La Paz is the highest capital in the world with an altitude of 3,650 meters (11,975 feet) above sea level.
This South American country has two capitals: La Paz and the colonial city of Sucre. However, 2.3 million people live in this city that is very close to the southeast of Lake Titicaca.
The city is located in a canyon created by the Choqueyapu River that causes the sensation of being in a bowl surrounded by the mountains of the Altiplano. The three peaks of Illimani, always covered with snow, can be seen from many parts of the city. As soon as you get there, the altitude causes you to lose air, so it is recommended to eat lightly and rest the first day. Mate de coca is the local remedy for soroche, even though aspirin also works.
We stayed in the newly opened Selina La Paz, located in the bohemian neighborhood of Sopocachi. It is the best neighborhood if you want to go out, since it is full of cafes, bars and restaurants. You will see beautiful colonial mansions and a lot of urban art.
What to do in La Paz?
Coca has been registered by indigenous people in the area for five thousand years. The oldest leaves were found in Huaca Prieta on the coast of Peru. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first plants used domestically in the world. The museum tells the story of coca through the ages, until the current demonization of cocaine. In Bolivia they chew the leaves or take them in tea, since it offers stimulating properties, such as coffee.
The Coca Museum tells how it evolved to be a problem when cocaine became popular in the United States. At the same time, it advocates to continue allowing the legal cultivation not for drug purposes. The museum is small and can be seen in less than an hour. However, photography is not allowed. It is in a beautiful old building with shops at its entrance. We sat down for a while in the patio and had a craft beer with coca.
Ride the Cable Car
La Paz reminded me a little of Medellín, another city full of brick buildings with a cable car that serves as a means of transportation for those who live on the heights. However, La Paz has the largest network of urban cable cars in the world. It is commonly known as “Mi Teleférico” even though it looks like it’s the President’s, Evo Morales, cable cars, since he has his photo on each of the cars. In his defense, the project began in 2014 under his mandate.
At the end of 2018, the system had 25 stations in eight lines. There are three more in planning, which upon completion will add 11 lines and 30 stations. It is the main transportation method in La Paz and when it is complete it will cover 33.8 kilometers (21 miles). Next to La Paz is the city of El Alto, which is the second most populous city in Bolivia (La Paz is the third). With this in mind, makes sense that the cable car goes between both cities.
Although it is a transportation system for the locals, it is also used by tourists. It is an excellent way to see the views offered by the city. We took the red line that leaves from the General Cemetery heading to El Alto. They told us that on Thursdays and Saturdays they make the “Mercado July 16” which is the largest in South America. Obviously we took this opportunity to check it out but it is not for tourists.
Valley of the moon
There are many options of places to visit near La Paz, such as El Valle de La Luna, which is 10 kilometers away from downtown. You can take a bus or taxi that are very cheap in Bolivia. This valley received its name from the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, who visited Bolivia in 1969 just after walking on the moon. Hence he said the site reminded him of the lunar landscapes he saw.
Mountains of the Valley of the Moon are made of clay that has been eroded over the years, making them look like stalagmites. The minerals in the clay cause differences in colors ranging from cream to reddish tones. The complete tour lasts 45 minutes and is quite easy. There is not much vegetation in the area other than 32 different types of cactus.
Market of the Witches
Possibly La Paz has the only market to buy objects to make witchcraft. This practice is ancestral and comes from the time of the indigenous Aymara. Rituals are performed tot hank the Pachamama (Mother Earth) where a fetus of llama is buried, along with other offerings. In essence, this is done for the welfare of a new building. Those who are wealthy even sacrifice a living llama and spread their blood on the ground.
Achachilas (ancestors) are also thanked through offerings or using amulets. People ask for better health, love, work and material goods. White magic is practiced for protection, and black magic is used to curse. You will also find shamans reading fortune using coca leaves. Truly, the street is very curious and worth visiting.
The best thing to buy in La Paz are clothes made of alpaca and vicuna. Near the Coca Museum there are many shops selling products such as shawls, scarves, coats, gloves and clothing in general. They use natural dyes to color the clothes. It’s not cheap, but if you consider the quality then it’s definitely worth it.
A cemetery is usually not considered a tourist site but the General Cemetery is quite unusual. It is the largest cemetery in La Paz and it’s overcrowded. Originally they buried the dead in the atriums of the church but this ceased to be viable option as the population grew. In 1826, the President of Bolivia established the creation of cemeteries throughout the country. As the cemetery is public, it serves as a place to bury residents of all social strata. You will find monuments of illustrious figures and mausoleums of powerful families. At the same time, most tombs look like apartments mounted one above the other in buildings that can reach four stories high. In the front, the family places objects that remind the person, often bottles of liquor.
The graves are given for 10 years, then the bodies are transferred or cremated. It is possible to buy a grave but it costs 10 times the minimum monthly salary, being inaccessible for the majority. Many times the relatives do not pay and the bodies are evacuated without warning, making it almost impossible to find them later.
When you think of Bolivia, you do not think of a gastronomic destination because their food has not been internationalized. But surprisingly you can eat very well and at very reasonable prices. The most famous (and expensive) restaurant is Gustu which belongs to Claus Meyer, owner of Noma in Copenhagen. This famous chef wanted to find a place that had excellent food quality but was not recognized gastronomically. He made a list of four places. However, he went to Bolivia first, he fell in love and opened his restaurant. They offer a tasting menu with different options of dishes. It is also possible to order a la carte. You must have an open mind since some dishes are unusual.
If you are looking for typical Bolivian food there is no better place than El Vagon del Sur. First, you start with empanadas and then order from the menu. I asked for a piglet that came with plantain, sweet potato and potatoes, as well as a delicious salad with tomato, purple onion and corn. I do not recommend asking for an appetizer since the dishes are gigantic.
Surprisingly, my favorite restaurant was Ali Pacha, a vegan restaurant. The owner, Sebastian Quiroga, worked at Gustu and after watching a documentary called ‘Earthlings’ decided to be a vegan. The name means the universe of plants in the Aymara language. Just like Gustu is a tasting menu but it costs half. They have the option of combining the dishes with a wine pairing.