This blog represents the views of the author. One should not assume or conjecture that the United States Department of State (DoS) holds the same views expressed below. If one feels the need, one can navigate to https://www.state.gov/ to find the views of DoS.
Leslie and I served at Embassy Islamabad from January through November 2015. It was a tough post, but for me at least, it was the best job I held during my entire career with DoS. As a facility manager (FM), this was the only posting at which I felt I was truly impacting the mission at the post. Normally, a facility manager turns on the lights and AC upon arrival, sits in the FM office, peruses Facebook and Home Depot web sites, turns off the lights and AC, and goes home (actually there is a bit more to it than that…maybe I will blog about that in the future).
A portion of my job satisfaction in Islamabad may stem from the fact that while I was there, a massive project was literally changing the face of the embassy. When Leslie and I arrived, the project was about three months away from moving into a new chancery, as well as several other buildings on the “new” side of the embassy compound. It was my privilege to help the coordination of the final project phase and the move to the new spaces.
I knew that once the move-in finished, the “old” side of the embassy compound was ready for multiple machines of destruction to raze the remaining structures. The destruction was necessary to make way for the remainder of the new structures on the compound. With the fully completed embassy compound, Embassy Islamabad will provide diplomatic and consular services well into the 21st century. For those interested, the First Phase Dedication Fact Sheet provides additional information on the project, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Islamabad.pdf.
With time literally ticking away, I received permission to photograph what I felt to be some of the more iconic parts of the “old” side of the embassy compound. Things that would soon be bulldozed and leveled patches of ground, ready for new buildings to arise.
Built as a brand-new embassy in 1960 when the capital of Pakistan moved to Islamabad, virtually everything I saw on the “old” side was new after the tragic attack of November 21, 1979, on the embassy compound. On that day, numerous protesters overran the compound, setting fire to the buildings. At the end of the afternoon, the human toll was great with the death of four people; U.S. Marine Corporal, Steven Crowley (he was shot); U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer, Bryan Ellis; and two Pakistani staff members, Nazeer Hussain and Sharafat Ahmed.
Several of the men that worked for me while I was at Embassy Islamabad started working with the embassy to rebuild after the attack. Many began as contractors and ultimately hired on fulltime with the embassy. Some of those described to me the reason for some of the discolored bricks on several buildings, the fires of 1979. I found it humbling to have trod some of the same places that were the epicenter of the tragedy.
One of the more somber areas of the “old” compound was the memorial to those who gave their life in Pakistan. Included amongst the 21-plaques are the names of the four noted above as well as David Foy, an FM killed in Karachi, and Ambassador Raphel. The construction crew relocated the memorial to a serene spot on the “new” side of the compound before demolition began.
The “old” side of the compound had a collegial feel due to the aged buildings and the very mature shade trees. It was beautiful, even on those oppressively hot Pakistani summer days. The “new” side of the compound lacked that feel. Surely once the landscaping matures, the “new” side will become softer in appearance.
I hope the reader will enjoy the following photographs of things long past.
I can only assume mongooses and jackals can read. I never saw any on the compound. Now cats, that was a different story. There were many feral cats at the compound.
To deal with the feral cats on the compound, several employees banded together to form a group known as the Cattaches. The group provided medical care for the cats, birth control, and feeding/sleeping stations such as the one below.
Life happens all around us. La Paz, Bolivia is no different in that respect.
After my recent visit to Tiwanaku (see Ancient Peoples or Aliens?), I watched the Ancient Aliens episode about Puma Punku. That episode features a unique bowl found at Tiwanaku. The bowl is located at the Museo de Metales Preciosos (The Precious Metals Museum) on Calle Jaen. Hearing the name of the museum while watching the episode, I recalled being on Calle Jaen with Leslie (see Mamani Mamani). The bowl is unique because of what appears to be Samarian cuneiform writing. I decided I had to personally see this bowl.
Saturday morning at about 09:00 I left my house for the green line of the Teleférico. I was the only rider in my gondola for the entire length of the green line. The same happened on the celeste line, the white line, and the orange line. From the orange line I saw a red building that may be a cholet. I also saw the “illegal” cemetery again.
I got off the orange line at the Armentia station and walked southeast on Avenida Armentia toward Calle Jaen. I stopped along the way to take photographs of some of the shops. Just as I made it to Calle Jaen, I heard some loud motorcycles. At first, I thought they were on the main road behind me. Suddenly, much to my surprise, I noticed two motorcycles on Calle Jaen coming quickly uphill toward me. The motorcycles were from the Bolivian police. A dog barked and chased the second motorcycle. Life happens in La Paz.
After the motorcycles passed, it was just a few more steps to the entry to the Museo de Metales Preciosos. I did not have to pay. I retained my ticket from our visit to the other museums this past February. The guard simple tore off the stub for the museum. That left one museum entry, Casa de Murillo. More on that soon.
At the first exhibit in the Museo de Metales Preciosos (no photographs allowed!) I noticed an abundance of artifacts from Tiwanaku. This theme repeated itself throughout the museum. The artifacts included arrowheads and ceramics.
After looking through the first couple of rooms, one exits into the central courtyard of the museum. Crossing the courtyard, I entered the Gold Room. The first thing I saw was the unique bowl which prompted my journey. Fuente Magna is the name given to the bowl. The museum does not allow photographs; however, one can see and read about the bowl at Ancient Pages. I am glad I got to see the bowl. It was fascinating. Just what was a bowl with Samarian cuneiform writing doing in Tiwanaku? How did it get there? Was there some sort of extra-terrestrial travel involved in millennia past? Life happens in La Paz, but who knows what may have happened at Tiwanaku?
I found two other fascinating things in the museum, mummies and skulls. One of the upper rooms of the museum has three mummies on display. Two of the mummies appear just as the one at Tiwanaku did. The mummies are only about half-height, wrapped with what seems to be a hemp rope. The only thing exposed is the face of the mummies. The third mummy on display is without wrappings. Upon closer inspection, one realizes why the mummies are only about half-height; they are folded. Instead of the arms crossing on the chest, they lay straight up toward the head, one on either side of the neck. Folding the legs at the hips and the knees allow the legs to lay inside the chest cavity. Yes, the knees are in the chest! No wonder they appear half-height!
A nearby room displays five of the distended skulls I saw at the museum at Tiwanaku. These were easier to see. I studied them closely. I could not decipher how the skulls were distended during the life of the individual. Other than the odd shape of the skull, the face and teeth appeared normal.
There is some ancient gold on display in the Gold Room. But my attention went to the items I described above.
Essentially across Calle Jaen from the Museo de Metales Preciosos is Museo Casa de Pedro D. Murillo. Pedro Domingo Murillo is a revered patriot, freedom fighter, and martyr. In return for plotting and fighting for Bolivia’s independence from Spain, the Spanish executed Murillo in 1810 in the plaza that today bears his name. The museum is in the home once occupied by Murillo. Unlike the other museum, I was able to take a couple of photographs.
After the second museum, I decided I should have a coffee. Music drew me into the Hanaq Pacha Restaurant. Like so many of the old structures on Calle Jaen, there is a central courtyard. That is the seating area for the restaurant. While drinking my coffee I noticed the upper floor had a lot of art for sale. Finished with my coffee, I went upstairs to explore. In addition to the art, some of my favorites appear below, I found a unique view of Calle Jaen. Life happens in La Paz.
I departed the restaurant and almost immediately walked into the Kullama Gallery. During our February visit, Leslie and I bought some gifts and a magnet in the gallery. One of the items was a llama leather coin purse. The coin purse has a painted accent. Today, I met the accent painter, Inti! He proudly proclaimed his name is Aymaran. I bought a couple more gifts, took his photograph, and departed. Life happens in La Paz.
As soon as I stepped back onto Calle Jaen, I noticed a director and photographer working with a model. I remember seeing something similar on my last visit. I took a few of my own photographs and continued toward the Mamani Mamani Gallery. I was happy that the sky was so blue today. I ended up with a much better photograph of the gallery building.
Turning the corner, I saw more models and more photography in full swing. I immediately sat on a nearby bench to watch all the activity. Not only did I see what was happening with the models, I also watched all the people walking past. Some of the pedestrians included one of my favorite subjects, cholitas. Life happens in La Paz, so I just watched life unfold for a while.
From my previous visit, I thought I remembered seeing a large church a block or two away. I left the company of models to search for the church. While I walked, I took photographs of the neighborhood and the people I saw. I did not locate the church. Instead, I headed back to the photoshoot. Life happens in La Paz.
As I neared the area, I recalled the photoshoot troupe often walked farther west on Calle Indaburo. I decided to go that way to see what was there. There is essentially a set of stairs down to the next street. The walls did have a lot of color and graffiti, so I understood why the photographer chose to shoot in that area. I saw a uniquely painted metal door. I am not sure if it led to a shop or a home. I opted to not find out, just to enjoy the art. Across from the door is a sign for what I assume is a nightclub, Bocaisapo (mouth and toad). Near the door advertised; coca, art, and culture. Life happens in La Paz; however, I do not think I will return to experience the club.
Walking back, I found a small café with a couple of outdoor tables. The café is in the Mamani Mamani Gallery building. I went inside and inquired if they had beer. With an affirmative answer, I went back outside, a smile on my face, and sat at one of the two tables. Soon the server brought my beer and a small bowl of peanuts. The beer was very good. It is an artisan brew I have not seen before, Cobriza.
The table was almost directly across from a door the photographer used as a backdrop for several shots. I took advantage of the location and took a few shots myself. Additionally, the models walked back and forth from their staging area to the various locations on Calle Jaen and Calle Intaburo. I am not sure how they were able to walk in those “ankle-buster” shoes. It appeared to me to be a challenge to walk in the shoes in the best most level and even sidewalk imaginable. Add some cobblestones to the mix and it seems nigh impossible to walk. In fact, they often escorted each other; one in “ankle-busters” and the other steadying model in flat shoues. Regardless, because of my location, the models walked by frequently.
Soon I saw a familiar man approach the models’ staging area. I realized it was the artist, Mamani Mamani. He greeted the troupe. He ultimately ended up in front of his gallery, posing for photographs with the models. Afterall, he is a very famous artist in Bolivia. I was happy to just be sitting there and watching life unfold. Life happens in La Paz.
Finished with my beer, I decided I would start my journey back home. Instead of retracing my steps to the orange line, I decided I would walk to the celeste line. Luckily that direction is all downhill.
Along my route, I kept seeing a political sign. I finally stopped to take a photograph. The slogan in Spanish reads, “Insurrection Brigade. Elections and the referendum are a submission to the corrupt bourgeois dictatorship and selling the homeland.” People in Bolivia are definitely able to express their views.
A little farther along I came to a yellow building. It is striking, not just because of the color, but because of the architectural style and details. I am not sure what the building is, but it is eye catching.
I made it to Calle Comercio, a street familiar to me from previous treks through the city. The bustling street meant it was Saturday. The Mega Burguer sign touts, “nobody does it like us.” In front of the fast food restaurant is one of many vendor stands. One can see many cardboard boxes under and near the stand. One of the aspects of life in Bolivia is that many of the vendors set up and tear down their stands each and every day. I am sure that is because they do not have the funding to have a brick and mortar store. I continued southeast on Calle Comercio toward Plaza Murillo. As I may have noted, life happens in La Paz.
I made it to Plaza Murillo with my newfound knowledge of the history of the plaza. It struck me that there were a lot of people around the plaza. At first, I thought that was because it was Saturday. As I walked a bit farther, I noticed two reasons for the throng of people. At the steps of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace I saw a wedding couple posing for photographs. In addition to the wedding guests, several people were boarding a bus. I am not sure if that was part of the wedding or something separate. It is very obvious that life happens in La Paz.
Next to the basilica is the Presidential Palace. On this visit I got a much better photograph of the guards wearing period uniforms. The platforms on which they stand bear the inscription, “Presidential Escort.”
Two police officers walking up Calle Socabaya.
After watching life happening in La Paz, I continued my walk to the Teleférico. Along my path, I saw some new sights. First was a building with the sign, “Vice President of the State.” I assume that building houses the offices of the Vice President of Bolivia, Álvaro Marcelo García Linera. Near that building is the 1668 Saint Agustin Shrine. Beside that is the La Paz city hall.
Across from city hall were several protest banners and a lone woman selling items, presumably to raise money for the cause. One of the banners read, “Mayor enforce the constitutional decision to LPL.” Another reads, “Revilla, order your company LPL to comply with the constitutional ruling of reincorporation.” The third sign reads, “Revilla is a liar does not comply with the justice of our reincorporation justice is fulfilled do not negotiate.” The mayor of La Paz is Luis “Lucho” Revilla. Life happens in La Paz.
A few minutes later, I made it to the celeste line. A fitting end to my trek that day was the beautiful mountain, Illimani.
I enjoyed walking around La Paz today and watching life happen.
I wanted to see the Museo Nacional de Arte since I arrived in La Paz some eight months ago. Today is that day. Little did I know on this day I would encounter a backward clock, beautiful 17th Century art, and a crucified, blue Jesus.
On this beautiful, mostly sunny day, I left home shortly after 09:00. I hailed a taxi to take me to the Irpavi station for the green line of the Teleférico. I rode the green line to the end. There I switched to the Linea Celeste (light blue) line and rode it to the end, near Plaza Camacho. I thought about taking a taxi to Plaza Murillo, my final destination. Instead, I opted to walk roughly 835 meters (just over one-half mile).
The walk was easy until I turned right to go up Calle Socabaya. The steep street required a couple of rest stops along the way. Regardless, I finally made it to Plaza Murillo.
At the southwest corner of Calle Socabaya and Called Comercio sits the building housing the National Art Museum. Across the street, on the southeast corner, is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady of La Paz. That was my first stop.
Like many cathedrals, it is a large, imposing, stone structure, started in 1835. The inauguration of the cathedral did not happen until 1925. Inside, it is impressive, but not overstated. Photography inside is strictly forbidden. Unknowingly, I entered during mass. Because of that, I did not explore much of the cathedral. The most interesting fact I discovered is that the main entrance is 12 meters (39 feet) higher than the base of the cathedral at the rear on Calle Potosí. That provides some idea of the steepness of Calle Socabaya.
Exiting the cathedral, I crossed the street to Plaza Murillo. As I strode up the stairs to the main level of the plaza, I caught my first glimpse of the dozens and dozens of pigeons. Feeding the pigeons was a woman surrounded by the birds. At the time, I did not realize the prevalence of this activity. It reminded me of Leslie, Hillary, and Tyler feeding the pigeons when we toured Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Continuing through the plaza, one cannot miss the large clock above the entrance to the National Congress of Bolivia. What immediately captures the imagination is that the clock is backward! The numbers from 1 – 12 appear just the opposite of other clocks. The hands of the clock turn to the left, not clockwise. I did not have enough brainpower to be able to read the time. I did not seem to correspond in any way to my watch.
According to a story by the BBC, the Bolivian Foreign Minister said, “…the change had been made to get Bolivians to treasure their heritage and show them that they could question established norms and think creatively.” As noted above, I must have left my creative gene at home…
The National Congress building is on the east side of the plaza. From my vantage point, I looked back to the south. I could see the towering government building, Casa Grande del Pueblo. Immediately in front of the tower is the Palacio de Gobierno. I understand that is one of the homes of the Bolivian President, Juan Evo Morales Ayma. The guards at the palace are hard to miss since they are in uniforms reminiscent of the 19th century.
Continuing through the plaza, I found pigeons everywhere. Near the central statue, a woman sat on a bench feeding the birds while her companion captured the moment on his cellphone. She ended up with pigeons on her head and neck. I spotted a seat in the shade and sat down. From that vantage point, I watched the world go by while taking photographs periodically.
Several street vendors had small stalls throughout the plaza, selling ice cream, cups of jello, snacks, drinks, and, oh yes, bird feed. At one of the bird feed stations, I saw a sign asking people to please place the small plastic bags in the trash after they finished feeding the birds.
When I got up from my bench, I walked across the street to the art museum. Created in 1960, the museum opened to the public in 1961. Don Francisco Tadeo Diaz de Medina y Vidangos commissioned the large house, completed in 1775. Bolivia declared the house a national monument in 1930.
Entering the museum cost me Bs5 (US$0.72). I expected to see a sign indicating no photography in the museum. I was right, but disappointed. Outside the museum, in the courtyard, I did capture a couple of images. Regardless, the museum was worth every penny of the entry fee. Some of my favorite paintings follow.
Asiel Timor Dei circa 17th century. This image is from Khan Academy.
The Coronation of the Virgin by Gaspar Miguel de Berrío circa 18th century. This image is from Wikipedia.
The Virgin of the Hill, artist unknown, 1720. This image is from Wikipedia.
I like the painting of St. John the Evangelist by Melchor Pérez de Holguín. I could not find an image of the painting to share; however, I discovered Holguín’s portrait is on the Bs50 note!
The Triumph of Nature (1928), by Cecilio Guzmán de Rojas. This image is from Biografías y Vidas.
When I left the art museum, since I was so close, I decided to go to the museum at the San Francisco Basilica. To begin that journey, I walked along Calle Comercio. That is a pedestrian thoroughfare. The center is full of vendors selling just about everything one can imagine. I did not stop to buy anything. However, I did see a crew installing a pole and working on the dozens of overhead cables. I have no clue how they know which is which. I guess that is why they have not asked me to work with them.
To get to the San Francisco Plaza required a walk down Calle Genaro Sanjinés. It was definitely “down!” Just another of the many steep streets in La Paz. A block or so down the road I glimpsed an inner courtyard through a door, the Restaurante Pruebame. I stopped in for a cup of coffee and some French fries. I think that is a new diet fad…
Leaving the restaurant, I continued down. As I was walking, I remembered the plaza is on a major six-lane road. I imagined a difficult crossing. Then I remembered seeing a pedestrian bridge a little to the north. I veered onto Calle Potosí toward Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz. Walking beside that busy avenue, I happened to look to my right. I saw a metallic sculpture of a bull. I entered the virtually deserted plaza and found several sculptures. There was no one around, nor were there any signs to indicate who made the sculptures. Some of them were amazing.
There were many typical sights of La Paz as I walked toward and onto the pedestrian bridge. The views included vendor booths for DVDs and news/magazines, signs celebrating La Paz, and food booths. At the end of the bridge is an entry to Mercado Lanza. I entered, heading toward the San Francisco Plaza side. The market is a collection of small vendor stands under an enormous roof.
The other side of the market is above Calle Figueroa. That street had more vendor stands. Some vendors staked out a spot on the sidewalk; such as the figurine vendor, and the women selling juice and fruit. From the top of the stairs, I could see a group of people crowded around one man. Obviously a salesman, he demonstrated a product for drinking. Exactly what the product was, I am not sure.
Now at San Francisco Plaza, I entered the museum, paid my Bs10 (US$1.45) entry fee, and walked up a flight of stairs to begin the tour. At the top of the stairs is a covered walkway leading to what used to be the monastery. A museum guide approached me as I stood reading signs about the church and monastery. He struck up a conversation, in English, and began guiding me through the site.
I learned the basilica began construction in 1548. Oddly enough, the structure collapsed in 1610 due to heavy snowfall. The rebuilt structure opened in 1772. At many locations along our route, the guide advised me not to take photographs. That admonition applied to a salon area complete with 16th-century frescos on the wall; the winery, and a hall containing ten or twelve paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. The photo ban did not apply to the room housing the crucified, blue Jesus. According to the guide, the oddly colored Jesus has something to do with a Franciscan belief; although, I did not precisely understand what he said. Adjacent to that room were numerous stone relics from the collapsed structure.
The courtyard of the monastery has a wishing fountain, a stone cross, and numerous plants. Many of the plants have medicinal qualities. One tree, in particular, caught my interest, the queñua. The bark of the tree is paper-thin and peels away easily. Near the tree, I saw a very furry black cat. Disinterested in my presence, the cat did not attempt to interact with either of us.
The guide walked me back toward the entry stairs and allowed photographs of another courtyard. Then the guide opened an old wooden door at the top of the stairs that led into an upper level of the basilica. From this level, the lower level of the basilica unfolded below. Since there was no mass, I asked about taking photographs. “Absolutely not,” was the answer. Talking with the guide is when I learned photos are forbidden. That puts a different light on my previous visit to the basilica when a Bolivian National Police officer got mad at me (A Great Day for the Dead).
The first space had on display old dalmatics, chalices, patens, and a massive and ornate monstrance. The next stop was the choir, with two levels of carved wood seats surrounding a central music stand. On the music stand was an enormous original music book. The books are large to allow the choir to see the music from any of the seats.
Before entering the basilica, the guide mentioned that every stone bears the mark of the mason that originally quarried the rock. After I heard that, I saw the initials in nearly every stone at which I looked. At the other side of the choir, he led me to the base of some narrow steps made of stone. These rose up to the roof of the basilica. The unevenness of the treads and risers made the climb a little tricky. The struggle was not only real; but, well worth the effort. Our vantage point allowed a view of the roof and bell tower that not everyone gets to enjoy. While on the roof, I found a significant bit of information…the building across the way had a rooftop seating area. More about that shortly.
Everything that goes up must come down. That seemed to apply to us as well. The guide led me to another set of stairs to get us down from the roof. Just before our descent, I gave him a Bs10 tip. He appreciated the tip. Maybe I should have waited until our safe passage.
The stairs were just as uneven and steep as the first set. A handrail would have been a wonderful luxury; but alas, that was not to be. The narrow passage meant each of my shoulders touched the wall all the way down. That helped my balance. At the base of the stairs, I stopped to look back to the sky. One of the steps clearly showed the mark of the maker. Back on the solid level of the basilica I made the sign of the cross in thanks…not actually, but I probably should have.
The guide showed me that the windows on either side of the choir are not glass, but agate. Several bullet holes in the agate remind visitors of the civil war.
Departing the museum, I entered one of the tourist shops. Masks to hang on the wall are a big thing in Bolivia. I am not sure why, but I “needed” one. I settled on a small bird mask.
When I left the shop, I stopped to look at the carving on the façade of the basilica. One of the images I spotted was that of the Pachamama (Mother Earth) that demonstrates the influence of the indigenous peoples on the construction of the basilica.
With the mask in tow, I made my way to the building on which I saw the rooftop seating area. I entered the building and saw a set of stairs. Winding my way to the top, it surprised me to not see a door for the restaurant. Each level of this building had a short hallway with offices/shops on either side, the same as the upper floor. Walking to the other end of the hall, I found an elevator to take one to the final level. I opted instead to use the stairs that wrapped around the elevator shaft. Sure enough, the door to the restaurant, Ichuri, was at the top of the stairs.
I found a table under a sunshade on the basilica side of the rooftop. I sat down to wait for my Paceña beer. I noticed some male models, a photographer’s assistant, and a photographer taking photographs on the roof. With the number of clothing changes, I assume the shoot was for a fashion magazine or advertisement. The relaxing, outdoor environment; the beer; and the sights added to my enjoyment of the moment.
After my leisurely beer, I walked back to the Teleférico for my ride home.
Departing from La Paz, one must always wake up early. Fortunately, when it is a domestic flight, it is not crazy early. Our driver from Mujeres al Volante (Women at the Wheel) was right on time for our 05:00 pick up from home.
When we can, we use Mujeres al Volante to get us around La Paz. As one can tell from the business name, it is an all-female taxi service. We like that idea because it gives women a chance they might not otherwise have. The service operates, in part, via WhatsApp. After arranging for a pickup, the service sends a text message via WhatsApp with the name, photograph, and cellular phone number of the driver. Additionally, one also receives a picture of the vehicle, including the license plate. That allows for confirmation of the ride before getting in the car.
In our experience, each driver is very kind. Each driver is also very conscientious and safe. For example, this morning, our driver stopped at every red light. That may not be all that unusual in La Paz; however, our driver remained stopped until the light turned green. That is a bit unusual. Several other drivers stopped or slowed, only to continue through the intersection. Those few stops did not hamper our progress. We quickly and safely made it to the airport at El Alto by 05:45.
It was quick and easy to check-in for our 07:30 Boliviana de Aviación (BOA) flight. After clearing the security checkpoint, we sat at Uyu café. We both had a coffee. Leslie also had a toasted ham and cheese croissant. She said it was unusually delicious, especially for airport food.
Cloudy conditions did not interfere with the air traffic. We had no problems seeing our BOA airplane arrive at the jet bridge. About 30-minutes after the aircraft arrived, we boarded. Then, right on time, we pushed back from the gate at 07:30.
At roughly 4,115 meters (13,500 feet), there is not an abundance of oxygen. The main runway at El Alto International Airport is 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) long. It seemed our airplane used about 3,990 meters of the runway before finally lifting off the ground. Even jet airplanes have trouble at that altitude. Quite frankly, that is no doubt part of the reason for so many early morning flights. As the air heats up during the day, the lifting capacity of the air diminishes.
La Paz nestles amongst the mountains and cliffs along the west side of the Andes. Santa Cruz de la Sierra, our destination, is about 554 kilometers (344 miles) east and south of La Paz. That meant our flight went directly over the Andes. Seeing some of the highest peaks in Bolivia from the air is beautiful. Two offered some breathtaking views that morning, Illimani (6,438 meters/21,122 feet) and Huayna Potosí (6,088 meters/19,974 feet). Illimani is the second highest peak in Bolivia, Huayna Potosí is the fifth highest.
We landed at Viri Viri International Airport right on time, 08:35. As soon as we deplaned, we both felt like Olympic athletes! There was more oxygen than our bodies had encountered in quite some time! We felt like we could jog to the hotel. A mere 55-minutes later we arrived at the Marriott Hotel…via a van.
The reason for our oxygen “high” was because we were low. In a little over one-hour, we transitioned from 4,115 meters to 416 meters (1,365 feet); about a 90-percent decrease in altitude! We were as giddy as junior high school kids…well maybe not, but we sure felt great!
After brunch at the hotel, we got in a taxi and headed to the Cathedral of Santa Cruz. Our driver let us out on the west side of the Central Plaza. The beautifully landscaped plaza covers one city block, containing many sidewalks. At the center of the square is a statue of Colonel Ignacio Warnes (1770-1816). He famously liberated the city of Santa Cruz in about 1813.
From the moment we exited our taxi, we heard a band playing. As we walked through the plaza, we headed toward the cathedral at the southeast corner of the square. In formation and at the front of the cathedral, was the Banda Intercontinental Poopó (the Poopó Intercontinental Band). The band hails from the Bolivian city of Oruro. The group, formed in 1964, it is famously known for playing Bolivian folk music. Every year the band performs during Carnaval in Oruro.
There were about 50 band members on the steps in front of the cathedral. Their uniforms are distinct, each member wearing a red jacket with gold and yellow accents. The jackets have the name of the band emblazoned diagonally across the chest. Dazzling white slacks offset the red coats. Each side of the pants also carries the name of the group. The white shoes are like none I have ever seen. To top it all off each member wears a brownish hardhat that carries the name of the band.
When we arrived, dozens and dozens of people surrounded the band, enjoying the music. The first song we heard was the Bolivian national anthem. After the anthem, they segued to a Bolivian folk song. We listened and watched for several minutes before entering the cathedral.
The Cathedral of Santa Cruz, completed in 1915, is also known as the Basílica Menor de San Lorenzo Martir (Minor Basilica of St. Lawrence Martyr). St. Lawrence was a Spanish deacon martyred in Rome in 258. Inside, the altar that is opposite the entry point immediately draws one’s attention. The basilica is all brick and concrete except for the beautiful vaulted wooden ceilings. These vaulted ceilings are over the central aisle as well as the two side aisles.
We opted to walk along the right-side aisle toward the front of the basilica. A typical sight in a Catholic church is prayer candles. However, I have never seen them done as they were in the basilica. At strategic points, there are metal tables. Each table is about two-feet by four-feet with upturned edges. On the flat surface, worshipers place candles. The melted wax gathers on the tabletop without harming anything else in the basilica. In front of a crucifix and depictions of Mary and Joseph were two of these tables. Off to one side of the display is a hinged door with a small slot. Many worshipers place money in the slot while admiring the display.
Further along the aisle is a wooden and glass display case. Inside are depictions of Mary, Joseph, and a young Jesus. I am not sure who the depicted person is on the left side of the display. As with the crucifix display, another, albeit smaller, metal table for prayer candles sat in front of the display case. A donation box was also available.
The next display was a life-size statue, possibly depicting St. Lawrence. Just beyond that statue, at the right side of the altar was a depiction of Mary. While we were there, a woman stood in front of the figure the entire time.
When crossing from one side of the basilica to the other, the enormous scale of the altar area is striking. The height and depth make it an expansive space, yet it does seem inviting. Because the Easter Season is approaching, purple draping is behind the altar and tabernacle. That is a pleasing offset to the wood ceilings and the mainly white walls and columns. It also makes the silver tabernacle visually pop from the space.
The base of the altar is unique. It appears to be hand-carved wood bas relief. The scene depicts Jesus among several Latinos. The Latinos are in relatively modern looking clothing, not clothing from their native past. Some of the men sport traditional hats. The lone woman does not appear to have her head covered at all. The painting of the bas relief helps bring the scene to life.
On the left side of the altar is a statue of Peter, complete with the keys to the Kingdom.
Outside the small chapel is another depiction of Mary and one of Jesus. Both have space for worshipers to place prayer candles. The chapel is small and cozy. The tabernacle is the focus of the chapel as it is in most Catholic churches.
Leaving the chapel area, one encounters another bas relief. This bas relief depicts the Holy Trinity. It looks ancient.
We could hear the Poopó Band during our entire visit to the basilica. When we emerged, we saw some dancers performing between the band and the group of onlookers. At one point, a man from the crowd began dancing to the folk song played at that moment.
Departing the basilica area, we opted to walk along the east side of the Central Plaza. Along the way, I spotted the “Barcelona” money exchange. Because of our time in Spain, I just had to take a photograph. We crossed the street and entered a tourist gift shop. After much looking, we spotted a hand-carved depiction of the Holy Family. Carved to appear like native Bolivians, both Mary and Joseph are unique. Even though we have a lot of Nativity scenes already, we could not resist this opportunity. The man that served us was very kind. He also agreed to have his photograph made while he was wrapping our purchase.
Next door was another tourist shop. There we decided we had to have two Bolivian blankets. Much like the other store, the woman serving us was kind and posed for a photograph.
At this point, it was near noon. We saw an Irish Pub on the second level of a shopping mall. It had open windows overlooking the Central Plaza. We decided that was the place to be. We walked upstairs and ordered a couple of beers. Since we had brunch at the hotel, we decided to snack on some French fries. Just as noted above, our server was kind and posed for a photograph. In return, she captured Leslie and me at our very best…
From our vantage point above the plaza, we saw a lot. I think one of the most interesting sights was the two chess tables set up at the side of the square, both occupied by chess players. For the entire time we were in the area, the Poopó Band played. They never took a break. I am sure they were exhausted whenever they finally did stop playing.
After our refreshments, we called for our taxi and returned to the hotel for a well-deserved nap.
Before we departed La Paz, our good friends Joe and Tia told us we needed to eat at the steakhouse, La Cabrera. We made reservations there for our first night in Santa Cruz. Prior to arriving at the steakhouse, we had a glass of wine in the lobby of the hotel. Drinks complete, we got in our taxi and rode to the steakhouse.
The recommendation of the steakhouse was spot-on! The building is two-stories; however, once inside, one can see the steakhouse has three separate levels on which to dine. Our table happened to be on the ground floor. Once seated, the wait staff immediately greeted us and asked for our beverage preference. Oddly enough, we selected a bottle of wine. We had a bottle of Juan Cruz Tannat which was one of the most delicious wines I have experienced.
For our starter, we selected Provoleta al Orégano (grilled provolone cheese with oregano). It was a superb way to begin our meal. We each chose the half-portion Argentinian steak for our main course. Brought to the table on a sizzling serving platter, it is almost like a fajita platter. The server cut a portion for each of us and placed it on our plates. About a dozen small ramekins containing a variety of sauces and dressings accompanied the steak. A fresh green salad came was also part of the fare. The steak, done to perfection, massaged the tongue with each bite.
I am glad we each ordered a half portion. The steaks were huge! Nearly the size of a dinner plate! I do not know what we would have done with the leftovers if we each had ordered a full steak. As it was, we could barely make it through what we had. Based on the previous sentence, one may wonder just why we ordered dessert…because we could!
Our dessert was some enormous chocolate concoction. While it was good, it was not my favorite. It may have lacked the real chocolate punch I expected. I am sure part of the issue is that I am not a big dessert eater anyway. Regardless, we both highly recommend La Cabrera. It is worth the effort to get there.
On Sunday we walked from the hotel to the Ventura Mall. The mall is an easy walk, only about one-half mile. The first store we entered was Supermercado Tia. WOW! What a grocery store! La Paz does not have that supermarket. It seemed we were in a whole different country.
The store has an entry to the mall. When we arrived, the mall was not yet open. That meant we spent our time wandering through the store. On the street side of the store was a small café. We each had a coffee and watched the other shoppers walk through the store. After our coffee, we joined the wanderers. The store had everything under one giant roof. We saw everything for which we usually shop. That is different than the area where we live. When we go shopping at home, it is not unusual to have to go to between two and four different stores to find everything we want. We made some mental notes of what we wanted to get from the store when we walked back to the Marriott.
When we entered the mall, we saw a modern, glistening, three-story structure. We strolled through every inch of the mall. On the upper level is a large movie theater complex. We almost went in to see a movie…almost. We decided not to go in because we did not see a film that we found interesting. So, we walked through a small hallway and discovered a large food court. There were some vendors we did not recognize, but there were many we did know; Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, and Burger King, to name a few.
We had not eaten at Burger King for a long time, so we decided that day was the day. We each ordered a flame-broiled Whopper, fries, and a drink. Leslie found a place to sit while I waited for our meal. That was when I noticed the flame broiling did not take place there. That appears to have happened elsewhere. A microwave heats the hamburger patties before placing them on the bun. The Whopper was ok, but it was not what we were expecting.
Leaving the food court, we stopped at Supermercado Tia to buy a few things and then walked back to the hotel. We spent the rest of the day lounging.
That evening, we had dinner at the hotel. At the entry to the restaurant, there is a large ametrine crystal, about 18 inches wide by 12 inches tall, a purple and white quartz only found in Bolivia, on display. I have no clue about the value of that piece. The stone contains both citrine and amethyst.
We had an excellent dinner topped off with Flor de Caña 18 rum…my kind of dessert!
On Monday, one of my tasks was to view the local Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) office. APHIS is a part of the United States Department of Agriculture. It was at that office I saw the most unusual wall painting. In the corner of the front garden is a 3-D mural. It depicts the mission of APHIS. The mural focuses on animal husbandry and wildlife from the high mountains to the lowlands, including farming, and then on to the big cities. According to the locally employed staff member, the mural, completed by a local artist, cost only US$200 nearly 15-years ago. I am sure I will never see another wall like that one.
Thursday morning, we boarded a plane to return to La Paz. The BOA Boeing 737 we boarded that morning was unusual. A sign at the front entry to the plan proudly announced, “Pope Francis flew in this aircraft from Quito to La Paz and from La Paz to Santa Cruz on July 8, 2015.”
The flight to La Paz was quick and uneventful. Once we were on the ground, our bodies screamed that we seemed to have left a lot of oxygen behind! Even though we were only absent from La Paz for five nights, our bodies had to reacclimate to the thin air of La Paz. Regardless, it was good to be back home. We like the weather in La Paz much more than Santa Cruz. La Paz is cool and dry. Santa Cruz is hot and humid.