48 Hours in… La Paz
A visit to La Paz is breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude. While many other Latin capitals have modernised in recent years, La Paz retains the unique, rustic atmosphere of the High Andes, so arriving here can feel like a bit of a culture shock – in a good way! I love this ramshackle city of steep sloping streets and timeless markets, so I've decided to share my tips to help you to discover La Paz at its very best.
First things first: La Paz, famously the highest capital city in the world, is located a dizzying 3,600 metres above sea level. This means that altitude sickness may be an issue for some visitors – though if you arrive overland from Peru, as most people do, the likelihood is you’ll already be acclimatised so shouldn’t have any problems. If however you have not been at a similarly high altitude in the preceding few weeks, I’d advise factoring in a day or two of rest before you start to explore fully. During this time, try to eat light meals and drink plenty of water, avoiding alcohol. Mate de coca, a hugely popular local tea, can also be an effective remedy.
Begin your first day in the historic centre of the city, around the Plaza Murillo, where you’ll find the cathedral and the Palacio de Gobierno (main government building). Just a few blocks west is the Church of San Francisco: go via the Ethnography Museum if you want to steep yourself in the history and culture that will put your visit into context.
Here in the historic core of the city you’ll find many craft shops, but the most unique shopping experience can be found in the famous ‘Witches’ Market’ on Calle Linares. It’s better if you read a little about Andean culture before you go, because this market sells much more than souvenirs – many of the items are related to Andean cosmology and ancient belief systems. You’ll find amulets for love and fertility, medicinal plants and crystals for use in shamanic practices. Notoriously, there are also preserved llama foetuses and dried frogs, which are intended to be given as offerings for 'Pachamama', or Mother Earth, a central figure in Bolivian mythology.
For lunch (either before or after the market), I recommend the very good vegetarian restaurant on the ground floor of Hotel Gloria. Then you could visit the Coca Museum, a thoroughly Bolivian affair explaining the unique place the coca leaf occupies in Andean society.
For dinner, head to La Comedie, a great nearby restaurant just off Avenida 20 de Octubre. Alternatively, to watch a traditional Andean music and dance show while you eat, try Peña Wari, on Calle Sagárnaga.
Surrounded by enormous mountains, La Paz’s topography is the product of millions of years of erosion by glaciers and rivers that have carved out surrealist landscapes in the multi-coloured hills and valleys beyond the city. Among them is the Valley of the Moon, a stretch of curious rock formations that makes for a fascinating hour or two’s wandering. The Valley of the Moon is about half an hour away from the centre of the city by road and it is quite simple to arrange a visit – head there in the early morning if you can. There’s now more tourist infrastructure than a few years ago and you can grab a quick lunch at the small cafe before heading back into the centre of town. If you’re a golf fan, however, you may want to stick around to tee off in the highest golf course in the world!
If you prefer, a less visited but perhaps even more spectacular area to go walking in is the Palca Canyon, with its enormous vertical rock spires. There is some public transport to and from the canyon, although it’s less regular than the services to the Valley of the Moon.
Back in the city, if it’s a Sunday and you fancy something a bit different you could take a tour up to El Alto to see the ‘Fighting Cholitas’ – certainly amongst the continent’s most distinctive athletes! The cholitas are female lucha libre wrestlers, who wear bowler hats and elaborate skirts – the traditional costume of indigenous Bolivian women – in the ring. These tours depart in the afternoon and last around two hours.
For dinner, I recommend the Sky Room restaurant in the Plaza Hotel; the views of the city at night give the perfect finale to your stay in La Paz.