La Paz, Bolivia
Airport Rating ***
Reception of locals *****
This is where it all started to go a little wrong on my trip. Unlike my other travels, I had a much stricter timeframe to get around the continent, and any delay or cancellation meant that my plans would have to be substantially altered. Having suffered cancellations before in other countries, I knew this was a very realistic problem and therefore, before I left, I made sure I got the type of travel insurance that would cover any claims.
It all started in Cusco where I turned up for my flight and was told at check-in that it had been cancelled and the next flight wouldn't leave until late the next day. I was told I would reach Uyuni in the morning, which wasn't so bad, but 5 minutes later I was told there was a long stop in La Paz and I wouldn't reach Uyuni until late at night. I had booked a 3 day tour of the salt flats and therefore this wasn't an option.
Also in line for the check-in were a group of 5 Chinese tourists and 2 Brazilians who were in a similar position. We started asking for alternate forms of transport, trains or buses but quickly realised that with either option we would still miss our tour. At this point the guy in the check-in began to get a little rude and what was a bad situation started escalating. At first he refused to give us a phone call so we started kicking up a small fuss until he relented and let us use his mobile. Sometimes it feels that other passengers start looking to me when things go wrong. I've been told my resting B face is pretty unfriendly so I guess they thought, "he looks angry, lets leave this with him".
I called the tour company and informed them that I would end up being a couple of days late and therefore couldn't do the 3 day tour. They said they would be happy to re-arrange it, but as I had a flight from Calama a day later, I said this wouldn't be possible. In the end I had to change my three day tour into a one day tour which brought up issues of its own which I will address later. After demanding a letter showing our flight had been cancelled, we headed back to a hotel the airline had booked for us.
A trip to the police station
It was perhaps my fault. When I was booking my flight from Cusco to Uyuni I saw that pretty much every airline was charging around GBP 300 but out of nowhere this small airline called Amaszonas was charging half the amount. The entire booking process was in Spanish and I told my flat mate this didn't bode well for the actual trip and unfortunately I was right.
The next day I returned to check-in and the same guy was there with a smile on his face. Now, there are two kinds of smiles: the genuine happy to see you smile, and the, 'you're about to get f'd' smile. This felt like the latter. "Good morning, Sir, I hope you slept well" he said at the entrance of the queue, with more than a hint of sarcasm on his face. I shuffled through uneasily thinking something doesn't feel right here. As I looked in front of me the queue was moving relatively quickly, people would show their passports, get their boarding passes and off they went in under a minute. I approached the check-in desk and a different guy was there, he gave me a quick look and started typing. Sometimes I wonder what they do behind the desks, in some airports its a few clicks of a mouse, in others it feels like they are typing an essay. This guy was definitely typing something long, and when a few minutes passed I thought something wasn't right. All of a sudden 3 or 4 big guys were standing behind him. Eventually he printed off my boarding pass and told me what gate to go to.
I breathed a sigh of relief and started to walk off. I must have taken about 5 steps before someone grabbed my arm from behind me. I turned around, "Ingles?", "Si", "Peru Police, come with us". He flashed me his badge and I was being escorted out of the airport by two policemen. The walk wasn't long and they put me into a small room. I asked them what the issue was, they said they wanted to check my bags. "You think I have drugs?", I asked in disgust, to which they replied it was to check for drugs. They couldn't speak great English and although my Spanish was improving, I didn't quite cover 'how to deal with arrests' during my classes.
The main officer directed his partner to take my hand luggage while he tried to take my other bag. "No chance" I said. Up until now, I was very co-operative but I didn't think it was smart to let the police separate my bags and then check them away from me. I requested they check both bags in front of me. At this point the police became unfriendly and said they would do things their way. I continued to refuse until I was presented with a piece of paper to sign...in Spanish. It was at this point I realised I might be getting set up to pay a bribe and I knew I had to be more firm. I asked for a phone call and then forcefully started shouting that I wanted to speak with the British Consulate. As soon as I said those words, their whole demeanour changed. All of a sudden they were co-operative. They decided to check my bags in front of me and give me an English translation. When they started to take pictures of my belongings, I got my phone out and started doing the exact same thing. They told me I wasn't allowed to take pictures, I replied that I wasn't touching anything and I would continue to take the same pictures they took to ensure I had a copy.
Following this exchange, the police became pretty disinterested in checking my bag. They either realised I don't have drugs or that I wouldn't be paying bribes, either way after going through a few more pockets they told me I could go. They picked up my bags to take them back to airport and I refused, saying I would take them myself. They followed me to the airport and watched me drop my bags off at check in. As I walked away I realised I should have asked for a signed paper saying I had been stopped and they had found nothing, after all anyone could still plant something in my bag. I had a postcard in my bag so I headed to the post office in the airport and wrote my friend a post card saying I had been stopped. I figured the Peruvian stamp would show that I left the airport clean.
The flight itself wasn't that long, and despite the reviews I had read online wasn't too uncomfortable either, although the plane was so small I couldn't stand up inside without bending my neck.
The stop at La Paz was all day, but with a swollen knee that I couldn't put weight on I was caught in two minds as to whether I should explore the city or lie down in the airport for a few hours. I decided to go for the former. Bolivia has a closed currency so you can only purchase Boliviano's inside the country. Although USD is accepted, the currency is too large for everyday purchases and most people prefer payment in their local currency so I used the currency exchange in the airport. Its important to have some sort of currency converter on your phone to ensure you are not being ripped off.
I caught a taxi into the main San Francisco area of the city. As soon as I left the airport, I could tell by the roads and the area that this country was substantially poorer than its neighbours. The journey into the city centre wasn't particularly long and I was dropped right in the centre by the San Francisco Church.
Knee injuries and hills don't mix
As with most countries I tend to go to, I had walked into a political protest. I walked around the church and then up a slight hill into the back streets. Built at 3650m, La Paz is the worlds highest capital city. Having spent the past two weeks at high altitudes, I had got acclimatised, however I still wasn't completely comfortable, in fact I had started slacking in terms of staying hydrated. The streets were very crowded, very noisy and very dirty and the heat of the sun made it pretty uncomfortable, especially carrying around my large backpack as well as my hand luggage. Above all else, my knee was at this point completely giving up on me. It had swollen quite a bit and I could put barely any weight on it whatsoever. I realised that any hopes I had of really exploring different area's of the city were probably over but I would do the best I could.
The city has a very hilly terrain, and the back streets seem to be where all the rubbish is piled up. Pavements were very small and cars were gridlocked bumper to bumper making breathing quite uncomfortable
I headed toward the main university which had an event on for students. The area was closed to cars so it felt a lot calmer. In the middle of the square a loudspeaker was translating Spanish words into English. Unlike other large cities in South America, I found that English was less widely used in La Paz, and pretty much all my interactions were in (broken) Spanish.
At this point I was stopping every few metres due to my knee so I decided to duck into a cafe, get some breakfast and take a little break. The cafe was quite dark but I welcomed the quietness away from the city. I had pretty much the whole place to myself. The cafe looked like an old Mafia establishment and I decided to sit right in front of a TV that felt like it was out of the 1980's that had some Argentinian football showing.
The breakfast was really nice and the staff were friendly. There were signs everywhere warning tourists about the altitude of the city and special oxygen bottles that you could purchase. In the few hours I was in the city, I saw perhaps a handful of tourists, which I found quite surprising. I sat in the cafe for quite a long time, thankful to get the weight off my knees, but as I stood up I realised that I was going to have to cut my losses and head back to the airport. It was a shame because I would have loved to have seen some more of the airport, but carrying 15kg, on a very hot day, with one knee was taking its toll. After a 10 minute walk I decided to hail a car. This taxi driver was driving a modified car that looked like it belonged on a drag track as opposed to city roads, but he offered to take me for quite cheap so I decided to jump in. Turns out, his driving was also more suited to a drag track than city roads. The man was a lunatic but realised when I was taking pictures of the city that I was a tourist who probably still hadn't seen everything. He asked me if I had the time whether I wanted to go to a point that looks over the whole city, and I jumped on that idea.
After a 20 minute drive he stopped on the side of a busy highway and we ran across 6 lanes of traffic but I have to hand it to the guy, he had picked a fantastic spot.
Wonder of the world
From the side of the road I could see the whole city, the mountains surrounding the city and the famous cable cars that connect the city to its neighbouring settlement of El Alto. Looking over the city I could finally see why it is labelled as a wonder of the world, it's a sight unlike anything else I have seen before. On the way back from the airport a police checkpoint pulled the cab over and asked why we had stopped on the side of the road. The driver replied in Spanish that I was a tourist and wanted to take pictures and after looking inside, the policeman waved us through.
Its an absolute shame that I couldn't spend more time in the city itself. Its hard to judge a city on viewing just the central area and spending a handful of hours, had my flight not been delayed for a couple of days and my knee holding up better, I could have probably seen and done a lot more, but I am thankful that I got to see the city at all. I'm not sure if I would ever go back, but my curiosity was stoked a little bit.
Back in the airport I still had a few hours to my next flight. I can't begin to tell you just how bad this airport is. It has nothing to do with the size of the airport or anything like that. I have been to many airports significantly smaller, this was just designed to be the least friendly looking airport in the world. Although the check in area was bright enough, the waiting area's by the gates were dark corridors with a few chairs dotted around. To get through immigration it was a bit of a maze and there were groups of officers (army or police I'm not sure) walking around everywhere. I always take a few books with me for times like these so I started reading. Having not been adequately hydrated, or rested I was totally oblivious to the fact that I had a very big nosebleed until a bystander pointed it out. I looked down and my white jacket was covered in blood. I cleaned myself up and drank a few bottles of water. It was a long wait, but it felt so much longer.
Once my gate was opened I had no problems going through the security checks. In fact in all my time in South America, the actual airport security teams never once hassled me, questioned me or even scanned my patka. If the metal scanner didn't beep, I was straight through, no questions asked.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.