Bas-Lag Sprawl (La Paz)

Cables snake across the city.

They cling to each other, slender black serpents binding buildings and nesting atop lampposts. They dangle over churches wrapped in gothic grandeur, over teaming markets, over streets closed off by police blockades. Pigeons perch upon the power lines (as well as on the city’s countless stone statues); sky rats everywhere, mingling with the snakes.

In the markets, women dressed in bowler hats and puffy skirts hunch as they pull their wares from stall to stall; heavy baskets of potatoes, nuts, and sundry goods. Other women sit comfortably amid piles of vegetables and meats--meats of every kind, from heart to liver to splayed lung, as many fresh as putrid. Men in puffy jackets and fedoras flit between them, either gathering goods or hurrying from work to home and back again. Everything in this city moves.

At the centre of the chaos lies the national seat of government, the Palacio Quemado... The Burnt Palace. Named for the fact it was burnt down by citizens, during one of Bolivia’s many violent revolutions.

Traffic chokes every road and street and alley, and at night, a few buildings manage neon lights. The city is set in a deep mountain bowl, endless sprawls of houses crawling up the rock. It’s watched over by the great snow-capped peak of Illimani--allegedly the city’s guardian, standing impassive as the sprawl is choked by pollution, revolution, and petty crime.

High above most of the city sits El Alto--The High Place, linked to the streets below by a creaking red cable car. It’s a neighbourhood full of half-finished buildings and broken streets, where witches huddle around tin huts, reading palms and burning incense. Down on the streets, more commercial witches tarry with the masses in the famous Witches Market, dazzling tourists with herbs and animal embryos that they use for potions.

Everywhere, the city seethes through day and night. It smells of soot and dust and food left out too long. In the mornings, the mountain weather freezes; in the afternoons, it bakes. 

Welcome to La Paz, built up in the mountains.

It could put a fantasy to shame.