La Paz, the highest capital in the world, will literally take your breath away. Its location in a valley surrounded by high mountains makes it unique and arriving by plane or just descending into the valley by bus is special. The chances are you will never experience a capital city just quite like La Paz. A city of steep climbing streets and traditional markets, this is the cultural and political capital of South America’s most indigenous country. For that reason alone, you can’t visit Bolivia without spending at least some time in La Paz.
Nuestra Señora de La Paz
Our Lady of Peace.
It was the stop on my itinerary that filled me with dread…Stories of robberies and fake policemen abound…I was warned that it was grim, menacing, violent and downright dangerous! With a name like Nuestra Señora de La Paz, how could it be otherwise? In Sucre they promised that there would be a toilet on the bus and movies etc. And there was a toilet that was locked for the entire journey! Every so often we would stop so that someone could answer the call of nature by the side of the road.
Eventually, at around 2am, we made a ten minute stop at a service station where we could buy coffee, snacks and use a real, accessible toilet! By now we were on the high plateau and it was COLD. After that, it became so COLD that the windows started to freeze inside and outside.
Arrival in La Paz
Our first stop was El Alto and it did indeed look a bit grim. However, the sun was up and the light of the early morning revealed an intriguing city as we descended into the valley. The houses and buildings cascaded down a steep slope and the city’s many church spires punctuated the unfolding cityscape. The bus chugged on and I felt a little like Alice as she went down the rabbit hole.
Luckily, my ‘hostal’ in Calle Jaen was somewhere downhill from the main bus station. I asked a policeman where it was and he told me to walk up Calle Sagarnaga. By the time I got to the top and realised that Calle Jaen was nowhere to be found, I could barely breathe due to the altitude and my heavy, uncomfortable backpack.
Encounter with La Paz Police
Walking down the street I met another policeman on a street corner. I explained to him that I was lost. Where was Calle Jaen? Good news? Hell, no! It was way up on the other side of the bridge. So, I needed to go to the bottom of the street, cross the bridge, take the first left and keep going UP the steps!
NOOOOOO! It was now 8am and I was cold, exhausted and out of breath. A nearby café looked inviting and I was soon sipping the elixir of morning life (hot coffee) and tucking into a breakfast of eggs, toast and fruit. That was when the tingling sensation started. First, it was in my hands and then it was in my feet. It seemed to grow into a violent, intense vibrating sensation. Altitude sickness?
Crossing the bridge later I found the steps and up I went, stopping breathlessly at the top only to discover that I had to walk up yet another street. Visions of more long vertical streets formed in my mind, so what came next was totally unexpected. A narrow, cobbled street of colourful colonial buildings adorned with antique street lamps unfolded before me. Welcome to Calle Jaen! I felt as if I had walked into the colonial days of Alto Perú. On the steet corner there was a plaque in Spanish on a building called Casa de la Cruz Verde. It explained that a ghost used to torment drunkards in the night at this very spot. I wondered what they used to drink in colonial La Paz…
The next day I was in the square in front of the cathedral when a policeman suddenly approached me. He asked if I had found Calle Jaen! Sometimes the beauty of travel lies in unexpected encounters and this city was a surprise.
Colourful markets, indigenous costumes, colonial museums, old world cafés and steep streets proliferated.
Breathlessly in love with La Paz!
Sights and activities
Apart from the Witches’ Market with its llama fetuses and other offerings to Pachamama (Earth Mother), there are markets to be found on Calle Linares and Calle Sagarnaga. These colourful markets will transport you to a world that you didn’t imagine even existed.
Perhaps the most traditional colonial street in the city, Calle Jaen is home to the four Calle Jaen Museums and the Museum of Musical Instruments. Walk its cobblestones and enter the museums of this street right here on Unlatinoverde.com.
The Laikakota Mirador is in the Urban Central Park (Parque Central Urbano) and it is a good spot for adults and kids to relax. Another place to see the vast sweep of the city is from El Alto, which can be reached by the urban cable car system, also known as Mi Teleferico. See below for more information.
Explore areas outside the capital
Why not do some day trips to Tiwanaku, Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) or other destinations close to the city? Lake Titicaca is also close and Hanaq Pacha, a reputable La Paz travel agency, can arrange multiday excursions to Isla del Sol. Coroico is only a bike ride away at the end of the notorious Death Road or Camino de la Muerte. Gravity Assisted offers safety conscious bike tours to Coroico and they will transport a backpack in their bus, allowing travellers the option of also spending a few days in Los Yungas.
The La Paz Cable Car Experience
When I said I was going to South America for the summer, many people wondered if I would be safe. Some warned me that it would be uncomfortable at times, potentially rough, and nobody told me that I would experience a state of the art public transport system in Bolivia, of all places. ‘Mi teleférico’, the cable car system that links the cities of La Paz and El Alto, is in the vanguard of public transportation systems.
The road down the mountain from El Alto, La Paz’s poor and traditional Aymará sister city, is often congested. Additionally, many poor women work as domestic help in the lower lying areas of ‘Zona Sur’ and their daily commute often involved expensive taxi fares or crowded small vans. In response to these problems, the authorities decided to invest in a cable car system to link the cities. At present three lines are in operation and they can handle up to 18,000 passengers per hour.
Unlike traditional trams, buses or metro systems, there is no wait time. You get in line and hop into the first available cable car. Also, the cable car system operates regardless of conditions on the ground. For those of you who have lived in the UK, neither the ‘wrong kind of snow’ nor ‘leaves on the line’ cause disruption here.
I got a taxi to Zona Sur and then took the cable car from there all the way to the other end (El Alto). Soaring above the city was a special experience with the snowcapped Andean peaks as a constant backdrop to the trip. It was like having a bird’s eye view of a working city. One moment I was looking at soldiers doing a drill in an army barracks. Then, a short time later, I passed directly over bare-chested construction workers toiling away on top of a building.
The experience drew my attention to a curious cultural difference between Bolivia and Europe. Back home the rich usually pay for and command the best views. Let’s just say that this was not truly the case in La Paz/ El Alto.
Getting to the cable car station in Zona Sur was the most complex part of the day. I needed to take a taxi from the centre and to prearrange my collection at Sopocachi Station. The cable car trip cost 9 bolivianos from Zona Sur to El Alto and back to Sopocachi (a little over a dollar).
Note: Hanaq Pacha Travel now offers cheap one day tours on the Cable Car System- click here for the link
The cable car system has been incredibly successful and Colombia and Brazil now use similar systems. This is an efficient, clean and environmentally friendly system. Could we in the West soon be taking lessons from our Latin American cousins?
To experience the system click on the links below:
Click here to experience the cable car as it leaves Zona Sur
Click here to experience the cable car as it descends from El Alto back towards La Paz
Interested in seeing more than just the capital?
Discover some of the highlights that await in Bolivia…
Getting there and getting around
Being at a high altitude imposes restrictions on airlines operating flights into the city. Consequently, many flights into Bolivia fly to Santa Cruz in the tropical east. However, it is easy to get domestic connections on to La Paz. Arriving in La Paz, make sure to take an official airport taxi into the city.
Domestic bus services link La Paz with destinations all over the country. Buses from Potosi take about 7-8 hours while bus services from Sucre take 10-12 hours. Bolivia Hop sells tickets to and from destinations in Peru such as Puno on Lake Titicaca, Arequipa and Cuzco. Hanaq Pacha sells tickets on Bolivia Hop buses or travellers can buy tickets directly from the company (contact details below).
Bolivia Hop, 265 Calle Santa Cruz (2 blocks off Av. 2 de Agosto)
La Paz has accommodation options for all ages, budgets and tastes. Looking for something traditional? Then try Hostal Ananay in Calle Jaen, which is highly recommended. Party animals may prefer The Wild Rover (1476 Calle Comercio, Tel: 591 2 2116903). Hotel Sagarnaga ( 320 Calle Sagarnaga, Tel: 591 2 2350252) has an excellent central location. Also, this hotel has a great courtyard and a cool café with good breakfast options.
From street food to fine dining, La Paz presents the traveller with a wide range of choices and here are some of the more interesting options.
Café del Mundo is a Scandinavian-run café on Sagarnaga. Good coffee and excellent desserts. In fact, the coffee is so good and the place so comfortable…they must be Swedish!
Sabor Cubano, also on Sagarnaga, serves good quality food in surroundings reminiscent of Old Havana.
Café de las Brujas, near the Witches’ Market, sources its coffee directly from Los Yungas and at least claims to have the best coffee in La Paz.
Gusto is the pricey sister restaurant of the Michelin starred Salt in Copenhagen. They source all their produce locally.