Travel Notes

La Paz is known for being the highest capital city in the world at 3,500m above sea level – even though this city isn’t the actual capital of Bolivia (but more about this in one my upcoming posts).

Whether you like culture, food, history or adventure, you simply cannot get bored in La Paz. It takes a while to get to know it and love it, but this city is one of the most fascinating in South America, despite not being the prettiest for sure. Crowded streets, high altitude, witches, the Death Road, Cholita Wrestling: La Paz isn’t for the fainthearted.

A market

There are so many things to see and do in La Paz. Keep reading if you want a list of the main attractions here, or skip to the bottom of the page to find out how to get to La Paz, where to stay and where to eat.

Top things to see and do in La Paz

  • Take a free walking tour
  • Visit the Witches Market
  • Take a trip to El Alto
  • Have the best avocado sandwich ever at Mercado Lanza
  • Cycle Death Road
  • Take a day trip to Chacaltaya at over 5,400m above sea level
  • Take a day trip to Valle de La Luna
  • Go see the Cholita Wrestling
  • See (from the outside) the San Pedro Jail
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1.Take a free walking tour

Like in most places, taking a free walking tour is the best way to get to know a new city or town and meet new people too, which is good if you are travelling on your own. Usually I take the free walking tour whenever they are available and then I go back to the most interesting places I have seen if I want to find out more and visit myself the places that are not included in the tour. There are plenty of options in this city, but we decided to go with Red Cap Tour and it costed us 20 BOB (approximately €2.50).

Our group was quite bug, which is usually a bad thing, but we did have two guides and they were both very good and found a way to make the two and half hour tour super interesting.

The tour included the main squares and markets and ended with a visit to the Miraflores Restaurant, one of the city’s most popular restaurants, where we all add a shot of chicha.

2. Visit the Witches Market

The Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches Market, is a must see in La Paz. Located on Calle Jiminez and Linares, you will find so many vendors lined up to sell you anything from potions, spells, dried frogs, lucky charms, and even llama fetuses, together with all you might need for your witchcraft.

Needless to say that this is one of the most colourful corners of La Paz. When you are in this city, make sure you walk through the streets of this market, talk to the vendors to find out more about this very unique culture and, if you dare, buy a magic potion!

3. Take a trip to El Alto

If you really want an insight into authentic Bolivian culture, you must take a trip to El Alto.

Looking down over La Paz at 4,000m, El Alto is actually a separate city and one of the fastest growing urban centres in Bolivia, characterised by a mix of old and new, colours, architecture and magic.

The best way to get there is to take the Teleferico, the new cable car system that links the two urban centres.

Worth exploring is El Alto exuberant architecture: its famous buildings are called cholets – it’s like chalets, but where cholitas or cholos live, hence the name. These building make the whole city look so colourful, and you can even stay in some of them. However, different people told us El Alto isn’t the best place to stay overnight.

Another reason to visit El Alto is to see the real Witches market. Unlike the one in La Paz, which is more for tourists, the one in El Alto is where local people actually go to get their fortune told or buy magic potions.

On Thursdays and Sundays, you will also find a huge market across the whole city, where you can find anything, from food, to clothes to second hand items from your house and a flea market.

4. Have the best avocado sandwich at Mercado Lanza

You will find Mercado Lanza, with its unique design, just at the centre of La Paz. Unique not because it is particularly beautiful, but just because from the outside this place looks more like a parking lot or a giant storage unit, rather than the typical cute market in any towns in South America. Once inside, however, spread over its 4 stories, you will find over 1,000 traders that sell everything from fruit, to vegetables, dairies, flowers and more. This place is the perfect spot to get a quick but tasty lunch.

In fact, here I had one of the best lunches I had in La Paz: the best avocado sandwich I have ever had! It was a huge sandwich with a full avocado inside (you can also add cheese to it if you want) for only 5 BOB – or €0.60.

5. Cycle Death Road

Probably one of the most popular attraction among backpackers and adventurous travellers, Death Road is not for the faint of heart. If you are in La Paz, it’s one of those things you have to do.

As, except in Machu Pucchu, I hadn’t been cycling since 1999, I wasn’t too sure I should do it, but I’m happy I did it: the landscape is amazing and it’s one of those things you are supposed to thick off your list of things to do before you die. At the same time, I wouldn’t do it again. Soon there will be a new blog post about all you need to know if you are planning to cycle on Death Road, from what company to book it with to when the best time to go is.

Two people on a bike standing in front of a sign

6. Take a day trip to Chacaltaya

Chacaltaya is a mountain in the Cordillera Real at over 5400 metres above sea level, located approximately 100 km north of La Paz. This place used to be one of the main skying resorts in the country, but due to climate change, there is not enough ice and snow to sky.

You can still visit this place as a day tip from La Paz, if you want to get away from the city for a day.

There is no hiking path for the bottom part of the mountain, so you could walk up along the road where cars go up, but it isn’t really worth it. The best option is to join a tour which will bring you in a mini van “half way” (almost to the top) there. The mini-van will leave you at the lodge and then you can hike the rest up to the top. The view up here is incredible and breathtaking – quite literally, due to the altitude.

7. Take a day trip to Valle de La Luna

While most people are aware of the beautiful Valle de la Luna in Chile, in the Atacama desert, there is also a beautiful – but smaller – Valle de la Luna in Bolivia, approximately 10 km away from La Paz.

In this area, erosion has worn the majority of the clay mountains, typical of this landscape, and has left tall spires. This formations, with their colours that range from beige, to brown, to red to dark violet, create a unique landscape, that almost looks like the moon – hence the name.

Also in this case, the best option is to join a tour, which will basically only consist in transport to the location and a guide if you need them.

We booked a tour from our hostel – York Vintage – and for both transport to Chacalatya and Valle de la Luna it costed us 120 BOB (or €15), plus 15 BOB for the entrance to Valle de la Luna (less than €2).

8. Go see the Cholita Wrestling

Sadly, we didn’t get to see this, but Cholitas wrestling is one of the most unusual attractions in Bolivia.

Cholitas used to be an offensive term used by people against indigenous people, particularly women. However, now things have changed. The word cholita now represents strong and empowered women, who are very fashion conscious and resourceful. Such a fascinating figure.

Cholitas

Picture from Flickr

Cholita wrestling is inspired by America’s WWF and Mexico’s famous lucha libre, and it features Bolivian women battling it out in incredibly stylish and colourful costumes.

The event takes place every Sunday and Tuesdays night in El Alto.

While it’s possible to go to see the match by yourself, it doesn’t coast much to take a tour and you won’t have to worry about getting around on your own after dark in El Alto. If you want to book a tour with Red Cap Tour, the cost is of 170 BOB (€22) and it will include transportation and the event.

If you want to go on your own, you can get a mini bus from outside the San Francisco Church for 2 BOB (€0.30) each way and pay your ticket on the door for 50 BOB (€7).

9. Take a look (from the outside) at the San Pedro Jail

If you read the book The Marching Powder, you will already know about this jail. “Rusty Young was backpacking in South America when he heard about Thomas McFadden, a convicted English drug trafficker who ran tours inside Bolivia’s notorious San Pedro prison. Intrigued, the young Australian journalist went to La Paz and joined one of Thomas’s illegal tours. “

Picture from Culture Trip. Check out more pictures here.

What makes this prison so interesting is the fact that it is a city in the city, a separate society, in which over 1,500 among the most dangerous criminals in Bolivia live.

The prison is divided in different barrios – neighbourhoods – each with their own shops and restaurants run by family members of inmates who voluntarily decided to leave in the prison to be closer to their families. Besides traditional shops and business, this prison is actually one of the busiest cocaine labs in South America.

After entering the prison, inmates have to buy their own cells from the “prison mayor” or, if they don’t have enough money, they can rent it from another inmate or are even forced to sleep on the ground outside or in one oft the chapels. through one of the prison’s “freelance real-estate agents”. 

Another interesting thing we learnt is that if you are going in to visit an inmate, you can get a “taxi”: you basically pay someone at the entrance to escort you safely to the neighbourhood you want to visit, and then out again.

While you can get an illegal tour of this prison, so many people told us not to do it, not only because it is illegal, but also because there are people running scams, where you give them money to let you in and they leave you inside. If this happens, you need to convince the guards that you don’t belong there and this will most likely require a payment to them, plus you will also have to pay the consequences of doing something illegal.

Nevertheless, there are people who have been running this kind of tour since the 90s for approximately $60. However, after 2009, police checks have become more and more frequently and now it is basically impossible to enter the jail.

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8 Replies to “What to do in La Paz”

      1. Sisi ci sono stato a settembre durante un viaggio tra i paesi andini, ne ho parlato pochi giorni fa… credo che, nel bene o nel male, è una città di cui non mi dimenticherò mai

        Like

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