Ever wanted to visit the highest capital in the world? While La Paz may not be the constitutional capital of Bolivia, it is the administrative one. And with the city’s altitude ranging between 3,100 to 4,058 meters above sea level, it is definitely up high! However, what I really love about La Paz is not its altitude (in fact this can be more of a challenge). It’s the feeling of the city, the cobbled streets of its old city center, the markets, the surrounding snowy peaks and the colorful culture.
Getting in and around
Most people come to La Paz by flight. In recent years the number of companies flying here has increased dramatically, and so have the prices dropped. A couple of years ago you couldn’t really make it to Bolivia for under $2,000 USD, but now you can find some great deals. Another way to get in is by bus from Peru and of course from other cities around the country. Now, an important thing to keep in mind is that the airport is located in El Alto. This means that it sits at over 4,000 meters above sea level. Many who land here get altitude sickness, so it’s a good idea to take some sorochi (altitude sickness) pills. They also have oxygen available at the airport if you get sick.
Once in La Paz, the best way to get around is via taxi. It’s cheap and relatively fast. You can also dabble in figuring out the different bus and colectivo taxi routes, but it’s a bit of a hassle. Note that not all taxis are safe to take. It’s best to call one than grab them off the street, particularly at night.
Where to stay
- El Centro: if you are only in La Paz for a couple of days, your best place is El Centro or as you may have guest, the city center. It’s the colonial part of the city, where most of the main attractions are located. There are plenty of accommodation options from super cheap hostels, to mid-range place, to higher-end hotels. If you are looking for something on a tight budget, it is best not to book in advance and just poke around once you arrive. But if you want to experience a bit of luxury, there are amazing options for under $100 USD per night. Keep in mind that the area can get a little seedy at night.
- Sopocachi: this is the hip and cool area of La Paz. Bohemian youth, expats, bars and of course coffee shops. Sopocachi is the ideal area to stay in if you are in La Paz for a few days or more. You still get great access to the city center, but the vibe here is a lot more fun and it is safer in the evenings.
- Zona Sur: More of a residential area, Zona Sur is the lowest point of the city, so it’s particularly good for those who tend to experience altitude sickness. It is also safe, clean and neat. There are plenty of higher end hotels here, as many business travelers stay in the area. For me, it’s a little too tranquil though.
What to do
For me, La Paz is all about simply walking around and enjoying the city. Of course, there are also are must-see sights and activities, so here are some ideas.
Visit the Mercado de Las Brujas
Probably one of the most popular attractions in the city is the Mercado de Las Brujas or the Witches’ Market. The name is not entirely a joke. You can get some pretty weird stuff in this place – like blessed llama fetuses for good luck and the like. But there are also plenty of souvenirs, local handicrafts, bustling city life and pretty cobbled streets!
Climb the Roofs at La Paz Cathedral
Not far from the market, you will find the La Paz Cathedral. The building itself is very nice and the interior is worth seeing. But the real draw is the fact that you can climb up to the roof of the cathedral and see the city from above. Remember, it is Bolivia, so there aren’t really safety precautions – so be reasonable with your photo opps!
Travel on the City Cable Cars
With some of the highest and longest cable cars in the world, La Paz offers some stunning routes around the city. They are used by locals as public transportation, so it’s not just a tourist attraction. But you can get one a cable car and make it all the way to El Alto, which sits on a plateau above La Paz at 4,000 meters. The views are absolutely breathtaking, but you may need to get back on the cable car down pretty quickly due to potential altitude sickness.
Head to Valle de la Luna
Only a 15 minute drive from the city, Valle de la Luna or moon valley gets its name from the marvelous rock formations. There is a well-organized walking route among the protruding rocks, which makes you feel as if you really are on the moon, or maybe Mars? You’ll get amazing photos and the first feel for Bolivia’s incredible landscapes.
Visit Attractions around La Paz
Within short drives from La Paz, you will find plenty of exciting attractions as well. For example, the so called “death road” lead down towards the humid tropical area of the country from the La Paz mountains. Many cyclists do this precarious route and it’s actually relatively safe, despite how steep and narrow it is. Another popular nearby place to visit is Tiwanaku – a pre-Columbian archaeological site.
Staying safe and healthy
Bolivia is absolutely amazing, but it can also present a few challenges to its visitors. The main concern for most is altitude. It’s different for everyone, but altitude sickness is frequent for visitors. Make sure you get altitude sickness pills before you come or pick some up upon arrival. You can also drink coca tea or simply chew coca leafs (don’t worry, they having nothing to do with the processed drug and are perfectly safe and legal to consume). Another issue has to do with hygiene. You should try to avoid street food for the first few days as you acclimatize. It’s best to always eat cooked foods when you are out, as vegetables and fresh fruit may not be properly washed. If you do cook at your hostel, make sure to wash all produce with vinegar and water.