Explore La Paz
Few cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz. Glimpsed for the first time as your bus or taxi crawls over the lip of the narrow canyon in which the city sits hunched, it’s a sight that will leave your lungs gasping for oxygen they can’t have. At over 3500m above sea level, amid a hollow gouged into the Altiplano, it’s a scene of stunning contrasts: a central cluster of church spires and office blocks dwarfed by the magnificent icebound peak of Mount Illimani rising imperiously to the southeast. On either side, the steep valley slopes are covered by the ramshackle homes of the city’s poorer inhabitants, clinging precariously to even the harshest gradients.
With a population of around 835,000, La Paz is the political and commercial hub of Bolivia and the capital in all but name (technically, that honour belongs to Sucre). Though protected to some extent from the tides of globalization by its isolation and singular cultural make-up, La Paz feels very much part of the twenty-first century, its manic bustle and offbeat, cosmopolitan feel luring travellers back time and again. Founded as a centre of Spanish power in the Andes, La Paz has always had a dual identity, with two very distinct societies – the indigenous and the European – coexisting in the same geographical space. Hi-tech international banks and government offices rub shoulders with vibrant street markets selling all manner of ritual paraphernalia for appeasing the spirits and mountain gods that still play a central role in the lives of the indigenous Aymara.
The Aymara, in fact, make up not only the majority of the city’s population, but also that of El Alto, La Paz’s militant, red-brick alter ego, which continues to outstrip it in terms of rural migrant-boosted population, and often media coverage. For them, working life in La Paz is conducted largely on the streets, and at times the whole place can feel like one massive, sprawling market. Though you’d imagine the exigencies of life at high altitude would make the pace of life quite slow, in reality it’s often more frantic than Buenos Aires or Rio, not least during the winter Fiesta del Gran Poder, when young and old alike dance in riotous celebration of the sacred and the profane.
Horrendous congestion and belching-black pollution notwithstanding, most visitors find La Paz’s compelling street life and tremendous cultural energy warrant spending at least a few days here, even if conventional tourist attractions are limited to a scattering of colonial palaces, plazas and churches in the centre of town. The city’s museums, while perhaps not fully doing justice to Bolivia’s fascinating history and culture, are nevertheless much improved from only a decade ago, and likewise warrant at least a day or two’s browsing. The absence of green areas, meanwhile, is more than redeemed by the sight of Illimani, tantalisingly glimpsed through breaks in the urban sprawl.
La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de la Paz – “The City of Our Lady of Peace” – was founded on October 20, 1548 on the orders of Pedro de la Gasca, the supreme representative of the Spanish Emperor in Peru, to commemorate the end of almost ten years of bitter civil war between rival Spanish factions fighting over the combined territories of Alto and Bajo Peru. Sited in the Choqueyapu valley, the city developed an economy based on commerce rather than mining.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
The merchants of La Paz grew rich through the trade in coca from the Yungas to the mines of Potosí, and the city also prospered as a waystation on the route between the mines and the coast, and between Lima and Buenos Aires. By 1665 some five hundred Spaniards were living in La Paz, with a much larger indigenous population housed on the other side of the fledgling city across the Río Choqueyapu. In 1781 an indigenous army led by Tupac Katari twice laid siege to La Paz, though the city survived and held out until it was relieved by the army sent from Buenos Aires that finally crushed the rebellion.
By the time Bolivia’s independence from Spain was finally secured in 1825 (see Argentina attacks), La Paz was the biggest city in the country, with a population of forty thousand. Though Sucre remained the capital, La Paz was increasingly the focus of the new republic’s turbulent political life. In 1899 the growing rivalry between the two cities was resolved in a short but bloody civil war that left La Paz as the seat of government, home to the president and the congress, and the capital in all but name.
The twentieth century
The first half of the twentieth century saw La Paz’s population grow to over three hundred thousand. In 1952 La Paz was the scene of the fierce street fighting that ushered in the revolution led by the MNR, or Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario. The sweeping changes that followed further fuelled the city’s growth as the Aymara population of the Altiplano, released from servitude by the Agrarian reform, migrated en masse to the metropolis. This migration from the countryside profoundly changed the character of La Paz, quadrupling its population to over a million and transforming it into a predominantly Aymara city, albeit still ruled by a wealthy European-descended minority.
The twenty-first century
While this ethnic and geographical gulf is hardly without precedent in Latin America, age-old tensions reached a boiling point over the first half of the decade, with violent civil disturbances toppling a series of neo-liberal presidents. Plans to export natural gas via a Chilean pipeline prompted the first “gas war” in 2003 (see Bolivia’s first indigenous president). Further unrest over the unresolved gas issue erupted in May and June 2005 with hundreds of thousands of indigenous protestors massing in La Paz, effectively cutting off the city and effecting the resignation of then-president Carlos Mesa.
The reign of Evo Morales
With the 2005 election of Bolivia’s first (and it’s looking increasingly likely, most enduring) indigenous president, Evo Morales, the Aymara finally achieved real political power and the traditional campesinos vs the state ferment was superseded, to some extent, by a wider geo-political cultural spat between the radical Altiplano and the right-wing lowland departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija. Yet while much of the violence and unrest has taken place far from the capital, demonstrations by discontented miners, pensioners, fuel protestors, hunger strikers in the main Post Office and indeed anyone at all who feels hard done by, underlines the fact that La Paz, in its strategic relation to El Alto and the Highland Aymara communities, remains a vital crucible for popular protest.Read More
The main problem you’re likely to face when you arrive in La Paz is the altitude: the city stands at over 3500m above sea level, and the airport in El Alto is even higher, at over 4000m. If you’re flying in or arriving by bus from lower elevations you may suffer from altitude sickness, also known as soroche, a debilitating and potentially dangerous condition caused by the reduced oxygen levels found at high elevations. Mild symptoms can include breathlessness and lethargy, sleeplessness, headaches and nausea, though for most people these fade within a few days as the body adjusts to the rarefied air. On arrival at high altitude you should take things very slowly and get straight to a hotel where you can leave your luggage and rest. It’s also best to avoid smoking and alcohol, and to drink plenty of liquids, particularly maté de coca, an infusion of coca leaves that any local will tell you is the ideal remedy. Alternatively, all chemists stock soroche pills; they’re high in caffeine, however, so don’t take them at night unless you fancy even less sleep than the altitude already dictates.
In its more serious forms, altitude sickness can be dangerous or even life-threatening. If you think you may have the symptoms of high-altitude pulmonary or cerebral oedema (see Malaria and other insect-borne diseases) you should seek immediate medical advice. The best place for this is the High Altitude Pathology Institute, Clinica IPPA, Av Saavedra 2302 (t02 2245394, waltitudeclinic.com).
Thank God it’s (bachelor) Friday
Thank God it’s (bachelor) Friday
La Paz is generally fairly quiet on weekday evenings, but explodes into life on Friday nights – known as viernes de solteros (bachelor Fridays) – when much of the city’s male population goes out drinking. In the city centre – and above all in the market district along Max Paredes and Avenida Buenos Aires – there are countless rough-and-ready whiskerías and karaoke bars where hard-drinking, almost exclusively male crowds gather to drown their sorrows in beer and chufflay, a lethal mix of singani and lemonade, while playing cacho, a popular dice game, or singing along to the latest Latin pop songs. Going out to these popular bars is certainly a very authentic Bolivian experience and can be great fun, but as a foreigner you should expect to attract a good deal of attention and be prepared to drink until you drop – refusing an invitation from a fellow drinker is considered rather rude. For women, such places are best avoided altogether.
Travellers arriving at the main bus terminal are occasionally targeted by thieves posing as plain-clothes police officers, complete with fake documents. One popular scam involves them asking to inspect your money for counterfeit notes, or your bags for drugs, then robbing you (they often work in tandem with someone pretending to be a tourist, who will befriend you before they approach and vouch for the legitimacy of their request). If approached by people claiming to be undercover police don’t get in a car with them or show them your documents or valuables, and insist on the presence of an olive-green uniformed officer – you can call one yourself on t110. Scams of all kinds increasingly involve taxi drivers, so on arrival it’s better not to share a taxi with strangers. Worse still, travellers and even ordinary Paceños have been assaulted, kidnapped (while the perpetrators empty their bank account at the nearest ATM), and occasionally even killed by rogue taxi and micro drivers. While the situation has improved in recent years, the police advise taking down the licence plate number and colour of any vehicle you travel in, and go so far as to warn against accepting any food or drink from your fellow travellers in case it contains sedatives. For more information, see Tours from La Paz for further info on taxi security.
There’s been an explosion in the La Paz accommodation scene in recent years, even if prices have likewise risen steeply and there now seems to be a real dearth of rooms at lower mid-range. Budget accommodation – from around Bs50 – tends to be pretty spartan and chilly; ask for a room that gets some sunlight, as this makes a big difference in temperature. Heating is only available in the top-range hotels, though most places have 24hr hot water; it’s worth checking to make sure it’s not merely lukewarm – if it is you’ll freeze.
La Paz has an excellent range of restaurants, cafés and street stalls to suit pretty much all tastes and budgets. Few places open for breakfast much before 8am, and Paceños treat lunch as the main meal of the day, eating lightly in the evening. Most restaurants serve set lunch menus known as almuerzos (typically noon–2pm), which are generally extremely filling and great value. The city also has an increasingly cosmopolitan range of European-style restaurants, both in Sopocachi, and also on trendy Calle Tarija, just off the end of Linares. In stark contrast to neighbouring Argentina, restaurants begin serving dinner at around 7pm. As a general rule, the more gringo-friendly places will open later and fill up later, although it’s difficult to find a formal sit-down meal anywhere after 11pm.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
With more and more gringo-friendly nightlife springing up around Calles Linares, Tarija and Murillo, as well as the in-house hostel bars, it seems there aren’t nearly so many travellers frequenting the designer haunts of Sopocachi as there once were. La Paz’s club scene isn’t the most cutting edge, moreover, with numbingly generic Latin pop, rock, salsa, cumbia and Eighties music commonplace. You’ll find genuine Latin jazz/salsa, Brazilian, world, reggae, house, hip hop, techno, drum’n’bass and rock music if you look hard enough, however, and a forthcoming city-centre club from the loose grouping of restaurateurs and bar owners known as 4corners (w4cornerslapaz.com) looks promising. For the lowdown on visiting international DJs, Spanish-readers should seek out the free magazine beats, while the free, English-language Bolivian Express (wbolivianexpress.org) usually has at least some coverage of La Paz nightlife in general.
Appreciation of the performing arts in La Paz is limited to a small minority, but there are a few places where you can catch theatre, classical music concerts, ballet and even opera. Film is more popular, and though the emphasis tends to be on Hollywood action blockbusters (almost always in English with Spanish subtitles), La Paz, surprisingly perhaps, has two excellent art house cinemas. You can pick up Jiwaki, a free, pocket-sized monthly guide to public museums, galleries, cinema and theatre, at the artier cafés and bars, or check out the listings on municipal website, wlapaz.bo. The English-language Bolivian Express (wbolivianexpress.org) also has culture listings.
Given that the city can at times feel like one massive marketplace, it should come as no surprise that La Paz is a good place to go shopping. You’ll find a wider range of artesanía (handicrafts) here than anywhere else in Bolivia, with goods from all over the country, which means you don’t have to lug souvenirs back with you from Sucre or Potosí. Most of what’s on sale is good quality, too, and prices aren’t much higher than at the point of manufacture.