Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace) is Bolivia’s second largest city – after Santa Cruz de la Sierra – and is set high in the Andes mountains on the Altiplano (high plains in spanish). The city is built in a bowl, almost like a crater, with the rich and middle class living towards the lower areas in the centre. When the city began to expand the only way it could go was up, so in all directions the houses were built up the sides of the bowl. The poorer people of La Paz live in the brick buildings that span all visible walls. At night, the lights of the city are a marvel to see, both from the centre looking up and from the rim looking down.
On the southern horizon of La Paz is Bolivia’s 2nd tallest mountain, Illimani, at just over 6,400m. Illimani is only the 18th tallest mountain in the Andes.
As you arrive in La Paz by bus, you will no doubt travel around the top of the bowl and be amazed when you look down at the sprawling city below. However, for the first couple of days, the central city – no doubt where you’ll be staying – seems a little dirty and run down, with the calls of Bolivians trying to sell you whatever they can or the beggars silently holding their hands out to you. As you slowly explore the city over the first couple of days, it grows on you very quickly. There’s a certain charm about La Paz.
La Paz has plentiful markets and shopping areas, but there’s a strange thing that I’ve found about Bolivia in general is that they don’t have just one store selling something, they have an entire block of small stores selling the same thing. As an example, I spent 2 days in the city of Santa Cruz before coming to La Paz and found a three story mall with about 100 shops in it, 95 of them selling mobile phones. Most of the stores were selling exactly the same models too. This is the same in La Paz, I walked through the hardware sales section of the central city and there were shop after shop selling exactly the same thing, with even smaller booth shops set up in front of the other shops selling the same thing also. It did make it easier when I was looking for a new sleeping bag, all the adventure stores were grouped together as well.
The location of La Paz enables it to be a hub for many different activities, with plentiful hikes across the altiplano, the Death Road, and busses leaving for the jungle to the north or the salt flats to the south. In the city there are a couple of parks and miradors, but most things are just outside the city. When walking around the city, you will note a plentiful small plazas and the occasional piece of architecture. On one day, I caught a taxi to The Megacentre, a multi level mall with large movie theatre. When you enter the centre, you wander if you’ve left Bolivia.
Lastly, unless you have come from the high areas of Peru or the salt flats, you are going to have to deal with the altitude. The lowest point of La Paz is 3,500m while the highest is 4,200m. So, for the first day in the city, you might have a serious headache and it will be hard work climbing the numerous hills or stairs, as the lack of air will have you gasping like crazy. There are plentiful ways to deal with altitude sickness, pre dosing with altitude pills, chewing on coca leaves, buying special coca powder (no, not cocaine, although that is derived from the leaves) or similar. After a few days it gets easier, although you may still have issues climbing steps.
My time in La Paz has been most enjoyable and I would recommend a visit if you are in the region.
The Lone Trail Wanderer