La Paz’ steep cobblestone streets and high altitude can sometimes leave guests gasping for oxygen as they walk through the city’s thin air. However, after a small amount of acclimatization, and simply learning to take things slow, visitors will be rewarded experiencing this city that truly is like none other in the world. This unique city’s streets are lined with traditional dressed street vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to car batteries to llama fetuses and everything else in between. The spontaneous nature of this city provides a perfect playground to any wanderer. The sandstone featured Valley of the Moon, and its adjacent upscale neighbourhoods, contrast the main city, while in the pigeon filled plazas one can simply sit and soak in an atmosphere of a place like no other in the world.
Time needed: 3-5 days
Daily Budget: 25-50US$ (price exaggerated if you do the death road mountain biking)
Fun Facts about La Paz
- La Paz, at around 12 000 feet (3650m) above sea level, is the highest capital in the world.
- Because of the altitude, at the local golf course a well struck ball can travel several meters farther than at sea level
- Planes landing at the La Paz airport have to land at a much higher landing speed than normal due to the thin air; it also takes planes twice as long to get off the ground.
- Although La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia, Sucre is still the country’s judicial capital
- The official name of La Paz is actually Nuestra Senora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace)
A History in Brief
Just a short drive outside of La Paz rests the pre-Incan ruins of Tiahuanco whose residents are said to have been the predecessors to the Inca people. These ruins date back as far as a thousand years ago and offer a glimpse into the historic past of this region. However, because of a lack of a writing system amongst the people here there is little knowledge of their lineage or their way of life. Fairytale like stories are all that are told.
In 1548, the Spanish conquistadors began to settle the area of La Paz. However, the initial settlement was formed in the high altitude area now called El Alto on the site of an Amerindian village. To find reprieve from the burdens of altitude, the Spanish eventually moved the settlement down into the valley where it still exists today.
La Paz, a city always boasting a very high indigenous population, was a constant battleground for indigenous rights and independence in the 1700s, including raids from Tupac Katari which nearly pushed the Spanish out of the area in 1781. In 1825, Bolivia finally gained its independence, although La Paz did not become the capital city until 1898. Today the city of La Paz still holds much of its traditional roots, although recently it has begun to interweave a sense of modernism into its traditional character.
Things to do in La Paz
- City Tour: You can book a city tour for fairly cheap, or you can simply wander the streets on your own. The San Fransisco Cathedral, in plaza San Fransisco is very interesting. Also, the main Plaza, Plaza Murillo is a fun place to sit out and people watch. I also recommend either catching a bus or hiring a taxi to take you to the top of the city for an absolutely spectacular view.
- The Valley of the Moon: It seems like there’s a valley of the moon in every single country in South America. The Bolivian version is as interesting as any, and is worth a visit. It is best done via a tour but you can also hire a taxi to drive you as well. Public transportation is possible, but will not get you exactly where you want to be.
- Telefericos: There are now 3 cable cars in La Paz, and they are not only very modern but well organized. The most popular cable car leaves from down town towards El Alto ending at the market up top.
High Elevation Golf
: This is the world’s highest golf course. It is situated at just over 3300m above sea level. If you have ever wanted to sail a golf ball well over 300yards, the thin air up here should help that become a reality. The scenery on this course is fantastic as well and this is a must for any golf fanatic.
- The Death Road: One of La Paz’ most famous attractions was formerly known as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’ before the construction of a brand new paved highway which detours vehicles away from the steep cliffs and narrow gravel roads of the Death Road. What is left now, is a road almost completely reserved for downhill mountain bike enthusiasts. The guides who run this road are fantastic, and will take care of you regardless of your technical abilities. Included is transport, safety gear, professional guides and bike mechanics, and a buffet lunch. **Note: Some experience on Mountain Bike is required, but you do not to need to be an avid bike rider to take part in this activity.
- High Elevation Skiing: Just outside of town is the world’s highest ski slops. If you’re in a skiing mood you’ll also have to be lucky as there is only snow for a couple months a year. If there’s no snow, it’s also a great place to go to test your altitude lungs and take a chairlift up to elevations most don’t even dream of reaching.
- Tiahuanaco Ruins: The Tiahuanaco Ruins Tour will take you to a complex that remains from the Pre-Inca society of the Tiahuanaco people. Although a large part of the site has been destroyed by a combination of wear and tear, and European demolition, the Tiahuanaco people are said to be the predecessors of the Inca people themselves, and impressive remains of their presence still stand ground. If you are a history buff, or simply trying to understand the Inca culture this is a must visit.
Where to Eat in La Paz
There is something for every budget and every desire in La Paz, which is something many people don’t expect before visiting. You can even get decent sushi at 4000m above sea level along the main tourist strip: Sagarnaga. Other recommended places include the English Pub, Oliver’s Travels, which has great curries and you can even get a deep fried Mars bar. Sol y Luna is run by a Dutch-Bolivian couple and they serve up great foods from all over the world at very decent prices; there is also a bar downstairs with a pool table. If you’re craving a steak, there is an amazing place called The Steakhouse in La Paz that has some of the best meat in the country. For a little bit more expensive meal check out Ram Jam’s which is always a hit. If you’re on a very tight budget you won’t have any trouble finding a cheap empanada or pizza place in La Paz.
Where to Stay in La Paz
In my 8 times in La Paz I have stayed at three different hotels and hostels. Most backpackers stay in one of the two party hostels in town. Your choice is between the Loki Hostel and Wildrovers, both which promote party first, explore the city second. The price of a dorm bed in either place is about 7US$, private rooms can be had for about $20. If you’re looking to upgrade a bit try a hotel called Casa Estrella Andina, which has an interesting decor, hot showers, and included breakfast all for about 12US$ for a single room. Popular with the tour groups the Hotel Rosario, which is right next to Casa Estrella Andina, is a huge upgrade, but well worth the price of admission. It has an included internet cafe, a brilliant breakfast buffet, and some of the nicest rooms in the city. A single room here will cost about 35US$ per night.
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