The first thing you need to know before going to La Paz is that it’s high. Like, real high!
At 3,640 meters above sea level the Bolivian capital is more than a third of the way up between the ocean and the troposphere. And that is the low reaches of La Paz!
El Alto (where the airport is located and most of the population live) is located at a dizzying 4,060 meters above sea level. So, be aware that altitude sickness is a very real thing here. (See a doctor before you go to discuss pre-existing medical conditions and altitude sickness medication.)
Now, onto the fun stuff:
Must-dos in La Paz
The Witches Market
Every blog or piece of travel advice you read will tell you to visit the Witches Market and this recommendation is spot-on. This place is as real as it’s weird, fascinating and completely different to everything you’ve seen before (unless you’re really into witchery and black magic).
Stroll through the Witches Market on your own and you’ll get a glimpse of alpaca and other creatures fetuses, you’ll notice colourful powders and seeds of different sizes and shape – which is cool but…it’s not until a local helps you interpret what you’re seeing that the stories, traditions and local culture really become apparent.
In my eyes, this is one of La Paz’s main highlights. With large supermarkets and shopping centres nearly non-existent, the busy, chaotic and colourful markets that dot La Paz are a perfect invitation for hours of mindless walking about the streets witnessing life go by, people watching, and searching for souvenirs. There are markets all around La Paz: Mercado 16 de Julio, Mercado Lanza, Mercado Negro and Mercado Ayni to name but a few.
Mind your pockets from opportunistic pickpocketing and, even better, come with a guide to get a full understanding of what you’re seeing. All Intrepid trips include a visit to the markets, guided by local leaders.
The Coca Museum
This is a terrific, unpretentious and informative little museum. Though a little on the messy and disorganised side, you can spend hours here learning the ins and outs of this infamous plant. From its history and importance to South American indigenous cultures to the devastating effects it can have in the body when misused and the wars fought in its name. Visit on your own so you can spend as much or as little time there as you want to.
Mi Teleferico cable car
This is a relatively new form of transportation in La Paz which only opened back in 2014. Since then, it has gone from 1 to 7 active lines (and 4 more in the making) I don’t know you but I have personally never seen such extensive network of cable cars outside a ski resort! Mind you, a trip on this cable car costs under $1 USD – nothing like the exorbitant prices at ski resorts!
The cable car network has been built with locals’ needs in mind, so it doesn’t link tourist attractions particularly well. However, a round-trip up and down to “El Alto” will give you amazing views of the city and the entire valley. A trip to the south of the city will expose you to the more modern side of La Paz where some buildings and houses could easily feature in your favourite home and house renovation show.
San Pedro Prison
This prison defies any incarceration system you may have learned about so far. The prison is more like a small city inside La Paz. Inmates have jobs inside the walls, they have to buy or rent their cells (or be homeless and sleep on the corridors) and families (including children) often sleep inside the prison and come and go during the day to work, go to school, etc.
In my opinion, you don’t need to go inside to understand this place. A walk outside its walls (the site is within walking distance from most hotels) and an explanation from a good local guide is all you need.
Where to eat in La Paz
For this section, I enlisted the help of some of Intrepid’s top local leaders in Bolivia, Nadia Inturias and
Traditional food in La Paz
La Tranquera offers many local dishes – from the traditional meat-heavy meals of Silpancho and Pique Macho to trout to steak. For great llama meat and quinoa dishes, head to Angelo Colonial. And for a filling lunch, consider Vagon del Sur for even more delicious local foods.
To snack on tasty empanadas stuffed with runny cheese (and spice on request), go to Jawitas Chulumani.
Top foodie tip from local leader, Nadia:
A special place where I always take my passengers is called Clarisas. It is a good place to try fresh salteñas and Bolivian chocolate, coffee and cakes.
Other food and drink in La Paz
Looking for some lighter eats? Here’s what local leader Julia recommends:
One of my favourite places is The Carrot Tree. It does good brunch all day, sandwiches, fruit juice and traditional Mocochinchi (a drink made of dehydrated peaches that are boiled with sugar and cinnamon).
Paceña La Salteña. And if you’re craving good coffee, go to Cafe arte Sultana (which is also great for lunch).
For those looking for alcohol over caffeine, visit Jallalla Cocktail Bar to enjoy both art and good-quality drinks.
Day trips from La Paz
Valle de La Luna
This site is located about 30 minutes to 1 hour south of La Paz old town. And those into their geology may find this place particularly interesting. The clay and sandstone are being eroded away by rain and wind leaving behind strange formations. Will a visit to this site change your understanding of La Paz? Nope. Should you visit it? If you have a few hours to kill and nothing better to do, sure! Go for it! You’re bound to get a couple of cool pics for your Instagram.
Tiwanaku Archaeological site
Let me start by saying that the archaeological and historical importance of this pre-Hispanic site is enormous and that those willing to delve into the history and stories behind this site will learn a hell of a lot about this little-known civilization. But do note that a group tour to Tiwanaku takes between 6-8 hours so it’s well and truly a full day trip from La Paz.
Ready to visit this extraordinary city? Check out Intrepid’s range of Bolivia trips.
(All images courtesy of Intrepid Travel and Martin Ruffo.)