Not only is La Paz the highest capital in the world, it also has one of the most unusual locations. When you look from the rim of the canyon down to the city below, the view is dumfounding. The city appears to be encapsulated by the walls of the large canyon. Brick, multi-story buildings climb up the steep canyon walls filling in every available gap. It is a bizarre and improbable looking city.
Much of Bolivia, including La Paz, sits on the Altiplano or Andean Plateau. This unusual plateau was created when the Andes were formed. As the mountain ranges were pushed up to high elevations, the basins between were raised as well. Sitting on those basins are what is now a large section of Bolivia as well as parts of Chile and Peru. With an average elevation of 4,000 m (13,120 ft) this land mass is dominated by volcanoes, dramatic canyons and in the south, by dried-up salt lakes and deserts.
Even though La Paz city centre is at or near the bottom of a deep canyon in the Altiplano, the city is still at the very high altitude of 3,650 m (11,975 ft). The canyon bottom is very hilly though and neighbourhoods in the city vary between 3,250 m and 4,100 m (10,660 ft and 13,451 ft). It feels as if every place you need to go to is on a different hill and to get anywhere you have to walk up hill. The elevation makes getting around even more tiring. Unlike the stories told by most of our dads, residents of La Paz can honestly tell their children that they walked up hill both ways to school, because they probably did!
Spread out over the rim of the canyon is the connecting city of El Alto at an elevation of 4, 150 m (13,615 ft). Together these cities give the area a population of over 2 million. Even though it is an fascinating city there is a lot of poverty. Most homes are very basic, living one on top of the other. But even with the amount of poverty, La Paz, and in fact all of Bolivia, feels very safe.
We loved exploring La Paz. Here are some of the places to visit on your next trip to La Paz.
One of the best ways to explore La Paz is by riding the téléfericos (gondolas). With 10 lines crossing over a large majority of the city it’s a cheap, easy and fun way to get great views of this remarkable city. Many of the lines interconnect allowing you to cover a lot of distance in a short time. It’s also vey inexpensive. Each ride is only 3 Bolivianos (40 cents US).
On some of the routes, the gondola cars climb up the steep canyon walls, some come very close to people’s roofs. Others follow along the top of boulevards making it feel like you’re on The Jetsons flying above traffic lights. The route with the best city views is Red Line. Take it from the bottom to the top in El Alto, for incredible 360° views. On the way up you get a close up look at the colourful neighbourhood of Chualluma and an interesting view of General Cemetario.
In the historical centre a long pedestrian street, Calle Lineras, is a popular place to hang out. With umbrellas and ornaments dangling overhead, street art on the walls and cobblestone streets, the cute area is beckoning tourists to visit. You’ll find plenty of shops, hotels, restaurants and coffee shops on Calle Lineras and the adjoining streets.
Calle Jaen is another small pedestrian street on the other side of the river. Lovely restored historic homes line both sides of the tight lane. There are also a few shops and restaurants, but not as many as Lineras making it much less busy.
There are several markets all over the city. Most take over the sidewalks and spill out on to the streets leaving pedestrians and shoppers to navigate around the stalls as they dodge traffic.
Markets are a great place for people watching. We love seeing the Aymara and Quechua women dressed in traditional attire. The women wear large, colourful polleras (skirts) on top of up to 8 layers of petticoats. In their cultures the larger their hips look, the better. On top they wear a blouse, a sweater and usually a shawl or apron depending on their job. To top off the look most of the women wear hats. The most popular hat is a bowler that often seems to be precariously balanced on their heads. Under the hat their long, black hair is braided in two braids with knitted tassels on the ends. Most of the women carry everything including their babies in brightly coloured blankets, cleverly tied to keep all contents safe.
Hanging above an assortments of tins containing herbs and teas is a disturbing site. Llama fetus carcases are strung outside the shops in the Witches Market.
The largest indigenous population in La Paz and area are called Aymara. Even though many are catholic, they have retained strong beliefs in their ancestral traditions. The ladies working in the market call themselves healers, not witches, but they claim to remedy a lot more than health. The reason for the llama fetuses is found in Aymara superstition. They believe that before a new building is erected an offering must be made to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Llama fetus, along with a few other items, are burned and then buried in the ground on the site of the new building. We were told that the fetuses were miscarried, but there were a lot of fetuses on display for this to make sense. It is very disturbing but a unique part of La Paz culture. The witches also have a large variety of other cures such as love potions, herbs to safeguard travellers and elixirs to ensure prosperity in business.
Throughout this hilly city there are several miradors (lookouts). From the top of a hill they give you a bird’s eye view of the interesting neighbourhoods. Some can get you high enough to see the surrounding mountains. We had a great view from Killi Killi Mirador which included the snow capped Illimani Mountain. The viewpoint is also a historic site. It was used by the Aymara hero Tupac Kataric during Spain’s capture of the city in 1781.
Basilica San Francisco
Built in the 1700s, this large stone church has detailed sculptures on the façade. Inside, the tall stone walls are bare except for large pieces of artwork and a golden apse at the front. Unfortunately, the plaza around it has a mixture of new buildings and busy streets without much character.
The plaza is named after Bolivian patriot, Pedro Domingo Murillo. A large statue of him holds a prominent place in the park. At lunch time the plaza fills with locals eating their lunch on park benches and feeding the pigeons.
On one side of the plaza is the historical Presidential Palace. The pretty peach and white building has guards in front, but is no longer used as the president’s residence. Instead, the new, modern glass tower behind the Congress Building is the president’s home. Bolivia has two capitals with La Paz being the administrative capital of Bolivia, and Sucre the constitutional capital.
A Bolivian plaza wouldn’t be complete without a church. Taking almost one full side of the plaza, Cathedral of Our Lady Peace is a grand, stone church.
Although a cemetery is not often a tourist site, General Cemetery in La Paz is one you shouldn’t miss. In order to save land, the cemetery plots are built vertically. Crypt buildings house caskets in a vertical arrangement that are that are four, five up to six vaults high. On the outside of each vault are glass covers that protect small shrines.
The cemetery is mostly used by the indigenous Aymara. They are typically poor, but also very superstitious. Aymaras believe that in the afterlife people will want things that they liked when on earth, therefore the shrines are filled with their deceased loved one’s favourite things. Many of the ledges were filled with photographs, snacks and drinks including alcohol. It was sad to see children’s graves with toys in the shrines. There were a lot of fresh flowers and some plots even had holders for flower vases. Looking after their loved one after death is important in the Aymara culture and it was obvious that most of the graves were well maintained. When we were there many families were visiting their loved ones. One family was serenading their family member’s grave.
To keep the footprint small, graves can only be used for 10 years. After this, the bodies are cremated and returned to the family. The empty grave is then used by another family.
Getting to La Paz
There is an international airport in neighbouring El Alto, but it is considerably more expensive to fly into it than other South American capitals. Most people fly into Lima, Peru and take a bus across the border.
We took a bus from Puno, Peru near Lake Titicaca. The bus takes an interesting route not far from the town of Copacabana. In the small community of San Pablo de Tiquinia we had to cross the Strait of Tiquinia. Bus passengers crowded into a small boat while our bus went on a barge. To get in and out of the harbour the barge captain pushed the barge using a long pole. It made the long bus ride a little longer, but also more interesting.
Tips for traveling In La Paz and Bolivia
• Teleferico – To make this cheap transportation even more inexpensive you can purchase reloadable cards or buy multiple segments at the start of your journey. Make sure you know exactly which lines and stations you want to use because the tickets are very route specific. We mistakenly bought a ticket for the exact opposite direction and had to rebuy tickets for the correct route. There was no refund.
• Elevation – Most of Bolivia including La Paz is located at a high elevation. If you haven’t acclimated prior to arriving, plan to spend a few days adjusting to the altitude before doing anything too demanding. As well, always stay hydrated when you’re at a high elevation.
• What to wear – Because of its high altitude it will be quite cool to cold in La Paz, but the sun will be strong. Bring layers of warm clothes that can be adjusted throughout the day. Also you will be walking on uneven sidewalks and up and down stairs. Bring good walking shoes.
• Covid – Mask wearing is quite common in Bolivia in August/September 2022. As well, many facilities are still not completely open.
When to Visit
Dry Season – May to October is the best season to explore La Paz, but since it is winter it will be quite cold.
Rainy Season – From November to May you will experience a lot of rain with potential difficulties getting to certain areas due to poor road conditions.
Coming Next – The Best Day Trips From La Paz, Bolivia
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