Ever wanted to visit the highest metropolis in the world? Here’s why you should visit Bolivia’s chaotic La Paz…
Arriving from the serenity of the Bolivian jungle and pampas, La Paz smacks you in the face with its gritty, diesel-fumed, raw, and noisy commotion at a dizzying altitude. Some tourists find it hard to breath in this thin air – but more on that later.
Imagine wandering up steep streets and bumping in to a shop front, selling a bunch of shrivelled up Llama foetuses in a bucket, or hanging precariously in a row from string.
Or, almost getting run over by a 1950’s brightly-coloured Dodge – a bus you’d never expect to see in Bolivia.
La Paz is a lively central transport hub for other destinations in Bolivia and South America. Although this city has much to offer, you either love or hate La Paz.
Taking the arduous 14-hour bus journey to Rurrenabaque, decided to treat ourselves this time and fly to La Paz. Forgoing the 20-hour – possibly much longer – bus journey for a 30-minute flight. Which one would you choose?
With several cancelled flights from Rurrenabaque to La Paz this week, we are lucky that the TAM flight isn’t cancelled and arrive without any issues to El Alto – world’s highest international airport at 4,061 metres.
El Alto is about 8 kilometres from La Paz city centre. Take the Route 212 bus at minimal cost for the 45-minute ride to the La Paz bus station. Or, a taxi and arrive at the hostel’s door. Sometimes you just need a little luxury whilst travelling, especially in Bolivia – you will be challenged.
A little on La Paz
Sitting in the sweeping valley of Chuquiago Marka, at a height of 3,640 metres and surrounded by the soaring spectacular Andes mountains in the distance, you need a little time to acclimatise in this undulating, hilly city.
Founded in 1548 by Captain Alonso de Mendoza (Spanish conquistador), this is not the original place of La Paz (meaning peace). The city’s previous location was in Laja, an Inca settlement site that connected the city on the commercial routes from Potosí and Oruro, to Lima.
Tip: Be a little more vigilant whilst wandering narrow congested streets. There are many opportunists that won’t think twice about relieving you of valuables. I let my guard down for mere seconds and nearly lost my camera, but thankfully the friend I was with noticed in time.
At this altitude, expect to climb many streets as most are steep, ascending into the never-never – you may become short of breath and tight-chested. Why not take a ride on the Mi Teleférico (cable car) to see an incredible view of this expansive city?
Streets of La Paz
Wander the hectic streets to spot an abundance of wonderful faces, adorned with amazing Bowler hats atop long black plaits.
For those that need even more action whilst in La Paz, why not go to a Sunday session of Cholita wrestling? Although this bizarre and outlandish spectacle is popular with gringos, locals also love it – I passed up.
El Mercado de Las Brujas (Witches Market)
Only a block from the San Francisco church (Jimenez and Linares Streets), this peculiar market will leave you wondering…
Not only can you find all types of natural medicine here to cure anything from altitude sickness to impotence, but shrivelled up dried turtles, frogs, and Llama foetuses hang from stall fronts.
A Llama foetus – used only from a miscarriage or still born – is buried in the foundations of a new building or house as an offering to Pachamama (mother earth), during Cha’lla (ritual blessing). This offering protects, brings luck and fortune, for the owners and builders.
If your need is for spiritual guidance, then you may catch a Yatiri (witch doctor connected to the supernatural) to tell your fortune, or during a Pagan ceremony.
Why not do some people-watching in Plaza Murillo?
Designed by Juan Gutiérrez Paniagua in 1558, this busy central meeting hub is adorned with the Presidential Palace, Cathedral, and many beautiful colonial buildings.
Many pigeons also frequent this plaza and you’ll find vendors selling bags of bird seed, as well as colourful jelly cups, snacks, and delicious salteñas (empanadas).
San Francisco Church
Also known as San Francisco Basilica, building commenced in 1549 and completed in 1581. Due to extreme snowfall in the region in 1612, the first church collapsed, and untouched until the 18th century.
The existing church was finished in 1753 and today, the steps is a nerve centre for both locals and travellers.
Popular with the Spanish and local Aymara people, as it was unimaginable for these two peoples to mix, a separate entrance at the church was built for the Spanish. Access was only from a bridge crossing the river.
Photography is not permitted inside the church.
Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace
Replacing the first structure built in 1692, the current cathedral’s constructions commenced in 1835 with inauguration in 1925.
A little of the current political atmosphere depicted in the streets of La Paz.
This art adorns many of La Paz’s streets.
A masterpiece in the making…
Che is never too far from the South American psyche.
Estadio Hernando Siles
For the football crazy, experience the highest international stadium in the world at an altitude of 3,637 metres and accommodating over 40,000 seats, this stadium is not for the fainthearted.
Although I didn’t indulge, my partner and a friend went to watch The Strongest (Bolivia’s team) against Paraguay, thrash it out. The story goes, they took the wrong bus back to the city centre, in the dark. Instead, the bus went around the roughest dodgiest part of La Paz, slightly dishevelled both promptly got off and took a taxi back to meet us at the pizza restaurant.
I’m told that with many South American cities, the richest people live down in the valley whilst the poorest live at the highest points. Reason? Takes longer to get down to the city. I’m not sure if this is true?
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Plaza
Absorb Plaza Museum of Contemporary Art’s lovely art-deco feel in this 126-year-old mansion, designed by Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel Tower’s designer). With a gorgeous interior including stained glass panels and a glass ceiling in the stairwell, this is a building worth visiting.
With works by international and Bolivian artists from the 20th century, this private museum boasts a diverse mix of sculptures, paintings, and ceramics.
Day trip to Tiwanaku: Temple of the Sun
A 90-minute bus ride from the city centre and you arrive at the entrance gate, which leads into the ancient archaeological and UNESCO World Heritage Site: Tiwanaku.
With an estimated age between 11,000 to 17,000 years, Tiwanaku’s red sandstone remains was a major ceremonial centre and focal point.
The (obligatory) tour guide passionately explains Tiwanaku first in the small museum, before heading out to the ruins.
The sunken area holds 4 walls decorated with 175 intriguing carved stone heads. One theory reflects this as “an earlier practice of exposing the severed heads of defeated enemies in the temple”.
If you need a cool drink or souvenir whilst walking around this dusty site at a height of almost 4,000 metres, a few stalls are dotted near the perimeter.
Barren and dry, this Altiplano landscape is only 15 kilometres from Lake Titicaca.
The archaeological site spans across 4 kilometres and excavation is still ongoing, albeit sporadically.
Sometimes, everyone is lost…
‘One of the most important civilisations prior to the Inca Empire’, the Tiwanaku certainly left many mysteries of ash, ceramics, monuments, and megalithic blocks of the southern Andes culture.
Excavated piles of stone not yet reconstructed lay everywhere at the site. Familiar red sandstone crudely hewn by hand, but also precision-machined grey andesite from the Pumapunku era, cause further mystery for archaeologists.
Engineers and scientists in Brien Foerster’s video, highlights the perplexing inconsistencies of Tiwanaku.
Where to stay
Not far from the Witches Market, Sol Andino hostel is a home away from home, with great and friendly staff.
Clean quiet private rooms have very funky feature walls.
Cost includes a private bathroom, delicious buffet breakfast – a communal kitchen isn’t on offer. After barely any wi-fi in Rurrenabaque, it’s a treat to have good wi-fi in this hostel.
La Paz offers a deluge of western-style, Asian, and local restaurants to accommodate every pocket.
Dine on a Thai meal or Sushi, whilst drinking a delicious Pisco Sour Cocktail (Chile and Peru’s disputed origin’s drink), or sample a famous Bolivian staple of corn, potatoes, quinoa and beans. Choices are endless.
Star of India
For a blow-your-head-off Indian Vindaloo, check out the Star of India (Calle Cochabamba No. 170), which advertises cooking: The world’s hottest curry.
Containing 40 chillies in one serving, if you finish everything the restaurant gives you a t-shirt. I can honestly vouch that this is one of the hottest meals I’ve had in my life! I will also add, that before my dish arrived, two burley English guys sitting next to us with faces the colour of beetroot and sweating profusely, did not finish this dish after only 12 mouthfuls.
This is going to be a challenge – to the end.
After what seemed as an exploding inferno with each new mouthful and disbelief from the waiter (even asked if I fed my friends), I won the printed t-shirt: I survived the world’s most dangerous Vindaloo.
I have to also confess, that evening and the following day, I didn’t move too far from the loo – iced toilet paper would have been cathartic.
If you’re craving for an excellent delicious pizza, you can’t go past Mozarella Pizza (Av. Illampu, 757). Great service and food in this tiny noisy restaurant.
Leaving for Copacabana
Quite sad to leave La Paz as I’m really getting used to the groove of this amazing vibrant city and only scratched the surface of what is offered. But alas, the road and time beckons once again…
There is still more of Bolivia to explore, with Copacabana as the next stop, to catch a glimpse of stunning Lake Titicaca vistas, from the hills.