'Paz' is Spanish for peace, and a more inappropriately named place than La Paz it is hard to imagine. From first sight from the descent from the altiplano the city overwhelms the senses. The altiplano, home to the newish city of El Alto, La Paz's poor relation and one-time suburb, ends abruptly at the canyon's edge and the city pours down the steep sides, a landslide of red brick washing up against and around the world's highest high-rise blocks in the city's centre 400m lower. And the mountains Illimani and Huayna Potosí loom over the city, snow-capped and brooding sentinels both.
La Paz is not a rich city (there is, for example, no branch of Betty's Tea Rooms here) and it may not have much in the way of beautiful architectural sites, wide open green spaces, famous institutions or fashionable boutiques (these may be in Zona Sur but I feel no need to find out) but what it does have it has in bucketfuls. It has teeming crowds, dressed in all styles from the traditional women's Cholita attire of the altiplano to the latest (almost certainly counterfeit) designer fashion, sported by the younger generations, thronging its streets; it has a myriad of buses of all sizes plying the busy and pollution-choked roads, their 'conductors' constantly shouting the route from the open doors to drum up business; countless taxis too, mostly shared; it has street vendors of all kinds,with offerings ranging from a few pathetic scraps spread on a blanket by an elderly Aymara lady, to llama-patterned lap-top cases, western consumer goods, and telephone calls; it has more markets than one might imagine possible, with competition fierce, there being many vendors of the same, nay identical, goods all crammed into the same stretch of street; it has innumerable eateries, from the barrow-and-gas ring stalls selling unidentifiable, and possibly noxious, mixtures to outlets of the multinational fast food chains, ubiquitous chicken-and-chips outlets, elegant tea and coffee shops, and the occasional fancy bistro; it has a community of drivers who are pathelogically and perhaps genetically unable to stop to allow pedestrians to cross, so much so that the 'zebra' campaign (running for at least 3 years that I know off) seems to make no difference at all; it has an army of shoe-shine boys and men, all sporting balaclavas to protect them a little from the dreadful pollution levels, who offer to polish, for the equivalent of about 40p, any sort of shoe, even those (such as my Converse All Stars) that their experience should suggest are completely unsuitable for such treatment; and it has police, everywhere, usually in threes, toting great carbines outside banks and other cash-holding premises, from at least three different forces. All of this gives La Paz an air of frenetic and constant activity, a continuous buzz, that if one is to get anywhere at all one must throw oneself into without restraint. (Continued)