I part ways with the young Swiss woman after walking from the bus station to downtown La Paz. The walk to my hostel, according to Google Maps, is meant to take 32 minutes. It takes half that, but I feel as though I have died twice on the way. La Paz is built inside a large bowl atop a mountain, making it the highest capital in the world. This combination means that you cannot go more than a couple of blocks without coming across a steep incline, and thinness of the air makes walking up these inclines a unique hell in which you can inhale as much cool, refreshing air as you want, but that air has just barely enough oxygen to sustain you. The two of us walked together for hardly eight blocks, but after climbing the first couple I felt I was hyperventilating and one step in any direction would lead me to faint. I noted to budget in extra travel time to go slow whenever walking in this city, even though bowler-hat-clad octogenarian cholitas would be outpacing me at every incline. After all, they had not spent their entire lives at sea level like I had.
I arrived at the hostel, the first true “party hostel” I have stayed at, just after dark. I have said before that there are three types of hostels: your Marriotts, your hippie communes, and your guesthouses. I now know there is a fourth type: the ‘Hostel California.’ As the famous Eagles’ song “Hotel California” goes: “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Where I was staying, it seemed that more people worked at the hostel than were staying there, and when the woman at the front desk saw I was only staying for a night, she seemed confused. I later learned why the atmosphere was so popular among the late-twenties backpacker crowd.
After a dinner of pork chop, which I bought on the street, I returned to the hostel which was now shaking with loud dance music. In the bar area down the hall from my room, cheers would go up at the end of every round of some drinking game, and the atmosphere was lively to say the least. Officially, I had only been able to drink legally in the U.S. for three weeks, and the rowdiness of the bar at 7 pm was unlike anything I had ever seen. I had to stay and see just what would happen when it actually got late.
As the night wore on, fun and games grew more outrageous and it was not uncommon to see someone standing or dancing on the bar. In some simple dice game, where a round lasted all of 10 minutes, I won several free shots of Bailey’s and coffee liqueur and even dancing atop the bar myself for bonus points in the night’s trivia contest. Drinks flowed freely, by which I mean one hardly had to pay to get a drink. Between two-for-ones, drinking games where the house seemed to lose more than it won, and the free shot that everyone at the bar received at the conclusion of the trivia round, I think I paid for about a third of the drinks I got. In the morning, when I had to face the dreaded tab, I discovered it came out to barely over 15 dollars. In Manhattan, one would be hard pressed to find a cocktail anywhere for this price, let alone a night’s worth of high-altitude drunkery and shenanigans. I did, however, pay the price when I tried to go to sleep that night, as I discovered that Bailey’s and coffee liqueur have caffeine just like real coffee. By the time I fell asleep, the early risers had the lights turned on and were packing their bags to leave the hostel. My bus was not until 8 pm, so I spent the day taking the La Paz walking tour, relaxing in the courtyard, and reading. I checked out at 8 in the morning, but the staff was happy to let me use all the hostel facilities until I left for my bus. Plenty of room at the Hostel California.
Of all the free walking tours I have taken, the La Paz walking tour was neither the most fun nor the most free. The guides explained that a guide had been punched in prior years by another city tour guide for offering the same service for free. As a result, the fee for the tour was 20 Bolivianos ($3) and a strongly suggested tip of 50 Bolivianos ($8). In the typical European free walking tour, the suggested tip tends to be a little lower, around 5 Euro, so a lot of my fellow tourists felt a little bit scammed, considering the cost of living in La Paz was way lower than anywhere in Europe, and the sheer number of people on the tour made it so that a tip of $5 per person would easily allow for the tour guides to rent a condo in south Florida, provided they gave tours a few times a week. Regardless, the tour was enjoyable. We stopped at a the city’s most ornate mestizo-style cathedral, the presidential residence, and a witches market where llama fetuses were hanging from each vendor’s tent. The tour gave thorough insight into contemporary Bolivian culture and history. The Plurinational State of Bolivia, as it has been called since 2009, changed their name in order to promote and give recognition to their more than 100 indigenous communities. While there are several indigenous groups in Bolivia, the Aymara are the largest in number in La Paz, and signs in the Aymara language are not hard to find. Among the Bolivians I talked to, indigenous culture is invaluable for practically all Bolivians because it makes them rather unique compared to most nations in the western hemisphere that have largely persecuted Native Americans from colonial days. Throughout my time in Bolivia and southern Peru, I couldn’t help but think how life in the United States would be incredibly different if European settlers hadn’t committed so many atrocities which led to the decimation of the Native American population. In Bolivia, the “mestizo,” or “mixed,” culture pervades society and demonstrates that Bolivian culture could not be without both Spanish and indigenous influences.
The guides concluded the tour with a discussion about some of the shortcomings of Bolivian government. Historically, Bolivia has not always been accepting of the indigenous community, and prior to 2009 native groups were extremely vocal about their lack of rights. Corruption remains an issue in Bolivia, something I discovered first hand whenever the bus I was on got stopped and a man entered to collect a “road tax” or “bus terminal tax” that I clearly wasn’t required by law to pay. While every nation has their struggles, I think the United States would be smart to write plurinationalism, or the coexistence of different ethnic groups, or nations, into the country’s name. The United States exists only because of diverse thought, diverse belief, and diverse experience. The Bolivian model acknowledges that diversity builds resilience, whereas the words “one nation, under God” have the potential for divisiveness. If it was not your nation who wrote those words, and your God is a different one from any of the founding fathers, is it not possible that you may not feel quite so at home in your home country?
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.