Viva La Paz, countdown to departure

La Paz is a city like no other. Snow-capped mountains form a surreal backdrop to the city, while gravity-defying houses tumble down the side of the crater in a way that is both beautiful and terrifying. In the bottom of the crater the city sprawls north and south down roads clogged with fume-belching, horn-blaring buses and taxis, the drivers of which have absolutely no respect for pedestrians or other vehicles. Its a miracle there aren’t more fatalities.

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivian coat of arms, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

La Paz with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

Houses and Illimani at sunset, La Paz, Bolivia

The streets are filled with bowler hatted chollas, their huge skirts swishing as they walk; coca leaf-chewing campesinos rub shoulders with suited businesspeople; tattooed and pierced young people fill restaurants to eat traditional food; shoeshine boys inquire about polishing your Habanas; and the street markets sell everything from a hundred types of potato to dried llama fetuses and magical powders that make people fall in love with you.

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman walks past street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

Bowler-hatted Chollas in La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street scene, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

La Paz street art, Bolivia

All of this frenetic activity takes place at the breathless altitude of 3600m. In winter it is bitterly cold once the sun disappears, in summer it rains so hard that almost every year houses and roads are washed away – often with the loss of life. There is great poverty, especially in El Alto, and extravagant wealth on display almost everywhere you look. My first few days in the city left me feeling disoriented.

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Posing for a photograph with pigeons in Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

A woman sits outside a church in Plaza San Pedro, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

X-ray llama, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Campesino women with children, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Electrical cables, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

Alcohol and sex sell, La Paz, Bolivia

The more time I’ve spent here though, the more I have grown to love the city and its people. It is a place that slowly gains your affection, and although we chose to live in more genteel Sucre, it is La Paz that, to me, encompasses and defines all of Bolivia. It is also a city where you don’t have to look far for a photo opportunity. I spent a couple of days just wandering the streets in-between packing our bags in preparation for our return to London.

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

Posters, La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon's "Let it beer", La Paz, Bolivia

A bar advertising John Lennon’s “Let it beer”, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Street advertising, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

Chollas and street food, La Paz, Bolivia

The other great thing about La Paz is that you can walk around and suddenly find yourself embroiled in a local fiesta. Several times we came across bands and costumed performers playing and parading just in their own barrios. These events are frequently accompanied by heavy drinking; there was one man in the fiesta below who, despite the best efforts of his family to sober him up, was so drunk he could barely walk.

They like to party in La Paz…viva Bolivia.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

The drunkest man in the parade…moments after this he just collapsed and the parade went on without him.

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Fiesta, La Paz, Bolivia

Street Life

One of the defining characteristics of life in Bolivia is the way it is lived to a large degree outside. I guess this is a trait of a hot climate and a legacy of Spanish cultural influence that has bequeathed every town in the country with at least one plaza where people congregate to meet friends, promenade or simply people watch.

The outdoor life goes further than this though. There are a multitude of street vendors selling everything from freshly squeezed orange juice, weavings, shoe shines, plastic bags full of drinks or food and repairs of just about every type imaginable; smooching students inhabit street corners and plaza benches; and campesinos wait on the pavement outside churches in the hope of charity.

This being Bolivia one of the more obvious outdoor activities is the regular ‘bloqueos’ or strikes. These occur with a frequency unheard of in any other country in the world as far as I can tell, and they bring thousands of people onto the streets – mainly because transport strikes are quite common.

Coming from a cold, wet, northern country I love the outside lifestyle of Bolivia, it certainly means there is rarely a shortage of things to distract and entertain…

Street vendor repairing shoes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Street vendor repairing shoes, Tarabuco, Bolivia

Orange juice vendor takes a nap, Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, Bolivia

Orange juice vendor takes a nap, Plaza 25 de Mayo, Sucre, Bolivia

Pigeon people, La Paz, Bolivia

Pigeon people, La Paz, Bolivia

A young girl selling jellies, Potosi, Bolivia

A young girl selling jellies, Potosi, Bolivia

Fashion shoot in the streets of Sucre, Bolivia

Fashion shoot in the streets of Sucre, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Table removals, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Table removals, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Plaza Central, Cochabamba, Bolivia

Plaza Central, Cochabamba, Bolivia

Chorizo Festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Chorizo Festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Juice stalls in Sucre's Mercardo Central, Bolivia

Juice stalls in Sucre’s Mercardo Central, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Balloon seller, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Protest march, Sucre, Bolivia

Protest march, Sucre, Bolivia

Media crowd around a strike organiser, Sucre, Bolivia

Media crowd around a strike organiser, Sucre, Bolivia

Toys for sale, Potosi, Bolivia

Toys for sale, Potosi, Bolivia

The many faces of fiesta

Fiesta is a serious business in Bolivia and in the six months we’ve been living here we’ve been lucky enough to take part in several. Some, like the Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos in the Bolivian Amazon, we went out of our way to get to; others, like Sucre’s Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, were right on our doorstep; yet others we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Fiesta is a glorious expression of deeply held traditional and modern beliefs, as well as being an occasion for an outpouring of joyous fun. People take it seriously but at the same time it is about making sure the party goes with a swing – bands play, dancers dance and both participants and onlookers drink heartily.

Every country in Latin America has its own traditions and costumes – think of the outrageous carnival floats in Brazil – and one of the striking features of Bolivian fiestas is the variety of elaborate masks coving everything from pre-Hispanic mythical creatures to Spanish Conquistadores thenmselves. There’s even a museum in Sucre which dedicates a whole floor to masks of the region, a visit to which made me want to share some of the faces of fiesta that we’ve seen.

This first selection comes from the Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe in Sucre.

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Bird Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Potosi’s Ch’utillos Festival, or the Festival of San Bartolomé to give its correct name, is a three day extravaganza held in the highest city in the world. It is home to some unique  costumes and masks, and also to some of the hardest drinking you’ll ever see at a Bolivian fiesta.

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

The Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos in the Bolivian Amazon is one of the highlights of Bolivian festivals, imbued with typically Amazonian themes and taking place in a small village with hardly any tourists in sight. One of the outstanding features are the wooden mask and leather hat wearing Achus who represent the Spanish and cause mayhem wherever they go.

Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Fish Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sheep Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Jaguar Mask, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Finally, walking through La Paz one day we just bumped into a small fiesta in a barrio near the San Pedro prison.

Masks, La Paz, Bolivia

Masks, La Paz, Bolivia

Anyway, we’re off on an overland trip to Chile tonight so hopefully lots to report in coming days…

Bolivian Sunset

It might be my love of the sundowner that makes me an aficionado of the sunset, but the stunning extremes of colour that sunsets provide is something I’ll never tire of watching – especially if it comes with a vodka and tonic. I can’t say I have the same feelings towards sunrise, I’ve seen a few but it’s not my favourite time of day.

Sunset is a magical time, especially for a keen amateur photographer like myself. I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed some beautiful sunsets in some extraordinary places around the world – the sunset in the desert north of Timbuktu will live long in the memory. Bolivia’s diverse landscapes – from the high Andes to the Amazon Basin – have provided sunsets to match any I’ve seen before.

The hills of the Corillera de los Failles that form the backdrop to our home in Sucre have been the setting for many a pleasant sundowner while watching the sky explode with colour. It is an ever changing palette and now the rains have come the scattering of cloud has made sunset even more impressive.

Sunset over Sucre, Bolivia

This photo was taken as the sun set and a tremendous storm ranged across the mountains, there was thunder, lightening and heavy rain – but none of the rain landed on Sucre itself.

Sunset and a storm over Sucre, Bolivia

Sunset and street lights over Sucre, Bolivia

Although Sucre’s backdrop of mountains is impressive, you’d have to go a long way to find a backdrop to match that of La Paz at sunset.

La Paz sunset with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Travels around the country have also witnessed some stunning sunsets. These are from the high altiplano in Sajama National Park, the first was taken just as an adult and baby llama crossed in front of me.

Sunset and llamas, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

The next shots come from the Amazon basin, first in the small village of San Ignacio de Moxos where the entire village seemed to gather at the nearby lake Isiboro to cool off, most people left as the sun went down but a few people stayed in the water until darkness descended.

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Walking back from the lake to the village of San Ignacio several vehicles kicked-up enough dust to get this pattern in the sky and the haziness in the trees.

Sunset in San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

I love the way water and sky combine at sunset, there was no better example than when we sailed up the Rio Mamore in the Bolivian Amazon.

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Amazon Basin, Bolivia

Sticking with the water theme, I’ll finish this montage of sunsets with two from Lago Titicaca.

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

The hanging effigies of Bolivia

Glimpsed for the first time from the window of a speeding taxi, the mind and body have a visceral reaction to seeing someone hoisted on a lamppost, swinging in the wind, a rope around their neck.

It immediately recalls all those childhood tales of highwaymen in eighteenth century Britain with their “your money or your life” demands, who once caught would be hung on the roadsides as a warning to others.

This is twenty-first century Bolivia and thankfully it was just an unnerving trick of the mind. What looked like a real person turned out to be an effigy, mock-lynched and hung as a warning to would-be criminals. They can be seen all over Bolivia, and are a symptom of a lack of faith in a police force generally considered to be unable to police communities because they are either under-resourced or, worse, corrupt and in league with the criminals.

Effigy of a mock lynching, La Paz, Bolivia

Hanging mock effigies of thieves and other criminals is common throughout many neighbourhoods as a warning of the summary justice that will be dispensed by the community against malefactors. Media reports suggest this type of mob ‘justice’ is alive-and-well in Bolivia, driven by a perception that violent criminality is on the rise and that the legal system is too inefficient or corrupt to provide justice for victims of crime. (See this article from the Bolivia Diary blog Murders in El Alto spark Debate on Bolivian justice system).

Effigy hanging from a lamppost in Potosi, Bolivia

This lack of faith in the State to provide justice is well founded. A friend here in Sucre has been attempting to get justice in the courts for four years, and despite favourable rulings in two lower courts is still engaged in a legal battle that seems never-ending and has cost an unbelievable amount of money and caused untold stress.

Quite often the effigies come with a placard hung around their neck with an explicit and very real warning written on it about the fate of would be criminals at the hands of community vigilantes. These are frequently gruesome, threatening criminals with being burned alive, and are not to be taken lightly.

Effigy hanging from a lamppost, Sucre, Bolivia

As with crime everywhere, in Bolivia the majority of crime is perpetuated within poorer communities. The victims of crime frequently have the least to steal but the most to lose. A street vendor who survives by making just enough to feed their family each-and-every day but who falls victim to a thief essentially becomes incapable of feeding their family. In a hand-to-mouth world, the knock-on effect can be utterly disastrous.

It brings to mind the Ryszard Kapuściński story in his brilliant collection of African short-stories In the Shadow of the Sun; he comes across a woman who is inconsolable, the cooking pot she depended upon to cook food that she would sell on the street has been stolen. For the poorest in society, life is sometimes only one cooking pot away from disaster.

Effigy hanging from a Lamppost in Potosi, Bolivia

Junta Vecinal means neighborhood committee, a sort of violent neighbourhood watch, and shows just how organised communities are in defence of their property and possessions. For a more academic take on the phenomenon of Bolivian lynch-mob justice see this article on the Public Culture website Twenty Hanging Dolls and a Lynching: Defacing Dangerousness and Enacting Citizenship in El Alto, Bolivia

La Paz street art II

Heads or tails? After the previous head-fest, here is a quick run through some non-head related street art from the city of La Paz, Bolivia.

I wouldn't go as far as saying I 'heart' La Paz, but I'm getting there. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

I wouldn’t go as far as saying I ‘heart’ La Paz, but I’m getting there. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

We've all had days like this. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

We’ve all had days like this. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Next up two lovely pieces from the Sopocachi area, just off the Plaza Espana.

From the streets of Sopocachi. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

From the streets of Sopocachi. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Sopocachi ink merchant. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Sopocachi ink merchant. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Voodoo or Halloween? Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Voodoo or Halloween? Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Scene from the La Paz tunnel. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Scene from the La Paz tunnel. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Found: Major Tom. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Found: Major Tom. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Most walls would be improved by giant blue mice. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Most walls would be improved by giant blue mice. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

A more rarified taste. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

A more rarified taste. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Traditional Incan forms merge with modern spray paint culture, Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Traditional Incan forms merge with modern spray paint culture, Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

And, not before time, a camelid finally makes its mark on the walls of La Paz…

It's Llama time. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

It’s Llama time. Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Heads up, it’s La Paz street art

On first inspection, La Paz is a hard city to love. It may be one of the most dramatically located cities in the world, tumbling, as it does, down the near vertical sides of an enormous crater, with 6000m+ mountains as a backdrop; but it takes a while to win over the affections. Not, I suspect, that it is trying to win them.

La Paz’s case isn’t aided by the 3600m altitude, the hills you need to walk up every time you step onto the streets or the crazy traffic spewing noxious fumes that distort the senses; but the few days I’ve spent in the city since arriving in Bolivia have gone a long way to converting me to its charms. Key to this, as I wandered through its highways and byways, was some bizarre and intriguing street art, the like of which you just don’t get in provincial Sucre.

Most interesting is the fact that much of the artwork focuses on heads. So here’s a step-by-step guide to some glorious street art by La Paz’s spray-paint ragamuffins.

Like all good street art, politics should find a place alongside more esoteric work. In this case, it started with Evo…

Clown or Red Nose Day ambassador? La Paz, Bolivia

Clown or Red Nose Day ambassador? La Paz, Bolivia

Another Bolivian icon to get some stencil treatment is the beloved Che.

He probably could knock up good saltenas, La Paz, Bolivia

He probably could knock up good saltenas, La Paz, Bolivia

While stencils are quite popular, the artwork in some barrios is much more intricate.

He wouldn't be out of place walking the streets of Bermondsey, La Paz, Bolivia

He wouldn’t be out of place walking the streets of Bermondsey, La Paz, Bolivia

Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Definitely reminds me of someone...Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Definitely reminds me of someone…Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Self portrait? Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Self portrait? Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

There are quite a lot of maniacal grins on the walls of La Paz, Bolivia

There are quite a lot of maniacal grins on the walls of La Paz, Bolivia

Is this Michael Jackson? Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Is this Michael Jackson? Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Women remain in the minority on the walls, Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Women remain in the minority on the walls, Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

A typical Andean scene, Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

A typical Andean scene, Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Not a typical Andean scene, Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Not a typical Andean scene, Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Proof that shrunken head technology exists? Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Proof that shrunken head technology exists? Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

And finally, something that people may be familiar with…

Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Street Art, La Paz, Bolivia

Coming soon…non-head street art…watch this space.