La Paz: The Highest Capital City in the World
La Paz in Bolivia is the highest capital city in the world, so the visit will literally take your breath away. Although La Paz doesn't have a reputation for being a must-visit place, we think it is worth exploring the city for at least a day or two. Read our traveler's guide on the best things to see and do in La Paz, tips on how to deal with the altitude, where to stay, how to get, what to pack and how to stay safe.
The air in La Paz is so thin that your lungs won't at first have a clue what is going on.
That's why it is necessary to take the sightseeing in La Paz slowly, so unless you had already acclimatized on your travels, it is better to allocate two or three days for the city, first in order not to get sick, and second to have a chance to fully take in the intensity of La Paz. Because there is a lot to take in.
First, the altitude is really dizzying, at 3640 meters above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital in the world, although Quito in Ecuador might want to fight for this title, as the official capital city of Bolivia is Sucre, but La Paz is the seat of government and financial center of the country, therefore it is often called altogether with Sucre the capital city of Bolivia.
Second, travelers often find hard to understand La Paz as the city attacks all of your senses at once, and most of the visitors feel like it is better to escape as soon as possible.
Smells, honking cars, pollutions, street vendors, beggars, all of that creates chaos and bizarre situations, and it seems that you can either love or hate the city, nothing in between.
We can only suggest to take your time, don't let the bustle of the city take you down, explore La Paz at your own pace, and although the city itself lacks the must-visit tourist attractions, it still has many worthwhile things to see and do within and outwith the city limits, that it would be a shame not to give La Paz a chance.
It seems that in our relationship with La Paz, we found ours in between.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN LA PAZ
No, La Paz is not the classical destination where you write down all must visit places and then walk around the city and tick them off the list one by one.
The city has several notable attractions for sure, but we suggest you to walk around La Paz with your eyes wide open.
We are pretty sure it won't be an architecture you'll be remembering once you arrive home. Instead, it will be an old lady carrying a heavy basket on top of her head or a little boy mastering his selling skills.
As La Paz is Bolivia's transportation hub, when traveling to other destinations in the country, you'll most likely find yourself in La Paz more than only once.
Here's a list of the best things to see and do in La Paz and its surroundings. Try to make the most out of your visit(s)!
Same as in Medellin or Manizales in Colombia, the sprawling city of La Paz has its pride, the cable car, which makes the life for locals much more comfortable - because in the first place Mi Teleferico is not a tourist attraction, but it is a service for local people, especially those living in poor outskirts of the city who are now able thanks to the cable car travel to the center located in the valley much efficiently.
For us, travelers, the cable car provides the opportunity to see La Paz from the bird's eye view and admire the beautiful landscape where the city is set.
Higher you travel, you can notice from above that houses are shabbier - the goal of having cable car public transport is to connect people living on the outskirts with the rest of La Paz, so they won't feel cut off anymore.
Sure, one cable car won't fix the issue, but it is a promising step for the future.
One ride by the cable car costs Bs 3, and although it was not primarily designed to link tourist attractions, you can take a ride when visiting the La Paz cemetery, or if you want to get great views of La Paz from El Alto suburb.
El Alto is not a suburb where you should alone wander at night, but it is a place where you can see one of the most bizarre shows in your life.
The famous show is called Cholita Wrestling, and it is exactly how it sounds. Cholita, alias a Bolivian woman dressed up in the traditional clothes jumps and fights against other Cholita in the ring. This show is popular not only among locals but especially among tourists who come here twice a week in the evening to watch the match. If you are looking for a real fight, you might be disappointed though, because the whole thing is more like a theatre play, nevertheless well played, and people are having fun.
Although you can for sure get to El Alto and buy tickets on own, because of the safety reasons, you should reconsider whether it is not better to take a tour (every agency or a hostel usually organize a trip to El Alto) from La Paz.
As we mentioned before, La Paz is not the most beautiful capital in the world, but to get the most out of your visit, we think it is worth it to take the incredibly cheap walking tour around the city with local guides who will explain traditions and history of Bolivia and La Paz, and provide you with interesting cultural insights you might not learn anywhere else.
During approximately three hours, you'll see the best of what the city has to offer, plus you will learn a lot about this developing country.
We recommend this tour to anyone, but especially to those with a little time for La Paz.
El Mercado de las Brujas, more commonly known as Witches Market, is an unusual market, to say the least.
You won't find here an avocado or cucumber, but if you are looking for dried frogs or llama fetuses, this is the right place to go in La Paz. Witches Market around Melchor Jimenez street is an odd place to wander, but it is necessary to understand that belief of indigenous people is firmly connected with Pacha Mama alias Mother Earth, and magic, spells, and herbal medicine is still an important part of their every day lives.
We think that it is necessary to know before walking around the market, that the place is not here only to shock tourists and sell them stuff they don't need, but it is a market where locals in good faith come for herbs, dried animals or weird artifacts which they will use back at home to protect their houses or to heal.
DAY TRIPS FROM LA PAZ
If you have exhausted all of your options on what to do in La Paz, you can take several popular one-day trips to attractions located outwith the city limits.
We will outline here the best one day-trips you can do from La Paz.
Tiwanaku Ruis | These ruins are not that impressive as those you can see in Peru, but it is quite interesting to see remnants of the architecture of the pre-Incan civilization which stretched from here to Lake Titicaca, but also more south to the borders with Chile. Tiwanaku site is 72 kilometers from La Paz, and you can take either public bus or a guided tour.
Valle de la Luna | An unusual landscape only several miles outside La Paz reminded its visitor's moon's surface, that's why the appropriate name. Via boardwalks, you can explore the valley full of eroded sandstone which during centuries created pointy spires and other fascinating rock formations.
Lake Titicaca | In the whole Bolivia, you probably won't find more important natural site than Lake Titicaca. In Andean belief, Lake Titicaca is the birthplace of the Sun and one of many theories about the famous Inca Empire says, that Inca's came from Bolivia and Lake Titicaca to be precise. As the lake is also the biggest water surface in Bolivia, it has another significant meaning for this nation - it substitutes a sea Bolivia lost to Chile in the war in the 19th century. In case you are not traveling from Peru to Bolivia where you could naturally stop by the lake on the way to La Paz, you can take a one-day tour from La Paz to the lake and get back the same day.
Death Road | The must-do activity for every backpacker in Bolivia is cycling down Death Road, one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Shop around La Paz to find the best rates.
El Alto is one of the poorest neighborhoods in La Paz, so if you decide to explore this part of the city, keep an eye on your valuables, especially when visiting a flea market on 16 de Julio street which is a haven for pickpockets.
El Alto is more than 4000 meters above sea level, and to get here you can take a cable car, and enjoy perfect views of the whole valley.
LA PAZ CEMETERY
Same as Buenos Aires has its famous Recoleta Cemetery, La Paz has the biggest cemetery in the country known under name Cementerio General. Although it might seem a bit morbid to include cemetery into your La Paz itinerary, it was one of the best activities we've done in the city.
You can see colonial streets and churches all over the world, but South American cemeteries are fascinating, especially this one in La Paz.
When we walked in, it felt like we entered a completely different world.
We could see here a large number of crypts and high walls reachable only via a ladder with hundreds of small doors with urns. What we found interesting was that relatives bring to the deceased things they liked during their lives, so you can find here not only flowers and spooky dolls but also bars of chocolate or plastic bottles of Coca-Cola.
The cobblestone Calle Jaen is the finest (and the only left) colonial street in La Paz.
The narrow street is lined with colorful buildings from the 16th century where you can find restaurants, artisan shops, and some of La Paz's best museums. Calle Jaen is pretty short, so it won't take you long to explore this part of the city.
From Calle Jean, you can leisurely walk to the main square in La Paz, Plaza Murillo.
The square is lined with government buildings, La Paz Cathedral, and the Presidential Palace. Take a break here and watch the everyday life of people of La Paz sitting on benches and feeding hundreds of pigeons, vendors selling refreshments and soldiers guarding the most significant buildings.
PLAZA SAN FRANCISCO
One of the first architectural buildings we saw in La Paz was basilica of San Francisco on Plaza San Francisco. Because we were walking from the bus terminal with our heavy backpacks, the first thing we actually noticed was a Christmas tree (because it looked so weird and inappropriate) and only after we spotted the church.
Come and have a look at this church as it offers a unique blend of classical Catholic architecture and Bolivian indigenous decorations.
WHAT TO PACK FOR VISITING LA PAZ
The city of La Paz, same as most cities in Bolivia lies at altitude, 3640 meters above sea level, so although you can enjoy here warm sunny days, it can also be chilly, especially at night or anytime when the sun goes down. The rainy season is from December to March, so pack accordingly.
Here are five essentials you should pack with you when traveling to La Paz.
SteriPen | It is not possible to drink tap water in Bolivia, so in order to keep your plastic waste to minimum, buy this useful travel gadget.
Money Belt | Wearing a money belt will help to keep your valuables safe when walking in the city center of La Paz.
We've also written an in-depth South America packing list where you will find more useful tips and advice on what to pack.
WHERE TO STAY IN LA PAZ
La Paz is one of the most important transportation hubs in Bolivia, and the city has many accommodation options. Bolivia is a poor county and services are often less expensive than usual, so you can afford here to stay in a prettier hotel for less.
We've handpicked three best places to stay in La Paz for every budget.
Budget | The Adventure Brew Downtown Hostel - Centrally-located hostel offers clean facilities the atmosphere is friendly, you can hang out in a common room and take advantage of an excellent breakfast every morning.
Mid-range | Qantu Hotel - This hotel close to the city center is reasonably priced and offers comfortable, clean rooms and tasty breakfast.
Luxury | Atix Hotel - Beautifully designed hotel close to teleferico station is a real treat and offers high-end services and indoor pool.
SAFETY IN LA PAZ
After reading some articles online about safety in La Paz, we almost wanted to skip it.
Glad we did not.
To us, when it comes to safety, La Paz felt like any other large city in South America.
The city is rough around edges for sure, but if you use your common sense, we believe you should be fine. Yes, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries we've ever visited, so it should come without saying that your valuables should stay in your room, and your expensive camera should not hang around your neck all the time. Take it out only when you need it. Do not walk outside at night when not necessary, and avoid abandoned, dodgy looking streets.
One of our friends we met on the road told us he was mugged at gunpoint in La Paz, but he also admitted it happened in an area he should not have been wandering around.
Always use radio taxi, and keep an eye on your valuables because of pickpockets.
That and your stay in La Paz will be pleasant.
Our Tip: It is worth it to read news about the situation in Bolivia because protests against government happen often and roadblocks are quite common. Being informed is the best way how to avoid any unpleasant situation. It is also worthwhile to have a backup plan in case something happens.
HOW TO GET TO LA PAZ
Travelers backpacking around South America usually get to La Paz from either Puno in Peru, Bolivia's Copacabana near Lake Titicaca, Sucre, Santa Cruz, Tupiza, or Salar de Uyuni by bus.
The quality of buses, services and traveling on time was, undoubtedly the worst in Bolivia, on the other hand, we never had a problem to get from one place to another, although it was sometimes challenging. For safety reasons, always try to book a seat on the first floor in case you are going to travel with double-decker. The main bus terminal is within walking distance from the city center, but when you arrive or leave La Paz after dusk, we recommend you to take a taxi.
La Paz has an international airport El Alto, which is in the district at dizzying 4060 meters above sea level, so when the city is your first stop in South America or first destination at such altitude on your trip, try to take your first days in La Paz lightly because of a high chance of altitude sickness.
You can take a colectivo from El Alto to the center of La Paz, but the traffic in the city is often heavy, and if you are not patients enough or you don't want to lose your time, it is better to take a taxi at the official stand.
When looking for flight tickets you can search Skyscanner to find the best price.
ALTITUDE SICKNESS IN LA PAZ
Do you find walking the streets in La Paz more challenging than usual, you feel a bit dizzy, and cannot catch your breath?
Well, altitude sickness is a real thing here in La Paz, and you should not underestimate it.
The advantage have those people who travel from similarly elevated destinations, for example from Salar de Uyuni or from Cusco in Peru, but those of you who have La Paz as the first destination on Bolivia itinerary might experience difficult times.
It is important to take your first days slowly and acclimatize properly.
Drink lots of water (and coca tea), do not eat heavy meals, stay away from alcohol, and try to do some light physical activity.
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