We unexpectedly bookended our Amazonian adventure with a stay in La Paz, the de facto capital of Bolivia (Sucre is the constitutional capital, but for all intents and purposes La Paz is the capital). We had initially planned to stay only one day in the city given, much like Santiago, we hadn’t heard much about it beforehand. But, we were quickly drawn in by the city’s charming, chaotic allure and decided to hunker down in an AirBNB for a few days to enjoy life in La Paz.
Arriving in La Paz at 5:00 AM after a 10 hour bus ride from Uyuni, we weren’t too impressed by the cold and cloudy atmosphere. However, that first impression quickly disappeared as the sun rose, the clouds rolled away and we soaked in a stunning panorama of the city. Built in a 3,600m high valley in the Andes, La Paz is a mixture of commercial and residential buildings locked into the valley floor, red-brick shanty houses built into the mountainsides and snow-capped peaks in the distance.
As we roamed around, strolling through streets, cramming into minibuses, and soaring overhead in cable cars, we came to love the feel of the city that, to us, offered a more rugged, rustic and third-world feel than its South American counterparts:
- Forget about a grid: the streets of La Paz twist and turn and run up and down the valley and mountainsides, creating a hectic atmosphere of buses, cars and motorcycles. Despite the chaos, the minibus rides proved one of our favorite activities. For only 2 boliviano (28 US cents!), we could take in the bustle of the city as we traveled within our own central neighborhood but also farther away to Zona Sur and Marilla.
- To sift through the chaos and make commuting easier, La Paz constructed a network of cable cars that soar along the hillsides. They are so popular with the city’s inhabitants that over a quarter of a million rides are taken each day. Given the incredible views of the city the cable cars afford, they have also become popular with tourists. For only 3 boliviano (42 US cents!), we admired the city on both the yellow and red lines.
- Just up the valley walls lies the city of El Alto, home to South America’s largest outdoor market. On our first trip up to El Alto we enjoyed walking around the stalls and feasting on the food (the fresh grapefruit and carrot juices, marshmallow-type goodies, and local apricots & apples proved more appealing than the cow brains, bull testicles and anchovies). On our second visit, the market was in full force (the market swells to its maximum on Thursdays and Sundays) and we could buy anything from car parts, movies and clothes. We naturally leaned toward the food, buying fresh watermelon, fresh whipped cream and jello (a Bolivian favorite), donuts and local grapes (yes, all sugar).
- To get oriented in the city, we took a tour with Hanaq Pacha. Our tour not only showed us some interesting sites but also provided us with a unique insight to Bolivian culture. Compared to other South American countries, Bolivia is much more indigenous. As a result, despite converting to Catholicism, many inhabitants still infuse their religion with that of their indigenous culture. The local people are still very superstitious and visit the Witches Market to purchase goods (anything from llama fetuses to special oils) needed for their rituals. The tour also shed light on the Bolivians’ affinity for rebellion: the country had the most coups over its history, and is home to the infamous San Pedro prison, run entirely by its own inmates.
- The tour also had another benefit: we befriended our tour guide, a native-Bolivian who had also lived in the US when he was younger. Ariel stuck with us after the tour and showed us some of his favorite lunch spots, and we met back up with him a few nights later for dinner. Besides introducing us to a few more Bolivian delicacies, dinner led to a friendly but heated and thought-provoking discussion on the different underlying political and cultural views of Americans and Bolivianos.
We loved the energy of La Paz, even more so when we rented an AirBNB and settled into local life – shopping for our meals in the local Market Yungus, schlepping up the hills each day to our apartment and navigating the insane minibus system. We highly recommend a stop in La Paz. There are ample sights to see both in and out of the city (more on that below in Tessers’ Tips), but also plenty of excitement to take in while strolling the beautiful, panoramic streets and mountainsides.
Things To Do:
- Take a walking tour in order to understand the history and culture of Bolivianos.
- Ride the cable cars. The red line is likely closest to where you will stay (in the central part of town, near the bus station), but we actually liked the views from the yellow line better. And we highly recommend a walk through the El Alto markets when you make it to the top. Be careful – we were constantly reminded by stall vendors to watch our pockets and backpacks – but the market hustle is well worth a visit. And there are plenty of good food options up there from fresh fruit & vegetables to delicious juices to yummy Bolivian delicacies.
- We heard that the more wealthy area of Zona Sur is worth a stroll. While it’s certainly wealthier – quieter streets, nicer restaurants and trendy stores – there isn’t much to do there other than shop. We spent an hour but decided to hop on a minibus to Valle de la Luna.
- Visit Valle de la Luna (take a minibus heading to Marilla for 4 boliviano!). The valley is certainly moon-like, and it was fun spending an hour admiring the landscape.
- Don’t only take in a panorama of the city from El Alto, but also from Mirador Killi Killi. We admit – the walk up to this view is STEEP. But it was well worth it – there’s a park at the top which offered a quiet serenity where we not only awed at the cityscape from within the valley, but relaxed while reading and napping.
- There are other sites & activities to enjoy in La Paz, such as Cholitas, a WWF-style wrestling match between Bolivian women, and Penas, folk-music bars that offer a fun place to eat & drink on Friday & Saturday nights. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to either of these activities, but heard both offer a good time.
- We first stayed at Loki Hostel, which was one of the nicer hostels we’ve been to despite being dubbed one of La Paz’s party hostels (which it is). With a capacity for 180, there were plenty of vagabonders around to socialize with, and the room rates are reasonable (Bolivia itself is extremely cheap compared to the other South American countries we’ve been to).
- We next stayed at an AirBNB apartment near the Market Yungus. Despite the steep climb to get to the apartment, we loved its spaciousness, good Wifi, kitchen, and coziness. We could have shacked up here for another few weeks.
Days Stayed / Recommended: You can see the sights of La Paz in 1 day but we recommend staying for at least 3 days to relax and enjoy the city.
Local Food: Apparently Bolivia is not known for its cuisine, but we found plenty of delicious options during our stay:
- Salteñas: Bolivians eat this empanada-like meat pocket for breakfast. While it looks similar to an empanada, it is a bit more soupy and therefore requires more care while eating. We indulged on these meat pies – both carne and pollo – several times, and HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend the salteña stand at the south end of Plaza Sucre, El Horno.
- Almuerzo: Many Bolivianos go to food stands or markets for lunch where they simply ask for Almuerzo, and receive the soup of the day followed by the meat & vegetables of the day. Sounds risky given Michael’s inherent distrust of foreign foods, but we sat down in Market Yungus and feasted on an Almuerzo alongside working men on their lunch break, and loved it.
- Pasankallas: We loved this giant white-puffed corn treat, which is Bolivia’s version of popcorn and can be found all throughout La Paz’s streets. Naturally, Alie couldn’t keep her hands off this sugar (not salt) covered delicacy.
- Silpancho: Bolivians love this beef-mixed-with-bread-crumb concoction that is hammered into a flat, pancake-like form and then fried. It’s served with rice & potatoes and, as with many other dishes in Chile & Bolivia, a fried egg on top. We certainly can’t complain about a dish topped with a fried egg, and silpancho is worth a try.