As I fastened my seatbelt on our flight from Cusco to La Paz, I took a deep breath and tried to brace myself for the second leg of our one week, two country tour of South America. Peru had lived up to and even surpassed expectations. Sure, there were challenges to overcome (especially when it came to the altitude), but tourist-saturated Cusco hadn’t been a really difficult location to visit. The food was great, most people spoke at least some English, and we felt quite confident as we navigated new places and immersed ourselves in new experiences. I wasn’t banking on the same warm feelings toward Bolivia.
Bolivia was hard from the beginning. US citizens have to fork over $160 USD per person to get a visa, which necessitated two trips to the Bolivian consulate in Washington, DC. We needed proof of vaccination against yellow fever, which meant another couple of hundred dollars for shots. And then there were the stories we heard about muggings, murders, gypsy cabs, getting lost, getting sick, and getting stopped at customs for not having the right paperwork. Bolivia seemed surrounded by barriers from the very beginning, but we were willing to climb them (or at least wait in line until it was our turn to enter).
Our plane touched down in La Paz, and we were among the first people in line at immigration. An immigration officer asked us if we had visas, and when we said yes we were directed to a window with no wait. A couple of stamps later we were collecting our luggage, and shortly after clearing customs we were in the arrivals hall at El Alto International Airport. No delays, no missing documents, no hard questions—in fact, no questions at all! Our second challenge, acquiring local currency, was just as easy. On the opposite side of the airport, past the check in counters, was a big room full of ATMs. A few minutes later, Bolivianos in hand, we got into an official airport taxi bound for the hotel. There are no gypsy cabs, or unofficial cabs, at the airport, so Adam and I felt very confident that we wouldn’t be abducted or robbed as we wove our way from the height of El Alto into the city of La Paz.
I found La Paz to be a tumultuous city burdened by a difficult history, corrupt leaders, and a general sense of dissatisfaction. I also found it to be brimming with kindness, great food, and a conflicted but ever-present national culture. Our introduction to the city started the way so many of our trips do: we took a food tour.
La Paz Food Tour
We stumbled upon Urban Adventures a while back, and after enjoying incredible food tours with their guides in three other countries we booked one for our first afternoon in La Paz.
I am convinced that the best way to get to know a new place is through its food; by extension, you are connected to the people who cook it, their traditions and culture, and the geography of the place and what its land and water can provide. We knew nothing about Bolivian cuisine before we arrived, so we figured a tour would also ensure we didn’t go hungry.
We met Yecid, a La Paz local and lifelong resident, in front of a giant book statue and he accompanied us to our first stop to try black potato soup. Potato soup has been a staple in Bolivian cuisine for centuries; made with beef stock and root vegetables, it takes a long time to make because of the altitude, so it isn’t the most common meal to find in a restaurant. We both really liked the soup; it was a very hearty start to our time in La Paz.
Already a bit full, we walked to Mercado Camacho for our second course: fruit salad. Yecid ordered for us, and while we waited for our next snack we took a quick tour of the market. The market itself wouldn’t have been remarkable except for the fact every stall we passed served the exact same item: fruit salad. There was no real differentiation between any of the salads; all of them advertised the same fruit with the same choice of yogurt. In fact, even the signs themselves were identical. Yecid told us that was intentional. If you want a fruit salad in La Paz, you go to Mercado Camacho. What separates each stall owner is the customer service provided. People might try a few fruit salads, and they become loyal to the person who treats them well. Aidita smiled broadly as we devoured our treat, and I had to admit, if I were to return to Mercado Camacho I wouldn’t order a fruit salad from anyone else.
Our next stop was quite a ways away, back in El Alto, which was a blessing in disguise. I was pretty full after just two stops (as it turned out, altitude even affected my appetite!). We hopped in a public van going in our direction, which provided Adam and me with front row seats to some of the most terrifying traffic conditions we had ever seen. Cars merging without looking, pedestrians with death wishes, and completely ignoring traffic signals were all par for the course. I was pretty impressed when we arrived at our destination entirely unscathed. Our bravery was rewarded with chocolate from El Ceibo. El Ceibo’s chocolate is lauded for being the only chocolate in the world completely produced by the collective that owns it, which means 100% of the profits are split between the people responsible for its production. We must have tried everything they had—everything from chocolate with Uyuni sea salt to chocolate covered puffed rice to chocolate bars with quinoa. With still more food to enjoy, we ended up repackaging quite a bit of it to take with us to our hotel.
We spent a bit of time walking through the streets of El Alto, a place tourists are usually warned against visiting. El Alto gets a bad, but perhaps deserved, reputation for being dangerous. The city is known for being a bit of a hotbed for crime, and theft is common there. We didn’t experience any of that, though. Maybe it was because of the time of day we visited (mid-afternoon on a Thursday), or maybe it was because we were with a local guide, but we didn’t feel unsafe at any point during our time wandering the El Alto streets. Before long, we were headed back to La Paz, but this time by cable car! Mi Teleférico is La Paz’s answer to the congested streets and terrible traffic. I don’t know that the concept has completely caught on yet, but several cable car lines exist to transport people to many areas of the city, and it was pretty spectacular to see La Paz from high above.
We had one more stop to make, and it was in many ways my favorite one: off the beaten path, down an unpaved road in a place where only locals walked the streets, we stopped in a restaurant for some fresh fish from nearby Lake Titicaca. Served with potatoes, my favorite was the catfish. Its salty, crunchy exterior was the perfect balance to the sweet, flaky fish underneath. I was sorry I wasn’t able to clean my plate. The food was delicious, but I was totally stuffed even before we arrived, so I only ate about half of what was served to me.
Our tour concluded at a lookout point where we watched as the sun started to set over the city. While that would have been a great ending to our first day on its own, the spot also happened to overlook the stadium where the Bolivia-Peru football match was being played. An obvious rivalry, it was pretty fun to feel part of the community as the city cheered for its home team (and yes, they won!).
La Paz City Tour
Our tour of La Paz was paused for two days while we visited the Salar de Uyuni salt flats and Lake Titicaca and Tiwanaku, but we picked up where we left off on our last full day with a city tour.
La Paz is synonymous with crowds, noise, and even chaos, so we were more than a bit surprised when we realized, as we walked toward our tour’s meeting point, there wasn’t a single car on the road. Not even one.
As we later learned, Sundays in La Paz are “pedestrian days,” which remove all vehicles from the streets and encourage people to walk, thereby eliminating traffic and significantly reducing the pollution caused by cars.
It’s a great initiative, and even after a short time in the city it was surreal to walk down the middle of the street without seeing cars anywhere.
San Pedro Prison
Our tour started at Plaza de San Pedro, a popular gathering place for tourists that also seemed to attract a good local crowd.
Plaza de San Pedro sits across from a La Paz spot I was really excited to see: Carcel de San Pedro, or the San Pedro Prison. This is not your typical prison. For years, the inmates have virtually policed themselves, turning the penitentiary into a city within a city. Inmates are sentenced to serve time there (many spend years—even decades—awaiting a trial date), and most of them pay for the privilege of having a cell of their own. Because the cost of a cell can be expensive, many inmates move their families in to live with them, which means children grow up within the prison walls and attend a school across the street.
It used to be possible to take tours of the prison, but because of how dangerous it is for foreigners (honestly, for anyone) to step inside—even if a guard promised protection—the government has cracked down on prison tourism.
Our tour walked us through the carless La Paz streets to Mercado Rodriguez, a huge outdoor market where I am pretty sure you can buy anything you want. We saw it all—produce, fish, clothing, household goods, even a vendor selling nothing but miscellaneous remote controls.
We paused for a bit to take a break from the sun (and the hills!) to learn a bit about local fashion, specifically the hats the cholitas wear. Cholitas are indigenous women who are easy to identify; they wear beautiful, traditional outfits adorned with petticoats, colorful shawls, and bowler hats. The theory is that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived they ordered fashionable bowler hats from England, but when the hats arrived they were too small for their heads. The Spanish gave the hats to the cholitas and convinced them that high-class women wore tiny hats, and so the cholitas adopted the hats into their wardrobes. Even today, every cholita we saw wore a hat that was a bit too small for her head, so regardless of whether the tale is true it’s an interesting theory!
No trip to La Paz is complete without passing through the Witches Market, where it’s still commonplace to practice what some people might consider the dark arts.
The Witches Market sells everything — potions to make someone love you, potions to make someone stop loving you, and even llama fetuses which many people believe bring good luck when they are incorporated into a house’s foundation. They also have a great selection of shops that sell tourist trinkets and souvenirs, so it can be the perfect place to find a magnet, hat or Incan statue to remember your trip.
It was here that we learned about some less desirable practices as well. Some Bolivians believe in making sacrifices (animals or humans) as part of their practice of witchcraft, and we heard a few tales of locals drugging the homeless or foreigners in order to incorporate them into their ceremonies. I was a bit dubious as I listened to our tour guide tell the stories, but I focused a bit more when they started talking about the local Satanists. We visited Uyuni on a Friday, and while in our taxi on the way from El Alto to La Paz we saw a large group of people standing on the side of the highway in front of enormous bonfires. I didn’t think much of it (it had started to snow, so I thought they were trying to keep warm), but when I heard that Satanists conducted animal sacrifices on Tuesdays and Fridays at Curva del Diablo, or Devil’s Curve (the spot on the highway where we saw the fires) I wondered just how much truth there was to what our guides were sharing.
I wouldn’t have believed that there were Satanists sacrificing anything in La Paz, but having seen the exact scene that was described to me, I wondered if maybe such a thing did actually happen. Either way, going out alone was out of the question!
San Francisco Church
Just past the Witches Market is the Iglesia de San Francisco, a magnificent Catholic church built between the 1500s and 1700s. We only saw the exterior, but it was incredibly impressive. Numerous carvings illustrate the cultural mix that contributes to La Paz’s history, including some that reflect the Tiwanaku and Incan cultures. Up close, it was interesting to see the contrast between the native Bolivian carvings and the more traditional Catholic saints.
To be honest, it was hard to pay attention to the church because just across the street a man was standing on the ledge of an open window. As we watched, he jumped out and started to repel his way down the building. Our guide let us know we, too, could follow in his vertical footsteps if we wanted to add that to our bucket lists, but Adam and I decided to pass on that (although Adam did get a great video of the guy as he made his descent!).
Our final stop was where we started our La Paz visit just a few days earlier. Plaza Murillo is the political center of La Paz, and it is home to the presidential palace and the National Congress of Bolivia. Before we could learn anything about the plaza from our guides, though, we were treated to a surprise changing of the guard ceremony, which included a small parade that walked the perimeter of the plaza before heading away from the old town. We have seen changing of the guard ceremonies in many cities, and this one may have raised the bar a bit!
Bolivia has a complicated political history, much of which our guides lightly touched upon given the many sensitivities surrounding those topics. Interestingly, they were not comfortable speaking about politics in the plaza; they took us to a local restaurant to more openly tell a few stories. La Paz is a very political city, with citizens who vocally support—and do not support—their leadership. Everywhere we went, we saw spray painted messages around the city– ¡Evo sí! Or ¡Evo no!—relating to current president Evo Morales, whose popularity is not exactly widespread throughout the country. I enjoyed hearing about some of the nuances that help to define Bolivia’s political climate and, by extension, its culture. The challenges they have faced due to some of the leaders they have elected have without question shaped the country in both positive and negative ways.
One last thing…
We had big plans for the afternoon (an extended city tour and a return to El Alto to see cholitas wrestling!), but those plans didn’t pan out. As our morning tour progressed, I found myself feeling more and more ill. Blaming it on dehydration and the altitude, I pushed through until the end. By the time our tour was over, I had to go back to the hotel to rest (I was feeling almost too weak to walk). I was hoping to take a nap, but instead I spent the rest of my final day in Bolivia battling a surprisingly severe case of food poisoning. Adam didn’t really fare any better than I did (we later determined the culprit was probably the tainted “chicken bon bons” from dinner at our hotel the night before), and so instead of watching an admittedly touristy cholitas wrestling show, I let Bolivia win the final round.
We knew La Paz would be hard. We knew it would have a very different culture with rules we didn’t understand. Somehow, though, it is one of my favorite places that I have been to so far. Once we got past the fact it would challenge us as travelers, the city opened up to reveal kind people, delicious food, surprising history, and beautiful architecture. Sure, it is all hidden beneath a layer of chaotic traffic peppered with crime (or at least the potential for crime), but you could make such an argument for any city around the world. I liked that it didn’t look like anywhere else I had been, nor did it have the personality of any other city I had visited.
When we stopped comparing it to other places and embraced it for the character it possesses, I found myself smiling at the pandemonium that would have been so hard to accept anywhere else. That’s just part of La Paz’s charm. When you learn to appreciate a place for what it is, and only what it is, it’s amazing how rewarding a visit can be.
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a day tour with Urban Adventures, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Urban Adventures based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.