Why you should visit chaotic La Paz, Bolivia

August, 2011

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.

La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Daily workout

Or, almost getting run over by a 1950’s brightly-coloured Dodge – a bus you’d never expect to see in Bolivia.

Dodge bus, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Vintage transport

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.

La Paz, Bolivia, South AmericaGetting there

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.

La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Urban expanse

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.

Sights

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?

La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Congested heights

Streets of La Paz

Wander the hectic streets to spot an abundance of wonderful faces, adorned with amazing Bowler hats atop long black plaits.

La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Wishful thinking

La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Desperation – pen vendor

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.

La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Street business

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.

Witches Market La Paz, Bolivia, South America

An image you won’t forget in a hurry…

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.

Plaza Murillo

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.

Palacio Quemado, Plaza Murillo, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Palacio Quemado (Burnt Palace) – Palace of Government

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.

San Fransisco Church, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Impressive architecture

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.

Cathedral, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Opulence

Street Art

A little of the current political atmosphere depicted in the streets of La Paz.

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Political statement

This art adorns many of La Paz’s streets.

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Sadness

A masterpiece in the making…

Street artist, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

A local’s expression

Che is never too far from the South American psyche.

Street art, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

“All our action is a cry of war against imperialism”

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.

Tiwanaku, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

In stone

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”.

Tiwanaku, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Subterranean 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.

Tiwanaku, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Resting

Barren and dry, this Altiplano landscape is only 15 kilometres from Lake Titicaca.

Tiwanaku, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Pyramid

The archaeological site spans across 4 kilometres and excavation is still ongoing, albeit sporadically.

Tiwanaku, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Locals excavating

Sometimes, everyone is lost…

Tiwanaku, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

…and found

‘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.

Tiwanaku, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Gate of the Sun – megalith solid stone

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 MarketSol Andino hostel is a home away from home, with great and friendly staff.

Clean quiet private rooms have very funky feature walls.

La Paz, Bolivia, South Americe

Wall art

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.

Food

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.

Mozzarella Pizza

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.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More posts on Bolivia at Image Earth Travel.

Child, La Paz, Bolivia, South America

Andean beauty

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44 thoughts on “Why you should visit chaotic La Paz, Bolivia

    • Yeah, I really want to return to Bolivia also…

      Great piece on your Piano-ology, but sadly, I couldn’t leave you a comment. I used to play the piano in a past life but haven’t touched the keys in years – not sure if I can even read music anymore. 😉

      Like

    • Hi, you are most welcome. Thank you for the kind feedback and sorry I made you breathless. 😉

      Yes indeed, but as mentioned, I did suffer for it later…I’m not sure if it’s technically ‘the hottest’ in the world as advertised, because how do you measure that?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Another phenomenal post! You are truly wonderful at capturing the essence of culture, history and sights of where you visit. As I read I feel like I’m right there! Thank you so much! When I eventually get back to South America I will be sure to use your posts for inspiration 😊😊

    Liked by 3 people

    • Wow, such lovely feedback and thank you for taking the time to comment!

      Am so glad I can make it real for whomever is reading. Writing all these posts on South America is really giving me the urge to return…but I can’t leave Italy until my visa arrives. I’ve hung up my backpack for while but my feet are really itchy to hit the road again.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hey…am glad you enjoyed this post.
      I also had heard lots of negative things about La Paz whilst in Bolivia and before going there. But after staying in La Paz for a week or so, I’m one of the travellers that love this city. 😉

      Like

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