Just like the whole country, Bolivia’s de facto capital La Paz gives its visitors mixed feelings. On one hand, the moment you set your foot here, the polluted streets and decrepit buildings remind you that you are in a third-world state. On the other, the strong influence of traditional Andean culture on the metropolis and its inhabitants creates a mystical ambiance that immediately enchants you. The picturesque location in the highlands of the Altiplano and breathtaking views also add to the city's unique character.
While many travelers come to La Paz as a convenient transit point between numerous historical sites in Bolivia and Peru, the distinct ethnic touch, rich colonial past, striking natural scenery, and vibrant nightlife make it worthy of a much longer visit. That is why I have written a little guide to help you explore Bolivia’s principal city.
Geography of La Paz
It is the vertiginous altitude that makes La Paz stand out among all other metropolises on our planet. At an average elevation of 3640 m, this is the highest capital in the world. La Paz's satellite city El Alto stretches out even higher to 4150 m above sea level. Together, the two urban centers form the highest metropolitan area in the world.
La Paz's old town lies in a bowl-shaped canyon created by the Choqueyapu River, whereas its more recent suburbs sprawl along the slopes of the surrounding Andes Mountains. Thanks to this unusual layout, visitors can enjoy spectacular panoramas from many viewpoints atop of the hills.
History of La Paz
La Paz was founded as a connecting point on the trading route between Potosi silver mines and Lima in 1548. The city’s full official name is Nuestra Señora de La Paz, translated into English as Our Lady of Peace. It commemorates the end of the civil wars in the Viceroyalty of Peru following the Spanish conquest.
Incidentally, La Paz, together with another influential colonial city La Plata, was the birthplace of the liberation movement in South America from Spain. It is here that the first uprising against the Spanish took place in 1809.
When Bolivia finally became an independent state in 1825, La Plata, renamed as Sucre after the revolutionary leader Antonio José de Sucre, became its constitutional capital. However, in the late 19th century, the political and economic power in the country gradually shifted to La Paz. And, while Sucre still remains the nominal capital, La Paz was made the de facto seat of the national government of Bolivia in 1898.
Today, La Paz is the political, administrative, and manufacturing center of Bolivia, accounting for a quarter of the country’s economy. It also hosts foreign embassies and international missions. Only the Supreme Court of Justice is still located in Sucre.
La Paz Tourist Attractions
While the industry-oriented La Paz cannot hold a candle to Bolivia’s historical capital Sucre in terms of the preserved architectural heritage, you can still find a lot of colonial buildings in the center of the city.
Yet, when you wander around Casco Viejo, La Paz’s old town, you see so many wonderful old houses neglected or falling apart! I could not help imagining what a beautiful place it could be, had enough effort been given to save and restore all the remaining colonial legacy in the city.
However, you can still see some of the best-preserved and most beautiful buildings concentrated around La Paz’s two important landmarks: Plaza Murillo and Plaza San Francisco.
Plaza Murillo is not only La Paz’s main square but also Bolivia’s key political site. It is home to the Presidential Palace, the House of Congress, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Municipal Government of La Paz.
Called Plaza de Mayor during the colonial times, the square was renamed to honor one of the first leaders of the liberation movement in Bolivia Pedro Domingo Murillo. He was hanged by the Spanish here in 1810. Today, you can see his tall statue right in the middle of the plaza.
Throughout history, this place has been the scene of many political upheavals in the country and witnessed a lot of dramatic events.
All buildings in Plaza Murillo have been carefully restored.
The Presidential Palace, located in a modest two-story classical building, is the official residence of the President of Bolivia. It is also called Palacio Quemado, or Burnt Palace, as it was ravaged by fire and rebuilt several times.
The church adjacent to the Presidential Palace is the Metropolitan Cathedral, built on a steep hill in 1835. Its main entrance is 12 m higher than its back wall in Calle Potosi.
The House of Congress sits in a beautiful mustard-colored neoclassical building on the left of the Presidential Palace. At the moment, an ugly modern structure is under construction right behind it. This, sadly, reflects the general trend in the development of the city. Old colonial houses, which are expensive to restore, are being demolished and replaced with new high-rise buildings that look completely incongruous and out of place.
On the corner of Calle Socabaya to the right of the Cathedral, there is the National Museum of Art (Museo National de Arte - MNA). It is located in a pretty red-colored colonial building, which, luckily, has been restored to its original grandeur. The house was built for a prominant aristocrat Francisco Tadeo Diez de Medina in 1775. It is a good example of local Mestizo baroque styles and has a beautiful courtyard, typical of most colonial houses. The museum is dedicated to the national art from different epochs: from colonial times to modern period. In a building next door, there is also a new space that hosts temporary exhibitions of contemporary Bolivian art.
Plaza San Francisco & Basilica de San Francisco
San Francisco is the second major plaza in La Paz. As the largest open space right in the heart of the city, it is used for important public events and demonstrations.
The plaza also houses La Paz’s most iconic religious building, the San Francisco Church, also known as Basilica de San Francisco. The original church was constructed in 1548 but collapsed under heavy snowfall in 1610. It was rebuilt between 1743 and 1772.
The basilica represents a fascinating mixture of Spanish baroque and local mestizo style influenced by native art. The ornate carvings of the facade incorporate traditional symbols from the indigenous culture: snakes, dragons, tropical birds, local fruit, and character masks.
You can enter inside the church free of charge to explore the neoclassical interior and small cedar chapels, decorated with gold leaf. For an extra fee, you can also ascend to the top of the bell tower to enjoy a great city view.
In the upper section of Plaza San Francisco, you can see a contemporary statue of rock pillars and stone faces representing three important cultures in the history of Bolivia: Tiwanaku, Inca, and Aymara.
The colorful Calle Jaén is, probably, the cutest street in La Paz with some of the best-preserved colonial houses. It is often described as having a "bohemian feel" as its numerous bars and restaurants are popular with the local artists and writers.
The street also features several museums: Museo Costumbrista Juan de Vargas, Museo de Metales Preciosos, Museo del Litoral, Museo de Instrumentos Musicales, and Casa de Murillo (House of Pedro Domingo Murillo).
The Witches Market
Mercado de las Brujas, or the Witches Market, usually tops the lists of things to see in La Paz. It is the city’s most unorthodox and even somewhat freakish attraction, located in Calle Jiménez and Calle Linares behind San Francisco’s Basilica.
This place is not just an ordinary market to purchase local souvenirs and handcrafted items for your friends and family, although you can do this here too. It is also the place for Aymara people to buy and sell various objects and ingredients for practicing traditional medicine and witchcraft.
So do not be surprised if, while wandering around various stalls in search of standard gifts, you suddenly come across a few stores with more unconventional merchandise on display. There, you will find all sort of odd things: medical herbs and plants to treat different diseases, amulets and lucky charms, magic potions, aphrodisiac formulas, black candles penises, owl feathers, naked figurines, and some even more creepy stuff like dead snakes, dried turtles, dissected frogs, and llama fetuses.
In the market, you may also notice traditional Andean healers, called yatiri. They use all of the above stuff in various rituals and offer their services to both tourists and locals.
Also, remember that being too nosy or taking photos inside the stores without permission is viewed very negatively here and can make local vendors aggressive.
Another unusual, yet, quite symbolic attraction in La Paz is Museo de la Coca. It is very small but rather informative, given the plant’s importance in the native Andean culture.
Mi Teleferico and El Alto
Riding the cable car system, called Mi Teleferico, to the heights of El Alto, La Paz's satellite city, is a must for every tourist!
First of all, it is the most advanced and largest cable car system in the world. You see, in the city founded on the steep mountain slopes, where you constantly have to go up or downhill, it is impossible to build a proper underground network, and getting from one end of the city to the other can be a real pain. So the local multi-line cable car is a fantastic alternative to the metro system above the ground. Besides, it also helps to limit pollution in La Paz as the whole system runs on electricity partially provided by solar panels.
Mi Teleferico opened in 2014 and reduced the standard commuting time between upper and lower towns from 1 hour to 10 minutes. There are currently 10 lines, and more are coming soon.
In addition to being fast and cheap means of transport, the cable car is also a spectacular way to get a bird’s-eye view of La Paz and visit El Alto, the world's highest city.
El Alto used to be a suburb of La Paz but, due to rapid growth, became a self-governing entity in 1987. Although relatively new and not as rich in architectural landmarks as La Paz, El Alto has a special folkloric touch. If you want to see the traditional way the Aymara people live in the cities today, it is the right place to go.
There are also a few great viewpoints to capture a breathtaking panorama of La Paz from above.
Valle de la Luna
Yes, La Paz has its own Moon Valley, or Valle de La Luna, located just 10 km from the old town. This is one more point to add to your list of must-see places in the city.
The Moon Valley actually looks more like a canyon filled with clusters of spire-like rock formations. It also reminds me of some sort of a stone forest. For millions of years, heavy rain and strong winds have eroded the rocks, composed mainly of clay and sandstone, to create this otherworldly landscape. Legend has it that the astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first person to liken this scenery to the lunar surface after his landing on the moon. From there on, the place has been called the Moon Valley.
Valle de la Luna can be easily reached from the center of La Paz by bus or taxi in 40 minutes. You can take a collectivo (a small shuttle bus) going to Mallasa at the bus stop located right in front of the San Francisco church.
Once you enter inside the canyon, there are two circular routes that you can walk: the longer and the shorter one. The longest track will take you to the most spectacular Devil’s Point in about 45 minutes. The shorter one can be completed in just 15 minutes. The routes are clearly marked and easy to follow. There are several stunning viewpoints on the way where you can stop to take fantastic photos.
The second sight, similar in landscape to Valle de la Luna, is called Valle de Las Animas (Valley of the Souls). It is located a bit farther, about 25 km to the east of La Paz. The spiked tops of the cliffs reminded ancient people of petrified souls, and that’s where the name comes from.
Places to Visit Around La Paz
The list of attractions I have given you is enough to fill at least three full days in La Paz.
However, you can easily stay here longer and explore many other great sites in the La Paz region.
If you are interested in the history of ancient civilizations that inhabited Bolivia long before the arrival of the Spanish, you should definitely go on a day trip to the amazing Tiwanaku archeological site. It is located within1,5-2 hour ride from La Paz.
If you need a good dose of adrenalin, go cycling on the Yungas Road, also known as the Death Road. This narrow winding section of the unpaved route from la Paz to the Amazonian rainforest runs along a steep mountain edge and stretches for 69 km. It is justly called the world’s most dangerous road for its notoriously high death rate. It has also become an adventure tour, popular with experienced mountain bikers.
If you are a fan of mountain climbing or hiking, the La Paz region presents plenty of opportunities to conquer some of the highest mountain peaks in Bolivia. In the vicinity of La Paz, you can climb three of them: Huayna Potosi, Illimani, and Illampu.
If you are into winter sports, you can go skiing or snowboarding on the slopes of Chacaltaya Mountain, which is the highest skiing area in the world.
La Paz satellite city El Alto is also the best place to watch Cholitas Wrestling, a peculiar sporting event, unique to Bolivia. It features tough Aymara women in traditional dresses battle each other in a theatrical and hilarious way. This entertainment is quite popular with both tourists and local people.
In February or beginning of March each year, you can also visit one of the most original and fascinating carnival in the world known as Carnaval de Oruro.
High-Altitude Issues in La Paz
If you arrive in La Paz from a lowland city, you should bear in mind that you need time to adjust to the altitude. Remember, the city is located high in the mountains where the air is more rarified, and your body has to acclimatize to the lower amounts of oxygen. If you do not follow the basic rules below, you may experience the symptoms of altitude sickness. These may include headache, dehydration, dizziness, nausea, and upset stomach. Feeling sick can spoil your impressions of the city. So to avoid health problems, try to do the following:
- Take it slow on the first day. Do not overstrain yourself with too much physical activity. Avoid running, jumping, or walking fast. Instead, try to spend the first day relaxing at your hotel or do some passive sightseeing.
- Drink a lot of water to prevent dehydration. Sipping hot coca tea or chewing coca leaves that you can buy almost at any store also helps alleviate the altitude sickness symptoms.
- Avoid eating heavy food like fatty meat or drinking alcohol during the first few days of your stay in La Paz.
- Just in case keep at hand some aspirin or similar headache medication should you feel sick. At the local store, you can also buy soroche pills that help overcome altitude sickness.
- If you do feel sick, try to lie down and rest. It might help you feel better.
Landscape in Valle de la Luna, La Paz, Bolivia