The first thing you read about La Paz is that it is 13,300 feet above sea level, making it one of the highest city in the world. At that height comes a bonanza of ‘highest’ titles: Highest Soccer Stadium, Highest Sky Scraper (cheating), Highest Airport. Flying in from Cochabomba, which sits at a mere 8,400 feet, we practically didn’t have to land, we just stopped flying when we reached El Alto, the great plateau that surrounds the valley of La Paz. After boarding a little bus from the airport, we drove across El Alto on the highway that descends into the city center. Stopped at a tool booth, we caught our first view of the valley below. Magda has been to La Paz before, but we were still both awestruck of the scene revealed to us below. The view from the rim of the canyon resembled a cracked amethyst geode where a smooth outer shell gives way to a cacophony of sharp shapes and angles inside, all glittering in the morning light. But instead of a luminescent purple, the city was a monotone of thousands of red brick cubes climbing the valley walls.
Aside from the view from El Alto, La Paz is a the typical metropolis that forms when there is no city grid or building codes to follow. It’s unusual landscape in the valley makes it chaotic and difficult to walk. Between the grade of the hills and the altitude we found ourselves stopping often to take deep gasping breaths. There are a few interesting museums and a colonial Cathedral, but all are closed for the standard three hour siesta at midday.
In the still of the morning, we waited next to a big bus, the only one that seemed to be leaving, while the driver and the other employees made calls on their cell phones. Where there blockades? Yes. But was the bus leaving? We’ll see. We boarded and creeped up the nearly empty highway to El Alto, the best way out of the city and center of La Paz’s civil unrest. After an half an hour, as the sun started to kiss the top of Illimani Mountain, traffic came to a jumbled stop. Multiple lanes had spontaneously appeared and then ground to a halt. Stray dogs and people selling breakfast ran through the snarl. The blockades had started early.
Our bus turned around. It did a roughly 40 point turn in the middle of the crowded street, eliciting a harmony of bleating horns around us. We somehow managed to make it back the way we came. Then we turned into the little side streets of El Alto. The tall, long vehicle barely cleared the low hung electric wires dangling in clumps off of the shoddily constructed brick and adobe buildings. We passed surprised looking citizens having breakfast, unused to seeing any face float by their low second story windows, much less the faces of two curious gringos. We weaved through these narrow streets until finally the semi-legal development started to give way to farm plots and larger gravel roads. Our bus cut diagonally across the plains, a cumulus dust cloud giving chase. We’d made it around the blockades and finally, out of La Paz.