed tents sit adjacent to a lengthy winding street just above the downtown financial district. One vendor's store sells sewn llama feet for mystical superstition, just in case a bad omen comes your way, and another sells hand-woven socks. Bead-clad demon monster masks are among the atypical items hanging from the low ceilings of the tent. To settle your anxieties: this is the cheapest Latino-style swap meet you’ll ever encounter, so buy a gift for a friend.
And then it’s the belly-filling food. Hot flavors emitting from large stew pots enthrall your senses. Grab a spot in line behind one of the many local Bolivians for a taste of some aji de lengua (cow tongue sauced with a concoction of beef broth, native herbs, spices and veggies over potatoes). And put out the fire with chicha (a milky-white sour alcohol made from corn).
If strolling through the city isn't enough, expose yourself to cutting-edge adventure – teetering on the edge of possible lunacy – by climbing a 6,000 meter peak. After all, the longest mountain chain in the world, the Andes, forms the spine of sequenced snow-capped beasts jutting through the middle of the country. There are two snow-capped peaks just outside of La Paz suitable for an array of mountaineering styles.
One, Huayna Potosi, is 19,974 feet and is known as one of the easiest 6,000-meter peaks in the world. Partly due to the fact that the peak can be climbed in two days and "no actual mountaineering experience is required," cajoles the chuckling Bolivian head salesmen for one of the many mountaineering companies (70 U.S. dollars gets you to the top along with guides, food, crampons, ice axe, rope and headlamps). Breathtaking, mind-elating and soul-shaking views can be had from the summit, including Lake Titicaca. If you’re oxygen-deprived enough, you may even see a feather-clad shaman.
The other peak, Illimani, sits at 21,122 feet and can be done in four days.