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Buying bargains in bustling Bolivia!

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20th August 2010- Arriving into Bolivia, the scenery instantly became more baron and rocky and as we made our way through the rugged terrain, occasionally glimpsing the odd alpaca farm, the lower poverty levels were obvious.

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Arriving to the very outskirts of La Paz (one of the two capital cities in Bolivia) it was fairly obvious that the locals hadn’t seen anything quite like our truck and were very intrigued. Unfortunately they were less pleased to see us when we took our cameras out and tried to photograph them. At 3,660m above sea level, it is the worlds’ highest capital city and contained within a steep valley.

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Its richest inhabitants reside in the lower parts where there is less altitude and the poorest residents live at the highest levels of altitude.

Making our way through the upper levels we caught a glimpse of the sheer size of the city as we overlooked the valley- it was simply breathtaking!

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With shacks and houses perched and crammed into every inch of the valley, it was like no place we had ever seen. As we made our way into the City centre jostling with the hundreds of minivans and down numerous narrow streets, we eventually came to the Truck park where we would leave our trusty truck for the 5 days we had in La Paz.

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Gathering all our belongings for the stay, we met outside the truck ready to walk into the frantic city. Sadly, Fiona fell from the truck and twisted her ankle badly, so had to be carried to a taxi and taken to the hotel. The rest of us made our way through the winding, bustling streets in close single file, boy, girl, boy, girl; so as to keep an eye on not only our belongings but each other. Recently there have been a growing number of scams used to extract tourist dollars or passports, and even some cases of kidnapping.

Reaching ‘The Continental’ hostel, we checked in and were given our keys to shared apartments. In our case; a three bedroom apartment to be shared with Jimmy and Fiona, Tom and Cecilia.

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Unfortunately it was on the 3rd floor, which at altitude meant having to stop on the second floor to catch our breath!! Opening the front door we were delighted to be met by a huge lounge/diner, a kitchen and the three big bedrooms.

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With Fi unable to venture out due to her ankle, most of the group headed out to get some Bolivianos from the cash point, then upon spotting a local pizzeria, ordered in our best Spanish and took them back to our apartment for a feast and a moan about our increasingly bossy and ‘mumsy’ tour leader Kristy.

21st August 2010 - Up and looking to shower we were met by a traditional Bolivian shower- with electricity wires hanging loose out of every crevice.

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Told by Kristy to make sure we wore flip-flops to act as the ‘earth’ conductor just in case, we were a little nervous the first time the water flowed!! Clean and unscathed, we decided to check out what La Paz had to offer and we made our way through the back streets to first tackle the ‘Black market’- a bustling and narrow maze of local markets selling everything from clothes to bootleg DVDs.

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Notorious for pickpockets we kept our eyes peeled! Next up we visited the Witches market. Here a variety of witches products are sold, including baby llama foetuses which are supposed to be buried under the porches of new homes to provide good luck!

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There were also stuffed Armadillos on display as well as other strange products.

Finding a cosy local restaurant, we ordered some delicious and very cheap local food, unfortunately the service side of Bolivia is still pretty sluggish! Back out on the streets, we headed through some more markets and started to gauge a few prices for various souvenirs and Llama and Alpaca wear! With the local women dressed in long dresses, platted hair and small bowler hats, La Paz had a really strong identity and unlike a lot of Chile, with the bustling colourful streets; it really felt like we were in South Americas’ heart.

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The bowler hats we came to discover have become tradition ever since a local business man returned from Spain with a suitcase of hats and upon realising he had bought children’s sizes, convinced the local women that small ones were all the rage in Madrid!

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Meeting back at the apartment for 6pm, we caught up with some of the group before heading out to a Thai restaurant with our temporary flat mates, again surprised by how cheap and high quality the food was.

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22nd August 2010 – Woken by Alex jumping up and down on our bed at 9am before diving on us (we’re not joking!!) she was after Si’s safe key for the truck! Awake now, we made our way out to the markets for a day of shopping! In bargaining mode, we spent the day stocking up on local souvenirs and great value Alpaca clothes!

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Back to the hostel for 3:30pm and we grabbed a taxi 40 minutes across town to the outskirts of La Paz, to visit the ‘Cholitas Wrestling’. This is a popular past time for locals who all gather around a wrestling ring to watch men and women fight it out on the canvas. After being told that we had to buy the ‘tourist’ ticket (50 bolivianos instead of 15 for the locals) we were a little annoyed but upon receiving our inclusive popcorn, drink and ring-side seats we were more than happy to spend the £5 for the evening. Getting into the spirit we bought some traditional South American wrestling masks and cheered on the local favourites! In the style of WWF wrestling, at times it was very cheesy although we did wince occasionally when the women were thrown face down and dragged around by their platted hair, it was amusing all the same!

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Deciding we had seen enough wrestling for the day, we bargained down a taxi home and did our best to explain the directions in Spanish.

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Eventually finding the right area for the pub we were meeting the others in, we walked the last 5 minutes on foot. Meeting in Olivier’s Pub (a traditional British pub as we were all craving a bit of 'home cooking'), we ordered food and drinks – favourites such as steak and ale pie (but a fraction of the cost!). Meeting two new members of the group – ready to join us from tomorrow until Lima – Paige and Julie both from Canada, we got stuck into the cheap cocktails and sat drinking and chatting until the bar closed at 1am. Zig-zagging our way home, we helped the even more drunk Benny stagger back with us.

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23rd August 2010 – Venturing out for some well-needed breakfast, we grabbed a delicious pork roll concoction from one of the street stalls. Refuelled, it was time to make the most of our last day in La Paz. Firstly, we made our way to the main church and climbed to the Bell Tower for sweeping views across the city, we then had a look around the huge church and into the Crypt, where many famous Bolivians ashes are kept in urns.

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Making our way back out of the front door, we noticed there were a row of balaclava-wearing shoeshine men.

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We soon found out this was the lowest paid job in Bolivia and the men who do it are so ashamed, they would cover their faces to hide their identities. After walking around the city centre, we made our way to another of the many market areas for some more bargaining and shopped ‘til we dropped!

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As we made our way back to the apartment for the evening, we noticed at the zebra crossings, there were men dressed in full ‘Zebra’ outfits (obviously!), escorting people across and directing oncoming traffic. It was bizarre considering it was common practice in La Paz.

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On our way back to the apartment, we decided to book a table at Colonial Pot – a lovely looking restaurant with local food served at local prices (less than £3 for 3 courses!). Meeting the rest of the group at 8.30pm, we strolled down to the restaurant and were seated in a large, medieval style dining room where we tucked into all varieties of dishes including delicious alpaca steaks.

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24th August 2010 – Up early, we checked out of our lovely room and walked, single file again back through the town to the Truck Park. Once on board with everything stowed away, we made our way back up the steep valley roads and headed on to our new destination – Peru and the little lakeside town of Puno via the border crossing and of course more stalls selling produce!

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As we left Bolivia, we were disappointed we hadn't had more time to explore the country. We had really enjoyed its vibrant feel, friendly people and of course cheap prices(!) but sadly due to the road blocks and protests it was out of our control. Another country to be revisited.....

Posted by siandrach 11:59 Archived in Bolivia

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