La Paz, Bolivia – Is it really worth visiting?

On paper La Paz is . . . How should I put it? A bit of a dump. The streets are filled with rubbish, the traffic is horrendous and LOUD, you can physically taste the pollution, there is seldom not a protest of some sort taking place and it’s all just very hectic! Doesn’t really sound like somewhere you want to spend much time does it?! No, me either. But even though all of that is completely true, thats such an unfair picture to paint of this city. There is something about La Paz that is just utterly wonderful. I can’t 100% put my finger on it, but I absolutely loved it, actually I think I’d even go as far as saying it was probably my favourite city in South America after Rio. We ended up spending a lot more time than planned exploring the chaos!

La Paz looking fairly attractive in the sunshine

La Paz is breath-taking, but I definitely don’t mean in terms of its beauty! It is the highest capital city in the world at over 3500ft above sea level which means walking up even the smallest of inclines literally takes your breath away. The altitude is another thing to add to the list of La Paz’s downfalls, especially as it’s pretty much built in a canyon meaning everywhere is up-hill, so your just constantly fighting for breath! But what it lacks in beauty and photograph worthy sights it makes up for in mountains of character, culture and a weird sort of charm. I think it was because its just so far away from our way of life that it was toxically addictive! I just wanted to immerse myself in this world that was so utterly different from mine. Here is a few of my tips for exploring the city!

WALKING TOUR – It might sound utterly boring and lame, and I’m not going to lie, I have found some walking tours were – however the one in La Paz was by far the best one I’ve done. The best bit about La Paz is the bizarre stories and unique history and rituals and what better way to find out about them than from someone who grew up with them. There are loads of different companies but we did the ‘Red Cap’ one and our guide Daniel was great. He told us all about the story behind the Cholitas’ (traditionally dressed Bolivian ladies) reason for wearing the signature bowler hat and why so many of them have gold teeth; he told us the old wives tales of animal and human sacrifices being made to Pachamama (Mother Earth – Bolivians are obsessed with Pachamama, before taking a drink they pour some on the ground for Pachamama before they take a sip themselves), and many stories about the crazy history of the country and its rulers. Some of them sounded so far-fetched that I don’t know If he was winding us up the whole time (but then again this is Bolivia so it’s all quite possibly true) but he certainly kept the group entertained!

I lost loads of my photos so didn’t have one of the Cholita’s traditional dress so this ones stolen from Google for reference!

WITCHES MARKET – Another bizarre thing to do in La Paz is visit the Witches Market – spreading across a few narrow streets in the centre of the city filled with weird and not so wonderful items including baby llama foetus’ (yes, real ones!), dried frogs curses and a variety of love potions and curses! So if your looking for a souvenir with a bit of a difference, look no further! Our guide took us here on the tour as well and again educated us with a lot of stories behind the different items available here.

Another one I had to nick from Google to show the mentioned dead llamas!

SAN PEDRO PRISON – When I mentioned bizarre stories earlier, the stories about San Pedro really take the biscuit! This prison, which looks nothing like a prison, is situated within a very pleasant and prerty square with extremely little security and it’s painted pink. We didn’t actually realise that was it at first! I already knew a lot about San Pedro prison from reading the book Marching Powder (if you haven’t read it get it read it’s unbelievable!) Here are a few of the most bizarre bits in a nutshell – you actually couldn’t make this up.

1. The families of the prisoners can actually live inside the prison with them. The kids go out to school every day and come ‘home’ to the prison at night.

2. You have to pay rent for your cell (oh and an entry fee to get in in the first place!) So if you don’t have money you need to get a job inside the prison to be able to afford to have somewhere to sleep, and if your rich you can live a pretty luxurious lifestyle – some cells actually have hot tubs!!!

3. The purest cocaine in the world is made inside this prison in one of the cocaine labs. The kids are often used to transport the drugs out, or sometimes they are put inside nappies and thrown over the roof onto the street for people on the outside to collect.

4. Tourits used to be allowed to go inside the prison for a tour and even spend the night partying with the prisoners in their cells for the right price!

There is a guy who spent 14 years inside San Pedro who is outside the prison every day at 1pm and shares his own personal stories about life inside. His name, very fittingly is Crazy Dave. He’s is fascinatingly nuts and he really puts on a bit of a one man show. I highly recommend hunting him down and listening to his story – he even did a impromptu rap at the end, totally worth the 10 Bolivianos we tipped him afterwards.

THIS is Crazy Dave!

CABLE CAR OVER THE CITY – In a weird contrast of traditonal and high tech, the Teleferico is La Paz’s answer to the metro system – but it’s overhead instead of underground. Due to the layout it is much more practical and you can take it from the centre up to El Alto, which is the adjacent city sat on the cliff top where one of the biggest open air markets in the world is held! Our tour guide told us you can find ANYTHING you can think of in that market, and if you have had something stolen it will definitely be for sale there! Even if you don’t want to go to the market it’s still a fun way to see the city and the views of the mountains surrounding are awesome!

Views on way to El Alto

Where to stay – We stayed in the Adventure Brew hostel which is in a pretty ideal location close to the bus station and on the hill on the way into the main part of the city. The rooms were big and spacious and the bar area was brilliant, serving some really tasty food! The free breakfast was also one of the best we had the whole time in South America – unlimited freshly made American style pancakes with banana and dulce de leche! Not bad for £6 a night.

Where to eat – La Paz has a fantastic selection of good offerings, I have to give it that! From traditional local food that is dirt cheap (you can get a 3 course meal for not much over £1!!) to British pubs serving classics from home to quality curry houses! One of our favourites was a Mexican called Kalikitas. The food and cocktails were brilliant and the decor was all day of the dead themed and really cool! But if you really want to get the true feel of Bolivia I recommend eating like a local from one of the street food restaurants perched on a box at the side of the road – but that depends on how strong your stomach is!

Its pretty easy to be healthy in La Paz, there are fresh fruit stalls everywhere making juices and smoothie which are delicious and so fresh – the fruit here is huge and so tasty! Our tour guide also recommended we try an avocado sandwich from the indoor food maket in Plaza San Francisco. Again I’m sure this sounds a bit bland, I thought so too, but we took his advise and they are AMAZING! The avocados are the size of grapefruits and so creamy and they pack it full of salad and feta cheese and its about 50p! We ate a lot of those!

What else to do? Not that there isn’t more than enough to keep you busy in La Paz for a few days, but it’s also a great base for exploring the rest of Bolivia. From La Paz you can book a trip to cycle the Death Road – the world’s most dangerous road, Uyuni Salt Flats or the Bolivian Amazon.

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