Travelling to La Paz, Bolivia

Credit: Andrew Findlay

Travelling to Bolivia: Having a Riot at Plaza Murillo

Travelling to Bolivia: Perched at a dizzying 3,660 metres, La Paz can sizzle beneath the intense Andean sun, but you’ll be reaching for your woollies when the moon comes out.

I’m sitting in a café next to the Plaza Murillo waiting, somewhat voyeuristically, for a riot.

A battalion of police, decked in fatigues, has taken up temporary residence here in the centre of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital city. The waitress tells me the government is expecting busloads of campesinos to descend on the plaza to protest one policy or another.

The policemen look bored, more preoccupied with catcalling the passing señoritas than with any imminent crisis. So I resort to watching the vibrant street life of this city unfold in all its diversity.
A woman with a child on her back sells bags of fresh popcorn. A middle-aged man in a navy-blue suit reads the futures of passersby in a set of antiquated tarot cards. At the plaza’s far corner, a gregarious matron peddles freshly squeezed orange juice.

Weather: Perched at a dizzying 3,660 metres, La Paz can sizzle beneath the intense Andean sun, but you’ll be reaching for your woollies when the moon comes out. Daytime highs are around 18 degrees Celsius year-round, while nighttime temperatures drop to around three degrees during our summer, and six degrees from November to March.
Can’t Miss: Peña Tap your feet and eat to the rhythm of Bolivia’s answer to the American variety show: a combination of traditional folk music, dancing and an often comedic bandleader. Try Peña Marka Tambo at 710 Calle Jaén.
Cool Eats: Salteña
These succulent, palm-sized pastries are filled with spicy combinations of chicken or beef and vegetables. Street vendors serve them fresh throughout La Paz, so you need never go hungry.

Best Bed: Hotel Presidente TThis is one of the world’s highest five-stars, with an in-house casino that offers complimentary oxygen tanks while you burn through your bolivianos. Rates from $115.

One thing we need:
More transit options. In La Paz there’s a private mini-bus leaving whenever you need it and wherever you need it to go.
One thing we don’t need:
Bogus tourists. Petty criminals in the city core engage the unwitting in conversation while an accomplice purloins the purse.

La Paz literally buzzes with commerce and work. It spills from buildings into streets, squares, laneways and parks. The energy is palpable. And in contrast to my apathetic country, when the people here get upset, they’re not afraid to show it.

The proof is written in Bolivia’s volatile history. This country of some nine million inhabitants, roughly 60 per cent of them indigenous, has become a touchstone of inspiration for the anti-globalization movement that receives its marching orders from Naomi Klein.

Truth is, Bolivians have been battling corporate excess and government malfeasance for generations. Since gaining independence from Spain in 1825 through armed revolution, the country has endured more leadership changes than France has varieties of cheese.

The leafy Plaza Murillo, today so peaceably busy, has been the centre of intrigue and violence more than once. In 1946 vigilantes marched on the presidential palace, dragged the unfortunate Gualberto Villarroel from his presidential office and hanged him from a lamppost in the square.

In 1952 armed miners rose against their government and forced politicians, who had been padding their bank accounts for years thanks to cozy relationships with foreign mining interests, to nationalize Bolivia’s rich mineral resources. Today there’s talk of doing the same with the country’s lucrative natural-gas reserves.

More recently, in 2000 the citizens of Cochabamba stormed onto international front pages after the Bolivian government buckled to World Bank pressure and handed the city’s water rights to San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. When the company jacked rates, the people were furious and immediately dropped their tools in protest. The result: Bechtel fled the country, tail between legs, the Bolivian government was left red-faced and Cochabambans regained control of their water.
Today Bolivia continues to set milestones. President Evo Morales is the country’s first Aymara Aboriginal leader, now synonymous with the resurgence of the political left in South America, alongside Venezuela’s vitriolic Hugo Chávez. The honorific “Evo Amigo” is spray-painted ubiquitously on the dusty cement walls of La Paz’s poorer suburbs.

So far the riot police outnumber civilians in Plaza Murillo, creating a profound sense of expectation. However, the only action is with the orange-juice lady and popcorn vendors, all of whom do a brisk trade. The afternoon drifts away. I exhaust my Spanish on the political section of the national daily paper La Razón, after which I resort to default mode, flipping through gossipy football stories and scandals.

Eventually I get bored of watching Plaza Murillo and waiting for a riot. I pay my bill, leave the café and walk past the dapper fortuneteller, who is now engaged in intense discourse with a spellbound client.

I learn later that the buses from the countryside never arrived, nor did the much-anticipated protest. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day. I’m sure it will happen eventually. This is Bolivia after all.