Breathless in La Paz

I arrived in La Paz a day ahead of the group that would be joining me, which was perfect because I got to explore the city alone for a day.

I’ll admit that my day was mostly improvisation. Although I like to plan ahead, I figured I could just get to Bolivia and “wing it”. After all, every city in the world has the same skeleton. There is a plaza that you have to go see, an old church that you must go pray in and a market you can buy some souvenirs in. Between that foundation, and a few recommendations from my airport driver, the Lonely Planet book I skimmed on the plane, and a friend who had just visited- I was set.

After three hours of wandering and checking off the main sights, I returned to my room huffing and puffing and proceeded to lay in bed for an hour. For those of you who don’t know, La Paz is 11,975 feet above sea level. For reference Chicago has an elevation of 595 feet.

That’s quite the difference, and my lungs would agree. At this altitude breathing becomes a task in itself. If I got winded getting myself dressed, you can imagine what a flight of stairs did to me. My heart was pounding.

Also if anyone thinks that flying to La Paz to climb stairs is going to be the next big workout craze-you heard it here first. We can call it: Breathless Fitness “where people can get un-Boliviable results!”

Anyway, once I mustered up some strength, I went for a joy ride on the city’s Teleféricos- a cable car system that covers the entire city. Because La Paz is very hilly, this is the best mode of public transportation. Best yet- it’s only $.50 for a ride so you bet I rode that cable car over and over.

On my fourth ride down the red line, I spotted something peculiar from above- a complex of tall rectangular concrete blocks lined with ornately decorated windows.

A great rule of thumb for traveling is if you see something interesting and you don’t know what it is, you must always investigate. Unless you’re in a horror movie, because that’s how the first character always dies.

And with that, I hopped off the teleférico and found myself in La Paz’s cemetery which I had briefly read about. I generally enjoy exploring cemeteries (Père-Lachaise in Paris is a favorite) but I had never seen anything like this before.

Bolivians cremate their dead, and purchase a glass fronted space in the cemetery walls. Each space is decorated with flowers and mementos, little toys for deceased children and mini bottles of Johnnie Walker or Coca Cola for the older folks. Each wall has hundreds of these windows, and some of the walls are a few stories tall. The cemetery was bustling with families cleaning and decorating the glass windows, and I walked through the cemetery lanes admiring how beautiful each window was.

I ended my day there, content with the colorful side of La Paz I had experienced throughout the day. The city really took my breath away though, literally.