La Paz is a big city. So were Quito and Lima, but the geography of La Paz never lets you forget it. No matter where you are, you’re either at the bottom of the valley looking up at cliffs carpeted in buildings, or you’re on one of those cliffs looking down at the entirety of the metropolis.
La Paz sits in a valley in the Andean Plateau formed ten million years ago when the rising mountains cut what would become Lake Titicaca off from the rest of the Pacific, causing it to erode a huge swath of real estate as it drained. The city started life in the bottom of the valley, but now fills it and spills out over the rim.
La Paz is a fun, colorful city where something’s always going on. If you’re bored, you’re doing something wrong. Lea and I spent a week in La Paz (mas o menos). Here’s what I recommend based on our experience.
- Lots of Cardio
This is going to happen whether you want it or not, so just make it part of your plan. With the sole exception of several blocks along Calle Illampu, I never saw a single level street in the city. Imagine if you scooped up another South American city, dumped it in the mountains of West Virginia, then levitated it to the height of the lower Himalayas, and you’ve got La Paz. Being at high altitude already increases your heart rate. In La Paz, walking one block up the street is like doing five minutes on a Stairmaster. Why even pay for a gym membership when you could just move here?
- Get Haircuts In Spanish
I’d already done this in Quito but it was Lea’s first time. The lady in Ecuador cut my hair so short that I was able to go two whole months before getting it cut again. Even so, my top had only just reached its normal length, but the back was slowly turning into a mullet. Lea had hers cut just before we left Atlanta, but it had reached the point where she couldn’t ignore it any longer. Fortunately, our hostel is right next to a row of about twenty barber shops. Guys stand in the doorways calling out to people walking by, as if a haircut is ever an impulse purchase.
Seriously, though, this is an experience everyone should try at least once. Find a barber or hairstylist with whom you only share a handful of words in common and try and explain in pantomime how you would like your hair to look for the next six weeks. Charades was never this fun.
In the end, Lea rated her haircut as “close enough.” My barber gave me something like flattop with lots of gel (that I wasn’t expecting) and gave my beard and mustache the best trim they’ve ever had.
- Shop Your Touristy Heart Out in the Mercado de Brujas
The heart of the backpacker/tourist district of La Paz is Calle Sagarnaga, where there are hostels and travel agencies galore (as well as, if I may say so, an excellent Mexican restaurant called Kalakitas and a damn fine Cuban place called Sabor Cubano). The block between Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz, along Calle Linares and an adjoining alley, is the Witch’s Market (Mercado de Brujas). This is the souvenir-shop center of the city’s tourist industry.
The whole street smells of incense even after the shops close. About a quarter of the stores sell “witchy” items like herbal remedies, sex-aid potions, Tiwanakan totems, and mummified baby llamas (seriously) but the rest sell regular Andean souvenirs: T-shirts, bags, rugs, wall hangings, and about everything imaginable made out of llama or alpaca wool. Lea and I have avoided buying souvenirs so far, but knowing Bolivia was the least expensive place on the continent we finally broke down. If you happen to get a Christmas present shipped to you from South America this year, the Mercado de Brujas is probably where it came from.
- Ride the Teleférico While Commuters Look at You Strangely
Several times on this trip we’ve ridden teleféricos (aerial gondolas) in other countries. In Quito there was the one up the side of the Pichincha Volcano, as well as the open-air cable car across the waterfall gorge in Mindo. In Peru there was the spanking-new teleférico that took us up to Kuélap, the ancient walled city outside of Chachapoyas. Those were all tourist attractions. The teleféricos in La Paz, however, are actual public transportation.
That didn’t stop us from being geeky tourists. There are at least seven color-coded teleférico lines in La Paz serving as a sky-borne subway system. We rode the Orange Line, which goes east-to-west across the north part of the city, and the Red Line, which rises from the valley floor to El Alto, La Paz’s high suburb on the rim of the valley and home to a five-square-kilometer street market on Sundays. Except for our first ride on the Orange, in which we had a car to ourselves, we shared our gondolas with regular commuters minding their own business and ignoring the silly gringos taking photos through the scratched-up plexiglass.
- Witness the Warping of Spacetime In Mercado Lanza
At the bottom of Santa Cruz and Sagarnaga, about two blocks from our hostel, was the Plaza San Francisco and its big shopping center, Mercado Lanza. All cities in South America have mercados with crowded walkways between tiny stalls the size of walk-in closets. Most mercados are single story affairs. Mercado Lanza is another beast altogether.
From the outside it looks like a box. From the inside it looks like a car park designed by M.C. Escher in a particularly vindictive mood. The stalls are metal boxes on concrete ramps that shoot off in every conceivable direction: bookstores, vegetable stands, flower shops, and even restaurants that can sit up to eight people if they really like each other. Lea took me there on my first day in town, and the first words that went through my brain were “five dimensional hypercube.”
What really blows my mind is that no matter which level you’re on in the mercado, there’s an exit directly to the street. How that works I’m not sure. I just enjoyed my Bs15 ($2) dinner and tried not to think about the geometry of the space. That way madness lies.
- Visit Enough Museums to Become an Exhibit Yourself
You’d think we’d be sick of museums by this point and you’d be right, but La Paz has a depth and breadth of museums to keep even jaded three-month travelers like ourselves entertained. The only problem is having to climb mountains to reach them. That and the fact that they like to close at lunch and not re-open until late in the afternoon.
Lea checked out the Precious Metals Museum and the Museo de San Francisco before I arrived. Together we went to the National Museum of Art and the Museum of Ethnography & Folklore, both of which have impressive collections. The latter has an entire room of masks, a room of metalwork (both ancient and contemporary), and a room of clothing and hats made of plumage.
We later went to the National Archaeology Museum (also known as the Tiwanaku Museum) and tried to go to the Contemporary Art Museum (in a building designed by Gustave Eiffel of all people) only to find that it had been shut down. Wandering around, we saw a Museum of Geology and Paleontology that wasn’t marked on any of the maps, but didn’t get to go because of the aforementioned funky hours and an afternoon thunderstorm.
We did not go to the Coca Museum, the Museum of Bolivian Beverages, or the Museum of Musical Instruments, but all those things are out there if you happen to be in town and feel so inclined. I’m convinced there’s a limit to how many museums you can visit in so many cities before they invite you into a glass case of your very own and lock the door behind you.
- See Where Bolivianos Go When They Die
As is our habit, Lea and I visited La Paz’s biggest cemetery. The Cementerio General was actually the easiest place in town to find, since half the buses list “Cementerio” prominently as one of their destinations.
The cemetery in La Paz is big and does not waste space. There are no individual “graves” as we would think of in the U.S. and very few large family monuments. The Cementerio General is a massive apartment complex of a graveyard, including several structures that I could only think of as high-rise housing projects for the dead. The “streets” within are better marked than those in the city itself.
We visited the cemetery as they were getting it ready for Todos Santos. Artists had been creating large, creative, beautiful, and funny murals throughout the complex. It’s too bad that we’re going to miss all the excitement. Day of the Dead may not be as big in South America as it is in Mexico, but La Paz as a city seems to be really into Halloween. The Cementerio General may not be the prettiest cemetery Lea and I have visited, but thanks to it’s current artwork I’d say it’s definitely the most “gangsta.”
- Tour the City In an Open Bus While Ducking Tree Limbs and Power Lines
La Paz is too big to see just by walking. Luckily there is an open-top double-decker tour bus that runs three times each day. It costs Bs100 ($14.50) per person and has audio that you can listen to in seven languages. The tour runs from the north end of town through the historic center, up to the panoramic Mirador Killi Killi with its 360° view of the city, then south through the middle class Miraflores neighborhood and finally out the bottom to the Valley of the Moon and its eroded rock formations.
A few words of warning about the tour: First, the bus is fairly tall and the crazy bundles of power lines strung across La Paz’s narrow streets are fairly low. The tour guide told us not to stand up and that’s the best piece of advice I got all week. Otherwise I’d have been clotheslined by an electrical cable and Lea would have collected on my life insurance. Even staying in my seat, I had to duck more than once.
The same goes for trees, which the bus is not low enough to clear. I only got smacked in the head one time, but there were several close shaves. The other problem is that the bus’s shock absorbers aren’t what they could be and La Paz’s streets aren’t that smooth to begin with. I learned to take what pictures I could while the bus was stopped. To do so with the bus in motion would have resulted in having a camera shoved up my nose.
- Try To Take Pictures of the Surrounding Mountains
Speaking of photography, if there is one challenge that is both maddening and irresistible it’s trying to take pictures of the snow-capped mountains that circle La Paz’s valley, of which the giant volcano Illimani is the crown jewel. In the city itself they’re usually obscured by the buildings or the rim of the valley. If you do get high enough to see them, they’re often shrouded in cloud.
Attempt One: We read in the Footprint South American Handbook (that we chopped up to carry with us and discard in pieces as we leave each country), that there was a great view of Illimani at sunset if we walked up Calle Max Paredes, dodging homicidal bus drivers and edging around market stalls, up to the intersection with Avenida Buenos Aires. What the book failed to mention was that when we got to Buenos Aires all we had to do was turn around to see the mountain. We walked up and down several blocks looking for this supposed “view” until we gave up and headed back– only then to see the mountain right in front of us, all its glory blocked from photographic perfection by the hundreds of power lines strung across the street.
Attempt Two: While walking around the Cementerio General, I happened to look down one of the alleys to see – snow capped mountains! I started looking for the best unobstructed angle and eventually decided to climb the stairs to the top floor of one of those “high rise” mortuaries I mentioned. Several of the mountains were in easy reach of my telephoto lens, although it was hard to keep trees, roofs, and other structures out of the frame.
Attempt Three: The Cementerio General, as it turns out, was right next to a station for the Red teleférico line. Instead of heading home by bus, we walked around the corner to the gondolas. On the way down we had a fantastic view of Illimani, blocked by the grill of the gondola doors. Once we reached the bottom, we bought two more tickets to ride back up, this time with the doors facing north and the large bay window facing the mountain. At last we got our shots of Illimani! At the upper station we had to buy two more tickets to get home. The attendants gave us funny looks, seeing as we’d gone through their turnstiles three times in ten minutes.
- Watch the Flying Cholitas Kick Ass
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If you’re in La Paz on a Sunday, there is one thing you absolutely have to do. If you’re just passing through, miss your bus or skip your flight so you can hang around and see this.
The Flying Cholitas are women wrestlers who fight in full traditional outfits. They perform in El Alto on the rim of the canyon in a back-alley gymnasium that has the feel of an underground Fight Club. It takes place around and after dark in one of the sketchier areas of town, so booking a tour through an agency is recommended.
The show is up-close, intimate, and spectacular. It begins with some regular male luchadores to warm up the crowd, but when the ladies come out it’s Game On. They throw each other into and out of the ring, they chase their opponents into the stands, they go after the announcers if they don’t like what they hear. They’ll beat each other with plastic water bottles (with the effect of soaking any spectators nearby, such as your humble author). Once they tied one of their opponents to the ropes with her own braids before laying the beat-down.
Cheesy? A little. Hilarious? Absolutely. Surreal? You better believe it. But it sure as hell beats following a gaggle of tourists taking selfies in front of ancient monuments. Anyone taking a selfie in front of the Flying Cholitas would probably be rewarded with a metal folding chair to the head.
The Escape Hatch will be going dark as Lea and I head out into the salty Bolivian desert. I’m confident that when I report back, the photos will be worth the wait.
Stay tuned, dear readers.