Jun 2 - Lift Off

I started the blog page of my website in Bolivia. It was a way for me to stay in touch with my friends back home. Nowadays, facebook, instagram, and twitter are the norm. I don't even know why I keep this website anymore, but it's here.

So now coming back to Bolivia is going to be interesting. Back then I was a tourist looking for llama fetuses and grilled guinea pig. This time, I need to find an apartment and connect myself to the internet so that I can work remotely. It's going to be a different story.


Exchange Rate: CDN$1 - B$6.11

Jun 3 - The Kiva Experience - Part 1

So the main purpose of coming to Bolivia was for volunteer work with Felipe got accepted as a Kiva Fellow, and I'm his fellow, so I get to enjoy the experience as well.

For those not in the know, Kiva is non-profit organization that crowdsources funds to distribute to microfinance organizations around the world. I, myself, have been a supporter since my professor friend described how he was using it as a case study in his marketing course. For me, it's been easy to support--it's like putting money away under your mattress for safekeeping, but in the meanwhile lots of more industrious energetic people will make use of it. Like an account at a bank but without the huge profits.

Felipe applied for the fellowship way back in February with a resume and several short essays on why he wanted to be a fellow and what would allow him to succeed. Of course, he got accepted into the program and we flew to San Francisco for the training sessions in late May. The other fellows in the group were generally younger, with many fresh out of university--I think the fact that this is an unpaid position scares away the people with the most to lose: the employed! A lot of them seemed to be professional volunteers jumping from one non-profit to another. It was good to see that there were other people like Felipe who wanted to take their grizzled expertise out on the road to help the less fortunate.

So a week of training in San Francisco, and wham, bam, here we are in Bolivia. I'm interested in seeing the world of non-profits and microfinance--does it really help? Or is it just a scam?


Jun 4 - Soroche at 4000 meters

Soroche is altitude sickness. Going from sea level to 4000 meters in a day is tough on the body and about 50% of the people get altitude sickness with a change this great.

Felipe got hit really hard the first couple of days--he was basically out of commission with nausea and a massive headache. For me, I was breathing deeply but still feeling out of breath. I walked a block to find some food and I was gasping for breath with a few steps.

The local remedy for this, other than rest, is coca tea made from the same plants as they use to make cocaine. But don't plan on sending some as a gift to your local Toronto mayor as the concentration of the chemical is almost non-existent. Although apparently, you can still test positive for cocaine in a drug test.


Toronto altitude: 105m / 347 ft
La Paz altitude: 3,640m / 11,942 ft
- El Alto district: 4,150m / 13,620 ft

Jun 5 - Apartment Hunting

Bolivia is like a black box to the outside world. When I needed to find an apartment and information for Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, and Mexico, it was a quick and easy google search. A hour of searching and I pretty much had all the amenities of home in a foreign country.

Try searching for an apartment in Bolivia, and it's like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle that your pet dog just finished chewing up. There are bits and pieces of information here and there. Promising leads. Lots of dead ends. Classified ads with vague 140-character twitter-like messages and no photos. Google maps with little information and no street-view. Blog entries that talk about the llama fetuses and grilled guinea pig. Blah blah blah.

So we ended up at a apart hotel with a nice fancy website (what else can you rely on from way far away?), Caserita Apart Hotel. Getting here, it is a great space, very homey, a place that we could quickly get used to. Our balcony has a sweeping view of the surrounding house-covered valley.

Tips / comments on apartment hunting in La Paz Bolivia:

1. Maps and addresses don't tell you everything: In the morning we took a walk outside the apartment, and realized that we are at the top of a hill. This hill is brutal to walk when you are trying to get used to the thin air and altitude of La Paz. La Paz is hills and more hills everywhere. Be aware.

2. Good available apartments are scarce: We made the mistake of booking our place for only a week to start. We thought we would be able to extend or find another place. Nope. Uh-uh. We were wrong. Our place was booked for 10 months after our week!

So we went apartment hunting. We searched and visited those places in the 140-character classifieds--and I have to say that they were mediocre at best. Mold. Bad matresses. Old furniture. Getting stuck in an elevator with a stinky cholita.

Caserita ended up extending our stay for a month in a less luxurious, but equally homey apartment. After that, we found a nice boutique hotel, Rendezvous Hotel, where we will pay a significant premium over the places we saw. I guess that's the price we pay for being relatively high-maintenance Canadians with not enough patience for apartment hunting.

3. Must....find....heat: Ask your housing about heating. La Paz is soooo cold at night in June, especially when there is no heating in the apartments. In Canada -2 is a brisk morning walk, in La Paz it's an uncomfortable night's sleep. We wear jackets and sweats in the apartment until about mid day and bought a small heater fan in Ketal to help us cope.


Caserita Apart Hotel
- 1 week, 2 bedroom apt: USD$250
- 1 month, 1 bedroom apt: USD$540

Rendezvous Hotel
- 1 month, 1 bdrm with balcony: USD$1050

Classifieds: La Razon & El Diario
- USD$380, 2 bdrm boarding house in Sopocachi, scummy pilly carpets, dirty patio deck plastic furniture, may have had things living in the dark corners
- USD$600, 2 bdrm in Sopocachi, met her on the street, completely in the middle of renovations, broken windows, debris everywhere, they ran out of money for renos but she assured us she could get it ready in a week--yeah right. It looked like it would be nice when finished
- USD$600, 2 bdrm apartment in Sopocachi, on 2 floors, strong smell of mold upstairs which they tried to mask by using cleaning fluids and open windows, horrible beds
- USD$800, 2 bedroom on Arce Ave, decent place in the center of busy area, bad beds, hot water wasn't working, high up and nice view of the valley, old furniture, no internet, we had to climb out of the small elevator that got stuck between floors

Jun 8 - Internet Hunting

Internet in Bolivia kinda sucks. I need decent internet to work remotely and searching for the alternatives was eye-opening. The problem is that the country has poor infrastructure and has some of the slowest internet in the world! The fastest speed you can get in the country is slower than the slowest speed that Rogers will even sell in Canada.

With that information, I was very nervous about my internet search. I visited all the major providers Viva, TIGO, and the government owned company Entel. At all the companies, the fastest internet I could get was 2MBps--this would not be a guaranteed speed (except with Viva's WIMAX) and could drop well under 1MBps very easily during busy hours. This was unacceptable mainly because of the variability. To get faster speeds, I needed to sign an 18 month contract. Ugh.

My apartment and hotel hunt was a bit more promising as they deal with tourists and expats and understand our unsatiable need for fast internet. I found that although they have faster internet, a main problem was that I could not connect in directly to the internet by cable. And so I was limited by the quality of their WIFI routers which so far has been pretty shitty. I keep getting disconnected randomly and the internet constantly slows to a crawl. Again, unworkable.

So the alternative that finally worked was the local internet cafes. I noticed that some cafes catered to internet gamers. If it worked for games that require split second timing, I was sure it would work for me. Thank god for League of Legends! I hunted around the city for the fastest connections and finally settled for a couple of locations in Sopocachi around the market. They reportedly have 5MBps connections (but more like 3MBps when fastest) and the connections rarely drop to a point where I can't work. Success!


Ok the internet sucks. I am still having trouble finding a consistently fast connection which is really stressful. And every time a World Cup game is on, the internet across the city slows to a crawl. WTF?


- WIMAX Pre-paid 2MBps: activation fee US$50, US$145 / month, speed is guaranteed

- USB modem 2MBps: USB modem US$35, US$43 / month, 10GB limit, speed very variable

Internet Cafe, Ecuador & Rosendo Gutierrez: B$2.5 / hour, fastest speed 3MBps--works out to about $65 / month

Jun 14 - Festival Time! "El Gran Poder"

Every year around the end of May / beginning of July, La Paz erupts in dance, fancy traditional clothes, and food and drink. The festival is called El Gran Poder / The Great Power. This celebration extends across all the religious beliefs of the locals and the great powers that they each worship.

The long parade route snakes around the city and ends up in Parque Urbano Central. This is where we started our day at the finish line where every cholita had a beer and there was enough chicharron for everyone!

El Gran Poder Parade Route 2014

We chatted with some of the people in the parade. They explained how there were two types of women's dress in the parade, the traditional cholita and the new cholitas. The traditional cholitas were easy to pick out with the bowler hats--I'll definitely have to do an entry on the cholitas during my stay. The men were dressed either like overly-decorated wedding cakes, or what they called "el diablito" (the little devil). Every different costume has a particular dance and it was fun to watch.

They all danced in a "fraternidad" and practice all year for the parade. Each fraternidad has it's own full marching band plus dance troupe. The amazing thing is the sheer size of the parade. They start at 7am and go until midnight. And it is a steady stream of people from start to finish. It was pretty unbelievable!

We ended the day in a cute street Calle Jaen where we had a tasty mocachino and felt like we were on some romantic forgetten street in Europe. The Museo de Instrumentos had a great collection of guitars and instruments. I really wanted to try playing the giant armadillo one! We paid about C$3 to watch the longest concert ever--I thought it would never end. They played the local instrument, the charango--a tiny guitar that I would describe as the little yappy dog that you want to kick across the room.



El Gran Poder Parade:
- Number of dancers: 30,000
- Number of musicians: 4,000

Museo de Instrumentos
- 3 hour concert: B$20
- mocachino at Etno: B$20
- cafe con leche at Etno: B$10

Jun 22 - The Exhiliarating Heights of El Alto

La Paz is contained in a giant bowl. At the top of the bowl is El Alto, a fast growing city filled with poorer indigenous migrants from the rural areas. Strangely in this part of the world higher land, even with their sweeping views of the city and mountains, is less desirable mainly due to the colder temperatures.

Every Sunday a massive open-air market sets up in El Alto, La Feria 16 de Julio. To arrive there, we took the new Teleférico--a grand web of urban cable cars that will span La Paz. The first stations opened May 30 to shuttle 10 people per car up the steep hill to El Alto.

We went to Taypi Uta station located at La Estación Central, and the line up snaked around the terminal a few times and continued out into the streets for a few blocks. We waited a full hour until we got onto the bright shiny red car to take us up the mountain. All the locals in our car were riding for the first time just like us, and so were just as excited. As we smoothly glided away from La Paz up the mountain towards El Alto, the buildings slowly drained of colour until they they became a dusty brick. Houses clung like barnacles on the steepest edges and the streets looked impossible to climb.

Arriving at the Feria was like the opening scene of an action movie. People bustling and shouting, coloured tarps flapping in the wind, the smell of frying grease, so much energy, all leading to the grand Feria. Blocks and blocks of things I would expect to find at a junk yard--creepy dolls from your nightmares, to stained knockoff sweaters, to obsolete tv controllers, to giant rusty metal thingamajigs. There was a section devoted to building a house, wooden doors, parquet flooring, toilets, rusty piping, even full staircases. Another section with unending rows of used and new cars parked on the sides of the street with prices scribbled in white chalk on the windshield. Fruit stands selling juice, unidentifiable meat bubbling in dark overused oil, bright traditional dresses ("no fotos!"), baby llamas for photo ops, racks of dvds and cds, and mountains of mechanical pieces that must have some use somewhere.

It was exhilarating and exhausting to walk through the crowded streets. Boring as we are, all we bought was a little wooden cutting board. We stopped for a greasy fried chicken lunch and by midday we were ready to return to the relative calm of La Paz. El Alto is a place that is best appreciated in small spurts...or if you need a metal thingamajig.


1 way ticket, Teleferico to El Alto: B$3
1 way ticket, Microbus to La Paz: B$2.5
half chicken meal: B$28
charango w/ Mother of Pearl: B$500
wooden chopping board: B$15
swimming cap: B$20

Jun 28 - Without Discrimination

This weekend we are missing World Pride events in Toronto. Our friends' Facebook postings are full of parties, beer gardens, parades, Brad in drag?!, and more parties. I'm a bit sad to be missing all the fun.

But here in La Paz, we caught wind that La Paz Pride was the exact same weekend. Banners hung along the very visible Prado pedestrian walk declaring "Inclusivo, sin Discriminación". A new friend of ours invited us to join them marching in the parade. I wasn't really interested--it seemed like a lot of work walking down the street dancing and hollering and stuff. But Felipe thought it would be fun.

So as night approached, we arrived at the start of the parade route and blew up a hundred or so balloons and strapped them on our backs. Along with some folks from the US Embassy, we became a human rainbow of balloons. We started down the parade route, and I thought it would be a couple of blocks with some foreigners watching on the side. But it ended up being a 2 hour walk, tons of local people lining the street, drag cholitas, families with kids who laughed gleefully as we gave them free ballooons. Our un-gay time here, finally got a bit gay. It was really really fun.




see itinerary