Plaza Murillo La Paz Bolivia

Pigeons and Peace in Plaza Murillo

Sometimes it is hard to believe that tranquility can be found inside the center of a vibrant, bustling city like La Paz. Yet for that exact reason I believe the founders of La Paz created just that kind of place directly within the heart and soul of the city. Originally called Plaza de Armas, Plaza Murillo was renamed after the war hero General Pedro Domingo Murillo who lead the wars of independence which eventually freed La Paz from its Colonial past.

Plaza Murillo is smack in the middle of La Paz and is surrounded by beautiful government buildings and an ornate cathedral. It is a lovely place to sit and chat with friends, have a snack or refreshment from a nearby street vendor or play with the swarms of pigeons. Whatever you fancy, you can find it here.

As you enter the Plaza Murillo, your eyes are immediately drawn to the gorgeous cathedral soaring majestically above the square. Built in 1835, the imposing cathedral was constructed in Renaissance style and sits proudly next to the Presidential Palace. I spent a few moments walking around the square capturing some of the various buildings. It was evident that most of Plaza Murillo had been nicely restored but like the rest of the city, other parts had been obviously missed.

Plaza Murillo La Paz BoliviaPlaza Murillo La Paz Bolivi

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Calle Jaén La Paz Bolivia

Calle Jaén: The Most Colonial Street in La Paz

One of my favorite finds in La Paz is Calle Jaén, the most colonial street in the city. About a ten minute walk directly uphill from the Iglesia de San Francisco, Calle Jaén is a magical place. Colored in Spanish Colonial hues of brilliant reds, blues, greens and pinks, walking down Calle Jaén’s narrow cobblestone street feels like stepping back in time.

It took a little bit of wandering around to find it and sadly I almost got pick-pocketed by a very normal looking man (thank you Mom for lending me a jacket with a complicated button closing the pocket! Otherwise he would have been able to grab my travel wallet!). When I felt the tug on my jacket and realized what was going on, I started to yell and he was gone. It was a close call though not enough to keep me away from finding Calle Jaén. I was determined to find this hidden treasure.

La Paz Bolivia

Leaving Iglesia de San Francisco and heading up towards Calle Jaén

La Paz Bolivia

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La Paz Bolivia buildings

The Architecture of La Paz

La Ciudad de Nuestra de la Paz (the city of our Lady of Peace) was founded on October 20, 1548 by Captain Alonzo de Mendoza. Mendoza, a conquistador from Spain, believed La Paz offered the perfect place to establish a city because it would bring them wealth through gold. It also offered a key link between Lima and Potosí, a city in southern Bolivia built around the richest silver mine in the world.  Sadly, the arrival and consequent colonization of Bolivia profoundly changed the livelihoods of the ingenious population who still feel the effects of land redistribution, class segregation and wealth distribution today.

What the Spanish colonization left behind is a city filled with an eclectic mix of European colonial and South American architectural influences.  As the oldest settlement in South America, La Paz offers some of the most unique examples of traditional Spanish Colonial architecture found. However, like so many developing countries many of La Paz’ buildings lie in a state of disrepair and lack of preservation reminding me so much of Cuba.

Come take a walk with me through the streets of La Paz to take a peak at her architectural beauty and charm. Close you eyes and imagine what a fresh coat of paint would do!

Traditional Spanish Colonial churches

An estimated 95% of Bolivians are Roman Catholics and the churches are glorious representations of their faith. The indigenous population have converted to Catholicism but also incorporate some of their native beliefs into their faith.

Iglesia de San Francisco La Paz Bolivia

Iglesia de San Francisco reflects a blend of 16th century Spanish and mestizo influence.

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Street photography La Paz Bolivia

Daily Life in La Paz

The best place to get a feel for daily life in La Paz is to walk her chaotic, often serpentine streets and see it all for yourself. As the sun rises, the streets are relatively quiet save for the growing hum of the cars, vans and buses that transport people around. By nine o’clock, the streets begin to come alive as the street vendors open up the doors of their little green stalls, bringing a burst of riotous color to the scene. Children in uniforms walk to school while men and women move swiftly to get to work. Others pass their time lounging on the stoops of a building or on a bench in the park.

I found the best way to get a taste of daily life in La Paz was to capture as many different aspects of it as possible on film. I have already posted my street photography photos on street art, women, markets and vendors. Now it is time to take a look at how people express themselves in their daily lives.

Street photography La Paz Bolivia

Singing on the streets to earn a dime.

Street photography La Paz Bolivia

Eating breakfast outdoors before opening her stall for the day.

Street photography La Paz Bolivia

Relaxing in front of God’s house.

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Produce Market La Paz Bolivia

The Unusual Street Markets of La Paz

In my opinion, the heart and soul of a country can almost always be found on the street. Street markets can tell you a lot about a place.  There is no place where this is more true than in La Paz. La Paz’ chaotic and colorful markets are abundant and diverse. You can find anything your heart desires and bartering always ensures the best price. It is at the unusual markets of La Paz that the old and new culture of the city collides. Whether you are looking for a specific door knob, light bulb or toilet seat, you can surely find it at rock bottom prices at the Mercado Negro (Black market). Want a llama fetus to set fire as an offering? No problem. There are plenty of dead ones to choose from at the Mercado de Hechiceria (Witches’ Market). Experiencing the fabulous markets of La Paz is the highlight of any trip and is bound to be a fascinating way to spend the day.

Our hotel, Hostal Naira was located just a block or two away from the start of the Witches’ Market on Calle Sagarnaga thus we spent a lot of time walking around the area. I already posted many of my photos from the street vendors near our hotel in this post  however I found that the further up the cobblestone streets we walked, the more interesting and unusual the markets became. As the traditional street vendors known as artesanias selling handicrafts and hand-woven goods dwindled so did the tourists. We knew that we were entering the markets meant for locals as we begin to see no tourists and more unique items for sale.

Markets of La Paz Bolivia

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Aymara Women La Paz Bolivia

The Aymara Women of La Paz

Bolivia prides itself as having one of the largest indigenous cultures in South America with an estimated 60% of her population claiming indigenous descent. Although many native groups make up Bolivia’s indigenous population, the most prevalent group living in La Paz and the Bolivian highlands are the Aymaras.

The Aymaras are known for their rich, highland culture, colorful handicrafts and traditional dress. The Aymara women known locally as “cholitas” generally are always seen dressed in traditional clothing, wearing their tiny little bowler hats, several layers of large colorful polleras (skirts), tiny shoes patterned after Spanish bullfighters and beautifully embroidered shawls. They also generally wear a colorful hand-woven blanket on their backs to either carry a baby or other items.

Walking around the streets of La Paz I was amazed to see so many of cholitas dressed so colorfully, each one bringing her own unique charm. Most Aymaras are short and stout, and purposely wear many layers of skirts to make their hips look quite large. According to their culture, large hips are a sign of beauty and fertility. The woman also always wear their hair long and plaited with black-colored yarn adornments at the end. I’m not sure what it symbolizes but I did not see a single Aymara woman without her hair worn this way.

Aymara Women La Paz Bolivia

 

As I walked around La Paz, it was evident that Aymara women make up the majority of street vendors selling anything ranging from vibrant, traditional clothing to scarves, shawls, vibrant colored blankets and produce. They worked hard yet never seemed to be unhappy about their status in life. I was always greeted with a smile and the woman stuck together.

Here are a series of some of my favorite captures of the Aymara women of La Paz. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. 

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Street vendors in La Paz Bolivia

The Street Vendors of La Paz

Street vendors are everywhere in La Paz adding vibrancy and culture to the already colorful, hectic streets. You can pretty much buy anything on the street ranging from beautiful handicrafts and hand-woven goods to magazines, drinks, food and anything your heart desires inside the black market.

The life of a street vendor is not an easy one. Most open up their green-colored stalls around nine or ten o’clock in the morning and close well after ten at night. The majority of street vendors are women who have no other choice but to bring their babies and young children with them for a long day and night on the street. They eat at their stalls, watch their  children play and sleep at the stalls, and spend most of the time sitting there hoping for a customer so they can make enough money to survive.

I found the life to be a hard yet was amazed at their perseverance by coming day after day to the same spot for well over twelve hours to sell what they could to feed their families. I was heartbroken by the mothers with young kids crying or sleeping at their weary feet. But in a country of high unemployment, at least these women had some income to provide for their family. And the products they sold were lovely.

The neighborhood we stayed in was located in the heart of the Witches Market, a huge tourist attraction in La Paz. I enjoyed watching some of the street vendors set up and close their stalls each day. I enjoyed taking photos of them even more.

Street vendors in La Paz Bolivia

In the morning slowly the street vendors begin to arrive and open up their green-colored stalls for the day. These stalls were right outside our hotel.

Every morning this woman would open her small stall around nine o’clock, right outside our hotel door. She had a beautiful collection of handicrafts and also sold bottled water which was very helpful. Her location couldn’t be better given the high volume of customers in the hotel next door.

Street vendors in La Paz Bolivia

Street vendors in La Paz Bolivia

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Street Art in La Paz, Bolivia

Street Art in La Paz

I adore street art.  While some people find street art and graffiti distasteful, I truly love a good work of art and enjoying it for free on the side of a building brings more flavor and culture to a place. Like many cities in South America, La Paz has its share of street art which adds to the riot of color already surrounding her vibrant streets.

My favorite pieces of street art were of the Aymara women who are so common on the streets of La Paz. Painted in vivid, bright colors I found these murals lovely. I wondered who had painted them and how long the art had been there. Had they been commissioned or did an artist become inspired to paint it for free?

The sensational colors made my soul sing.

Street Art in La Paz, Bolivia

Street Art in La Paz, Bolivia

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Street Vendors La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz: A Lesson in Street Photography

La Paz is one of the most colorful, vibrant places I have ever been. Ranking high on the list with such photogenic darlings as India and Cuba, the endless opportunities to take pictures makes you never once put your camera away for fear that you will miss something great. You could seriously spend a week just walking around the winding, lively streets of the city taking thousands of photos. Unfortunately I only had a few days meaning I had to take as many as possible without the correct lighting or framing of the shot. Nevertheless, I am happy with the colorful captures I was able to get despite my hasty, rushed approach.

It took me weeks to sort through and edit my collection of photos. When I finally edited the very last photo, I was elated. However, at first glance I was also a tad bit disappointed. Looking back now, I realize that La Paz taught me a hard lesson in street photography. It is not as easy or simple as it seems.

Trying to capture random pictures of everyday life without attracting too much attention is difficult. I love to photograph every day people yet there is often a fine line between asking for their permission to get a shot or just taking it on the sly. It can feel like an invasion of privacy and if you are caught you may get an angry stare or worse.

My general rule of thumb when photographing people is that if they are only a part of the scene I am taking, then I generally don’t ask. I take the photo from far away and get the entire scene.  If I want a closer view of the subject, I crop it later when I am editing in Lightroom. If the photo is exclusively of a person and I need a close up shot, then I always ask their permission. The unfortunate part is that sometimes a shot that is not candid just doesn’t turn out as well. But I’d rather be respectful and ask permission than chance upsetting someone.

Another lesson I learned about street photography on this trip is that timing is everything. I may see the perfect photo but if my camera is not ready at that exact moment in time or if a bus or car drive through the photo, then it is ruined. La Paz is a very busy place with people, cars, buses, and tourists everywhere.  Oftentimes I would try my best to get a shot when all the sudden a pedestrian would walk right past my camera as I snap. If I was traveling on my own, I could try again but I’m usually always with an impatient non-blogger who doesn’t want to spend the entire day stopping every step to take pictures!

Timing is also important when it comes to the location of the sun. When you are only in a destination for a couple of days, you just have to take your chances on the photos. The sun may be in the worst spot possible but if I really like something than I take the photo anyway knowing even if it is not the best, at least I got it.

The last lesson I learned is that to be a true street photographer takes incredible talent. I’m just an amateur photographer who loves to capture the world through my eyes. Sometimes I get lucky and a photo I take turns out really great. But I acknowledge the fact that I am no expert. If my photos aren’t perfect that is ok. As long as they show the world through my eyes and help me share what I have seen, then I’ve done my job.

The next series of my Bolivia posts will all revolve around street photography. Here is a preview of the different subjects:

Street Art

Street Art in La Paz, Bolivia

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SutiSana Bolivia

SutiSana: Helping Survivors of Prostitution in Bolivia

Whenever I travel, I try to ensure I’m fitting in a little bit of time to learn about some of the social issues that impact a country I am visiting. Through my work as a social good blogger and advocate for various non-profit organizations, I have learned about many of the issues that negatively impact women and girls around the world. From poverty and hunger to lack of education, safe water and health care services, each issue has its unique set of challenges that keeps women and girls from thriving. Human sex trafficking is one of the darker topics I have touched upon, and sadly it is often one of the most tragic especially when it involves young girls.

Bolivia is a country that is notorious for prostitution as well as child labor. Child labor (children can work independently as young as ten) and prostitution are actually legal. Although it is not legal for girls under the age of 18 to be prostitutes, sadly the law is often overlooked and disregarded. As in most places around the world, a life as a prostitute is not one that most girls or women would choose and the majority of girls who end up in prostitution have been sexually abused as a child.

Despite being legal in Bolivia, it is often not very well-regulated and bribes are common ways to get anything done under the table. Women who are registered as prostitutes are required to have regular medical check-ups but it is easy to let it slide. Furthermore, there is much corruption within the prostitution industry. Women and girls are abused by their pimps and their customers, and are paid very little for the services they provide. The average “trick” is about $3 and in order to pay enough to cover rent at the brothel women must multiple tricks a night. It is not uncommon for some women to do up to 40 tricks a night.

On my first day in Bolivia, I met with SutiSana to learn about their amazing work in helping women leave prostitution and change their lives. Founded five years ago by the faith-based non-profit Word Made Flesh, SutiSana helps women in El Alto, Bolivia leave the lives of prostitution by providing them with training, support and guidance to become self-sufficient and gainfully employed.

The name SutiSana comes from Aymara and Spanish, the two languages that the women speak, and was chosen for its beautiful meaning. In Aymara, Suti means name. In Spanish, Sana means healthy or healed. As women leave prostitution, they often leave behind a name they used there and find a new identity – a Healed Name.

SantiSana El Alto Bolivia

Since SutiSana is a Christian-based non-profit organization, they have a small room for prayer. In this room, as you look outside the window you will see the row of nondescript buildings that are the brothels. The largest brothel is the building on the right edge of the photo. It has four floors with 100 prostitutes working a night.

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La Paz, Bolivia

My Fascination with La Paz

I landed in Bolivia after a grueling overnight flight from Miami in El Alto, the highest international airport in the world at a dizzying altitude of 13,323 feet (4,061 m). Coming from the flat land of Minnesota at meager 830 feet (264 m) above sea level and a restless night’s sleep, I felt exhausted, unbalanced and elated all the same to finally be in Bolivia.

A driver from our hotel picked us up and drove us the short 8 miles or so down into the heart of La Paz. As we left the bustling run-down city of El Alto and meandered down the impossibly steep, colorful streets of La Paz I looked around me in fascination. In all my travels around the world, I had never seen anything quite like La Paz. Built within a giant bowl-shaped canyon with streets as steep as ski hills, there she laid before me:  A metropolitan area of over 2 million people densely populated within the sheer rocks that surround La Paz and lead to the majestic, snow-capped Andes.

La Paz, Bolivia

Leaving the high plateau of El Alto, I got the first real view of La Paz below and was stunned.

La Paz Bolivia

If ever you get lost in La Paz, simply head downhill. You are bound to find yourself again

And then I saw her in all her glory and was awestruck. La Paz seemed to go on forever into the distant altiplano, the highlands for which this part of Bolivia is known for.

La Paz, Bolivia

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Woman in La Paz Bolivia

Bolivian Street Photography: The Twinkle in her eye

Bolivia has the largest indigenous population in South America with an estimated 60% of her population claiming indigenous descent. In La Paz, the most prominent indigenous culture is the Aymara who are known for their rich, highland culture and colorful handicrafts.

Walking down the streets of La Paz, the landscape is awash is brilliant colors of tapestries, handwoven scarves, hats and sweaters, and tiny little street side shops and stalls run by the local Aymara women. Cholitas dressed in wide, layered skirts, a brightly colored handwoven blanket along the back and an English-style brown bowler hat atop their head, line the streets waiting expectantly for a sale.

I saw her alone, seated next to a small street side shop and a bucket of colorful dolls. I knew I’d have to stop and say hello and maybe purchase a doll for my daughter.

Woman in La Paz, Bolivia

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