The walking tour also explored the Witches Market, which I liked as we had stumbled across the bizarre stores earlier so it was nice to get some explanation about the place. Bolivians are very superstitious and this street fulfils all their needs with products to help find a husband, make more money and build a house amoungst other things.
When building, Bolivians need to offer an alive sacrifice to Pachamama, the earth mother. Before they start building there is a ceremony where the sacrifice is buried, followed by a huge party. The bigger the building the greater the sacrifice. This explained the still born baby illamas which were hanging up all around the witches market. Offerings have to be alive but because the still born illamas have already had life taken from them by Pachamama, these can still be used and locals can just buy them from the markets.
Our tour guide did tell us one of the most disturbing urban myths I've heard though, and she was convinced it was actually true. For extra good luck some Bolivians are thought to sacrifice humans. Obviously this is a greater sacrifice to Pachamama than a baby illama. Our tour guide told us about people finding drunk homeless men, feeding them up on more alcohol then once they are convinced the men are no longer in contact with their family, they then bury them alive as a sacrifice. Suddenly La Paz didn't feel as safe anymore..
I have read a lot of blog posts and forums about La Paz and it always attracts such mixed reactions. Some people hate the masses of people and consider the red brick valley ugly. I loved the chaos and thought the city intriguing. Lonely Planet had talked about the dangers of La Paz with its fake tourist and police scams but I felt safe. I did however meet one guy who had his wallet and phone stolen while out on a bender with locals. But he blamed his nativity rather than the city on the outcome and did sheepishly admit to having a great night out anyway.
It's hard to really make the most of a destination in so little time. There are the touristy things you need to do, you need to make the most of the nightlife (and not spend the whole time at the Loki hostel bar in La Paz...) and at the same time you want to relax and see where the streets take you. I spend 3-4 nights in most places so it means non stop exploring which is exhausting! On my last weekend in La Paz I knew I had to do something a little more touristy as although I'd had a lot of fun there already I knew nothing about the city!
I think walking tours are the best way to get to know a city and I was glad to have done the free Red Cap walking tour on my last day in La Paz. We started out at the famous San Pedro Prison, well known from the book Marching Powder. This place is interesting. With a capacity to hold 400 prisoners, some 2500 now live there. Until recently this could include families of inmates who could come and go as they please. Prisoners also have to pay rent which is why families lived there. Inmates couldn't afford to pay rent inside the prison as well as for their families on the outside. Having to pay rent in San Pedro came about when the population started growing and prisoners used that as an opportunity to make a quick buck, subdividing their cells. Nowadays the prison, which only takes up a block in central La Paz, basically reflects a city, with poor parts and more affluent areas. The poor just rent out a mattress in a crammed room while the wealthier inmates can rent a two bedroom apartment. There are also restaurants, medical centres, tailors and other shops within the prison, so the inmates can make money and pay to live there. This is all very hard to imagine when looking at the prison from the outside.
Coke and Coke.
Bolivians are obsessed with Coca Cola and I thought it was funny hearing that Coke has exclusive distribution rights in the prison. No Pepsi allowed. Up to six trucks per week come and go making deliveries of the drink.
The prison is also famous for the other kind of coke. This is smuggled out of the cells and is promised to be the best in Bolivia. Up till a few years ago backpackers could actually go on tours inside the prison but after other governments found out the real reason why, they put pressure on the Bolivian government who stopped the tours. You can't even take photos of the prison. I got told off three times...