La Paz is a bustling city located at a nose-bleedingly high altitude of 3,640m. It is incorrectly referred to as ‘the highest capital city in the world’, as it isn’t the capital – Sucre is. Despite the fact that it doesn’t hold the title, there are no doubts that La Paz is Bolivia’s most important city.
The location of La Paz itself is beautiful. It is positioned in a canyon, surrounded on all sides by imposing high mountains of the Altiplano. The landscape is dominated by the mountain Illimani – its snow-covered facade being visible from almost all parts of La Paz.
The trip to La Paz from Copacabana is one of the strangest we ever took. Due to having no road on part of the journey (the Tiquina strait) you have to take a ferry across the river. How do you ferry a bus across a river? On a makeshift wooden boat of course!
We spent 4 nights in La Paz, either side of a trip to the Amazon. The city is well known on the South American backpacking trail but for us, it was uninspiring. We arrived having spent a lot of the previous few weeks hiking and doing touristy things and eventually it catches up with you and you just need a break. La Paz turned out to be our “chill time” and we didn’t do as much as we expected here. However, below is a list of what we believe are the top things to do in La Paz, including a few we didn’t do ourselves!.
Valle de La Luna
Valle de La Luna (Moon Valley) is a perfect opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of La Paz for half a day. Located just 10km from La Paz, this unique landscape, similar to mars as the name suggests, is an easy and budget-friendly excursion
To get here, you don’t need to book a tour. Make your way to the bus stops outside San Francisco church and hop in a combi that is going to Mallasa. This will cost 3 Bolivianos (0.40 cent). The bus will take around 40-50 minutes, and you will pass some great parts of La Paz, and you can see how local people live.
The landscape of Valle de La Luna was caused by wind and rain erosion of the mountains. There is some visitor information about the site as you enter (entrance is 15 bolivianos (1.95e)) and you can pick up a map here too. There are two main walking trails; a shorter trail that takes 15 minutes to walk, and a longer one which takes 45 minutes. We did both, and the 45-minute trail is the best without a doubt.
You will witness some unique and otherworldly structures along your way. There are some information points that show you what geological features you are looking at which is nice. Throughout the scenery is impressive and there are some great viewpoints. One thing I will say is that it is clear that urbanization has reached this part of La Paz already!
To head back to La Paz you just need to get a collectivo going in the opposite direction from the nearby bus stop. It make take a few collectivos to go past before you get one with some space in it – so have patience!
Ah, Death Road – one of the most famous tourist attractions in all of Bolivia (and possibly South America?). You have the chance to get on a mountain bike and cycle down the road that was formerly known as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’, due to the number of people that lost their lives on this road. The drop drops through the mountains, from nearly 4,500m to 1,500m, making it an exhilarating mountain biking experience.
It is a 65km biking tour, and most companies finish with a trip to a pool and wildlife reserve to chill out afterward. We can’t recommend this activity as we didn’t do it. We didn’t do it as it wasn’t something that particularly interests us and to be honest, the price of upwards of $50 each seemed a bit steep (pun intended) for us!
Mirador Killi Killi
If it’s one thing La Paz is good at, its viewpoints. Littered throughout the city are many different viewpoints, but our favourite is Mirador Killi Killi. This mirador provides a 360-degree view of the city, and it really showed us how humongous La Paz really is!
We walked to the viewpoint, taking Avenida Sucre, Avenida La Bandera and then taking the stairs the rest of the way up. We felt pretty safe but as always, take caution at nighttime. Entrance is free.
Take the Cable Car
Taking public transport in any country in South America is an experience, but taking the cable car (Mi Teleferico) in La Paz is THE public transport experience. The cable car’s of La Paz are the world’s highest and largest aerial transit system.
Getting up high is the best way to appreciate La Paz’s enormity, and the opportunity to see just how unique it’s location is – nestled amongst snow-capped mountains. For the price of 3BOB per ride, and each ride taking 20-30 minutes, this really is a great way to pass the time in La Paz!
Visit El Alto
While you are taking the cable car system, don’t forget to visit El Alto, on the red line. El Alto (Spanish for “The Heights”) is 4000m above the sea (hence getting the cable car up to El Alto) and is the highest major metropolis in the world.
El Alto also has a massive indigenous community, and visiting this urban center on a Thursday will provide witness to one of the biggest markets in all of South America. You can buy anything and everything there; we bought torches and white clothes for the Amazon, as well as some sun hats!
The airport of La Paz is also located in El Alto, although it is some distance from the cable car station.
Visiting El Alto on a Thursday also coincides with the famous Cholita Wrestling experience. Cholita Wrestling is one of La Paz’s most unusual attractions, whereby Bolivian women, dressed in traditional clothes; wrestle each other a la WWF.
Despite our best efforts, we didn’t get a chance to see Cholita Wrestling. After exploring the market we went to the arena to find out it didn’t have the wrestling that evening. After walking round and round, asking numerous people who all told us it was in the arena we gave up. It turned out that the event was being held in a local hostel that evening.
Moral of the story? Book a tour if you want to see Cholita Wrestling!
Crazy Dave’s San Pedro Prison Talk
This one is not for the easily offended. Everyday at 1pm outside San Pedro Prison, you get the chance to speak to a former inmate; Crazy Dave.
For those people who have read the popular book ‘Marching Powder’ the Crazy Dave talk is a must. For those who haven’t, come along and hear some of the most ludicrous, but true, stories you have ever heard.
San Pedro Prison, just a few blocks from the main street of La Paz, is a prison like no other. Some inmates can live in relative luxury, depending on how much money they have. Other’s have their families living with them; indeed if you get up early enough you will see kids leaving for school in the morning. The prison’s most popular claim to fame is that it used to be a tourist attraction, where tourists would pay money to stay the night in the jail; and see what it’s really like. This often included some drugs and parties, but due to many different incidents, these tours have thankfully been stopped by the police.
Crazy Dave was a former inmate of San Pedro, serving 14 years in the prison after trying to smuggle cocaine into the US (where he is from). Dave is a character and certainly lives up to his nickname. Come along to hear some crazy tales. Tour starts at 1 pm every day (tips are welcome) and lasts an hour, which is perfect timing as the Red Cap Walking Tour starts at 2pm..
Red Cap Walking Tour
For legal reasons, there is no ‘Free’ walking tour in La Paz, but the most popular is the Red Cap Walking Tour which charges 20 BOB (around $3). The tour starts at San Pedro Plaza (across from the prison) and lasts around 3 hours.
The tour starts in the prison plaza and so you get some background on the prison itself, which as mentioned, has quite the story to tell.
Afterwards, you head to the Rodriguez Market where the guides show you some different fruits and vegetables and explain the customs of the marketplace in Latin American society.
We then headed to La Paz’s famous Witches Market. Here there is a conglomerate of strange spells, potions, and medicinal plants, all of which the guides explain. If you are looking for a potion to make someone fall in love with you – this is the place. Of course, the star attraction of the Witches Market are the dead llama fetuses which nearly every stall has hanging over it. These are used as good luck offerings to Pachamama when building a new house. Note that the stall minders in the Witches Market don’t appreciate getting their photos taken without permission, so always ask first – or they may just put a curse on you!
We then headed to the San Francisco Plaza to admire the beautifully decorated church, which was built by indigenous Aymara workers in the 18th century. The guides pointed out how the Aymara got some of their traditional beliefs put into the design of the building.
Next stop was another market Mercado Lanza. Here we were shown around and pointed towards some smoothie stalls that were recommended by the guides. To be honest this part is totally unnecessary and felt like the guides way of promoting some family business. If you have been in South America for awhile you will be well accustomed to markets and their smoothies- there was no need to visit two in the one walking tour.
We then headed to Plaza Murillo, which is the central plaza of the city. Here is the Presidential Palace (the reason La Paz is often mistakenly referred to as the capital of Bolivia) and the Cathedral of La Paz. Here we got a brief synopsis of the history of Bolivia and in particular its liking for assassinating presidents!
Our final stop was the bar Sol y Luna where we received a free shot while the guides explained other paid tours they do. Overall we didn’t really enjoy this tour. Perhaps it was fatigue from doing too many walking tours but we didn’t do another after this for a long time! I just felt it lasted too long and some of the stops were unnecessary.
A museum dedicated entirely to one of South America’s infamous export – coca! This museum explains the history of the precious leaf, and how sacred it is to the indigenous people of Bolivia.
You can learn about the cultural impact of the leaf, it’s use in the pharmaceutical and soft drink industry and just how it gets turned into cocaine.
Overall I found this museum really interesting, although the structure of it is a bit strange. You are given a pamphlet at the start that explains everything (thoroughly) while you look at some props. Different, but still I found it worthwhile.
You can also visit the cafe upstairs and experience some coca inspired snacks or drinks. We got coca-cola before coca had been removed. In reality, it was just coke with some coca syrup thrown in but still, we loved the idea! The entrance was 13 BOB ($2 USD) when we visited.
This is a bit of a random inclusion and one we didn’t enjoy too much but it is a La Paz attraction. Calle Jaen is a colonial, cobblestoned street with a host of museums and restaurants in it.
Hiking in Mountains
This alone is a reason to come back and visit La Paz for us. Due to its stunning location in the Andes, there is a host of hiking opportunities to be done. We decided to skip them due to being exhausted after all our hiking in Peru but if you have that extra bit of energy you should go for it!
El Choro Trek – 3-day trek taking you from 5000 meters to the Bolivian jungle.
Huayna Potosi– A 6000m mountain that is beginner-friendly, i.e. non-technical. We really wanted to do this but we just were convinced for safety reasons.