Bolivia
August 21, 2019

By: Nick Dall

The many fascinating faces of sky-high La Paz, Bolivia

Secondary Categories: Uyuni

The world’s highest capital city is rapidly finding its modern voice. Join us on a whirlwind tour of its historic plazas, quirky markets, groundbreaking cable-car network, and colorful modernist architecture.

La Paz’s towering mountain backdrop, imposing colonial architecture, and ancient Andean traditions have long made the three-mile-high city a must visit. In recent years, however, the explosion of talented local chefs, artists, and architects has given the city a whole new layer of vibrancy.

The basics

Situated at an altitude of 12,000 feet in a pudding-bowl shaped depression on the Bolivian altiplano, La Paz was founded by the Spanish in 1548. A strategic waypoint on the route between the gold mines of Potosí and the port at Lima, La Paz soon became the largest and most important settlement in Upper Peru – as Bolivia was known in colonial times.

As the city expanded ,the wealthy made their homes in the more temperate climes at the bottom of the pudding bowl (the Zona Sur remains the city’s snazziest hood), and the poor were forced to settle on the highlands above the city center. El Alto – aka The High One, altitude 13,600 feet – has grown into a thriving cultural hub thanks to the emergence of an indigenous middle class in the past few decades.

Since its establishment in 2014, the Mi Teleférico cable car network has revolutionized public transport in both La Paz and El Alto and provided a stellar example of what’s possible for mountainous cities around the globe. No trip to La Paz is complete without taking at least one trip on the Teleférico. Be warned, though, the combination of Swiss engineering, free wi-fi and discombobulating cityscapes can get seriously addictive. To find out more about Mi Teleférico, check out our blog on the topic.

La Paz's cable car offers spectacular views of the city. (Photo: Yang Jing)  

Downtown delights

The Basilica of San Francisco has been the site of a Catholic church since 1549, while the magnificent baroque building you see today was completed in 1758. It’s probably the finest example of colonial architecture in La Paz, and its accompanying plaza has long been an important political space. Even more important politically (if not architecturally) is Plaza Murillo, a smaller and more picturesque square surrounded by handsome colonial buildings that has been the scene of around a dozen coups. These days, however, you’re more likely to be mobbed by pigeons!

The Basilica of San Francisco. (Photo: Anakin)

Another highlight of central La Paz is the Cementerio General, a sprawling cemetery that covers 15 city blocks and features tombs stacked one above the other in square concrete compartments several stories high. Overcrowding is such an issue that slots can only be used for 10 years. The Coca Museum – which looks at the noble history and troubled present of a plant which is locally sacred but internationally illegal – is also a must-see.

To market, to market

Market lovers will feel like they’ve hit the jackpot in La Paz. Mercado Rodriguez, the city’s largest food market, is packed with stalls selling fruit (including plenty of weird Amazonian fruits you’ve never heard of), vegetables (the variety of potatoes on offer is mind boggling), meat, and fish. Like all Bolivian food markets, it also contains loads of small eateries specializing in hearty soups, stews, and salteñas – Bolivia’s juicier, tangier take on the empanada.

A typical market scene in La Paz. (Photo: Lesly Derksen)

The Witches’ Market – where you can shop for everyday essentials such as frogs, owl feathers, armadillos, and dried llama fetuses – is very much on the tourist radar but it is also a popular shopping destination among locals who are still very much tied to their ancient Andean traditions. Equally fascinating and far less touristy is the ramshackle Mercado Negro (Black Market) where vendors specialize in knock-off electronics ranging from toasters to travel adaptors.

While it is definitely possible to do your souvenir shopping in La Paz’s many markets, there is a pretty good chance of picking up substandard products (especially if you’re into textiles and alpaca knitwear). Instead, we recommend shopping in one of the city’s many fair-trade handicraft shops. Artesania Sorata and Ayni Bolivia are two of the best.

Emergent El Alto

Twenty years ago, the only time visitors to La Paz spent in El Alto was during their trips to and from the airport. What was once seen as an insalubrious shanty town has become a thriving cultural hub. Embark on a once-in-a-lifetime experience as you ride the Teleférico up to El Alto, before ‘trekking’ back down to downtown La Paz with one of our expert local guides.

The view before landing at El Alto International Airport with Mount Illimani (21,194 feet) in the background. (Photo: Murray Foubister)

El Alto has developed an architectural style all of its own. Inspired by Freddy Mamani, aka ‘The King of Andean Architecture,’ so-called cholets (a mashup of chalet and cholo, a somewhat derogatory term for indigenous Bolivians) are providing splashes of color to the once drab expanse of brick and concrete. Mamani’s unique style (mimicked by many imitators) features what National Geographic describes as “towering edifices of darkened glass, gleaming chrome, and lurid acrylic paneling.” While the cholets’ garish facades are impossible to miss, we can also arrange tours of their interiors.

An example of cholet architecture seen in El Alto. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Museo de Arte Antonio Paredes Candia, housed in a yellow edifice that bears a passing resemblance to an air traffic control tower, is another El Alto highlight. Featuring more than 500 works by contemporary Bolivian artists, it offers a fascinating window on the many changes afoot in Bolivia. If you’re in El Alto on a Thursday, the vast open-air market selling everything from used auto parts to medical equipment and secondhand clothing is also worth checking out. But the views of La Paz below and the Andes in the background are on offer seven days a week.

A nascent fine-dining scene

We went into loads of detail on La Paz’s incredible new fine-dining scene in a recent blog. Instead of repeating ourselves here, we recommend you check out How Latin America became a culinary force to be reckoned with to find out how the city has transformed from a gastronomic backwater into a foodie heaven. As for actually trying the food, we can’t get enough of the following spots:

  • Gustu, a foreign-owned, locally run spot that started the revolution; not to be missed
  • Ali Pacha specializes in high-end and extremely creative vegan tasting menus
  • Popular serves up beautiful, modern takes on traditional Bolivian fare
  • Sabor Clandestino, a clandestine pop-up restaurant that hijacks venues around the city two or three times a month.
"Queso Humacha", one of the many fantastic creations at Gustu restaurant. 

La Paz is such a diverse and surprising capital that simply has to be seen to be believed. For logistical reasons all our Bolivia itineraries include at least a night in La Paz, but we’d recommend staying longer if you possibly can. Speak to a Destination Expert about crafting the bespoke Bolivia trip of your dreams.

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