The huge city is spread out in a cauldron-like depression high up at around 4000m surrounded by altiplano mountains. It’s often mistaken for one of the highest capitals in the world – the government sits in La Paz, but the constitutional capital is Sucre. Looks like Bolivia has a case of split personality.
To be honest, big cities aren’t always our cup of tea. The chaos, the traffic, the noise and safety issues sometimes make us wish we left before the visit even started.
We were unsure how we would cope with the big city life after spending such a wonderful time in sleepy, little Toro Toro. Despite the strong first impression we enjoyed exploring the city and its surroundings and ended up staying longer than planned.
If you’re wondering what to see and do in La Paz we’ll give it to you straight: for the best attractions you’ll have to leave the city!
Teleferico – a tiny bit of home
Cable cars are one of the newer additions to the city’s public transport in a never ending battle against the wild traffic we got to experience every day. We were giddy – riding cable cars without snow and full ski gear for the first time!
It was fun swinging over the houses and watching the city literally erupt in front of our eyes. It seemed to strech endlessly and only the steep slopes of the cauldron could occasionally contain it. Four lines are running at the time of writing, with seven more lines in the planning. A fare costs only 3BOB, a bargain for this fun activity with bird eye views!
El Alto – the city on top of the city
Just a cable car ride away, El Alto is a city of its own starting at the rim of the cauldron. It’s grown bigger than La Paz and offers fantastic views of the city. Check out the crazy market on Thursdays and Sundays going on in front of the cable car station of El Alto. We went browsing through the stalls and there was literally anything and everything one could need. Clothes, car parts, alternative medicine, lamas, you name it. Travelers also raved about cheap jackets and camping gear.
You might want to check out the cemetery on your way up, but we were content seeing it from above.
Keep your eyes peeled for the car wedged into the sandstone wall, just before reaching the end station.
Take the red teleferico (we walked to the station) and get off at the last stop.
A one way ticket costs 3BOB.
El Alto is a place known for crime and except for the market it’s not recommended to venture further out on your own. Even at the market, you need to be careful, we nearly got pickpocketed (catastrophe was averted by a stroke of wild luck).
If you’re an Altiplano newbie, the term cholita is generally used through parts of South America for indigenous women. The proud, feisty ladies dressed in traditional clothing, with braided hair, often wearing hats are the rising stars of the country’s established wrestling scene.
There was some classical good cholita, bad cholita play…ladies throwing themselves off the ropes, all the layers of their dresses exposed as they flew to strike (and kill?) their opponents. No mercy was shown! Braids were pulled, soft drinks sprayed in the face, potato chip bags smashed on heads (courtesy of your fellow tourists). They urged the crowd to clap and yell, went around the railing to give us high fives and tricked a poor gringo or two to give ’em a kiss on the lips.
At first it was fun, exhilarating, it was our first wrestling match after all. Somehow things escalated, at one point there were four cholitas in the ring, two older ones, messing up two novices. Later they went full on mode, with a guy beating up a young cholita fighter. Most of the time it looked like he was winning and it’s not something I like kids seeing in public, or anywhere else for that matter. She did win in the end, as underdogs do, but even though it was for show I found it to be wrong on so many levels – at some point in my opinion that fine line was crossed. We would still recommend experiencing this very odd (and a little violent) form of entertainment. It is indeed fascinating seeing cholitas in this very different role.
Take the red teleferico up to El Alto, walk to your left till you reach a pedestrian bridge and get down to the street underneath. There will be lots of locals getting into collectivos, that’s where you want to go and flag down a cab.
Just tell them Cholita Wrestling or Coliseo 12 de Octubre.
The “fights” take place on Thursdays and Sundays. Do bring warm clothes, the place was freezing.
- teleferico: 3BOB
- taxi: 20BOB (split by four)
- entrance ticket: 50BOB
Heavily overpriced, but includes the bus ride back to town, a softdrink, a snack and a souvenir.
Valle de la Luna
These weird geological formations on the outskirts of the city make for an easygoing day trip. Walk the circuits and try spotting the special peaks. Some feature quite big stones on top (how the hell are those still standing?), while others have cacti growing on them nonchalantly. This one is nice if you’re trying to kill time, but not really a must see in our opinion.
Catch a collectivo to Mallasa from Plaza San Francisco – let them know repeatedly you want to get off at Valle de la Luna. Getting back might take longer, collectivos coming from Mallasa are often full.
- Collectivo: there 2,5BOB | back 3,5BOB+2BOB
On the way back at an unknown square we had to switch to another collectivo to get to our hostel.
- Entrance fee: 15BOB
A short ride from La Paz, lie the ruins of Tiwanaku or Tihuanaco. This pre-Columbian city used to lie on the shores of lake Titicaca. Today the water has retracted several hundred meters and you can’t even see the lake from the ruins. Scientists believe that it has been abandoned due to changes in climate which had a big impact on agriculture.
From Plaza San Francisco catch a collectivo to Cementerio – switch to a Tiwanaku collectivo.
You will get dropped off on the main road, you can either walk to the ruins as we did or get a cab.
- collectivo cemetery: 2BOB each way
- collectivo Tiwanaku: there 10BOB | back 15BOB
- entrance fee: 100BOB
- guide: 120BOB (split amongst 4)
Climbing Huayna Potosí
If you are hungry for adventure and want to feel the rush of standing on top of a 6k mountain this is the right thing for you! The proximity to La Paz and numerous tour agencies make it the most climbed peak of the magnificent Cordillera Real.
The two day ascent is not a stroll in the park though. The first day will take you to high camp on a 3 hour hike. At around 6pm you’ll call it a night and try to get some sleep for the tough ascent. At midnight you start for the summit, first on stone and after half an hour you rope up and put on your crampons to enter the glacier. If all is running smoothly you can reach the top in 6 to 8 hours.
Here’s how it went for Heli:
We had no luck with the weather and started out in a heavy snowstorm. With each step we were sinking into fresh, knee-deep snow. After hours of hiking with a steep slope to be conquered in front of us, we were dog tired, but made it only to 5600m.
It took us too long and with the bad weather we knew it was time to turn back.
Reaching the high camp at first sunlight we all crawled into our sleeping bags and immediately fell asleep – we were that exhausted!
One hour of rest refilled our batteries enough to hike back to base camp.
In a way we were defeated, but my hopes remain high that this wasn’t our last encounter – Huayna Potosi I’ll be back!
- 1000BOB for the two day ascent, including all gear and meals (bring water and snacks).
- 20BOB national park fee
On the days Heli spent up high, there were people protesting on the main street next to San Francisco square cutting off traffic for several hours. First it was the doctors, then the cab/shuttle drivers, then the coca farmers, and then kind of a mix of many professions. I got the feeling they were protesting just for the sake of it, without really hoping for an outcome.
I guess that’s just the reality of La Paz – hey, at least they get to speak their mind!
My personal highlight:
The coca farmers from the highlands protested because the government decided to subsidize the coca farmers in the jungle region. You call that a highlight – well, it’s not a secret that coca from the jungle is of lower quality and is used predominantly in cocaine production : ).
Planning a visit to La Paz, Bolivia?
Hit us up with questions or let us know how you spent your time in this unique city.