La Paz, Bolivia
Is this really La Paz? Our bus has entered a heavily built up urban area in the early hours but there are no cars or people on the street. Our driver goes through every red light we come to rather than stopping. I guess this isn't exactly the best area of town then.
We find a bloke who looks trustworthy and he is indeed a (very) nice, polite and helpful driver who takes us to a hotel we've got lined up. We catch our first glimpses of the city in the light. What a quite extraordinary looking place! It is difficult to think of too many cities in the world that are quite so striking in their geography...but more of that later when it is fully light!
It turns out the hotel next door is almost half the price and as well as having decent rooms, it also includes a decent buffet breakfast. I reckon 24 Pounds for a very well-located hotel room in a capital city with breakfast thrown in is a bargain by any standards.
Unfortunately, Christine appears to have food poisoning. In all likelihood she picked it up in Uyuni. If you read my previous comments about hygiene standards in that place, then her sudden illness is not a surprise.
The BBC have finally picked up the Potosi Siege story! You've got to laugh! They didn't bother touching it for a week and now we are all out safely they are reporting that we are all stuck there! Presstitutes.
Katya and I go for a stroll around La Paz. We visit the Witches Market, which is rather tamer than we had expected but with its llama fetuses hanging from its stalls, it is still grotesque in its own way. Some of the old ladies manning the stalls are very witch like and a couple of them go mental when backpackers attempt to take photos of the unborn llamas and dead frogs. Other items on sale include aphrodisiacs, herbs and seeds, as well as tiny slightly-scary-looking-figurines. The street itself is clean and feels safe giving a surprisingly commercial air. There again, there do appear to be a couple of male witch doctors shuffling around so you end up feeling safe-but-intimidated by it all.
The streets adjacent to this speak of a significant tourism industry with dozens of bars, restaurants and hotels as well as travel agencies selling trips to the ''Death Road", Lake Titicaca, and Cusco. It is all so much more 'normal' than I had expected of central La Paz.
Steep, narrow cobbled streets are lined with colourful apartment houses, some with gorgeous balconies. At the bottom of one such steep hill we come to attractive San Francisco Square, the city's major urban plaza. There's an a striking colonial Basilica here and crowds of people pacing around the square. There are also dozens of people sat in the middle of the road attempting to block the traffic. On closer inspection it appears they are protesters from Potosi!
We walk around the avenues and side streets of La Paz for a couple of hours unable to find a hotel in the downtown with a good aerial view of the capital's famous cityscape.
Eventually, we end up in Plaza Murillo, which is being guarded on all its side streets by riot police and army. These boys are seriously tooled up and ready for a fight. I'm not sure the lads from Potosi will get past this bunch without the loss of one or two lives. Clearly, the authorities are ready and waiting for a big fight. Once we manage to negotiate our way through we find a classic colonial square which is home to a number of the countries most important buildings including the residential palace and the parliament building. There are no tourists or indeed locals present but there are hundreds of police and army and thousands of pigeons. Walking downhill from here we pass another police line where the officers are irritable and rather confrontational The buildings here are not so well kept as the main square, with crumbling facades and dilapidated balconies.
Back in the more touristy area of the city we find a youth hostel that has some of the best views in the city from its top floor balcony. The hostel itself is dirty and full of backpacking kids barely out of school, most of whom seem high on one kind of drug or other.
The view here, enjoying a cold bottle of Huari, is world class. The rich live in fine town apartments in the centre, the middle class appear to live in upmarket tower blocks just off the centre, while the majority poor live in the sprawling barrios that cling to the mountains in every direction like something from a Gothic novel. One reason the poor live so high up is a practical one: it is less pleasant to live at 4200 metres when instead, if you have money, you can live down here at 3600 metres.
As the sun begins to set, the snow capped Mount Illimani towering above an already epicly high valley at 6400 metres below it, you appreciate that this is one of the world's most dramatic city views. I turn to hear a bottle smash on the floor and witness a couple of 18 year olds collapse from drunkenness. Barely one of these kids is admiring this quite sensational La Paz sunset. They are more interested in the E's and Wizz.
Back at the hotel, Christine is getting worse and is stuck in her room for the night. Katya, Andy and myself go out for dinner and a night of celebrating our escape from Potosi.
Events of the past week have clearly caught up with Andy and I as, sat alone in the hotel breakfast room in the early hours of the morning, we carefully wrap individual Skittles with coca leaves before munching our way through them with a swig of alcohol each time. The high is shall we say different but very pleasant and calming.
But the very fact that we go to bed in La Paz munching Skittles in coca leaves is something that is so silly that it will, in time, no doubt remain as one of my highlights of this South American adventure.