A sprawling city, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. At 3640 metres above sea level, it really does take your breath away! Technically the constitutional capital remains Sucre but holds the seat of government so they still manage to claim the top spot. I came to spend a day and night in La Paz before starting my overland tour from La Paz to Cusco.
After spending a few blissful days of relaxation at Colibri Camping, I booked a taxi to the take me the 30-minute drive into the city centre. There was a lot of traffic as you would expect, but the old school buses caught my eye. If you spend a day in La Paz, here are my recommendations for what to do in La Paz Bolivia.
What to do in La Paz
Free Walking Tour in La Paz
My hostel was basic but ok, I checked in and went to find the free walking tour that Rolando from Colibri Camping had recommended to me. The meeting point was outside San Pedro prison, a notoriously corrupt establishment in the city centre, where inmates live with their families, and those with money afford very comfortable living quarters, produce and sell their own cocaine and offer tours of the prison.
Rumour has it you can bribe your way into the prison but exact details of how to get out again are scarce. I declined the offer of a tour as stories of stabbings, rapes and disappearance of tourists had already reached my ears. It is a prison after all.
Read more about the San Pedro Prison in Rusty Young’s book Marching Powder, based on the true story of a British-Australian man incarcerated in the prison.
St Francisco Basilica
After that dramatic start, we walked around the city, calling at various markets, and stopping off to admire the Basilica of San Francisco, which was built with the help of the indigenous people in the hope that they would feel more attached to their new place of Christian worship. The result is a traditional church, with indigenous influences in the stonework and decoration which makes for an interesting mix.
What to do in La Paz: The Witches’ Market
The most entertaining market was the Mercado de la Brujas, Witches Market, where locals buy everything they need for offerings to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). Although the vast majority of Bolivians report to be Christian, the blend of indigenous religions still remains.
Offerings are made when a new house is built, a new car is bought, and for all similar occasions, they request the blessing of Pacha Mama. Offerings include sweets, herbs, coca leaves, burning candles, and in the case of new buildings, a dried llama fetus buried in the foundations.
Apparently, these llamas aren’t slaughtered in the womb but are those who die (quite frequently) of natural causes early after being born or are miscarried due to the cold weather in the mountains.
Our guide also told us of the urban legend which requires human sacrifice for large constructions, and Pacha Mama just won’t accept the teeny llama for this. There apparently have been stories of missing homeless people, disappearing before the construction of large bridges or roads, and of human remains found while excavating old building sites. Spooky!
At the market I bought a stone carving of a condor, said to represent safe or happy journeys – quite apt I thought. Sadly I broke it somewhere along the trek to Machu Picchu, but managed to replace it the next time I came to La Paz!
This is actually one of my biggest regrets, that I didn’t go to see the Cholita wrestling in La Paz. Cholitas are the indigenous Bolivian women who wear the colourful skirts, shawls and bowler hats. I discounted it at the time, thinking that it was exploitative or just ridiculous, but after seeing Lucha Libre wrestling in Mexico City I have discovered a new-found love for the sport!
The Cholita wrestling gets mixed reviews on Tripadvisor, so I think if you take it as is – fun – and perhaps have a few drinks first you will be fine. Apparently it gets very cold inside so wrap up warm.
Things to do in La Paz: Plaza Murillo
The main plaza in the heart of the old town is home to the La Paz Cathedral and the presidential palace. And a lot of pigeons. It’s a pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by.
Mi Teleferico, the La Paz Cable Car
That afternoon before we met officially for the trek meeting, my new roommate and I went to investigate the Mi Teleferico cable car, a network of lines pushed for by the indigenous president Eva Morales, in a bid to unite the outskirts of the city with the centre, and enable the people from the poorer communities such as El Alto to commute cheaply without braving the notorious La Paz traffic.
There is some debate about the effectiveness of the project and benefit to the locals, but they do make for an excellent tourist attraction, offering stunning views of the city as you soar above. We took the red line which was closest to our hostel, and for just 3 bolivianos we reached El Alto in around 15 minutes, instead of the 45 minute journey (or more) in the choking traffic below.
What to do in La Paz: El Alto
El Alto, the highest area in La Paz, and where the population are almost all indigenous peoples. El Alto is actually a city in its own right, not a suburb of La Paz, and is pretty huge. We just had a wander around after taking the teleferico, and there is a huge open air market on Thursdays that is worth a visit. However, there have been warnings of robberies so don’t take any valuables with you and just enjoy the experience.
Mirador Killi Killi
If you haven’t had your fill of breathtaking views, then take a (slow) walk up to Mirador Killi Killi to get some awesome views of the city.
Things to do in La Paz Outside the City
The Valley of the Moon
Around 20-30 minutes from the city centre, the Valley of the Moon feels like another world. Explore the bizarre rock formations and crevices, and you might even spot some Andean hares known as viscachas.
Devil Tooth Mountain
You can either hike up here yourself (you’ll need a map of the trail) or arrange a guided horse-back ride to the mountain – Colibri Camping & Eco-Lodge can help you with maps or arrange the horse-riding.
Bike Down Death Road
If you like adrenaline pumping adventures and near-death experiences, perhaps you will enjoy mountain biking down the World’s Most Dangerous Road. This is one of the most popular things to do in La Paz, despite a couple of tourists dying every year when their bikes hurtle over the sheer cliffs along the road.
What to Eat in La Paz
The food in La Paz that day was average to say the least, a lunch of a papa rellena (stuffed potato) and a quite unpleasant curry, I can’t wax lyrical about the delights of La Pazian cuisine.
The following day, I joined my Dragoman Overland tour group and we enjoyed a dinner that evening, and I tried my first alpaca steak which was delicious! If I go back to La Paz again, I think I would take a food tour to try some more of the local food. After dinner with the group, we all retired early to prepare for our first day on the road the next morning.
Where to stay in La Paz
I stayed at the amazing Colibri Camping & Eco Lodge in Jupapina, about 30 minutes outside of the centre of La Paz, and seriously can’t recommend it highly enough. Alternatively, there are a lot of other hostels in La Paz to choose from.
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