A grand adventure part 6 – Lovely, lovely La Paz

Outside Oruro’s bus terminal, we asked a man with a heavy basket balanced on his shoulder whether there was a bus to La Paz. The answer was no – and indeed, the road we were on had already been blockaded – butcolectivos (private mini-vans) were able to go. “Do you know a reliable one?” We called after the man. “Yes – me – my car’s over there. 50 bolivianos.”

Done deal. We headed over to where all the colectivos were parked. A woman with a clipboard came to take our payment: “70 bolivianos”. No way. Luckily, we had a man from the army on our side and we told her 50 was the agreed price – take us or leave us. Thankfully, she didn’t leave us. Army Man explained the reason for the protests on the roads – the people are unhappy with the new name of the airport. He rolled his eyes.

We were glad we had this escape route out of funny Oruro. Eight of us and a baby squeezed into the car and I slumped low in the seat to try and get some sleep and make the three hours disappear. With our driver’s speedy progress, though, we were seeing the sprawling outskirts of La Paz within a couple of hours. He deposited us in a crazy street entirely dedicated to terminating or departing buses, colectivos and taxis. I sprinted to the baño (toilet) before we hailed a taxi into the centre.

I had left La Paz on this same road to the airport without an ounce of regret some three months previously. This time, however, as the road curled down the side of one of the mountains that surround the city centre, I couldn’t help admire its stunning location. The city fills a bowl-like canyon encircled by immense mountains of 4000m or more; there is little left of nature to see as red breeze-block houses cover every inch of ground from the lip of the bowl to the bottom on all sides, but for the occasional spur of unyielding rock that no amount of concrete can surmount.

At the bottom of the bowl is the commercial centre with its shops, offices, markets, hostels and more importantly – places to get breakfast. Yes, I was quite happy to see La Paz again.

The street outside my hostel in La Paz

The street outside my hostel in La Paz

We chose a different hostel to the one we stayed in before, this time one that the guidebook described as small and quiet. The Hospedaje Milenio was perfect – run by an incredibly friendly and helpful family, cosy little rooms surrounded an inside courtyard and everything felt very homely. We strolled out in the crisp, sunny climate and found great places to eat for minimal prices. We ended up feeling so glad to be in La Paz, we thought we’d give it a try for jobs, and proceeded to send our CVs to every hostel, hotel and bar in town.

Newsstands in La Paz

Newsstands in La Paz

Over the next week, the jobs we were offered were: 50 bolivianos (£5) per eight-hour shift in an English pub; 20% off accommodation to work eight-hour shifts five times a week in a hostel bar; and finally, our best offer was free accommodation to work in another hostel’s bar four shifts a week. Unimpressed and now panicking slightly about money, we decided it was time to leave La Paz – by now we had been hanging out there for two weeks. At least in Cusco, we thought, there’ll be more work options – and better pay…

See part 7 coming soon!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

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A grand adventure part 5 – Buses, trains and automobiles

Day 6
Back at the station, all seemed to be in order, though there were hardly any other passengers waiting. We realised we would be the only ones in ‘Executive’ class – the equivalent of first class, which for us in Bolivianos was cheap, and would mean we’d get more comfortable, fully reclinable seats, plus blankets and pillows. Excited at the prospect of a civilised journey at last, we settled down contentedly in our seats to watch the film showing on the carriage’s television. But then the train began to move, and it became apparent it wasn’t going to be all that peaceful as trains we know and love. The narrow-gauge line meant the shallow rails could easily be strewn with rocks and debris from the mountainsides, so the resulting noise resembled travelling in a metal box being constantly pelted with a hammer. Luckily, I was so exhausted I passed out for most of the night.

Inside the Executive class carriage on the Expreso del Sur train, Bolivia

Inside the Executive class carriage on the Expreso del Sur train, Bolivia

We were woken abruptly at around 6.30 in the morning by the militant train assistant who yanked the pillows and blankets off us. Annoyed, I hoped it at least meant he was going to bring round some breakfast, but no, we had arrived in Oruro – some six hours earlier we were expecting!

The Expreso del Sur train in Oruro's station at 6am

The Expreso del Sur train after arriving in Oruro’s station at 6.30am

Bleary-eyed, we wandered out into Oruro in search of breakfast. We intended to stay at least a night here to catch up on sleep and sanity, and then move straight through La Paz and on to Cusco in one swoop the next day. However, after walking the length and breadth of the bleak, former mining town to find not one shop or café open, we decided the three-hour bus to La Paz was preferable and made for the bus terminal.

Here, we found a small café serving tea and bread, and then we were ready to get our bus tickets for La Paz. However, now all the buses had disappeared and the ticket offices were all closed. Thinking it was just the weird Bolivian town’s way, we redirected our search to the road outside and got talking to some people – road blocks were being set up around the town as part of a protest – no buses would be able to leave Oruro for the rest of today!

Now go to part 6!

To plan your rail journey in Bolivia, go to the Empresa Ferroviaria Andina (FCA) website, and ask plenty of locals!

See my expert travel tips for Bolivia.

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.