Maybe it was oxygen deprivation, huffing my way through a mountainous metropolis 12,000 feet above sea level, but on my first walk through La Paz, Bolivia, I’m not sure I saw a single man.
The women, though, were ubiquitous — and gloriously so. Mostly indigenous, of Aymara and Quechua origin, they had an inimitable sartorial flair, in jaunty bowler hats, tiered skirts and colorful cloth satchels that hauled everything from vegetables to babies on their backs. At times, the streets were packed with so many bulbous wool hats — round on top, short of brim — it felt like wading through a river of female Charlie Chaplins.
Lore has it that this distinctive headwear, known as a bombín or sombrero de chola paceña (La Paz hat), is a relic from British railway workers in the 1920s. A shipment came in that was too small for men’s heads, or the wrong color, so the importer added feminine adornments and sold them to women instead.
Bolivia has a majority indigenous population that, before the inauguration of the current (and first indigenous) president, Evo Morales, in 2006, was subject to systematic discrimination. Those hats became a way for cholitas (as indigenous women here are called — a softened version of the term “chola,” which means “pretty lady” but has a derogatory connotation) to find kinship through their shared choice of dress. “I feel pretty in it” and “It’s part of my identity” were some of the answers I got when I asked cholitas about their hats, for which they paid 500 bolivianos (about $73) and up — a small fortune.
I’d come to La Paz — part of my yearlong trek following The Times’s 52 Places to Go list (the city came in at No. 38) — expecting to shop for alpaca textiles and to get altitude sickness. I never imagined that my main takeaway would be one of female empowerment, not just through inspired fashion choices, but also the visible import of women’s work across local culture.
Bolivia is not known as a bastion for gender equality. The country has the highest rate of physical and sexual violence against women in Latin America, according to a 2012 Pan American Health Organization survey. The rate of femicide — women killed by men — routinely spikes above 100 per year. “Even though right now there’s a growing feminist movement of the young millennial generation, we still live in a chauvinist society where women are murdered by their spouses,” said Carola Andrade, a 22-year-old journalism student who offered to show me around. “But it was worse in the past. I think through time we’re going to change it.”
A peculiarity of that inequality is that almost every tourist-facing industry in La Paz seems to be dominated by women. As I walked around Mercado Rodriguez, one of the biggest food markets in the city, I passed maybe 50 stalls, none of which seemed to have a male purveyor. At another big market, Mercado Lanza, every person I saw selling fruit salads or avocado toast was a woman.
“I think that our society has educated us girls thinking that there are things we cannot do or that only men can or should do. So you notice that at work, but also in the market,” said Lorena Calderon, a 24-year-old journalism student who became one of my guides. “I would say it’s because men stay in the land to work and women come to the city to sell,” adding: “I think we are empowered because we have worked hard to earn a position.” (Men also seem to drive most taxis and microbuses — a great, if confusing, form of ground transportation that costs around 30 cents a trip.)
As a solo female traveler, though, I felt the constant presence of women in the absence of men to be incredibly calming. The city has a reputation for pickpockets and scams (fake taxi drivers taking passengers to A.T.M.s and forcing them to get out money, for one). Never once did I fear for my safety.
That was true at the Feria 16 de Julio, Bolivia’s largest flea market, held on Sundays and Thursdays in La Paz’s adjacent sister city, El Alto. Largely indigenous, El Alto sits on the Altiplano highlands above La Paz, which is itself built in a canyon in the mountains of a landlocked country — and looks like no city I’ve ever seen. Skyscrapers line the valley floor. Houses climb up and over cliffs. A snowcapped peak, the Illimani, looms over all, like a protectorate.
A ride to the Feria on the Mi Teleférico cable car system, installed in 2014, offers a view of all of this, for less than $2 round trip. Take the Rojo line up, then the Azul across, just to gawk at the market’s vastness. “They say you can buy anything to build a car here — tires, engine parts,” said Ms. Andrade as we wandered through booth upon booth hawking pieces of rusted metal. Turns out the market sells whole cars, too, as well as sugar cane juice, fried trout and brand new Lacoste polos for around 14 bolivianos, or about $2. (If you want a llama fetus to ward off bad luck, though, you have to go to the Witches’ Market, or Mercado de las Brujas, downtown.)
Over the course of my visit, I met my two journalism student guides, Ms. Andrade and Ms. Calderon, neither of whom has a boyfriend or wants one; an architect, Bianca Irina Salazar; and Marsia Taha, who is 29 and one of the head chefs at Gustu, La Paz’s top restaurant. It is now a part of a growing food scene that includes thehigh-concept vegan restaurant Ali Pacha, and Popular, specializing in elevated traditional dishes using 100 percent Bolivian ingredients. They’re only open for lunch and the wait to get in when I was there was over an hour.
Founded by Claus Meyer, the Danish proprietor of Noma in Copenhagen, Gustu began as a cooking school to teach Bolivians about their local ingredients, to give them a reason to celebrate their cultural heritage, and to lift young people out of poverty by giving them jobs in hospitality. Ms. Taha was one of the school’s first employees, and studied cooking in Copenhagen; she is the only remaining Danish employee.
My first time at Gustu, I had a three-course meal for $34, including drinks and tip, which included the best-cooked trout of this trip. The second time, Ms. Taha, on her day off, took me through the restaurant’s adventurous 20-course tasting menu, which included a beef heart skewer you cook on a hot stone yourself, alligator ceviche, and tacos made with crunchy ants atop an avocado emulsion and beetroot leaf. I had to close my eyes and squeeze Ms. Taha’s hand as I ate it. Verdict: Not bad, but I have a deep phobia of bugs and I’m not sure I could do that again.
Nowhere is La Paz’s curious dominance of women so pronounced as at cholita wrestling matches, held near El Alto market on Sunday and Thursday nights. “The cholitas started to fight because they wanted to demonstrate that the women are stronger than the men. The one important rule is don’t throw things at the wrestlers, because they will respond and you’re not going to like it,” announced Alba, our guide, aboard a bus that was taking around 40 gringos to the “VIP” section. El Alto was also the first place in Bolivia to hire a cholita police officer and a cholita newscaster.
About 17 years ago, Juan Mamani, a wrestling promoter, was looking for a gimmick to draw in audiences and figured women going at it in traditional clothing would be as good as his other attraction: dwarves. Soon, though, cholitas began to turn to the ring as a way to take out their frustrations on the indignities they were suffering in the world and at home. Eventually, they formed their own female-centric league, which is where I found myself sitting ringside that night.
The warm-up act: men in masks tossing each other around. Then the announcer introduced the main attraction. The crowd roared. Out from behind curtains, ushered in by four dancing women in hula skirts, came a kind of super-cholita. She had on a bowler hat and fringed shawl, which she shed for grappling, as did her opponent — while the crowd shouted “Beso! Beso!” (“Kiss! Kiss!”). They threw each other up against ropes and slammed each other to the ground, petticoats flying in an impressive display of choreographed acrobatics and playacting. One wore a white skirt, which my observant seatmates realized seemed to always signify the “good” cholita, while yellow signified the “evil” combatant.
Match after match, the narratives stayed the same. Evil usually beat up good, then good got a second wind and conquered evil. The referee usually meddled too much, and would get slammed to the ground — but he deserved it. Any gringo boy sitting in the front row was subject to a sloppy kiss from one of the wrestlers. Any water bottle in reach of the performers would likely get snatched, with its contents spit back in the audience’s faces. Locals, who sat in bleachers a little farther from the action than the gringo V.I.P.s, were wont to throw plastic soda bottles at performers’ heads. Some even got out of their seats and tried to get in on the body slamming themselves. It might have been the greatest night of entertainment I’ve experienced this trip. No matter how the match went down, a woman always won.
“I tell anyone who comes here to go to Uyuni,” Ms. Andrade said of the world’s largest salt flats — an incredible, 4,000-square-mile expanse of level ground covered with mineral deposits from prehistoric lakes, about 12,000 feet above sea level. Three-day tours book up months in advance, but the one-day trek I found at Kanoo Tours was an affordable delight. It began with a $137 early morning flight to Uyuni (bought at the Boa Airlines offices), and by 10 a.m. I was off in a 4 x 4 with five other travelers and our Spanish-speaking guide (at $40 for the day, half the price of an English-speaking one). We stopped for photo ops at the Cementerio del Trenes, a graveyard of abandoned and corroded trains from the early 20th century, but most of our time was spent having our minds blown by those vast fields of salt, covered in shallow water, and so reflective and still that it was hard to tell where the ground ended and the sky began. (You might recognize the landscape as the stand-in for the white- and red-soil planet Crait from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”)
The safe and WiFi-enabled overnight bus back to La Paz was $39, for a total trip cost of just over $200. Had I taken the bus both ways, it would have been around $110. (If you’re taking a taxi from the bus, make sure the driver is legit. Again: scams.)
No. 1: Bolivia was the only South American country on my trip where travelers must have an entry visa. Rest easy, you can get one in the airport. Bring a printout of your hotel and flight reservations, a copy of your passport, passport photos, and $160 in crisp $20 bills. (I saw the attendant reject nearly all of the cash from the woman in front of me.) Altitude meds are available for purchase near baggage claim, though I gave up taking mine after it felt like I was experiencing death by 1,000 internal pinpricks.
No. 2: The Bolivian-Chilean border, where you’ll find Salar de Uyuni, is in a total cell and internet dead zone. For mirror-effect photos, go during the wet season, between December and March. Bring waterproof footwear; that salt looks fluffy, but is painful to walk on. Slather SPF everywhere and wear a hat. Be prepared for a drastic temperature drop at dusk. Bring everything you need to take endless pictures — and hand the camera to your driver; they’re excellent photographers. Ride on top of the SUV at sunset; you’ll never forget it.
Jada Yuan will be traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. Follow her on Instagram @alphajada.
1: New Orleans
8. Kuélap, Peru
Next dispatch: East Cape, Los Cabos, Mexico
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