La Paz, Bolivia

Latitude 16.4975°S Longitude 68.14102°W

Monday, January 13, 2003

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After Puno, we parted company with Keely and Suzanne and travelled to La Paz on the overland route via the picturesque Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, crossing the Bolivian border at Yunguyo.

La Paz was yet another bustling Latin American captial city, set magnificently in a valley at a breathless 4000 meters (13000 feet) above sea level. It's the world's highest capital. We spent several days here adapting to the rarified atmosphere and planning our two main Bolivian adventures: a trip into the Amazon basin from the northern jungle town Rurrenabaque, and, a visit to the worlds largest salt lake, El Salar de Uyuni.

It seems the Bolivians are a pretty superstitious bunch. Not far from our hotel we encountered a section of town known as the witchcraft markets. Here we found countless stalls manned by ancient, weathered old crones selling all manner of spells, potions, amulets and what have yous. Each item had a specific purpose: romance, health, prosperity, and probably doing away with enemies too - although none openly admitted to this application! Some of the articles were quite bizarre: grotesque dried llama fetuses (for fertility) and shrunken frogs (prosperity). We bought an amulet intended to bestow romantic fortune for one of our friends (you know who you are, don't you!), but held back on stocking up with llama fetuses. We had a hunch they may be difficult to explain to the customs officials at the next border crossing.

Another interesting place we visited in La Paz was the Museo de la Coca, a museum devoted to the coca plant, tracing its uses all the way from the indigenous Andean peoples dating back thousands of years to the present day cocaine production and use by the western world. The material presented was extensive, well researched and fascinating. Some of the gems that stood out for me were:

  • The coca plant has been cultivated by pre-columbian Andean civilizations since 2500BC - over 4500 years! The leaves were traditionally chewed by these peoples to release their cocaine products in religious and other special ceremonies. It might be noted these people were not addicted to the drug and had no "drug problems" similar to those that plague modern Western societies. Research has shown that chewing coca also helps in adapting to life at high altitudes. Incredibly, the ancient Incas were also well aware of the anasthetic and analgesic properties of the juice of the leaf, and used it in their brain surgery & trepanning procedures.
  • The coca plant was banned by the church in 1569 as a "diabolical obstacle for christianity", and the Spanish Inquisition took charge of eradicating coca fields and cultivators. However, once discovered that chewing coca provided slaves with more energy to work (for example, in the horrendous silver mines of Potosí), Felipe II declared coca as "indispensable" for the "well being" of the indigenous peoples, the Inquisition ceased its prohibitive measures, in place imposing a 10% tax on coca! Thus, the "diabolical" coca became sanctified and consumption even made compulsory by mine owners. The indigenous peoples were forced to work 48 hour "days" in the mines without breaks or any food other than coca leaves to chew.
  • The Spanish Conquistadors seized control of coca (like everything else of value) making it very difficult for the indigenous peoples to obtain it for their cultural ceremonies. Still today, control of coca remains in the hands of foreigners & multinational corporations, leaving Bolivia to be blamed for the western world's drug addiction problem!
  • Chewing the leaves releases 90% of the 3 principle alkaloids: cocaine, cis-cinamilcocaine & trans-cinamilcocaine. The effect is noticed after about 45 minutes of chewing, first as an anasthetic feeling in the mouth, followed later on by a mellow high.
  • Coca-Cola, invented by the Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton in 1886, originally contained cocaine extracted from coca leaves. "The use of the coca plant not only maintains its consumer's good health, but prolongs life for many years and allows its consumers to develop physical strength and a miraculous mind". Coca-cola no longer contains cocaine (the recipe was changed in 1914), but the company continues to use the coca leaf for flavour.

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

At the witchcraft markets, La PazShe has a cure for everything!An amulet for every ailmentAn amulet for every ailmentGood luck charms for the homeForget Viagra, try these!
An amulet for romance!Llama fetuses (for fertility) and frogs (for prosperity)Modern day witch doctors?!Keiko stocks up on her witching suppliesThe other-worldly scenery at Valle de LunaValle de Luna

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