City in Focus: Nuestra Señora de La Paz. Spanish for Our Lady of Peace and commonly known as ‘La Paz’.
La Paz will take your breath away, and only partly because the city sits approximately 3650m above sea level. The approach to La Paz from the outlying city of El Alto (home to the world’s highest international airport) is one that will stay with you long after you leave. The flat roads and bumper to bumper traffic lead to the edge of the valley which cradles the city. It is here that visitors catch their first glimpses of the city below; and what spectacular views they are! Dotted on the steep slope down to the city centre are unfinished houses (a popular way to avoid paying property tax) crammed together, spires and office buildings and the Cordillera Real mountain range in the background.
High altitude and steely inclined streets; this is not a city to rush around. Don’t let that stop you from exploring the city on foot, however. An energy pulses through the streets as locals go about their daily life. Locals drinking cans of soft drink while hovering and chatting by the drinks vendor; people queuing for freshly squeezed orange juice served by the glass; small crowds forming in front of tiny food stands dotted all over the city; shoppers browsing the wares at markets that line the footpaths and streets: in many ways the streets are the heartbeat of not only life in La Paz, but also the economy.
Visitors interested in the local markets are spoiled for choice. At the eccentric Witches Market (Mercado de las Brujas) you can browse llama foetuses, powders for luck, beauty, fertility, potions, plants, spells or simply ask for spiritual advice. El Alto market, which sits overlooking the city, is the biggest open air market in Bolivia and in addition to selling just about anything imaginable, affords fantastic views of the city below with a stunning snow-capped mountainous backdrop. Grab an ice-cream and enjoy!
La Paz- home to ‘The most dangerous road in the word’. Tours to Yungas Road (more commonly known as ‘Death Road’) are increasingly popular. Thrill seeking-tourists are drawn to the 64 km continuous stretch of downhill road. This is extreme down-hill mountain biking!
Located about 10km from the Centre of La Paz is Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna). A choice of two paths leads visitor through the unique landscape (not unlike that of Cappadocia, Turkey). The landscape is covered in spires, formed by erosion and creating an ‘other-worldly’ atmosphere. An enjoyable change of pace for a couple of hours from the bustle of the city.
Jump on the red line of the Teleférico (cable car) and take a leisurely ride to the top of the city. From beginning to end if lifts you up nearly 500m and gives passengers a spectacular view of the snow-capped mountain, Illimani. The view on top of houses provides an interesting ‘peak’ into local life. Keep an eye out for the car wedged between the edges of the cliff face when you near the top!
Wander. Around every corner this often quirky cosmopolitan has something new and interesting to offer the traveller who is willing to be drawn into local life. Watch football games being played by kids and adults alike on one of the many fields. Grab an empanada (or the equally tasty Tucumana which is a deep fried pastry stuffed with beef or chicken) and sit on the steps of the San Francisco Plaza and simply take La Paz life; the people, the sights, the sounds, the energy.
About an hour’s plane ride from La Paz, lies Uyuni, home to the desolate Salar de Uyuni. This is the world’s largest salt flat. Popular with tourists in particular because of photo opportunities this desert-like landscape affords.
Chewing coca leaves (or drinking coca tea) is said to prevent the effects of altitude sickness.
Taxis are relatively cheap and are a great way to get around La Paz. Agree on a fare before you get in and only take radio taxis. These can generally be identified by the prominent taxi company sign and phone number on the vehicle’s roof.
Home to around 2000 inmates, San Pedro prison is more than a little unusual in that it is effectively a self-governing community. There are no guards inside and outside authorities very rarely intervene. Justice inside is determined and administered by the inmates. Money talks inside the prison and much of the money comes from cocaine (said to be the purest in Bolivia). Incredibly, black-market tourism prison operates to allow groups through the prison. Though the government has clamped down upon this recently, it still occurs.
Some properties are available to rent under a system known as ‘anticretico’, whereby the property owner requests a given amount of money (say $40 000) in exchange for their house for an agreed period of time. After the contract period is up, the owner returns the full amount to the renter who then moves on or repeats the process. Effectively free rent!
What did we miss? What was your experience of La Paz? Leave your thoughts below.