Bolivia: Learning to love La Paz

La Paz is not a city hot on most travellers “must see” list.

A less than positive reputation follows the city to the sparkling shores of Lake Titicaca, the lush cloud forest of the Yungas and the other-worldly landscape of the salt flats. Its enormous urban sprawl is home to chaotic streets, crumbling buildings and rip off taxi drivers, or so I had heard. Whilst it’s true that there certainly isn’t any of “peace” of the city’s name, on my second visit I discovered there is more to La Paz than a gateway to Bolivia’s sights. With a location as jaw dropping as Rio and a culture arguably richer than most Latino cities, Bolivia’s de facto capital is the beating heart of the Andean nations.

Here are some reasons to linger in the world’s highest de-facto capital rather than rushing through it.

 

A feast of superlatives

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Mi Teleferico soars above La Paz

 

 

After landing at the world’s highest international airport and driving through La Paz’s indigenous satellite city, El Alto, the quickest way to get to the city centre is to take the world’s highest and longest urban cable car, “Mi Teleferico”. The views from the cable car platform in El Alto are nothing short of spectacular. The sprawling (de facto) capital of Bolivia climbs the sides of a giant natural bowl and snow-capped peak of Mount Illimani loom on the horizon. The cable car opened in 2014 but had been many years in the planning. Built by an Austrian company and full of typical Bolivian controversy, the idea was to address some of the traffic problems of chaotic La Paz. There are currently 3 lines but 7 more being planned. Even in rush hour, queues seem to be no existent and the fare is a steal at 3 Bolivianos (about 35p) per station. What is essentially a means of commuter transport is a dizzying feast of spectacular views and a real insight into the exploding city of La Paz.

 

Take the red line from downtown to El Alto or vice versa and you will be treated to an entirely different perspective of the chaos, densely packed housing and poverty that this city holds deep within it.

 

Cities within Cities

El Alto city

La Paz stretches itself out from the dizzy heights of El Alto at 4050m to the southern suburbs at 3600m and has become basically three cities in one.

El Alto started life as a suburb but with the economic migration of indigenous people from the surrounding ‘altiplano’ (high Andean plain), it is now so large it is recognised the 4th largest city in Bolivia. Also the poorest city in Bolivia, El Alto, is a vast desert of adobe shacks and half finished red brick buildings, interspersed by church spires and run down warehouses. The population of mainly indigenous Aymara people live a harsh life, many without running water or electricity and with night time temperatures often plummeting below zero. As we bump along the many unpaved roads on a detour due to road works, I spot what a mannequin hanging from a lamppost.  “It’s a sign of vigilante rule” explains my local friend. “This is what they will do to those who are robbers here”. These symbolic gestures of gang rule are dotted around, and to be it seems like the indigenous people of El Alto are proud of their long-running fight against adversity in what is still an essentially mestizo (a person of combined European and Indigenous decent) ruled country.

Tip:  Pay a visit to the infamous gigantic Tuesday and Thursday market. This is put simply the market to end all markets and an experience you will not forget in a hurry. Be warned though that El Alto is poor and the crime rates are high. Do not take valuables or a day sack and do not frequent this part of the city after dark.

 

Colonial City and museums

Downtown La Paz is a maze of hilly streets which explodes with a mixture of Latino and indigenous culture. Colonial architecture stands out in the frenzied streets around the central Plaza Murillo. Elsewhere the colonial buildings are mixed in with modern skyscrapers and huge traffic roundabouts.

At one end of El Prado is Plaza San Francisco which is dominated by the imposing Church of San Francisco, dating back to the early 1500s. With its intricately carved facade, it is definitely one of the finest Baroque churches left in Latin America. This square is always bursting with energy, day or night. Rallies, markets, musicians, and entertainers all find their audience here.

The quirky capital is brimming with museums. One of my favourite museums in the world, “Museo de Coca”, is located right in the heart of the tourist district. It’s a tiny but fascinating museum dedicated to the controversial coca leaf. Here you can find out everything you ever wanted to know about Coca: from its sacred use in indigenous culture to its healing properties, to how it is processed and made into cocaine. You leave the museum realising this leaf has a massive importance to Bolivian culture and its stigma is not necessarily warranted.

 

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One giant street market

Behind the church is the steep Calle Sargarnaga, the centre of a network of cobbled streets lined with bars, cafes, restaurants, handicraft stalls and travel agencies. This is the hub of tourist-ville La Paz, and much of the area is a permanent street market. Between Sargarnaga and Santa Cruz streets is the famous Witches Market, or the “Mercado de Brujas”, useful if you are in need of some offerings for the goddess Pachamama, such as parts of frogs, insects or dried llama foetuses. Although the Mercado de Brujas is a tourist draw, don’t be fooled into thinking these things are wholly for the benefit of tourists – Bolivians still bury dried llama foetuses in the foundations of buildings as an offering to Pachamama and the mountain gods still play a central role in the lives of the indigenous population. Bargaining around here is expected and the multitude of street sellers are absolutely well versed in the art of driving a very hard bargain.

If you want to sample more authentic La Paz life, walk beyond the backpacker-fest which is Sargarnaga, and you’ll reach the main market area. Mercado Rodriguez is a vast part-covered food fest where the sights, smells and sheer choice of potato types will have your head spinning. The streets around this area are mostly a permanent street market and here you can buy anything from razor blades to batteries to MP3 players to fresh juice to llama foetuses. Each street concentrates on a different type of goods – electronics, food, fruit and vegetables, clothes, household items, white goods. This part of the city oozes indigenous life and at every turn, a more spectacular view of ice-covered peaks in the distance is uncovered.

 

Witches market delights

Witches Market, La Paz

 

If you want to sample more authentic La Paz life, walk beyond the backpacker-fest which is Sargarnaga, and you’ll reach the main market area. Mercado Rodriguez is a vast part-covered food fest where the sights, smells and sheer choice of potato types will have your head spinning. The streets around this area are mostly a permanent street market and here you can buy anything from razor blades to batteries to MP3 players to fresh juice to llama foetuses. Each street concentrates on a different type of goods – electronics, food, fruit and vegetables, clothes, household items, white goods. This part of the city oozes indigenous life and at every turn, a more spectacular view of ice-covered peaks in the distance is uncovered.

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Street markets, La Paz

 

Latino street life

Bolivia has the highest population of indigenous people in South America which creates an authentic atmosphere; a glimpse into how life was before colonial times and into a life removed from our own. The streets are crowded with the diverse strata of Bolivian life. Indigenous Aymaran women, known as Chollas or Cholitas, carry babies or goods on their backs in brightly coloured shawls. These women are often referred to as the backbone of life in La Paz. Although their rights and economic means have changed dramatically in recent years, they are at the heart of the street selling culture. The younger Cholita selling cold juice from her mobile stall with her baby, bundled in bright-coloured shawls, asleep on the tiny stall itself.  The older Cholita with years of hardship etched into her wrinkled face manning her market stall for 14 hours a day 6 days a week.   Fashions may come and go but a Cholita’s outfit is almost always the same – puffed multi-layered skirts over petticoats, a bright shawl and a bowler hat perched on her long, plaited hair.

Simply wandering around La Paz drinking up the culture, traditions and lives of the indigenous people will give you more insight into this country than any of Bolivia’s “big ticket” experiences.

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Multi-tasking Cholita, La Paz

 

Traffic Chaos

The bustling El Prado separates the 2 halves of the downtown area and is home to many government buildings, offices and shops. Business men and women whizz past homeless people begging, shoeshine boys, known as “Lustre Botas” wait hopefully on every corner, children in school uniforms mill around and the noise of omnipresent beeping is almost deafening.

La Paz has a major traffic problem. The roads are choked with minivan, buses, cars, taxis and motos all vying for an inch of space. Traffic signs are largely ignored, accident statistics deadly and crossing the road an art form.  Until recently, the public transport network of La Paz relied on crowding as many people as possible onto either a minibus or a refitted US school bus, the former of which may be designed for 9 people but will regularly cram in 15 and has no set route. All the options basically rely on setting off when full, rather than a timetabled system. Cue the new Puma Katari buses, imported from China which recently arrived to much fanfare. Locals were keen to point them out to me on my first day. “They have timetables and set destinations” one of my contacts gushed. “The other buses don’t?” I asked, naively forgetting that a timetable is a luxury in the Latino public transport system. The Puma buses are essentially just an ordinary bus, but in a city where commuters face daily chaotic commutes of 3-4 hours for the north or south to the centre, they are pretty life changing.

 

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The new Puma buses

 

La Paz after dark

La Paz is fast becoming known for its eclectic mix of nightlife, with everything from top class restaurants to traditional indigenous music venues. Whilst most tourists dine out and drink in one of Sargarnaga’s bars and restaurants, there are many other nighttime hot spots in the city.

Just outside the centre, the vibrant suburb of Sopacachi emits an arty atmosphere, its bars and restaurants full of Bolivia’s new young creative middle class. By day you can people-watch from the leafy squares, get your cultural fix at the museum of contemporary art or take in the awesome views from the lookout in Monticulo Park. As darkness falls hot foot it to one of the international restaurants or dance the night away in swanky bars and salsa clubs.

 

 

 

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La Paz by night

 

 

 

The balmy South

A 15 minute ride south to Zona Sur you could be forgiven for thinking you have arrived in an upmarket suburb of Paris, Milan or Madrid. At a balmy 500m lower altitude this is where La Paz’s elite reside. Pretty parades of boutiques and cafes line streets filled with villas and upmarket apartments. Top restaurants rub shoulders with glam beauty parlours and it’s a different world which is worth a stop off.

For a mini-taster of the dramatic mountain scenery for which Bolivia is so famous, you only need to head south from Zona Sur. About 10km south of La Paz, near to the suburb of Mallasa, the Valley of the Moon (Valle de Luna) is actually not a valley at all, more like a carpet of stalagmites; sharp spikes and pinnacles rising up to form a unique landscape in the middle of what is now an urban sprawl. The ‘valley’ was formed when centuries of harsh high altitude weather caused erosion to the clay and sandstone hillsides. Since the mountains around La Paz are so rich in minerals, the rocks vary in colour creating quite a scene. They say that Neil Armstrong visited once and proclaimed the landscape’s similarity to the moon, hence the name, although that seems fairly unlikely! Right now though, this welcome diversion from the hectic pace of La Paz comprises 2 circular walkways of varying length, culminating in quite a surreal view point.

 

 

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Valle de Luna, La Paz

 

Learning to love La Paz

My second visit to La Paz taught me something important. Cities like this need to be savoured over time. Rushing through here it is impossible to get a sense of the many sides of this sprawling city. Spend time wandering through the cobbled alleys, up and down the hilly streets wondering at the beautiful colonial buildings and churches, watching the local life unfold. This is high altitude acclimatisation at its very best. Don’t hurry through here, you ‘ll be missing out!

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

Safety First

It is important to note that, as with all large cities, some areas of La Paz are more dangerous than others. Fake or “bogus” taxis are occasionally reported and target travellers getting off buses at bus stations. In particular, take care when arriving back into La Paz’s Cemetery bus station. Pickpockets and petty thieves thrive in crowded squares and markets. Although no more threatening than other large South American cities, care needs to be taken. After dark, many areas of the city’s streets are still alive with people, but it would be foolhardy to venture into quiet back streets. Use only registered “radio” taxis – these are the taxis with phone numbers and the name of the company displayed on the roof of the vehicle.

Bolivians are also more than partial to protesting regularly in the main streets and squares of La Paz. Mostly these protests pass peacefully but you would be well advised to watch from afar.

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