LA PAZ – Shoe shiners in La Paz have become alternative guides who show the other side, a more working-class side of the Bolivian capital to both residents and visitors who want to see the city from another point of view.
What better way to do it than with a guide who knows every street, every nook and cranny of the Andean city, its typical dishes, its history and the people who live on “the not-so-touristic side,” where the daily life of the ordinary folks of La Paz can be observed.
Bootblacks on street corners offering to shine the visitors’ shoes carry a wooden box with the shoe polish and cloths they need on the job – they also keep their faces covered with a ski mask so that no one will recognize them, given the way society stigmatizes this occupation.
“When they see our faces covered, some people are scared, but (the tourists) understand it’s our uniform,” Esther Valero, one of the guides on this tour, told EFE.
This tourist route was started at least seven years ago thanks to the Reinforced Concrete project, the Art and Culture Foundation and the Bolivia Tourism alliance with Magri, for the purpose of giving shoe shiners an alternative job opportunity to boost their income.
It was specifically to earn that “extra bit of cash” that motivated Valero to train at one of the corresponding workshops to become a tourist guide.
“I’d like tourists to take away the idea that my La Paz is great and beautiful, one of the wonders of the world, not just for tourism but also in its everyday life,” Valero said.
Taking this tour costs 80 bolivianos (about $11) per person and the money goes straight to the guide.
Valero, the only female guide, said the bootblacks deposit part of the money in a common box that serves to pay for whatever emergency any one of them might suffer.
The shoe shiners also have their own newspaper, which motivates them with new ways to improve their economy.
Reinforced Concrete is a social assistance project currently operated by at least 30 shoe shiners and 60 people living on the streets.