My Adventures in La Paz, Bolivia

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La Paz, Bolivia: southern suburbs and mount llimani - orogenic cloud formation - photo by M.Torres

This story took place in October 2023…

We – my mom, my sister, and I – arrived at the La Paz, Bolivia airport around 2 am.  We flew from Columbus, OH to New York to Bogota, Colombia, and finally to La Paz, Bolivia.  We fumbled through the immigration process as immigration officers took our pictures and payments for our 30 day tourist visas.

We stepped out the door of the airport and found a taxi who drove us into the city.  I had arranged for a two bedroom apartment in the heart of La Paz and advised the host that we would be arriving late.  He confirmed that it was no problem and that a key would be inside a lockbox which would be locked securely on the fence near the building.  He sent pictures of the lockbox with a video on how to open it, and directions on how to get into the apartment.

Our driver was young and friendly.  He found the high rise building that we were staying in and patiently waited as we searched for the lockbox.  I sat in the backseat of the car, not wanting him to drive away until we were securely inside.  La Paz, Bolivia is certainly not the safest city in Latin America, and I didn’t want to be standing outside in a neighborhood I as unfamiliar with at 3 am.

My mom and Natalie searched and searched, looking at all of the fences near the building.  They could not find it.  They searched in bushes and around the corner.  Nothing.

I messaged our host on WhatsApp but got no response.  Our driver was getting impatient, naturally, because his meter had no way to charge us now that were at a standstill.  He eventually insisted that he needed to leave and started to unpack our luggage from the car.  I paid him and gave him a generous tip for his patience.  But now we were standing on the sidewalk, in the pitch black of the night, three American woman with luggage and valuables and nowhere to go. 

I tried to call our host but there was no answer.  Of course there’s not.  It’s 3 am! I thought to myself.

We stood near the entrance to the building and I pulled up Google Maps.  There was a hotel around the corner and we decided this was our best option.  We’d squeeze into a small bed if we had to.  At this point, we just wanted to be inside where we knew it was safe.  Plus, it was only about 40 degrees Fahrenheit and we were not dressed for the weather.

We walked just a few minutes and turned the corner.  The street was lined with lamp posts, many which were not working.  There was a hotel but it’s lobby was dark and it’s door was locked.  The other stores and restaurants were all closed too.  There were few people and it was incredibly eerie.

I remembered the name of a hotel I almost booked before I found the apartment.  Hotel Europa.  It was a very nice hotel and, according to Google, it was still open.  We didn’t know what else to do, so as soon as a taxi drove by, we flagged it down and I told him, using my limited Spanish, where we were going.  We piled in the backseat, holding our bags as my wheelchair had taken up most of the trunk space.

I followed the map as we moved away from the city and saw that we were driving into the countryside.  I started to wonder why we weren’t turning left at every intersection.  My map clearly indicated that we needed to go left.  And we needed to go left several blocks earlier.

I asked the driver, again in Spanish that I had only been learning for four months, why we weren’t going towards the hotel.  I pointed this time at the map and he nodded, shaking his head with a bit of a smile.  He mumbled something under his breath and turned around.  Whew!  I thought.  Where were we even going?

About 15 minutes later, he pulled up to a very nice building, probably the nicest building in La Paz.  He turned the corner towards the main entrance and I saw a dark lobby.  What are we going to do?  We have nowhere to stay, not even for a few hours until the sun comes up, I thought. And just as I was about to ask the taxi driver if we could stay at his house, my phone rang.  It was our host.

He immediately apologized and told me that he was out at a birthday party.  “If we can make it back to the apartment, he will help us in,” he promised.

“Ok, we have no other choice.”  I explained to the taxi driver that we needed to go back to our apartment and we would pay whatever the cost was.  He was content with this and we made the journey back.

We drove through what appeared to be the most dense part of La Paz, Bolivia.  There was an immense amount of commotion.  At the busiest intersection, we stopped at a stoplight as police on motorcycles flew around us, and I wondered where they were going.  I was seated in the middle seat and I hoped that my mom and sister on either side of me were safe.  Three women riding around in a taxi in La Paz, Bolivia at, now 4 am, just didn’t feel like the best place to be.

But alas, we arrived back to our apartment.  Our host was standing outside with his sister and they were incredibly kind.  He told us he arrived a few minutes before us and searched at the exact spot where the lockbox and key were placed.  “They must have been stolen,” he told us.  And I thought to myself, What a world….

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I will call my mother and she will send the spare key in a taxi to us.  Can you wait ten minutes for it to come?”

I chuckled and joked, “Sure, we have nowhere else to go,” but also knew that it was the truth.  We really didn’t have anywhere else to go.  Every hotel was closed and it was getting really cold!

We huddled up near the front door of the building and chatted with our host, small talk, who was about my age, and his younger sister.  I practiced my Spanish and they practiced their English.  Thirty minutes later – not ten minutes as he suggested – a taxi pulled up and handed a box wrapped tightly in duct tape to our host.  Inside was the key to our apartment.

We didn’t shower or even bother taking off most of our clothes.  We’d been traveling for almost 24 hours.  Instead, I crawled into bed with Natalie and fell asleep for five hours.

The next morning, around noon, we all awoke and wondered how the heck we ended up in a city in Latin America, without a place to stay and no one to call, but grateful that we were safe and that our host was so kind…and in this case, actually awake!

We walked through some of the main streets in La Paz, mostly in search of coffee, and found a café for lunch that was full of cute antiques.  Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America and the infrastructure and upkeep of the city is representative of this.  The city itself was not accessible.  The streets were hilly and the sidewalks were questionably functional for a wheelchair.  But we weren’t in Bolivia to see La Paz.  La Paz was just a stopping point.  The next morning we would fly out to Uyuni to see the infamous Bolivian Salt Flats, or salar de Uyunai, as they call them locally.  But man, what a journey we were on already!

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