Like Bolivia itself, La Paz is a city of extreme contrasts. Arriving back from a trip to Lake Titicaca on the evening of the La Paz festival, our Bolivia Hop bus got stuck in extremely heavy traffic. Looking at the unpaved roads and poorly maintained buildings of El Alto in the dark, another Irish traveller remarked that this was how she pictured Kabul. Add to this the bleak picture of the city painted in some popular guidebooks and she might easily have wanted to jump off the bus to run back to the comforts of Peru. However, perhaps because of its warts, La Paz can easily be the highlight of any trip as long as you know what to expect beforehand.
Five Tips and Warnings for La Paz, Bolivia
Yes, the altitude really can be a problem and you need to prepare for this when you plan your trip. Given that La Paz is known to be the world’s highest capital, this is hardly surprising, but travellers sometimes underestimate the effects of altitude on their bodies. Doctors will prescribe Diamox, but like any drug, this can have its own unpleasant side effects. Rather than flying directly into La Paz, try to arrange some time in Sucre before taking the bus over the high plateau to the de facto capital. Otherwise, if you have to fly directly into La Paz, join the hordes of travellers who drink coca tea to acclimatize.
There is crime in La Paz, but it is less of an issue than in other Latin American cities. Certain guidebooks paint a picture of the city as violent and unpredictable. In reality, there is far more crime in other countries, especially Brazil. Be aware, however, that scammers do target tourists and that the fake policeman ruse is reported to be widespread. This involves someone befriending you in the street. Next, you are both approached by ‘tourist police’ who ask you to accompany them in a taxi and your ‘friend’ complies, putting pressure on you to do likewise. Obviously, the rest involves you paying out a great deal of money. The moral of the tale is to be careful with anyone you meet in the street, including ‘new friends’.
La Paz is a great base to organize onward travel. I love Bolivia…but things go wrong at times. My trip to Potosi and Salar de Uyuni was knocked on the head by a miners’ strike that effectively closed Potosi and made overland transport to Uyuni extremely difficult. Where better to be than La Paz? From here you can fly anywhere in Bolivia or, if you have had enough of this country, the nice folks at Bolivia Hop have buses to take you to Peru (Cuzco, Puno or Arequipa).
4. Adventure sports
This is a mecca for those who like adventure sports. Should you wish to go abseiling down the side of a skyscraper (Urban Rush), go cycling down one of the world’s deadliest roads (Gravity Assisted) or simply partake in some gentle paragliding in the mountains (AndesXtremo), this is your spot. You can book all of these activities with the aforementioned agencies (see ‘Useful Information’ section below for contact details).
5. Traditional markets
With amazing markets, it is a great place to go shopping. La Paz, as I have written elsewhere, has the most spectacular traditional markets. The so-called Witches’ Market, where you can get your latest offering to Pachamama and generally appease the gods, deserves a blog post to itself. However, all through Linares and Sagarnaga you will find shops and markets selling colourful Andean textiles. If you speak Spanish, this will be an even greater pleasure as you can barter and chat with vendors as you stock up on gifts for your loved ones back home. Along with the museums of Calle Jaen, it is perhaps the many markets and textiles on offer that seal the reputation of La Paz as a centre of Andean culture.
Recommended Travel Agencies:
Hanaq Pacha: reputable travel agency selling flight tickets, bus tickets and tours
Address: 734 Calle Jaen
Tel: (591)-7 350-9411 Cell: (591)-7 202-0310 / (591)-7 620-1005
Bolivia Hop: reliable bus company selling tickets to Peru
Tel: 51 1 242 2140
Urban Rush (Abseiling)
Address: Hotel Presidente, Calle Potosi 920 Website: www.urbanrushbolivia.com
Tel: 591-2-2406666 Cell: 591-772 19634
Gravity Assisted (Mountain biking)
Tel: 591 2 2310218 Cell: 591 77208356
Address: Calle Francisco Bedregal # 2962, Sopocachi Website: www.andesxtremo.com
Please feel free to leave a comment below if you want to share an opinion or an experience. You can also mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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