You’d expect a city where there’s significantly less oxygen to limit the amount of fumes it pumps into the air. Not La Paz, Bolivia. Whilst breathing is almost impossible and altitude sickness is a definite. This bizarre little city became our final stop on a 6 month adventure through two continents. I can’t say I love La Paz but I can’t say I hate it. There’s something so real about a city like La Paz, Bolivia and its brother El Alto.
To get to La Paz from Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca means crossing the lake via bus. You could go round the lake, but that takes a long time so your other option is to go over. First your bus and luggage and then you on a boat. The journey costs roughly $0.50 and the boat is usually small and packed.
|I present to you – Crossing Lake Titicaca on a few pieces of poorly nailed together wood|
ABOUT LA PAZ, BOLIVIA – DISCOVERING DIRTY LA PAZ
La Paz, Bolivia isn’t your typical South American, you often hear the words ‘de facto capital’ which essentially means La Paz shares its capital status with Bolivia’s other great city Sucre. Chile has a similar set up. As a city, and de facto capital La Paz reminds me of all those cities in Central America not worth visiting at first glance, Tegucigalpa and Managua maybe. La Paz initially appears to be the kind of city you only really visit because of a bus station. Probably filthy and most certainly a little dangerous. At first look in La Paz the restaurant scene is bleak and the touristic areas are limited.
That’s right the streets of La Paz, Bolivia feel rough and there’s always some unpleasant aroma lurking. But that’s not quite La Paz, behind the dust and the concrete there is character in the people you meet and the shops you enter. The irish bars, the backpacker hostels and the many markets and attractions that don’t initially captivate you like that of Quito or Mexico City.
La Paz is high above sea level and situated in a oval mountain bowl with steep suburbs and cable cars for convenience. Like I mentioned altitude sickness is a given in a city 3,650 meters above sea level but there’s something about La Paz. It wasn’t until we were sitting in a park attempting to soak up some final sun I realised. Each traditionally dressed woman in a bowler hat, each shoe shiner hiding his identity behind a balaclava and each child in a fake Barcelona football shirt. It’s the people that make La Paz. There’s a liveliness and pulse about a big dirty and energetic city like La Paz, Bolivia and after a few days here I could feel it for sure.
ALTITUDE AND POLLUTION IN LA PAZ
|Stuck n traffic in one of the suburbs of La Paz|
EL ALTO, BOLIVIA
The diverse group of people that fill the dust filled streets each day bring a life and a vitality to La Paz. Intrigued by these people and their heritage I soon began reading about La Paz’s history, this is when I first read the words El Alto. El Alto literally meaning The Heights, once a slum, now a suburb of La Paz has the highest concentration of indigenous inhabitants in all of South America. I was instantly curious about how El Alto came to be, sitting around the steep rim of the mountain bowl city of La Paz.
This sprawling city sits high above the streets of central La Paz and spills down the mountain sides to meet the streets of the historic areas in La Paz’s cultural centre such as Plaza Murillo. The vastness of the fastest growing cultural hub becomes apparent when you leave the mountain bowl you are in Bolivia’s second largest city next to Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
If you wish to visit El Alto and I recommend you do, you can reach El Alto easily by cable car something that reminded me of Medellin, Colombia passing through wealthy suburban areas and eventually ending up high above the city. The cable cars are standard public transport for the locals so don’t be shocked if upon leaving La Paz for El Alto you find yourself queuing up behind local school children, cleaners, hospital staff and more. This service is known throughout La Paz and El Alto as the teleferico and the cheap tickets meant we took several journeys to ‘The Heights’ during our stay in Bolivia’s other capital.
|Looking down on La Paz from El Alto|
If you’re interested in checking out the teleferico in La Paz make sure you read all about it here from Probe around the Globe
WHERE TO STAY IN LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
Both hostels are backpacker favourites and belong to a chain of popular Wild Rover and Loki hostels in South America. When looking for where to stay in La Paz remember those names.
|Chicken bus in La Paz – cheap transport|
THE WITCHES MARKET LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
The witches market in La Paz sometimes known as El Mercado de las Brujas is an absolute must see. Situated along some of the steepest and busiest streets in La Paz a few it can feel like a mission to get to but it’s quirky and more charismatic than many of the other markets we’ve seen.
I’ve heard mixed reviews of The Witches Market in La Paz but I enjoyed the touristy feel of being in a busy and colourful market space. Expect mummified llama babies and every variation of coca-leaf tea in Bolivia. Add La Paz witches market to your travel bucket list and at least spend a morning browsing the stalls. Fortunately for us La Paz and The Witches Market would be one of our last stops before heading home which meant optimal shopping.
THE ONLY ROOFTOP BAR IN LA PAZ – EATING AND DRINKING IN LA PAZ
We spent our final days in Bolivia buying gifts for our friends and families at The Witches Market and eating at tacky but fun irish restaurants and pubs. I did mentioned the bleak restaurant scene in La Paz and perhaps I was a little harsh, as eating and drinking is cheap and can be found in all styles and varieties across the city. Traditional, irish (as mentioned) and even stables like Italian Pizza.
If you eat anywhere in La Paz make sure it’s Mozzarella, originally recommended to us back in Copacabana whilst being told not to eat the poor pizza’s there. This restaurant didn’t disappoint. Click here to find out exactly how to find Restaurant Mozzarella, some of the cheapest wine and best pizza La Paz has to offer, not to be missed really! We actually found ourselves there 3 times enjoying Chilean red and large pizza in the small, clean and friendly La Paz hot spot.
Another must find in La Paz is Ichuri Food which we stumbled upon by accident. Ichuri Food is a restaurant, rooftop terrace and charity organisation all in one. The best part though is obviously that it’s situated on a inconspicuous rooftop of a shopping centre overlooking Plaza San Francisco. If great drinks and people watching are things you enjoy it’s the perfect little spot. My TripAdvisor review even claims it’s the only rooftop bar in Bolivia’s city of La Paz. Ichuri Food is a place you would want to seek out when visiting this city! Don’t forget that name Ichuri Food.
|Basilica San Francisco, Plaza San Francisco|
DISCOVERING LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
Plaza San Francisco is a bustling plaza at the bottom of steep and polluted streets where the few restaurants and bars in La Paz can be found. It’s a good base and we visited this little square every day for a week. You’ll find the entrance to Ichuri Food here where you can see stunning views of San Francisco Church from the terrace. You’ll often catch other tourists and locals busking, begging and enjoying the burning sun from the steps opposite the church.
Another plaza worth a walk to is Plaza Murillo in La Paz’s cultural centre and old town filled with possibly the best kept park and buildings in La Paz, for a second you even forgot about the air pollution. Plaza Murillo is home to the Bolivian Congress and government buildings that have helped La Paz gain its title as de facto capital of Bolivia. The government sitting within La Paz is the highest altitude government in the world making La Paz officially the highest capital in the world. Explore this area of La Paz’s old town and witness architecture mixed with fast food, shoe shops and more.
La Paz’s old town Casco Viejo is an untraditional old centre but one worth exploring. Filled with locals and smiling faces its difficult to spot other tourists in this populous city and even more so among the people of El Alto.