Church of San Francisco
Our first view of La Paz was pretty amazing and we got to appreciate how much the city hangs from the surrounding hillside, I liked La Paz a whole lot more than I thought I would; I was expecting it to feel edgy and to constantly be hassled by aggressive sellers in the street but there was none of that. Annoyingly I'd just missed a big festival the day before called Gran Poder, which my roomies had been to and got trashed at the previous day, oh well, just another excuse to come back and visit again! The hostel was really cool and I met loads of fab people (including my fellow dorm mates), the views from the rooftop bar over the city were just incredible and the barman turned out to be from just outside Birmingham, you just can't escape! I spent most of my three days chilling out, playing cards with my roomies in an evening, shopping and enjoying the food including eating Ilama Tikka Massala at what is reportedly the worlds highest curry house, it wasn't bad but it was no Brummie Balti that's for sure.
I did manage to fit in a few cultural things while I was there, first on the list was the small but highly interesting Coca Museum that charts the development and uses of the coca leaf. Essentially in most South American countries the coca leaf was only ever chewed, used in tea or for medicinal purposes until its initial commercial use by Coca Cola. Bolivia and Peru's cocaine industry didn't develop until interference from the West, they neither can get access to or afford the necessary chemicals to produce cocaine, these are imported by Western drug lords. The indegenious peoples first problems with the coca leaf started with the Spanish invasion, the Catholic church banned its use as sinful but this was overthrown by the Spanish king when it was discovered the coca leaves helped the slaves work longer, harder and required less food.
At one point the value of coca leaves was greater than that of gold or silver, crazy huh? The second cultural outing was to see the pre-Colombian ruins of Tiahuanaco. The site itself became part of the Incan empire but unfortunately most of it's treasures and information about it's builders have been lost. Although only a small percentage of the site has been excavated I still found it quite impressive (and it's a good precursor to the Incan ruins in Peru). The main elements of the site are the Akapana pyramid, the subteranean temple, the palace of the Sacotoges and the Kalasasaya (the site of the main temple). Our guide explained that the pyramid has seven levels which represent, in ascending order: the condor, the fish, the puma, (which represents adolscent emotion) the snake, the llama, the condor with a white neck and the sky.
After the pyramid our guide then took us to see the Andean stepped cross which is inlaid into various stones. The Andean cross mimics the Southern Cross visible in the sky of the Southern Hemisphere as both the people of the Tiahuanaco and Incan cultures used astrology as part of their belief system. Different crosses visible in the site have different numbers of 'steps' and these represent a month (28 days), a clock face and the months of the year (13 in an Andean calender). Next stop was the subterrean temple which contained an amazing 175 stone faces, some of which were in unbelieably good condition showing a fair amount of detail, much more than I'd seen at Tikal last year. In the centre of the temple was one of the many stone statues on the site, each of which holds a ceremonial cup in it's left hand and a power stuck in it's right.
View from the cafe in the Church of San Francisco
These statues symbolise the unity of religious, military and government powers of the culture at that time and the most impressive of which, Monolito Ponce, is the guardian of the main temple. The temple itself demonstrates yet more brilliance as it was built so that the sun shines through the equinoxes on the 21st March and September, over the left-hand corner of the temple on the 21st June (winter solstice) and over the right-hand corner on the 21st December (summer solstice). Also as part of the main temple is the incredibly detailed sun gate depicting what is believed to be a god called Viracocha, some archaelogists have a theory that this gate was a calender with the days either side of the central figure and the months along the bottom. Going back to the Andean Cross this is also represented in the Andean flag seen in both Bolivia and Peru but in slightly different forms (the Peruvian version is striped and often mistaken by Westeners for the rainbow flag of the gay community), the flag called the Wiphala forms the shape of the Andean cross when four flags are arranged together in a square and this cross also creates a map with each colour representing different elements.
Pirates of the Caribbean comes to La Paz
After the main temple we witnessed various other sculptures including a headless statue before the main exit. We visited the onsite museums after lunch, none of which were particularly amazing, although we did get to see some of the mummies found at the site which were quite cool. On the way back to La Paz we stopped at a look out point between El Alto and the main city centre to witness the city sprawl against the beautiful mountain backdrop. I spent my last night at the aforementioned curry house with James (my roomie) and his friends, we waited for Jamie to show as he'd gone to look at the apartment he was supposed to be moving into as part of his language school/ volunteer program but in the end we met him for drinks in the hostel bar. It was supposed to be an early one as we were only supposed to be having a few drinks (Jamie was already on his way after he went to a bar to wait for the owner of the apartment but didn't show up) as I'd got an early bus to Copacabana
the next day but we ended up staying up talking till 1am.
Entrance to the Coca Museum
...the early start did not bode well!