The Bowler Hats of La Paz
Our Intrepid tour begins at dizzying heights in La Paz, Bolivia.
The city sits at 3,660 meters above sea level and the airport at a little over 4,000 meters is one of the highest in the world.
After a long day commuting from Panama via Lima, we finally arrive at our La Paz hotel around 3:30am in the morning.
It’s a good thing we’ve arrived a few days before our tour starts, because it’s impossible to avoid some level of altitude sickness. We struggle through nausea, headaches and insomnia (a very foreign concept to me).
Of course, I take longer to acclimatise than Don. Every morning I wake up feeling like I have a wicked hangover (not that I’ve ever had one of those!). It takes a good coffee and few hours to feel somewhat normal, only for the headache and insomnia to kick-in again at night.
By the way, if you are looking for a good coffee in La Paz, we can recommend Café del Mundo, it does a great breakfast as well.
La Paz is cradled within a steep canyon where the altitude varies 900 meters. Poorly constructed houses cling to the canyon walls.
Just when you think your adapating to the thinner air, a hike up a steep hill, or some stairs (which in La Paz is unavoidable) reminds you that you’ve still got a long way to go.
After Costa Rica and Panama we are charmed by the chaos and disorder of La Paz. This is one of the fastest growing cities in South America. The streets are hustle and bustle, filled with cars and people.
The most striking feature of the women in La Paz is the proudly worn bowler hat. It perches precariously on top of their heads and is an odd addition to the brightly embroidered skirts with layers of petticoats and colourful shawls.
Apparently the bowler hat was introduced in the late 1800s when a shipment of hats sent to English residents was too small. The English donated the hats to the indigenous Aymara’s.
The hats are now ubiquitous with the Aymara women. Whilst they provide no protection from sun or rain, they are worn proudly. It is believed that women who wear the bowler hat have good fertility.
We even managed to explore a few Museums during our three days:
The Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia, is quirky, fun and cheap. It has an extensive collection of national instruments and from other parts of the world.
The Museo Nacional de Enthnography and Folklore has a wonderful display of traditional textiles, pottery and my favourite was the ceremonial masks.
The Church of San Francisco was constructed in various phases between 1743 – 1885. It is considered one of the finest examples of spanish architecture and features artwork by Spanish and indigenous artists, in a style refered to as baroque mestizo.
A guide is provided for free (tips basis), who shows us around and takes us up the bell tower where we have spectacular views over the city.
Perhaps the most interesting was the Coco Museum which provides an in-depth insight into the history of cocaine. So much I didn’t know (and probably didn’t need to know).
There is evidence that the Coca leaf has been used by humans since 2,500 BC. The leaf was, and is, mainly chewed or steeped into a tea. Rich in nutrients it has many medicinal purposes related to respiratory and digestive ailments. It actually takes intensive processing to produce cocaine from the coca leave.
The import of coca leaves into the US is illegal, unless you are Coca-Cola. In 1922 the USA banned cocaine imports, but granted Coke an exception.
The company still uses the coca leaves in its secret recipe. Originally the formula included a small amount of cocaine, but today the cocaine element is removed.