La Paz – The World’s Highest Capital City

La Paz is the world’s highest administrative capital city. Though its official altitude is 3636 meters, the city spreads from the Altiplano at 4000 meters down along the rugged canyon of the Rio Choqueyapu to the wealthier suburbs at about 3000 meters.

La Paz was founded by Alonso de Mendoza in 1548, following the discovery of gold in the Choqueyapu. Although gold fever didn’t last long, the town’s location on the main trade routes (from Potosi, with its enormous deposits of silver, to the Pacific ports) assured stable progress.

When did the city Grow?

However, it was not until the middle of the present century that rapid expansion took place because of peasant migration towards the city. Today, home to more than a million Bolivians (half of whom are of Indian heritage), La Paz is the nation’s largest city and the main commercial, industrial and cultural center.

Though Sucre remains the legal capital, La Paz usurped most of the governmental power and is the de facto capital. You’ll never forget the first view of the city you get when arriving from the Altiplano. The skyscrapers – banks and office blocks – in the center resemble scale models and are surrounded by houses that show up the steep slopes of the canyon almost to its rim.

The magnificent snow-capped peaks of Illimani to the east round out the picture. For a visitor, La Paz is an enjoyable and fascinating place to explore, and, as the central part is relatively compact, the best way to do it is on foot. The main street, a wide thoroughfare built over the bed of the Choqueyapu River, is popularly known as El Prado.

La Paz - The World’s Highest Capital City

The original center of La Paz, the Plaza Murillo, is to the north of El Prado, and the surrounding area still retains a colonial flavor. On the other side of El Prado is the immense market area with several organized markets. Still, most streets are full of stalls selling everything from aphrodisiac remedies to Scotch whiskey. This is a very colorful area, bustling with life and crowded with Indians in their traditional dresses.

Owing to its altitude, La Paz is not a hot city. During the summer the climate can be harsh, rain falls daily and the canyon fills with clouds. Daytime temperatures stay around 18°C, but the dampness makes it seem much colder. In winter, days are clear, sunny and fairly warm but nights are freezing cold.

Tourist Information Office

The Instituto Boliviano de Turismo (IBT) operates an information center on the 2nd floor of the Edificio Esquina Cultural Paceña on the corner of Avenida 16 de Juüo and Calle México (Plaza del Estudiante). There’s a lot of excellent information, a good brochure on the city and its surroundings in Spanish and English (US$1.50), a map of La Paz (US40c, but not so good), three sketch maps of the Inca trails (Yunga Cruz, Choro, and Takesi), and plenty of other leaflets dealing with the entire country.

The staff are amiable and helpful and speak English if your Spanish isn’t good. The office is open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 1 pm, and 4 to 8 pm, and on Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm. The main office of the IBT is in the Edificio Ballivian, Piso (floor) 18, at n 1 Mercado 1328, where they present free videos on Bolivia every Thursday at 6 pm.

Currency Exchangers

There are plenty of Casas de Cambino in central La Paz, particularly on Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz, Camacho, Colon, and Ayacucho. They change both cash dollar and travelers’ cheques and are open weekdays roughly from 9 am till noon and 2.30 to 6 pm; some also open on Saturday morning. The best is supposedly Sudamer at Calle Colon 256 which exchanges cash and travelers’ cheques at a very good rate.

On Saturday, try Unitours at Calle Mercado 13gn, but their exchange rate for travelers’ cheques is not very attractive. The best place to exchange, however, is the shampoo shop at Yanacocha 319, which gives the best rate for both cash and cheques.

For a mere 1.5% commission, they will also change your travelers’ cheques into cash, which is worth considering as outside La Paz, you will get significantly less for cheques than for cash. Apart from the Casas de Cambio, you can also change cash dollars from the street moneychangers, which apparently operate round the clock in the same area and pay about the same rate.

Post & Telephone

The main post office is on the corner of Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz and Calle Oruro and is open Monday to Friday from 8.30 am to 8 pm and on Saturday from 9 am to 7 pm. It also has poste restante. If you’re having anything shipped to you in La Paz, it should be addressed as follows: your name, Poste Restante, Correo Central, La Paz, Bolivia.

They hold mail for three months, after which they return uncollected letters to the sender. The service is free, but you must present your passport when collecting letters. The ENTEL office is on Calle Ayacucho 267 and is open daily from 7.30 am t” 10.30 pm. You can make national and international calls and send telegrams there.

Tours

Most of Bolivia’s tour operators are concentrated in La Paz and, for various reasons, it`s worth considering doing a tour. The tours are moderately priced and sightseeing around the city (eg Tiahuanaco) is more comfortable and faster than it is on inefficient, crowded local buses.

You can arrange excursions to practically every corner of the country and see the hidden marvels of Bolivia you’d otherwise miss because of their inaccessibility (Laguna Colorada and Los Salares are classic examples). If you want to go mountain climbing up to the spectacular snow-capped peaks of the Cordilleras, the tour operators will organize the expedition according to your needs, including all equipment, porters, and even a cook (yes!), or they’ll provide raide service only.

If you want to do some hiking and need trekking equipment, the tour agents will hire out what you want. Finally, a tour to Puno in Peru is the easiest to reach and is not at all expensive. So, check the tour operators’ offers before you set off for a regular trip to the major Bolivian cities. It’s very likely that the Laguna Colorada in itself would be a much more impressive and memorable experience of Bolivia than Oruro, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and Sucre put together.

Maps

The best city maps are on sale at the Instituto Geográfico Militar (IGM) at Avenida 16 de Julio 1471. There you will also find good country maps and topographic sheets on a scale of 1:50,000 covering some 60% of Bolivia, including all the mountain ranges, which are excellent for trekking.

Bolivian map

Unfortunately, all of these maps are dreadfully expensive. Film Fujichrome color slides are available widely at about US$6 per roll but always buy them in shops, not on the street, as they are exposed to intense sun all day. Fujicolor is the most commonly sold negative film.

For the processing of both slides and negative films, only two laboratories are reliable: Casa Kavlin at Calle Potosí 1130 and Foto Linares in the Edificio Alborada on the corner of Loayza and Juan de la Riva (the latter also sells a selection of Agfa films). If you have problems with your camera, a recommended person to see is Rolando Calla.

You can find him between 10.30 am and noon in Idem-Fuji Color at Calle Potosí 1316, and from 3 to 7 pm at his home at Avenida Sánchez Lima 2178 (tel 373621). Airlines All the main airline offices are in the city center, mainly around Avenida 16 de Julio. You will find them on the map.

Consulates

The consulates of the countries bordering Bolivia can be found at these addresses: Argentina Avenida 16 de Julio 1486, Edificio Banco de la Nación Argentina, 2nd floor (tel 353089) Brazil Avenida 20 de Octubre 2038, Edificio Foncomfn (tel 350718) Chile Avenida H Siles 5843, Barrio Obrajes (tel 785275) Peru Avenida 6 de Agosto, Edificio Alianza (tel 352031) Paraguay Avenida Arce, Edificio Venus (tel 322018).

Things to See

La Paz, like all the large cities, has conventional tourist attractions such as churches, museums, etc. However, for those looking for something different, it’s one of those cities that invites leisurely exploration to appreciate the architectural mishmash, colorful street scenes, busy market life, and the strong flavor of Indian culture, which is more evident here than in other Latin American capitals.

Markets

Among markets, the most unusual is the Mercado de Los Brujos, or Witches’ Market, around the corner of Calle Santa Cruz and Linares. The merchants there sell a variety of herbs, seeds, magical ingredients and other strange things supposed to be remedies for any combination of ills you may be experiencing and protection from the bad spirits which, according to Aymará beliefs, populate the world.

Crafts

In the same area, mainly along Sagarnaga and Linares, there are plenty of handicraft shops and street stalls which sell beautiful Indian weavings (ponchos, mantas, coca pouches), musical instruments, silver antiques, ‘original’ Tiahuanaco rocks and a wealth of other artifacts.

The Iglesia de San Francisco on the plaza of the same name, begun in 1549 but not finished until the mid-18th century, stands out from all other churches of La Paz. Its architecture and decor form an exciting blend of indigenous and Spanish styles. If you go down there on Saturday mornings, you may see colorful Indian weddings. Other churches are of limited interest, though you might like to see the beautiful facade of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, on the corner of Yanacocha and Ingavi.

Museums

La Paz has several museums worth visiting, some of them in beautiful old colonial mansions. The Museo de Etnografía y Folklore is housed in the former Casa del Márquez de Villaverde, on the corner of Ingavi and Sanjines. It has a good collection of craftwork, weavings, etc from several ethnic groups from throughout the country.

Of particular interest are artifacts and photos of the Chipaya Indians, a group that inhabits the northern shores of the Salar de Coipasa. Their language, rites, and customs differ greatly from those of other Altiplano dwellers. The museum is open Monday to Friday from 8.30 to 11.45 am and 2.30 to 6.30 pm. Admission is free.

The Museo Nacional de Arte in the 18th-century Palacio de Los Condes de Arana, is an impressive old mansion on the corner of Comercio and Socabaya, just off the Plaza Murillo. It displays colonial and contemporary painting and is open Tuesday to Saturday between 9.30 am and noon and 1 and 7 pm (on Saturday they close at 6.30 pm). Admission costs 70c.

The Museo Nacional de Arqueóle (also known as the Museo Tiwanacu), on the corner of Calle Federico Suazo and Tiahuanaco, holds a collection of small pottery sculpture, textiles and other artifacts, and utensils from different stages of Tiahuanaco culture. It`s open Tuesday to Saturday from 9.30 am to 12.30 pm and 3.30 to 7 pm (on Saturday till 6.30 pm only).

Bolivian museums

If you are interested in the city’s traditions, the Museo Tambo Quirquincho, on Calle Evaristo Valle, just off the Plaza Alonso de Mendoza, displays old-time dresses, silverware, photos, and has a collection of carnival masks. It is open Tuesday to Friday from 9.30 am to 12.30 pm and 3 to 7 pm, and on weekends from 10 am to 12.30 pm. Admission is free.

Four fascinating museums are gathered together along Calle Jaén, a beautifully restored colonial street, and can easily be visited in one shot; one combination ticket costing US$1 covers entrance to all four. They are the Museo de Metales Preciosos Precolombinos, the Museo del Litoral Boliviano, the Museo Casa Murillo, and the Museo Costumbrista Juan de Vargas.

They are open Tuesday to Friday from 9 am to noon and 2.30 to 6.30 pm, and on weekends from 10 am to 12.30 pm. Fiestas La Paz has quite a few festivals: the Fiesta del Gran Poder, taking place around the beginning of June, is particularly interesting for visitors.

Places to Stay

Look for acceptable budget accommodation in two main areas. The first is in the market area, particularly on Manco Kapac and niampú, relatively close to the railway station; the other one is in the heart of the city, around Plaza Murillo. Midnight is lockup time for most bottom end hotels.

All the places listed below have hot water, but it’s better to check beforehand, especially with the cheapies. If you want to stay in the center, within short walking distance of just about everything, the Residencial Torino on Calle Socabaya 457 is your best bet. It is the most popular with ultra-low-budget travelers.

Bolivia Hotel stay

It costs US$3/4.50 a single/double in clean and spacious rooms without private baths. There is a free left-luggage service for guests and a café downstairs where you can have breakfast, snacks, good fruit juices, and delicious salteñas. Nearby, at Yanacocha 531, the Hostal Austria is also popular among travelers but doesn’t have the charm of the Torino.

It charges singles/doubles US$3.50/6.50 and has cooking facilities. In the same city area, but further off the Plaza Murillo, are two more cheapies: the Residencial Latino at Junin 857, not frequently visited by backpackers but very acceptable at US$3/5.50 a single/double (US$1 more for a room with private bath); and the Alojamiento Illimani at Calle Illimani 1817.

The latter is more basic, but friendly and homely and costs the same as the Latino. In the market area, the cheapest, though very simple, is Alojamiento Illampú at Calle Illampú 635 costs US$2.50/4.50 for a single/double. The Hotel Italia at Manco Kapac 303 is much better. From the outside, it looks more expensive than it is.

Clean singles/doubles without private baths cost US$4/5.50, rooms with baths cost US$6/7.50. Ask for a room facing the street – they’re nicer, even if they don’t have baths, but a bit noisier. The hotel has an attached restaurant with a peña (informal folk music concert) on Friday nights. Alternatively, if the Italia is full, try the Hotel Andes across the street at Manco Kapac 364, which has similar prices but is not as good; or the Alojamiento Central just up the street, which is worse but cheaper.

If you don’t mind paying a little more, check the Residencial Don Guillermo on Calle Colombia 222 with rooms overlooking an exquisite colonial patio (US$4.50/6.50 single/double without private bath, US$6.50/9 with private bath); or the Residencial Copacabana at Illampú 734, a modem clean hotel, which is a bit more expensive than the Don Guillermo.

For something with personal style, try the Residencial Rosario at Illampú 704, a beautifully restored hotel with good rooms facing an amazing cobbled patio. Singles/doubles without private baths cost US$6.50/8, rooms with attached baths cost US$10.50/13.50. It is the only hotel in this price range that has heating in the rooms, and it is very popular with foreign travelers.

Another very pleasant place that is slowly gaining popularity is the Hostal República at Calle Comercio 1455, three blocks from the Plaza Murillo. This carefully restored old colonial mansion has two fine patios and prices similar to Rosario’s. Finally, an exceptional place to stay in La Paz with the whole city at your feet is the Hostería Florida at Calle Viacha 489. As yet, it is almost unknown to travelers, probably due to its location among shabby cheapies and because from the outside, it looks as if it would cost a fortune.

It is a 10-floor modern building with comfortable rooms, all with private baths and really hot water, which costs US$5.50 per person. Ask for a room on one of the upper floors facing the city, and you will have a magnificent view of La Paz and the majestic peaks of Illimani in the background.

There is a spacious lounge on the top floor (accessible by lift only) with views all around, where you can rest, watch TV or eat – the staff can bring your meals up from the downstairs restaurant. So far, the hotel still lacks enough guests to give it a more international feel, but the woman who owns it is always friendly and willing to help.

Places to Eat

La Paz has a wealth of restaurants and the quality is good, especially in the better, more expensive restaurants, but don’t expect a lot of variety in the fare. Most budget places offer set meals (mainly almuerzo but sometimes also Cena) and a shortlist of the most common dishes such as lomo, churrasco, milanesa, and silpancho (all of which are meat dishes). Some also include a couple of regional specialties like sajta, chairo and ranga.

On the cheapest end of the price, scale are the markets; the city has lots of them. Unfortunately, the most central Mercado Lanza, just off the Plaza Pérez Velasco, has a rather dirty, unpleasant comedor. Better is the Mercado Camacho, on the corner Camacho and Bueno.

If you’re an early riser, the market is your only alternative, as most of the restaurants don’t open until at least 9 am. However, if you don’t get up so early, your best bet is to start the day with saltenas. You can find some of the best either at Super Saltenas on Socabaya just up from the corner of Call Mercado, or at Torino, also on Socabaya next door to the Residencial Torino.

The latter also serves international breakfasts (toast, eggs, coffee or tea, juice, etc.). For real doughnuts, go to California Donuts on Avenida Camacho near Ayacucho. Options for lunch are practically unlimited and depend on what you’re prepared to pay if you are traveling on very limited funds there are, apart from the markets, plenty of cubbyhole restaurants that display chalkboards with a menu at their doors.

You can take it for granted that these places are cheap. As a general rule, the higher you climb off the main central boulevard, the cheaper the meals get. Several budget restaurants can be found on Evaristo Valle, where almuerzo or cena can cost about 50c and other dishes below a dollar (places such as Pensidn Yungueno at Valle 155). The food in the city center proper, though more expensive, is much better and more varied.

For a super lunch, there is probably nothing better than Marilin on the comer of Potosi and Socabaya, which serves excellent four-course meals (salad starter, soup, main course, and dessert) for US$1.25. The place is immensely popular with local office workers. Verona on the corner of Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz and Col6n is frequently recommended for lunch (US$1.75) and typical dishes.

Los Escudos on the corner of Mariscal Santa Cruz and Ayacucho offers set meals of similar value and price, but it’s a huge, impersonal place without much style or atmosphere. If you prefer to eat in more agreeable surroundings, go to the Casa del Corregidor’ at Calle Murillo 1040, which is a very attractive mansion housing a restaurant and a Pena. Apart from luncnes (US$1.75) it also has good typical food (chairo, sajta, pacumutu, etc.).

One more pleasant place is La Casa de Los Pacenos at Calle Sucre 856 near the corner Pichincha. This exceptional small restaurant, run by a very hospitable family, besides offering lunches (US$1), serves several typical La Paz dishes, including saice, saita, fricasé, chairo paceño, and their fritanga (fried pork) is second to none. It’s strongly recommended. They are closed on Monday and open only till 3 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

A particularly nice place to eat is the Residencial Rosario, Calle Illampú 704, with a variety of international specialties, all nicely done though not that cheap. This is also a superb place for breakfast. Non-guests are welcome. Eli’s on the corner of 16 de Julio, and Bueno offers breakfast and several tasty snacks and light dishes, including omelets, pancakes, and hamburgers.

Paris at Ayacucho 342 opens in the afternoon and goes on until late at night. There are only four dishes on the menu, but they’re worth trying, especially the pique macho (US$3.50). You’ll get a huge portion, so if you aren’t voraciously hungry, you can share one dish between two.

Some of the better, but fairly expensive, hamburgers are found at California Burgers on Avenida Camacho 1248, near Ayacucho. For vegetarian food, the best seems to be Manjari at Calle Potosí 1315. They have great lunches and dinners (US$1.25 each), yogurt, fruit juice, and excellent fresh bread. Another vegetarian restaurant to try is Nutricentro at Calle Comercio 1013.

If you’d like to be close to where the decisions are made in Bolivian political circles, you could sit and eavesdrop over a coffee in the Confitería Club de La Paz, on the corner of Camacho and Ayacucho. This is where the politicians go to relax after doing their bit in the Chamber of Deputies. However, it’s probably a better idea to go there in the morning; though you’ll miss the latest hot news, you can grab a delicious salteña – served till about noon.

Entertainment

Something very typical for La Paz is the folk music venues called peñas. They play predominantly pure Andean music (zamponas, quenas, charangos), though sometimes guitar shows, singing recitals, etc. slip in. The most famous peña is the Naira at Sagámaga 161, just above the Plaza San Francisco, but it is not the best one.

It is geared towards foreign tourists, and though the quality of music is OK, the atmosphere is somewhat artificial and sterile. The Casa del Corregidor (a very nice place in itself) at Murillo 1040 and Marka Tambo at Jaén 710 is better. The Naira is open nightly except Sunday; other peñas have shown only on Friday and Saturday nights. They all start at about 10 pm and go on till 1 or 2 am.

Bolivian music

Usually, three to five groups perform during the night. Admission costs US$4 and sometimes includes one drink; subsequent drinks cost US$1 each. One of the few good cinemas is the Cinemateca Boliviana, on the corner of Pichincha and Indaburo, which occasionally shows quality films. The Teatro Municipal, on the corner of Sanjines and Indaburo, has an ambitious program, and you can sometimes see folklore shows, folk music concerts, or interesting foreign theatre groups.

Getting There & Away

Air

The airport sits on the Altiplano at 4000 meters, 10 km from the city center. Micro 212 runs between the center and the airport and costs 60c; by taxi, it will cost you something between US$6 and US$10. The airport doesn’t have many facilities. The only café is overpriced; you can change cash dollars there at a reduced rate.

International flights are served by Lufthansa, Eastern Airlines, Varig, AeroPeru, LAN Chile, and LAB, for more details see the Getting There section in the introductory part of this chapter. LAB, TAM, and AeroXpress service domestic flights. LAB has the most extensive network and flies to just about every corner of the country.

Airport 2373727 1280

Bus

The main bus terminal is on Plaza Antofagasta, a 15-minute walk from the city center. Buses to Oruro run every half-hour (US$2.50, 3 hours). Plenty of buses go to Cochabamba, leaving between 8 and 9 pm, though some also depart in the morning (from US$5 to US$8, 8 to 10 hours).

Most continue to Santa Cruz, but the evening buses stay all day in Cochabamba and leave only in the evening of the next day (so you also have to stay all day). Only morning buses have direct connections in Cochabamba. You can negotiate the fare from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz (US$5.50 to US$9, from 10 to 12 hours).

To Sucre (US$14), all buses go through Cochabamba, leaving in the evening, and again, you have to wait the whole day there. Nine companies run daily to Potosí (Expreso Cochabamba is the best) and all depart between 6 and 6.30 pm for a 12-hour journey, costing US$7. Be sure to have warm clothes handy.

To Arica in Chile, Flota Litoral leaves ‘officially’ on Tuesday and Friday; the journey costs US$ 18. Plenty of warm clothes are essential. Buses to Copacabana (four days, two with Manco Kapac and another two with Transtur 2 de Febrero) depart from Calle José María Aliaga, near the cemetery, quite a long way uphill from the center. The journey costs US$4 and takes 4 hours.

You can also go to Copacabana on any of the numerous tourist microbuses. This trip, costing US$5.50, is more comfortable, and you’ll be collected from your hotel. Autolíneas Ingavi has four buses daily to Desaguadero via Tiahuanaco, which 1eave from Calle José Maria Asín, also near the cemetery. There are plenty of urban micros from the city center to the cemetery.

Flota Yungueña on Avenida de las Americas in Barrio Villa Fátima has four buses weekly to Coroico in Los Yungas Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8.30 am (US$3.25, 3,5 hours). Trucks to Yungas leave from the same area.

Bus in Bolivia La Paz

Train

The railway station is on upper Man Kapac. It is relatively near to the city center but is steeply uphill. There are three ferry buses to Cochabamba, on Monday and Wednesday at 8 am and on Friday at 9 pm (US$9 Pullman, US$7 2nd class, 8 hours). To Villazón (Argentine border), trains run on Tuesday and Thursday at 4.40 pm (US$16 1st class, US$13 2nd class).

The journey takes 20 hours. You can also go to Tupiza on a faster ferry bus (Saturday, US$18 1st class) and continue to Villazón by bus (US$3.5, 2,5 hours). (There are more trains to both Tupiza and Villazón from Oruro.) One more option is the Expreso del Sur, which runs to Villazón on Friday at 7 pm (US$24 Pullman only, 18 hours).

This train connects with the one heading further on into Argentina, to Jujuy, Tucumán, and Rosario. Tickets from La Paz cost US$36, US$52, and US$78, respectively. The tren to Potosí leaves on Wednesday (US$11 1st class, US$8 2nd class) and takes 15 hours ‘officially.’ The ferry bus, on Saturday 9 am (US$15 Pullman, US$11.5 2nd class), is faster.

There are infrequent ferry buses to Arica in Chile, theoretically scheduled on Tuesday and Friday, which cost US$40. There are also two slow trains per month which depart supposedly on Tuesday and cost US$21. If you plan on taking any of these train trips, check the current schedule when you come to La Paz. Arranging a passage is generally not easy, and you may waste a couple of hours in the queue.