The Return of Street Food in the City of La Paz (by Nathan)
One thing that is common among all my favorite cities is good street food. I love experiencing a city that is vibrant with life on the streets. I love the excitement of the people and the craziness of community that buys and sells everything on the roadside. In some special places in the world some of the best meals were served from a vendor on a flimsy plastic plate or napkin wrapped delight.
In La Paz we experienced a return of street markets. The street vendors were endless; little stalls stuffed with produce, meat, blankets and DVD’s filling up the hillside with everything imaginable to buy. Thousands of people scrambled from vendor to vendor weaving in and out of the sidewalk and street and carrying bags filled with the day’s purchases.
I could spend days and days wondering markets like these. I do not even buy anything. I enjoy meandering from stall to stall listening to one vendor describe the perfect mango, or another flaunt a superior winter coat and the buyers negotiating for a better price. There is so much culture fit into these streets and I like to roam and soak it in deep into my lungs. And my stomach too!
Quite often in these markets we find men and women selling local street side fresh food. There are doughnut-like things with a molasses syrup, roasted turkeys or pork loins to be made into sandwiches and an abundant array of herbal and thick drinks served out of buckets. Occasionally we are stopped by an intense aroma that causes us to swirl our head around looking for the source and occasionally this smell is linked to a vendor with a hoard of people huddled around grabbing for some of the delicious eats. This is how we found lunch one day. Two women had joined forces to cook up several pots of food and carry them to their sidewalk restaurant. We had a heaping bowl of soup, pasta with lentils, potatoes and a salsa that made our mouths tingle. And it cost $1.15 for the two of us! We sat on a step and slurped down our lunch watching the people flock to this sidewalk deliciousness.
Further on we explored the Iglesia San Francisco that was originally built in 1548. There was a beautiful gold altar and a rooftop terrace that offered views of the city. The plaza below the church is a central meeting point with a constant stream of people enjoying the sun and people watching.
Anyone who has been in Bolivia probably has been affected by or in some way has a story about a protest. The Bolivians seemingly protest constantly. Carmen and I were very fortunate to not have any of our regional bus trips impeded, but we did meet countless travelers that were delayed. The protests involve road blocks and fireworks. We watched from a nearby bridge in La Paz as hundreds of students marched along the main corridor. There was a steady booming of explosions as the students stuffed rockets into makeshift bamboo tubes held high in the air.
Protests are common to all social groups. Bolivia has one of the most complex populations in South America with the heritage and culture of the people originating from hundreds of different indigenous tribes. There is even a flag composed of a quilt pattern of vibrant colors to demonstrate the multitude and coming together of these people to create a nation.
Just as there is a patchwork of cultural traditions in Bolivia, there is also a patchwork of informal transit. No formal bus line exists. Instead private collective vans, called micros, roam the streets calling out their destinations from the window. Carmen and I crammed into several of these vans to maneuver our way around the city. The competition for passengers makes for some aggressive driving. Therefore there is a planning mascot (a happy little zebra) that attempts to restore order to the streets by designating specific passenger drop-off locations.
We could not visit La Paz without seeing San Pedro prison for ourselves. We read a great book called Marching Powder that described the life and experiences of one inmate named Thomas McFadden. Thomas lived in the prison following an arrest for drug trafficking. The prison is unique because it is in the center of La Paz and nothing is provided to the inmates by the government, not even a cell. Inmates rely on their families, friends and personal bank accounts to buy a cell and buy food in the prison. There are restaurants, stores and mini apartments all housed within the prison walls. Every prisoner gets a job in the prison, cooking, passing messages or even giving tours. Thomas started the tours of the prison, but they have since increased dramatically in price. The most amazing thing is that prisoners are allowed to bring their families into the prison. The wives and children are allowed to come and go freely throughout the day. Carmen and I showed up at the prison to watch the door and see the families and people living inside. Most of what we could see was this enormous trash truck parked tight against the doorway and prisoners carrying suspicious heavy sacks “trash” then covering them with loose debris. I would not doubt that they still make cocaine there.
La Paz streets are intense with colors. Brightly colored llama and alpaca wool fabrics hang from shop windows in the area that has been nicknamed gringo ghetto. I bought myself a soft alpaca sweater knowing how warm and life-saving they can be in the cold. Other streets contained buildings boldly painted in with blues, yellows and reds.
La Paz is unlike any city that we have visited. The biggest city in Bolivia is unlike lacks modern western influence; there is a rustic and rawness to the streets that is captivated and a history that is exciting. Thousands of white-washed buildings with clay roves sit perched on the mountains that overlook the city. The city is, in a way, shaped like a huge bowl and the culture and delights inside are just ready to be gobbled up.