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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
In its southern reaches, a kilometre or so south of Plaza San Francisco, the busy, tree-lined Prado becomes Avenida 16 de Julio and passes between the suburb of San Pedro to the east and the more modern neighbourhood of Miraflores further to the west, before coming to an abrupt end at Plaza del Estudiante. Directly south of here lies the middle-class suburb of Sopocachi, the city’s most pleasant residential area and home to many of its higher end restaurants and nightlife spots – the centre is around the parallel avenues 6 de Agosto and 20 de Octubre.
On the southeast side of Plaza Sucre rises the formidable bulk of San Pedro Prison (Cárcel de San Pedro), for years one of Bolivia’s most infamous tourist “attractions”. Critically overcrowded, structurally precarious, rife with tuberculosis and increasingly a scene of desperate protest, it nevertheless exerts a morbid fascination for the stream of foreigners who continue to find their way in despite it being officially illegal to do so, despite the obvious personal danger (no one will help you if trouble arises) and despite the negative effects it can have on the prisoners and their families when authorities periodically decide to clamp down.
Those whose curiosity gets the better of them will find what seems to so endlessly fascinate Europeans: a self-governed microcosm of Bolivian society, with shops, restaurants and billiard halls; prisoners with money can live quite well here. Comfortable cells in the nicer areas change hands for thousands of dollars, and many inmates have cell phones and satellite televisions. Like the city on the other side of the walls, the prison is divided into rich and poor neighbourhoods, with the most luxurious area reserved for big-time drug traffickers, white-collar criminals and corrupt politicians: the most high-profile resident in recent years has been the ex-Prefect of Pando, Leopoldo Fernàndez.
Those without any income, however, sleep in the corridors and struggle to survive on the meagre official rations. Family visitors come and go regularly, and some children live inside with their fathers; when the riots erupt, it’s the families who are often caught in the midst of it. If you’re intent on a tour against all advice, it’s worth thinking long and hard about the consequences it may have for both yourself and these families, even as you may feel your entry fee is financially assisting them. With the presence of guards minimal and cocaine widely available, moreover, some gringos are foolhardy enough to try taking some out with them; you can be assured that this is the best way to make your stay considerably longer than you intended.
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.
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.
For those whose stomachs have adjusted to basic local food, the cheapest places to eat are the city’s markets, where you can get entire meals for less than Bs7, as well as hearty soups, snacks and large quantities of roast meat (though it’s probably best to body-swerve the pork entirely). Try Mercado Lanza, just up from Plaza San Francisco, or Mercado Camacho, at the end of Avenida Camacho. Street food is another good low-cost option: the ubiquitous salteñas and tucumanes – delicious pastries filled with meat or chicken with vegetables – make excellent mid-morning snacks, especially if washed down by the freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice which is sold from wheeled stalls all over the city.
At the opposite extreme in every sense from the Zona Sur is El Alto, the huge urban sprawl that has grown up over the last few decades around the airport, on the rim of the Altiplano overlooking La Paz. At over 4000m above sea level and some 5km from the city centre, El Alto enjoys beautiful views along the length of the snow-capped Cordillera Real, and the views of La Paz from the rim of the Altiplano are spectacular, even if they contrast sharply with the physical ugliness of the city itself. Populated largely by Aymara migrants from the surrounding Altiplano, when it was officially recognized as a separate municipality from La Paz in 1986, El Alto instantly became the fourth biggest, poorest and fastest growing city in Bolivia. With a bigger population than La Paz, and rapidly approaching one million (sixty percent of whom are under 25 years old), the place resembles a vast, impoverished yet dynamic suburb, its endless stretches of tin-roofed adobe shacks and often half-finished red-brick buildings broken only by the strangely minaret-like spires of churches and an increasing number of shops and businesses, industrial warehouses and endless lines of scruffy garages. Much of the population has no access to running water or electricity, employment is scarce and freezing night-time temperatures make it a desperately harsh place to live. Alteños nevertheless take pride in their urban-rural identity, their collective struggle against adversity and the challenges of urban life in what they refer to as the biggest indigenous city in the Americas, and denigrate La Paz, where many of them work, as la hoyada – “the hole”.
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.
At the north end of the Prado, Plaza San Francisco is the gateway to the main Aymara neighbourhoods of La Paz, which climb up the slopes of the valley to the west. Founded in the colonial era as the parroquias de Indios – the Indian parishes – these neighbourhoods were where the Aymara population from the surrounding countryside was encouraged to settle, living around churches built as part of the effort to convert them to Christianity; less idealistically, this separate indigenous quarter was also designed as a pool of cheap labour, neatly separated from the Spanish city by the Río Choqueyapu. Today the area retains a very strong Aymara identity and its narrow, winding and at times almost vertical streets are filled with the bustling markets that make it one of the most vibrant and distinctive parts of the city: nowhere more so than in the Mercado de Hechicería – without doubt one of the most extraordinary sights in La Paz.
To the south of Plaza San Francisco lies Calle Sagárnaga, La Paz’s main tourist street (along with Linares, which bisects it), which is more crowded than it’s ever been with hotels, tour agencies, restaurants, handicraft shops and stalls, with more seemingly opening every week. Often referred to as “Gringo Alley”, the street has in fact always catered to travellers: in the colonial era, this was where wayfarers en route between Potosí and the Peruvian coast would be put up, and several of the buildings now occupied by hotels were actually built for that purpose in the eighteenth century.
One of Bolivia’s most unusual fiestas is the Feria de Alasitas, held in La Paz in the last week of January, when large areas of the city are taken over by market stalls selling all manner of miniature items. At the centre of the festivities is a diminutive figure of a mustachioed man with rosy cheeks and a broad smile, dressed in a tiny suit and hat and laden with foodstuffs and material possessions. This is the Ekeko, the household god of abundance. A common sight in Paceño homes, the Ekeko is a demanding god who must be kept happy with regular supplies of alcohol, cigarettes and miniature gifts. In return, he watches over the household, ensuring happiness and prosperity and returning in kind any gift he receives. At the fair each year, people buy objects they desire in miniature to give to the Ekeko, thereby ensuring that the real thing will be theirs before the year is out. Originally, gifts to the Ekeko would have been farm animals and foodstuffs, but in the modern urban context of La Paz, miniature cars, houses, electrical goods, wads of dollar bills and even airline tickets and university degrees are preferred to more traditional items.
Mercado de Hechicería
, or Witches’ Market, provides a fascinating window on the usually secretive world of
. The stalls here are heavily laden with a colourful cornucopia of ritual and medicinal items, ranging from herbal cures for minor ailments like rheumatism or stomach pain, to incense, coloured sweets, protective talismans and dried llama foetuses. These items are combined in packages known as
and burned or buried as offerings to placate the various tutelary spirits and magical beings that are believed to hold sway over all aspects of daily life. There’s no clear border between the medicinal and magical here: the
indigenous traditional healers
– who are the market’s main customers adopt a holistic approach in which a herbal cure for a specific symptom is usually combined with magical efforts to address the imbalances in the supernatural world that may be responsible for the ailment.
To get some insight into the uses and meaning of it all, it’s worth chatting with the stallholders and perhaps making a purchase or two. Spending a few bolivianos on, say, a magic charm to protect you during your travels will certainly make the stallholders more talkative and amenable to having their photos taken, and could even prove to be a wise investment.
Though the frenetic traffic running alongside detracts from its charm, the Plaza San Francisco (being completely redeveloped at the time of writing) is the focal point for the city’s Aymara population and one of the liveliest plazas in La Paz, busy with people enjoying snacks and juices or crowding around the many comedians, storytellers, magicians and sellers of miracle cures who come here to ply their trade. It’s also the usual focus of the city’s frequent political protests, and if you’re in La Paz for more than a few days you’re likely to witness a march by striking teachers, unemployed miners, indebted small traders or whichever social or political group has taken to the streets that week. Such protests are usually colourful pieces of political theatre, but they can sometimes provoke heavy-handed responses from the authorities, and clashes between police and demonstrators involving the fairly unrestrained use of tear gas are not uncommon.
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.
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.
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.
The well-ordered streets of the colonial city centre still preserve the neat grid pattern laid out by the city founders in accordance with Spanish laws governing the foundation of settlements in the Indies. At its centre stands the Plaza Murillo, home to both the Palacio Presidential and the parliament building, the Palacio Legislativo. A fair number of colonial buildings still survive, though most are in a poor state of repair, their crumbling facades and dilapidated balconies obscured by tangled phone lines and electricity cables. The exceptions to this are concentrated on and around the Plaza Murillo and nearby calle Jaén, both of which are also home to several museums.
One of the most striking images in La Paz is that of the ubiquitous cholas paceñas, the Aymara and mestiza women dressed in voluminous skirts and bowler hats, who dominate much of the day-to-day business in the city’s endless markets. The word chola (cholo for men) was originally a derogatory term used to refer to indigenous women who moved to the city and adopted the lifestyle of urban mestizos, but now refers more to women who were born in La Paz (paceñas) and are proud of their urban indigenous identity.
The distinctive dress of the chola is derived from seventeenth-century Spanish costumes, which indigenous women were obliged to copy under colonial rule. The crucial element of the outfit is the pollera, a layered skirt made from lengths of material up to 5m long, which are wrapped around the waist and reinforced with numerous petticoats to emphasize the width of the wearer’s hips. These skirts can make women appear almost as wide as they are tall, and represent a glorious celebration of a very distinct ideal of female beauty. The pollera is worn in combination with knee-high boots, an elaborate lacy blouse, a shawl wrapped around the shoulders and a felt bowler or derby hat. The bowler hats became common attire in the 1930s, though the origins of this fashion are somewhat mysterious. Some say the style was adopted from the hats worn by gringo mining and railway engineers, others that the trend was started by a businessman who erroneously imported a job lot of bowler hats from Europe and struck on the idea of marketing them as women’s headgear.
The chola costume was originally confined to the wealthier mestiza women of La Paz, but has since become widespread amongst Aymara migrants in the city and across the Altiplano. The acceptability of the chola as one of the central icons of La Paz and an expression of pride in indigenous culture was confirmed in 1989, when Remedios Loza became the first woman to take a seat in the Bolivian Congress dressed in full chola regalia. In the decades since, not least since Evo Morales came to power in 2005, the colourfully attired chola has become almost as familiar a political fixture as the traditional drab-suited gent.
The defining cultural and social event of the year in La Paz is undoubtedly La Fiesta del Gran Poder, a dramatic religious fiesta held during late May or early June in homage to a miraculous image of Christ known as Nuestro Señor del Gran Poder (Our Lord of Great Power). The origins of the Gran Poder are surprisingly recent. It started little over half a century ago as a local celebration amongst Aymara migrants living and working in the market district around Avenida Buenos Aires, but since the beginning of the 1980s it has grown into an enormous festival that has taken over the centre of the city and is enjoyed by Paceños of all different classes. In part, this expansion has followed the growing wealth and influence of the Aymara merchants, but it also reflects a growing acceptance of Aymara culture and folklore amongst the city’s white and mestizo residents.
Tens of thousands of costumed dancers belonging to over a hundred different folkloric fraternities take part in the entrada – the procession that marks the start of the fiesta – parading through the centre of La Paz to the cacophonous accompaniment of massed brass bands. The various dances performed during the entrada represent different themes from Aymara folklore and Catholic traditions from all over the department of La Paz and further afield. The sight of grown adults dressed in outrageous costumes drinking and dancing their way through the city may seem an odd form of religious devotion, but the participants and spectators see no contradiction in combining the sincere expression of religious belief with a riotous party – indeed the act of dancing nonstop for several hours at high altitude in a heavy costume can be seen as an exhausting form of devotional sacrifice, while the Señor del Gran Poder would doubtless be disappointed if the celebration of his fiesta were not accompanied by sufficient revelry.
From Plaza del Estudiante at the southern end of the Prado, Avenida Villazon heads southeast through Sopochachi, turning into Avenida Arce and then winding down into the Zona Sur, a fifteen-minute taxi ride away, where the suburbs of Calacoto, San Miguel and Cota Cota are home to a growing number of La Paz’s wealthier residents, including politicians, senior military officers and most of the foreign business and diplomatic community. Almost 500m lower in altitude, the Zona Sur has a noticeably warmer climate, with luxury boutiques and villas ringed by harsh badlands. If you’re passing through on the way to the Muela del Diablo or the Valle de la Luna, it’s worth stopping for a drink in one of the many cafés just to get an impression of how the city’s elite live.