Among sacred mountains, in a city where spells are cast and potions brewed, the otherworldly is everyday
For most of the seven years I lived in La Paz, my home was a small stucco cottage pressed into a hillside. The cement floors were cold, and the second-story roof was corrugated metal, which made rain and hail such a racket that storms often sent me downstairs. But the views more than compensated for the hassles.
When I moved in, I painted the bedroom walls heron-egg blue and put the mattress so close to the window I could press my nose against the glass. At night I fell asleep watching the city lights knit up into the stars, and in the morning I woke to a panoramic view of Illimani, the 21,000-foot peak that sits on its haunches keeping watch over Bolivia’s capital. It was like living in the sky.
Once you get used to all that altitude, La Paz is best explored on foot. Walking allows you to revel in the staggering vistas while dialing into an intimate world of ritual and ceremony, whether inhaling the sweet green aroma of burning herbs along a well-worn path or coming upon a procession celebrating the saints who safeguard each neighborhood.
One of my closest friends, Oscar Vega, lived a ten-minute walk from my house. Oscar is a sociologist and writer with dense gray hair, freckled cheeks, and thick eyeglasses. Every few days we had a long, late lunch or coffee, and I liked nothing better than going to meet him, hustling along steep cobblestone streets that cascade down into the main avenue known as the Prado, hoping to imitate the elegant shuffle-jog used by many paceños as they negotiate the pitched terrain.
Men in leather jackets and pleated trousers, women in full skirts or 1980s-style pantsuits, or teenagers in Converse sneakers; they all seemed to understand this common way of moving. In La Paz, life happens on a vertical plane. Negotiating the city is always spoken of in terms of up and down because it’s not just surrounded by mountains: It is mountains.
The most important things to consider in La Paz are the geography and the fact that its identity is closely tied to indigenous Aymara culture. “The mountains are everywhere,” said Oscar. “But it’s not just that they’re there; it’s also the way we’re influenced by the indigenous notion that these mountains have spirits—apus—and that those spirits watch over everything that lives nearby.”
Oscar is also passionate about seeing the city on foot. Ten years ago, when we became friends, he told me about Jaime Sáenz, the poet-flaneur of La Paz, and Sáenz’s book, Imágenes Paceñas. It’s a strange, unapologetic love letter to the city, a catalog of streets and landmarks and working-class people, punctuated by blurred photos with captions that resemble Zen koans. The very first
entry is a silhouette of Illimani—the mountain—and after it, a page with a few sentences:
Illimani is simply there—it is not something that is seen… / The mountain is a presence.
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