La Paz, in Bolivia, is the highest administrative city in the world positioned at the dizzying height of more than 3,500m above sea level. I chose to visit Bolivia as part of a trip to South America consisting of an earlier stop off in Peru and a stop off en route to the Uyuni Salt Flats.I’d read quite a bit about the city before my visit and felt slightly nervous. I came across descriptions of one of the most dangerous city in the world, uninspiring and offering bland food – apparently.
My first view of La Paz was on the trip from the El Alto International airport to the city via taxi. It immediately struck me as a congested city but ultimately, I felt quite safe here and ready to hit the ground running.
With an estimated population of 789,541 residents, La Paz is the third most populous city in Bolivia. The city is thriving with a daily bustle of people around the inner-city, crowds of local people and tourists enjoying the city, one that must be explored at a somewhat leisurely pace due to the altitude.
Despite flying into La Paz from Cusco, Peru (more than 3,300m above sea level), this was the first time that altitude sickness started to affect me. I struggled to walk more than a few metres at a time, gasping for breath and feeling that every move was incredibly taxing on my physical energy. View my tips for dealing with altitude sickness.
Although Sucre is the judicial capital, La Paz is Bolivia’s largest city and centre for commerce, finance and industry, one of the fastest growing in Latin America. Read on for my tips to make the most of a visit to this city that really is, one of a kind.
Stay in Zona Central
This is the main area for hotels, hostels and finding cheap and easy transport to get around and explore the rest of La Paz. It’s around a 30minute drive from El Alto International airport (where most flights will arrive/depart), and a taxi should cost no more than 60 Bolivianos (take an official taxi from the airport, agree the fare before setting off and try to have exact fare to prevent any dispute at the end of the journey. It’s well placed for visitors wanting to explore the markets whether it’s day or night.
Get acquainted with Red Cap Walking Tours
The Red Cap Walking Tours are a great way to get acquainted with the city of La Paz. My tour was hosted by Dani and Chris; they both offered a fun and invaluable experience for a new visitor like me, but also offered advice when my sister was unfortunately ill and had to promptly return to the hotel.
The tour meeting point is Plaza San Pedro and tours run on a daily basis. The tours are no longer free but for a very small fee of around $3 USD, it’s an informative way to get good insight to the main attractions in good company.
Visit Plaza Murillo
To see the government buildings of La Paz and the city cathedral, you simply have to visit Plaza Murillo. It’s busy during the day but slightly quieter during the evening and still a good time to pop along to see government buildings and the city cathedral.
Shop at the Witches Market
One of the more unique sights of La Paz can be found at the Witches Market, also known as Mercado de Hechiceria or Mercado de las Brujas. Shop here for souvenirs and potions (don’t try to leave the country with these!).
I found haggling here to be more difficult than other countries but many places sell very similar items. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with vendors for a good price on anything from llama fetuses to dried frogs and aphrodisiac formulas.
Eat at Mercado Lanza
For cheap eats in La Paz you simply have to seek out your nearest Mercado and try the market lunches. I only had the chance to try Mercado Lanza close to San Francisco Church.
Most of the food stalls are located on the third floor where you can pick up a huge meal for just a few Bolivianos; I paid just 3 Bolivianos for mate de coca served in a plastic bag.
The restaurants are essentially tables set up in the cook’s kitchen – you can watch as they prepare your meal. If you’re a tourist and trying a fruit juice, be sure to order it milk NOT water. Also, try to brush up on your Spanish before you visit. You’ll likely be the only non-Bolivian person eating there and there is a high chance of a language barrier being present.
La Paz is a diverse city; it can be a challenge for anybody (like me) that isn’t to grips with the Spanish language as well as any visitors affected by the altitude. To make the most of your stay, plan a suitable amount of time into your itinerary to ensure that you have downtime to adjust and rest if necessary. If you’re fortunate to visit then do keep your wits about you in busy places like the markets but essentially, embrace the new food, rich culture and the local people and you’re bound to enjoy your experience of La Paz.
Have you visited La Paz or any city of Bolivia? What tips would you recommend as a must see/do?