Wow, what a difference a couple of weeks make! I mentioned in a recent post how transiting through Miami airport was a real bane and how the immigration staff are usually extraordinarily unfriendly, assumming the worst of you from the get-go. Well, after leaving Trinidad I had to go via Miami again to get to Bolivia but this time I had a completely different experience. The lady behind the counter was all smiles and laughter and we even spent a couple of minutes naming famous Australians. She ‘adored’ my accent and sent me on my way with best wishes for the Queen! So, I’d like to take back many of the negatives which I wrote about before and say that it’s down to the individual and that the USA immigration officers don’t have lessons in uncordialty (yes, I know that’s not a word!).
I’m on a six week trip collecting data in the Caribbean and Central America and so I packed my clothing accordingly – with plenty of shorts and t-shirts and just one long sleeve top and one pair of trousers. It hadn’t occurred to me that Bolivia would be cold and so it came as a bit of a shock when I landed at five in the morning and stepped out in to zero degree temperatures in my shorts and t-shirt. Equally as much of a shock was my sudden inability to breathe properly. La Paz (meaning ‘peace’ in English) is the highest capital city (is it the capital? I’ll get to that later) in the world and the airport is perched atop mountains in the middle of the Andes at an altitude of 4061 metres – that’s almost half the height of a passenger plane’s cruising altitude! At this height the air is much thinner and breathing is certainly a lot more laboured, bringing back memories of my ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro a couple of years ago.
It seems that in La Paz the higher you are the poorer you are and the lower you live the wealthier you are. High above the downtown area of the city, clinging to the sides of the mountain are thousands of makeshift homes constructed by migrants who have moved to La Paz in the hope of a better life. Needless to say, then, I headed to the lowest point of the city as this is where the expatriate population and wealthy Bolivians reside. The Zona Sur area with popular expat suburbs of Calacoto and San Miguel is almost a kilometre below the airport and as such it’s quite a bit warmer and breathing is a little easier.
The shopping environment is no great shakes but at least it’s better than Cuba! They have tennis balls, but not as I knew them. The tennis balls in La Paz are ‘special’ balls as the lady in the sports shop was explaining to me. I didn’t know this but you can get high altitude tennis balls and this is what you get up in La Paz. The altitude really does seem to affect most aspects of day to day life. I suppose after a while you become acclimatized but for the three days I was in the city I was always panting, even after a few metres walk. I went for a five kilometre jog on the hotel treadmill and ran it five minutes slower than my usual time, and even that was after exerting myself 100%. So when I get back to England I will be grateful for the oxygen we are blessed with at sea level!
I had a day off in Bolivia and was going to see some old ruins about 50 kilometres from La Paz but at the last minute I changed my mind after reading about The World’s Most Dangerous Road. An episode of Top Gear (where Clarkson and co drive this road) then flashed through my mind and I jumped at the opportunity to cycle along it. Well, it wasn’t really along the road, it was more down the road. Starting at a height of 4500 metres myself and the rest of the tour group then spent five hours going downhill to an altitude of 1200 metres along one of the most, quite literally, breath taking roads there is. The scenery is stunning and the fact that you are inches from the edge with often near vertical drops on one side, not to mention loose, slippery gravel really does make for a unique and thrilling adventure – highly recommended!
So, back to the capital question. As many people know I pride myself on knowing all the world’s capital cities. A capital city is usually defined as where the seat of government is and most are a straightforward ‘no it isn’t’ or ‘yes it is’ but in Bolivia the capital status is a bit ambiguous. Most people assume that La Paz is the capital but, in fact, according to the Bolivian Constitution the capital is Sucre, some 500 kilometres away. The judicial government is in Sucre but the legislative and executive branches of the government are in La Paz. In all reality, though, La Paz is the number one city and its metro population of 2.5 million is eight times the size of Sucre’s with most government offices and related activity taking place in La Paz. So, in conclusion on this subject, I am sitting on the fence over what the capital of Bolivia is and saying that there are two! Can you think of any other countries with more than one capital? I’ll try and enlighten you in my next post from the Central American countries of El Salvador and Nicaragua. Peace.