Never say never. Or, how I fell for La Paz after all

You may remember reading my previous opinion on Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. I can recall the joy I felt as the taxi whisked me away to the airport for my escape, and how I looked back over the city and thought “Never again”.

Well guess what? Three months later, I came back to La Paz! And as I wrote in that entry, it seems to be all about your state of mind and how you arrive that affects your impression of a place.

This time, La Paz signified for me the penultimate stop on an epic multi-day voyage from Buenos Aires to Cusco. There had been 20-hour buses; back-to-back buses; rustbucket buses and death-defying buses. There had been lost trains; roads washed away by rivers; hours spent in abandoned mining towns in Bolivia’s back-and-beyond; road blocks…and finally, thankfully, La Paz.

Now, as we drove in above its canyon setting, La Paz looked stunning. And I was glad to get back to the reassuring hustle and bustle of city life and all the comforts and conveniences it brings. And this time I checked into a hostel run by a friendly family that made it feel welcoming.

Now it was autumn, so the leaves were turning orange on the plaza’s plane trees, and there was a crisp chill in the air which made it ideal for walking around the city and swerving into cosy cafés for hot drinks.

Now I noticed what I didn’t before. I admired the resilience and determination of the locals: the ancient women in their traditional Andean skirts who robustly sit on every corner with their snack stalls every hour of the day, come rain or shine; the fashion-conscious young women office-workers who non-chalantly negotiate the perilously steep and pot-holed pavements in their precipitous stiletto-heeled boots; the drivers who ignore all the rules of road safety, but somehow get there anyway; the school kids laughing, joking and ignoring the cars honking at them as they idle across the roads.

This time I have discovered great restaurants, warm and kind people, and stunning views of distant snow-capped peaks in the day, and twinkling lights soaring up the mountainsides all around at night.

I’m glad I came back to La Paz and gave it another chance, and I’ll remember that – especially when it comes to travel – you can really never say never.

And this time, I took loads of photos of La Paz, here are a few:

La Paz ladies

La Paz ladies

I grew a new appreciation for La Paz's funky Guatemalan buses

I grew a new appreciation for La Paz’s funky Guatemalan buses

One of many hardy senoras with her sweets and cigarrettes stall

One of many hardy senoras with her sweets and cigarettes stall

La Paz Plaza with pigeons

La Paz Plaza with pigeons

Plane trees in La Paz

Plane trees in La Paz

Urban park walkway in La Paz

I discovered this rather cool ‘urban park’ – an elevated walkway that gives great views over the city and beyond

Looking back over the city from the urban walkway

Looking back over the city from the urban walkway

Snow-capped peaks in the distance outside La Paz

Snow-capped peaks in the distance outside La Paz

Typical street in La Paz's centre - a hotch-potch of colonial buildings and electric cables

Typical street in La Paz’s centre – a hotch-potch of colonial buildings and electric cables

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

A free walking tour of Buenos Aires

I wanted to get more of a feel of Buenos Aires, hear what a local had to say about their city, so I went along to a Buenos Aires Free Tour – a small, independent-run walking tour.

When I first joined the group for the Aristocratic Tour, as the guide Vicky made the introduction, I remembered that I don’t normally get on very well with tours – my mind tends to wander off, particularly if lots of dates and figures are reeled off or the guide lets show that they have given the same spiel day-in day-out for years. But quite quickly I saw this was going to be different, thanks to both the gripping content of the tour and Vicky’s entertaining delivery.

Aristocratic tour of Buenos Aires with the animated Vicky

Aristocratic tour of Buenos Aires with the animated Vicky

Exploring the smart, wealthy neighbourhood of Recoleta, this tour was about showing old monuments and elegant mansions that I wouldn’t have blinked an eye at walking the streets by myself, yet Vicky injected colour and life into them with her stories. Revealing quirky secrets and funny facts, she painted a picture not just of the city’s streets, but something even more tangible – its people, those infamous porteños – and their lives.

What I found most refreshing and unexpected was how honest Vicky was about the shortcomings and quirks of being a porteño – such as the funny mix of how they come from Italians, speak Spanish, have French buildings and want to be British (the only Harrods to open outside of London is in BA and there are red postboxes everywhere). She also explained how everyone must pay for health insurance, and to compete for business, companies offer more and more – even free cosmetic surgery and counselling as part of their policies. Everyone Vicky knows goes to a therapist, and she had an appointment with hers just that morning, there’s no stigma attached to it.

A smart street in Buenos Aires' Recoleta neighbourhood

A Parisian-style street in Buenos Aires’ Recoleta neighbourhood

When we approached the Malvinas war memorial, as the only Brit in the group, I began to shuffle to the back. I needn’t have worried – Vicky remained surprisingly neutral and objective in her regaling of the facts about the Falklands War of 1982. She even revealed stories about how their government at that time sent boys of 18- and 19-years-old without food nor tents to the freezing islands, leaving survivors to since tell how they fought three enemies in that war: the British, the cold, and their own leaders. Vicky said everyone is still very angry about it.

Soldiers at the Malvinas War monument, Buenos Aires

Soldiers at the Malvinas War monument, Buenos Aires

I won’t reveal everything she told us, in case you want to go along, but Vicky ended the tour by the famous Recoleta Cemetery, resting place of many a politician, writer, and the city’s icon, Eva Peron. However, it was some years and some miles of travel before Evita’s body finally came to rest here – I’ll let Vicky reveal the full, jaw-dropping story to you.

Our tour group outside Recoleta Cemetery

Our tour group outside Recoleta Cemetery

I had enjoyed the style of the tour so much, a few days later I joined the morning City Tour, which takes in the more famous iconic buildings and monuments of the city centre. This time it was led by Gaston, who I didn’t warm to as much as Vicky, maybe because he had a more history-and-politics-heavy tour, maybe because it was an extraordinarily hot day and we were all suffering, or maybe because one of the first subjects he talked about was the homeless and how he simply couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live like that… Um, maybe because they don’t choose to, Gaston (Buenos Aires has a particularly bad problem with homelessness that the government simply doesn’t know how to address).

Gaston starting his tour opposite Buenos Aires' Congress building

Gaston (in the green t-shirt) starting his tour opposite Buenos Aires’ Congress building

There was still light relief on Gaston’s tour, and he added to the picture Vicky had painted of porteños, by explaining with humility how they like to believe they have the biggest, the oldest, the tallest, the very best of everything in their city, compared to the rest of the world, despite the fact in most cases it’s not necessarily true.

He also demonstrated to us the very Italian hand gestures they use to emphasise certain phrases in conversation. When we stopped outside the famous Café Tortoni, he taught us how to order coffee in a Buenos Aires café by just using different signals with one hand, such as a scissors motion for a coffee cut with milk. A standard coffee here is an espresso, and don’t even think about ordering a regular coffee – the porteños call this dirty water.

Gaston and our group outside Cafe Tortoni

Gaston and our group outside Cafe Tortoni

Gaston then led us on to the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada – the pink-painted government house – the scene of many a protest in the country’s history, and where still, every Thursday, the mothers of those who ‘disappeared’ during the Military Dictatorship (1976-83) march, demanding information about their children’s whereabouts. Alarmingly, Gaston revealed, since they started marching, two mothers themselves have joined the ‘disappeared’. Also set up in the plaza is a camp of veteran soldiers who were conscripted to the Falklands War, but because it was over so quickly they never got to fight, and the government has denied them the same rights and honours of those who did see action.

Gaston’s tour ended at the Obelisco – the proud symbol of Buenos Aires and a centre point for football celebrations and political protests to gather. This 67-metre tall obelisk stands in the middle of 14 lanes of traffic that make up the Avenida 9 de Julio – which is, Gaston assured us, the widest avenue in the world.

Buenos Aires' iconic Obelisco on the Avenida 9 de Julio

Buenos Aires’ iconic Obelisco on the Avenida 9 de Julio

How to do a BA Free Tour

  • Each of the tours were supposed to last around two hours, yet they both ran on at least 50 minutes more than this, with Vicky and Gaston each offering even more time for you to chat and quiz them after the tour finished.
  • As with anything in life, it of course isn’t really free – you are left with little choice but to tip the guide at the end – but both tours were so enjoyable, even I on a ridiculously tight budget didn’t feel cheated. These chicos are very, very clever – there were at least 15-20 people in each group on the days I went – some people will tip little, some will be more generous, either way, they’ll be happy customers. And even if Gaston and Vicky only work three days a week, they’ll make a good cash-in-hand wage in crisis-riddled Argentina. Other cities of the world should take note of BA Free Tours.
  • Visit the BA Free Tours website to see where and when to join the tours.
  • See my top 5 tips for seeing Buenos Aires on a budget.

Montevideo: Expert travel guides

I spent nearly six weeks in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, so you could say I’m something of an expert on the city. I have written a series of guides to the city for Stanfords’ travel blog – Montevideo: A cultural guideMontevideo cafe guide and 11 quirky things to do in Montevideo.

Montevideo's old city gate

Montevideo’s old city gate