Our rationale for taking a flight between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, and taking a bus between Cochabamba and La Paz, was simple – the bus was shorter for the latter journey. But with the benefit of hindsight, I kinda which we did the opposite.
The first half of the ride was typical of the Andes: a rough, winding, mountainous two-lane road climbing and climbing. It certainly wasn’t bad, as you can only go so fast uphill in a bus, even if the driver is willing to pass trucks on blind corners. Pleasantly, once we reached the altiplano the road flattened completely, and even widened to a four-lane highway. We were cruising along without much care in the world, until we ran smack into rush-hour traffic in El Alto.
El Alto (the tall one) is La Paz’s poorer cousin (albeit one with a little more pride, wealth and political power these days). Where La Paz cascades down a canyon, with altitudes ranging from 3,600 meters all the way down to 2,800 meters, El Alto sprawls endlessly on the altiplano above (roughly at 4,000 meters). It was initially fun to look at the outskirts of El Alto as we slowed to a standstill. In these regions, new buildings are initially constructed with only the first floor complete. These usually house some sort of commercial venture, but the intent is clear – rebar and unfinished columns continue above the retail space. Step two is to build out the remaining four-five stories, leaving them mostly a hollow shell, to be filled in later with apartments or maybe a hotel. On the fringes of El Alto, these buildings were going up fast, without waiting for a commercial development to successfully raise capital. So fast in fact, that oftentimes the streets didn’t even exist yet.
Stage two development in El Alto – no streets yet
Our 5 mph tour quickly grew tiresome, however. When an hour had passed and we hadn’t even reached the canyon edge, Sheena and I started to get antsy. Mercifully, once we did reach that point the traffic melted away and we cruised quickly down to the bus terminal.
When our taxi driver hadn’t heard of our hostel, or even the street it was on, we didn’t get too worried. It was a relatively new place, and quite small, so chances are he just hadn’t taken someone there yet. But when we arrived at the street, the address of our hostel didn’t exist… Unhelpfully, there were three big-name hostels only a block away, so every time we asked about ours, people pointed us in that direction. Hungry, headache-y and getting more and more pissy with each other, Sheena and I were at a loss as to what to do. Some shop owners did identify a door near the address that had been known to admit gringos, but no one answered the doorbell… We trudged down the road and passed a mediocre-looking place that Sheena remembered was in our book, so we took a room.
Later, after a nice beer, some french fries and salsa (called Chips and Salsa on the menu) and something one might call pizza, we were calming down a bit. It was freezing cold out, we were dead tired, but at least we had a place to sleep. Then the hot water in my shower didn’t work and I kinda lost it. In these moments, Sheena has learned that it’s better just to let me deal on my own, and luck would have it that we had a spare bed in the room for some extra space apart… A most enjoyable welcome to La Paz.
The next morning we found out that the doorbell we had rung was, in fact, our hostel. Never trust a Facebook page (and why don’t they have a sign?!). We went over in the morning and were greeted by the grandmother, who hadn’t been expecting us until today anyway (a mix up with our reservation)… It’s a wonderful place and we’re very happy to be here. It’s a new day and there’s hope. It’s a new year in fact, by the time of this posting!