Crazy La Paz - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 20, 2013

Crazy La Paz

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EVERYTHING in La Paz is the world´s highest. It has the world´s highest vélodrome, the highest swimming pool, the highest international soccer field. Its tallest building is not the world´s tallest but it´s the world´s highest. Because everything starts at around 4 000m.

La Paz: affluent people live in the centre, where it's eight degrees warmer than on the rim
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Eduardo, who shows us round the city, points to the soccer stadium. "We play all our international matches there," he says, a funny story in waiting. "When the Argentinians come and they play well, they are unstoppable. But when they lose, they fall over at the end and they have to have oxygen and they complain that playing at this altitude is dangerous. But only when they lose."

Outside the city is Moon Valley, a strange geological formation which others tell us is reminiscent of Bryce canyon in the western United States.

The strange landscape of Moon Valley
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We get there through the working quarters and then past walled houses, sometimes with a policeman hired full time from the conventional police force, which cost $1 500 000. Prices in Bolivia are quoted in local currency until the figures get too high, and then they switch to the American dollar.

"The price is too high for an economy the size of ours," Eduardo points out with a good grasp of economics and an air of "no good will come of it."

Bolivia was once twice the size. Like Denmark, it progressively lost bits to others. In particular, it lost access to the ocean to Chile, which makes it a land-locked nation. There is some inconvenience to this because getting goods to Pacific ports gives Chile a profit from transit fees.

Not being on the sea hasn´t stopped Bolivia acquiring a navy, however.

Eduardo is proud of it. "We have destroyers and submarines and even a battleship," he says with a straight face, "but we don´t have to show them."

He reveals the joke with a chuckle. Bolivia does have a navy but it´s a coastguard, operating on the lake.

Bolivia does have a proper army, of course, and for decades it held power here. A former president and a general of the junta are still in jail. The military controlled the country, limited its freedoms, dabbled with the drugs trade and collaborated with other South American dictatorships and with the CIA to the north.

The army barracks in the centre of town: under the junta it housed a concentration camp and not all who went in came out again
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Then the profit from the mines collapsed, after years of supporting the economy, and the generals had no ideas. The country became a democracy and moved to capitalist trading, a relief to many but a disaster to others as they lost their jobs.

Only married women wear bowler hats, which they balance without the aid of pins. The bowler was a sales venture by British companies who, when they couldn't interest local men, spread the word that wearing their hats was good for fertility
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Many changes came with the transfer of power. Women began going to work instead of staying at home, and their horizons widened. The divorce rate, which had been zero, is now more than 60 per cent. Religious observance has fallen rapidly. Social services have increased, with free health care, free and compulsory education, and a modest pension.

More obviously, nobody walks in fear past the white walls of the army base. Once it was the heart of the generals' grip on the country and many went through its doors and never passed the other way.

"There was a concentration camp in there," Eduardo says. "The generals worked with dictators elsewhere in South America and not only Bolivians were held there but people from everywhere else."

Nobody rides a bike here. Frankly, I wouldn´t either. The roads dive and climb at 40 degrees, nevertheless clogged with traffic. There are few accidents in La Paz, it seems, but perhaps only because drivers can go fast neither up nor down. To give you an idea of how hilly this place is, it is eight degrees colder in the outer, higher suburbs than in the centre.

And something else we learned today: get caught drink-driving in Bolivia and you lose your licence... for life.

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