I have to be honest with you – La Paz is actually amongst my least favorite Bolivian cities I’ve visited. But that’s also exactly the reason why I wanted to write about it and what to do in and around La Paz. I’ve actually been to the city that is the seat of government of Bolivia (but not its capital) around ten times or so since you basically have no other choice but to at least pass through it when traveling Bolivia. La Paz is your best (and in some cases only) starting point if you want to see Lake Titicaca, Tiwanaku, the Yungas, the rainforest or pampas in the Beni department. You will also find many bus connections to Chile and Peru and El Alto has a (small) international airport with flights to rural destinations such as Rurrenabaque. The city sits at about 3650m (11,975ft) above sea level so make sure you’re prepared for the often freezing cold weather and try to adjust to the altitude by visiting lower lying places such as Sucre or Cochabamba first before heading there. Take it slow when walking around La Paz since the streets are quite steep in some parts which can be exhausting when you’re not used to the thin air yet and drink some mate de coca which helps prevent altitude sickness. Don’t worry, although cocaine is produced from coca leaves in a chemical process, the leaves by itself won’t have the same effects on you or do any harm, they are being consumed by the locals on a daily basis and are not a drug. In La Paz and especially El Alto you will face poverty more frequently than in most big Bolivian cities, but this is also an important reminder for you to be conscious of your actions and behavior towards the locals as you are after all traveling South America’s poorest country.
Now like I said, I’m not the biggest fan of the city itself, but there are some fun things you can do around La Paz to pass the time when stopping there for a bit. Here we go.
Although Plaza San Francisco is usually stated to be the plaza principal (main square) which every South American city historically has, Plaza Murillo is definitely more worth a visit. Here you won’t only find dozens (or hundreds…) of pigeons but also the most important political buildings of the country such as the Palacio de Gobierno. This spot is just a really nice place to take a little break when the altitude gets too much or you just want sit down and snack on your salteñas.
MUSEUMS ALONG CALLE JAÉN
The “climb“ up to this cute little alley is quite a challenge if you’re on your first day in La Paz but it really is worth it. Not only is it very pretty, but you also have a choice of five different museums to visit: Museo de Metales Preciosos, Museo del Litoral, Museo Casa de Murillo, Museo Costumbrista Juan de Vargas (you can buy a combination ticket for the first four here for 4 bolivianos – $0.60 or 0,50€) and Museo de Instrumentos Musicales (5 bolivianos – $0.70/ 0,60€). If you’re not really into museums, you can just go to a café or book a trip with a tour agency like we did, which leads us to my next destination on this list…
Chaca-what? Chacaltaya. Translated from aymara this means „cold road“. But neither this nor what this Chaca-something was did we know when we booked an excursion there. Sounds naive, right? Especially when you’re actually aware of what it is. Well, we weren’t and really only wanted to visit the Valle de la Luna (which I now know you’re perfectly fine doing on your own – whatever) but since this attraction was also included we just rolled with it. We payed around 150 bolivianos ($22/18€) for the day trip (finishing around 3pm) including hotel pick-up, entrance to the Moon Valley, guide and driver. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the agency we booked with and couldn’t find it online, but the office was located about halfway along Calle Jaén. The actual trip though was executed by Vicuña Travels.
So then the night before when we got back to our hostel, we eventually found out about Chacaltaya: it’s a 5395m (17,700 ft) high mountain. Before the glacier completely melted away in 2009, it used to be the world’s highest ski resort. As we were only staying for a weekend that time, having brought only converses turned out to be quite inconvenient. Nevertheless we set off the next morning with all our fleece jackets, sweaters, raincoats, leggings and, well, the converse.
On one hand we were really lucky – it had just snowed so the whole mountain range was covered in white (along with us came two guys from Brazil who had never seen snow before) which was so unlike the summery November weather in Cochabamba where we lived. On the other hand we were not so lucky after all, since our vehicle was too light and we couldn’t drive up to the former ski lodge and therefore had to continue on foot. Although the path is not steep at all, I could’ve never imagined how unbelievably hard a simple ascent can be when there is just no air to breathe whatsoever. Chacaltaya is definitely not a trip to do on your first or second day in La Paz so keep that in mind when planning your stay and don’t underestimate the altitude. When we got to the lodge (where the walking part usually starts) we were already so out of breath we couldn’t make it up all the way to the very top anymore, but it was very cloudy that day anyway so we didn’t really miss any of the view – on very clear days you can even see Lake Titicaca from up there. Still, from the lodge we had a breathtaking (well, literally) view of the surrounding landscape which made it absolutely worth it. At the lodge you can get coffee or some mate to warm up or eat whatever snacks you brought. I definitely recommend taking this trip to anyone visiting the city as it’s not an expensive tour to do and a great opportunity to check a 5000m+ mountain off your bucket list without being a professional hiker or climber. Make sure to bring adequate waterproof shoes and clothing, lots of water, some snacks and/ or coca leaves to chew to help with the altitude.
FERIA DE NAVIDAD
There’s one thing you should know about me: I absolutely really freaking love christmas. A lot. Like, seriously. Given that, this feria was actually the main reason we decided to go to La Paz on the first trip we took there. So if you happen to be in the city around November/December make sure you check out this christmas fair located at Mercado Camacho. If you’re a christmas lover like me, you will find everything your heart desires: ornaments, cookies, stockings, Santa hats, the list goes on and on – so basically it’s paradise. The cold weather really added to that christmas feeling which can be hard to find in South America if you’re used to wintery holidays in the Northern Hemisphere. Don’t forget to grab an api (morado is the best in my opinion!) and buñuelos to warm up, which are both absolutely delicious and offered at basically every food booth there. If you’re not there in the (Bolivian) summer, you can still check out the Mercado Camacho and its food court all year round.
SHOPPING ALONG CALLE LINARES & MERCADO DE LAS BRUJAS
Probably not a single traveler has left the Andes without taking at least one chompa (sweater) made out of alpaca wool. La Paz has quite a broad selection of souvenir shops along Calle Linares where you can buy not only sweaters but also bracelets, bags, purses, pillow covers, hats, gloves, and so on and so forth. Nearby you can also check out the Mercado de las Brujas (Witches’ Market), the ideal place to buy, for a example, a llama fetus which is traditionally buried beneath the cornerstones of a house as an offering to the Pachamama – a cha’lla. Between the typical artesanías, this market is definitely something special you can only find in South America and worth a visit.
RIDE THE TELEFÉRICO
Something very unique about La Paz and El Alto is the public transport – there you don’t only have the usual micros and trufis but because of the extension of the city beyond the valley it lays in, you can also use one of the currently four (seven in planning) cable cars – the teleférico. The one we went on was the red line which connects the city with El Alto (from there you can also transfer to the blue line). From the station sitting at more than 4000m above sea level you can enjoy the view over the entire metropolitan area and La Paz’s famous landmark, the Illimani mountain. Besides, riding the teleférico is just as cheap as all the other means of public transport: only 3 Bs. per ride.
VALLE DE LA LUNA
If you’ve already started planning your La Paz trip, you’ve probably heard of the so called Moon Valley. For everybody else, these natural formations caused by erosion sit a little outisde of town, but can easily be reached by micro or cab. The entrance fee is 15 Bs. ($2/1,80€), you can choose from a 15- or 45-minute-long “hiking“ trail, which is more of a walk than an actual hike though. The Valle de la Luna is a nice option if you want to get out of the city and its busy calles (although at times the valle can fill up with tourists as well) but not do a full-on adventurous excursion such as the Death Road…which is up next for those of you who do crave a little bit of action.
El Camino de la Muerte – the infamous Bolivian Death Road. This road has really lived up to its name as it used to be the only connection between La Paz and the Yungas, so semi trucks had no other option but to to transport goods on the steep, narrow dirt road de- or ascending 3500m each way. These conditions cost many lives as semis and other vehicles regularly plummeted off the road. Today there is a new modern road that is being used by most buses, semis and private cars so there is barely any non-tourism related traffic on the old road anymore.
Before coming to Bolivia, I swore to myself I wouldn’t race down what is said to be the world’s most dangerous road, but inevitably that’s exactly where I ended up four months later.
As for tour agencies, I can’t give you any recommendations in good conscience as we booked our excursion from Coroico. This way it is slightly cheaper, but you don’t start from La Cumbre and given the quality of the organization I’m not sure it’s the better option. As there are only about three agencies you might have to wait a few days for bikes to become available, too. In our case, the guide was 16, they forgot a helmet and then offered to give us a discount if one of us would be willing to ride without one (needless to say we instead chose to wait an hour for them to bring another one…), none of the bikes or equipment were in a good state and we did not get our pictures sent to us as promised. So there’s that.
Nevertheless, we still had the best and most fun time so in my opinion this is definitely a must when visiting La Paz or even Bolivia in general and I would 100% do it again although I was so scared at first. Choose carefully when booking your day trip, ask other travelers you meet if they have made positive experiences with a certain agency as the quality often changes so it’s best to get the latest information from fellow adventurers. Remember you’ll be passing through almost all climate zones Bolivia has to offer so bring warm clothes you can easily take off when descending, usually the vehicle will follow your group down the road so you can put your stuff in there when you’re getting too hot. Be careful, listen to your guide, go at your own pace and stick to riding on the left side of the road as the biggest danger is cars or motorcycles coming in the opposite direction. I promise it’s not as scary as it sounds when you follow the rules, and you will have a great time so don’t miss out on this unique experience!
What I enjoyed about La Paz the most were the Feria de Navidad, strolling along Calles Sagárnaga and Linares, Chacaltaya, and – of course – the Death Road.
FOOD & DRINKS
One thing I definitely did really enjoy in La Paz was the food. If you want to try some Bolivian specialties that I’ve already mentioned a few of earlier, get some api morado or mate to warm you up. For a little snack, have the delicious empanadas de queso, cuñapés (my fave!) or salteñas which you can buy everywhere on the street. You can also get full meals including sopa (soup) and a segundo (main course) which usually includes arroz (rice), fideos (pasta), papas (potatoes) and/ or pollo (chicken) for 5-10 Bs., but you might want to be a little careful about eating off the street if you’re just arriving in Bolivia. As you can find the typical little restaurants in almost every corner anyway, here are some places you can get international food.
- Café Banais (C. Sagárnaga) Let me tell you about this place. This restaurant/café is the coziest spot to escape the cold and has amazing food as well, whether it be breakfast or lunch or dinner. Oh, and the coffee is also very good which is quite rare in Bolivia. Try the crema de champiñones, the lágrima and for breakfast have the yogurt with fruit and cereal – a dream.
- Café del Mundo (C. Sagárnaga) Another favorite of mine. Very friendly staff, broad selection of wonderful drinks and foods (if you’re unsure what to get because everything sounds so good – go for La Jungla!). This Swedish-owned restaurant and café is the perfect spot for travelers all over the world to meet so make sure you stop by for a meal!
- Luna’s Restaurant (C. Sagárnaga – yes, again) Cute little place with friendly staff and good international food.
- Plaza de Comidas (Mercado Camacho) If you’re looking for a quick bite but are hungry for more than just an empanadita this modern food court with a variety of different restaurants is a good option for you.
Most of the times I’ve visited La Paz, I stayed in the same place: the Adventure Brew Hostel. As it’s very close to the bus terminal, it’s ideal if you’re arriving early (they always let us in the room right away, no matter the time) and departing late at night since you can leave your lugagge for free and easily walk to the terminal to catch your flota. Now you can either stay at the original hostel, which is the party version of the two, or the B&B which is slightly more expensive, closes at around 1am, but is more quiet, cozy and offers a bigger selection for the included breakfast (although both are good). Oh, and you get free beer at the bar located in the original one. The two hostels are just a few meters from each other, after having stayed in both I prefer the B&B but that totally depends on your personal preferences.
If you’re not really into dorms, another hostel we’ve tried out also close to the terminal is Hostal Isidoros. It’s not something special but totally fine for the cheap price and normally you don’t really spend a lot of time in your accomodation anyway, so for me it never really matters where I stay while traveling. If you’re a bit over sharing a room with strangers or are traveling with a small group of friends or a partner, this is a good option for you.
Yo viajo porque la vida es corta y el mundo es enorme.
All photos belong to me and were taken on iPhone 5S and Canon 1100D.