La Paz is great. Really, it is. Unless you count the noise and the pollution and the cars honking and the graffiti and the 3,600m altitude and the occasional whiff of urine – then you might decide you need a holiday.
Ingredients for a successful break usually include some or all of the following: food, sun, at least more than 50% oxygen in the air, pleasant streets to wander, a few easy distractions such as a museum or gallery. After asking round our general Bolivian acquaintances, we decided that the relaxed city of Cochabamba would be the place to go. Located in the very centre of Bolivia (and by extension, for all you longitude / latitude lovers, pretty much exactly in the centre of South America), it rests at a relatively easy altitude of 2,500m, offers easy access to national parks and a handful of attractions in the city; and, most importantly, is considered the gastronomic capital of the country.
Even the bus ride there felt fairly relaxed. Yes, my standards for ‘r&r’ have significantly decreased since moving to this continent; but surely anyone would enjoy an 8 hour bus journey winding through steep mountain passes? No? Well, if not, at least we could enjoy the luxury of a fully paved road. In any case, I have started to look forward to these long journeys as uninterrupted stretches for reading, and finished Hard Times just as we pulled into the bus station.
The bright blue doors of our hostel, ‘ Hostal Jaguar’ was an easy 10 minute taxi ride; arranged around a sunny central courtyard, it was a clean and comfortable place to stay. We had arrived just as the sun began to sink into the shadow of early evening, and so made way to the central plaza for dinner. On the way we stopped off at the Catedral de San Sebastian, a gold and white Colonial construction that looms over the shady Plaza Principal. No time for holy thoughts though, as we were collectively chatted up by a 17 year old cleaner whose confidence in the U.K. or U.S would have led to a Ted Talk or establishment of a dodgy political party.
After the attempted group seduction, we carried out the tried and tested techniques of Finding Somewhere to Eat on Holiday: walk around, feeling increasingly as though you would be perfectly happy to indulge in some light cannibalism; bicker over the authenticity of various establishments, shove Google Maps reviews in each others’ faces, get stuck in the middle of a busy road while still staring blank-eyed at said reviews, then return to the first place after all. It works every time, and is a great bonding experience: it was a shame we didn’t have any allergies or dietary requirements to make matters even more interesting.
Mikuy had Bolivian food and South American cocktails and a 4.2 / 5 * rating on tripadvisor, but took so long to bring our orders that we were practically back on the bus to La Paz by the time of our meals’ eventual arrival; however, we did like sitting in the peaceful courtyard, and only heard a few shots fired in the background of a small environmental protest. Back to the hostel, then out again to the far superior Casablanca, a bar full of students and a cocktail menu that would take several ecstatic weeks to drink through. A slightly delirious walk back.
The next morning, what better way to wake up than a brisk hike? As we leapt out of bed with vim and vigour, we were somewhat disappointed to find our walking options limited – by unspecified ‘dangers’ of the national parks, and the continuing fires. After much sad head shaking and ‘acá, no. Eso es peligroso’, the hostel volunteer sent us off (in the wrong direction) to the more touristy Parque EcoTuristico Pairumani. It took two trufis and a confusing walk through a crowded market, but all was worth it as we reached the park: fresh air, a tumbling river through which you could see every pebble and twig, the scent of pine.
We wandered around for several hours, and even made it to the cascada, in spite of a fairly scary looking sign noting that we alone were responsible for our lives in this area, and should we be moronic enough to venture there and fall off and die, we should probably apologise to the rangers for any inconvenience caused by our premature expiration.
Back in the hostel, we found ourselves unable to move until dinner. This was to be found at muela del diablo, a funky outdoor Italian place, where we shared great pizzas and socialised with Real Life Bolivian People.
The second day was spent exclusively in Cochabamba. In the morning, we visited the Casa de Simón Patiño, one of the only rich people in Bolivian history, who owned, besides several tin mines, a pleasant yellow mansion:
Then on to the exhausting ‘La Cancha’ (covered market), the largest market in South America. It was a maze of shops, streets, and vendors: as far as you could see stretched rows upon rows of stalls, selling everything from shoe laces to baby rabbits in boxes, to cheap Chinese phones and every possible type of fruit and vegetable the continent has to offer – tumbo, chirimoya, pitaya – with your ears ringing from the bellowed refrains of every peddler and pitcher. After a couple of exhausting hours, we lunched on chorizo sandwiches, jugo de maracuya, and fritanga in Sucremanta, a restaurant just out of the noise of the market.
In repentance for the cocktails of the previous two evenings, we devoted the afternoon to the visitation of the Cristo de la Concordia. Modelled on the more famous Rio landmark, it is the tallest statue in Latin America, and dominates the valley from its perch in the mountainous landscape that surrounds the city. You take a slow cable car up the steep mountainside, and watch as the valley of houses and streets becomes tiny below.
As an atheist, I was surprised to find myself struck and even a little humbled by the drama of the construction: the expression is serious and dignified, and to look up towards the top of the statue, against the wide sky and craggy peaks, fills you with vertigo and a certain sense of insignificance. Many cochabambinos had dressed up for the occasion, and everyone was desperate to take the perfect shot with the Cristo.
Our food this evening was in a hipster food – truck market. I wouldn’t want to say I’m getting slightly bored of the Bolivian menú del dia (sopa, carne con arroz y verduras, fruta), but I did dine on stir-fry with all the patience of a pig at a trough.
On our final morning in Cochabamba, we took a guided tour of the still-active Convento Santa Teresa. It is a perfectly preserved nunnery that dates from 1760, austere in its white stillness. Being a nun might have been a better option than forced marriage or destitution, but it still doesn’t sound like an absolute riot of pleasure: the nuns were locked in a boiling hot room if they broke silence, in which several died; they weren’t allowed (and still aren’t) access to a doctor, until the final rites, and there was one room, of exquisite floral wallpaper, where the sisters had used their own blood as paint. Now, the youngest nun is 70, and the oldest 89, but all are apparently going strong. Teresa of Avila herself was quite the woman: she sacrified a life of nobility and wealth for that of the convent, and wrote about her devotion to Christ with such rapturous fantasty that her critics believed her to have been possessed by the devil.
Free of the constraints of the holy life, we took the bus back to La Paz.