La Paz is Bolivia’s administrative capital (the official capital is Sucre) and one of the highest cities in the world. I was a little apprehensive about this city after reading the warnings and even more so after hearing stories from other travellers but I was pleasantly surprised. Situated in a valley and rising up to El Alto (the city next to La Paz and where the airport is located), La Paz is definitely a city that has to be seen. We spent a great couple of days there with our friend Clare (who we met at Spanish school in Sucre) and I would have liked to have some more time.
When I was doing my research about La Paz the top activity that kept coming up was a walking tour so this was first on our itinerary. We went with Red Cap Tours which is the original tour company. Their tours used to be free but as the other tour companies complained the cost is now 20 Bolivianos (about $USD3) plus tips. We were not the only people that had the same idea and our tour group ended up being over 20 people – luckily we had two guides. Our tour also had a fairly dramatic start with one of the travellers collapsing and our friend Clare going into full doctor mode. It seems it was a case of food poisoning coupled with the high altitude – we ran into the girl the next day and she was on the mend.
The walking tour starts at San Pedro Plaza (although the official name is Sucre Plaza) which is located in front of the notorious San Pedro Prison. This is the prison where inmates have to pay for their own cells, where whole families live, and where apparently the purest cocaine in the world is produced. The prison was made famous by the book Marching Powder which is about the experience of an English inmate. If you have read the book (as we have) the tour will not give you much new information but it was still interesting to learn that Coca-Cola has exclusive rights to soft drinks in the prison. In the past it was possible to do tours of the prison and this was even listed as one of the top attractions in La Paz in the Lonely Planet. This is no longer the case – you should never try to go inside the prison even if people try to sell you tours.
After reading rave reviews of the walking tour I had very high expectations but we were left a little disappointed. In hindsight I think it was because we had already spent almost a month in Bolivia and most of the information wasn’t new to us. I would still recommend it to those who just arrived in Bolivia. The tour takes you through a local market, El Mercado de las Brujas (the Witches Market), Plaza San Francisco and Murillo Plaza so you get to cover the main sights and get your bearings. The guide books really build up the Witches Market but in reality it is just a few stalls but of course the products they sell and the rituals they have are quite interesting.
For me the highlight of our time in La Paz was the Mi Teleférico ride (a cable car ride). The teleféricos are part of La Paz’s public transport system so apart from being a cool tourist attraction it is what the locals use to get around. The are four teleférico lines – rojo (red), verde (green), azul (blue), and amarillo (yellow). On our walking tour one of the guides mentioned that the yellow line was the best and so we jumped on that one. We caught the teleférico from Sopocachi Station all the way up to the Mirador. The views were incredible and it is amazing how high you go up – if you have a fear of heights this may not be for you. As the last station was called the Mirador we were expecting a view point but after asking a few other tourists and walking around we worked out that there wasn’t a proper view point. Although it was still a great spot to wander around and take in the incredible views. The city is just so vast and with the surrounding mountains it really is unlike any city I have seen before.
We did walk up to an actual view point Mirador Killi Killi which is a short walk from the centre and is worth a visit.
We had a wander around Sopocachi which has a completely different feel to the centre of La Paz. Time permitting I would have liked to explore this neighbourhood a bit more as I read that it is an artsy area full of cool bars and restaurants. We considered staying in this area but being our first time in La Paz opted for a more central location.
Our hostel, Hostal Ananay, was conveniently located less than a 10 minute walk from the Central Bus Station (which was very handy for arrival by bus from Copacabana) down a quiet pretty little cobbled street. It was a short walk from the beautiful Plaza Murillo (where the main government buildings are located) and also walking distance to other main tourist attractions. We found accommodation to be quite pricey in La Paz so opted for a private room but a shared bathroom. The hostel was pretty quiet so the bathrooms were always free when we needed them, although they could have been cleaner. One highlight of the hostel was the lovely roof terrace with views of the city which we always seemed to have to ourselves. There was a little shop across the road with a sweet lady selling cheap cold cervezas – which was perfect for a couple of sundowners.
There are good food options in La Paz, we seemed to have followed the gringo trail (foreigners trail) but were happy with most of our choices. We had delicious pizza at Mozzarella although the service could have been friendlier. For local food we went to Luciernagas – a great little restaurant run by a super lovely Dutch guy (we opted to return there for a second time on Sunday when unfortunately a lot of places were shut). We also found great coffee at The Writer‘s Coffee which was a very nice treat. Again, they were not open on Sunday but recommended their sister place, HB Bronze Coffeebar down the road and we had a fancy late brunch there. Finally, we tried Cafe del Mundo which is popular with travellers but we were disappointed with the food.
Luciernagas was also within five minutes walk from Wild Rover, the party hostel in La Paz. With our friend Declan staying there we couldn’t walk past on a Saturday night and not say hello. It wouldn’t be our sort of place these days but it was fun to have a few drinks there, exchange stories with other travellers and have a few shots straight from the bottle.
On our last night in La Paz we headed to Cholita Wrestling. Cholitas are Aymara women recognised by their layered skirts and small bowler hats. The women used to be discriminated against but under the indigenous president have received recognition.
Cholita Wrestling is now popular with both local and tourists and I read about it on a blog which it piqued my interest. The matches take place on Thursdays and Sundays in El Alto. As it is not recommended for tourists to venture to El Alto on their own we booked a tour through our hostel. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but I didn’t enjoy the experience. Tourists get ‘VIP’ seats which means that they are segregated from the locals. This was something that we really didn’t like so we decided to sit with the locals instead. Further, there was very little Cholita wrestling and most of the skits involved men pretending to hit the Cholitas – we felt that this sent completely the wrong massage. The most enjoyable part was guys pretending to wrestle a zombie and a werewolf. At one point tge werewolf tore through a row of tourists sitting in the front which was quite amusing. All in all it was an interesting experience but not one that I would recommend to others.
We were cautious in La Paz, not taking out many valuables, catching only radio taxis and sticking to the main tourist areas and we felt safe at all times. La Paz may have a bad reputation but it is an incredible city to visit if only for the teleférico ride the amazing views!
Next: we can’t wait for the Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni)!