Bolivia travel blog by Mark Berman -
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La Paz, what an amazing place it is! I have been in and out of La Paz about 4 times in 2008-2009 entering and exiting from and to different
places and stayed here for 6 weeks in 2011 and was back in 2015. I have spent well over 2 months here all together. In my mind I call La Paz the mad house, it is like sensory overload on steroids.
The first time in La Paz for me was the most South American of cities I had visited. It has everything you would want and expect like
markets, street vendors, indigenous people and culture, cheap shopping and crazy chaotic street action. La Paz is edgy, weird, fun and loco.
I have stayed in accommodation here ranging from party hostels to a private room in a budget hotel. I have had some great experiences here and
met many travelers and made some good friends in the hostels.
It is impossible to be in La Paz long without noticing how walking up hill
leaves you breathless, even a short distance uphill has a big effect. The altitude is 3660 meters. La Paz is shaped like a bowl, in a chasm
nearly 5km from rim to rim. To help overcome the effects of altitude, locals chew coca leaves and travelers drink lots of coca tea. There
are a variety of medications available from pharmacies for altitude sickness, but I wouldn't take any of these unless you are in a really
bad way. The best way to combat the altitude is to gradually make your way up here over the period of a couple of days. Don't drink too much alcohol
because it has twice the effect as normal, drink coca tea or chew the leaves, take it easy and walk slowly.
What Do You See?
So if you took a walk around La Paz, what would you see? Musicians, donuts, markets, taxis, chocolate and sweet stalls, sunglasses, shoe
shine boys, cuddly toys, people marching in protest, woman wearing colorful and traditional clothing and hats, freshly squeezed fruit
juice, clothing and accessories, police, churches, statues and that is just the tip of the iceburg.
Mercado Negro (Market)
La Paz has some great markets including
Mercado Negro, there is clothing and shoes for sale everywhere. A pair of good jeans cost me about $10USD, a pair of good sneakers are about
$20-$40USD. In this and other markets whole streets are dedicated to one product, for example a whole street that sells only bananas or
a street with only sports equipment. Leave some room in your backpack to fill it up with some nice 'n' cheap goodies from La Paz.
The Witches Market
One of the popular magnets for travelers and tourists in La Paz is the witches market which is just down from the Hard Rock Cafe near Santa
Cruz de la Sierra street. Here you will see witchy things like dried frogs, llama fetuses, secret health potions, coca leaves, insense,
ceramic witches and beautiful little glass bottles with colorful things inside them. These are used to bring your family good luck and well
being. On the rest of the street in the witches market area are shops designed to extract money from the tourist, the products are
beautiful but they are much more expensive than if you just walked around the markets and found them. There are some nice music shops in
the street, at least 5 selling wooden pipes, whistles, nice acoustic guitars (don't buy guitars made from Armadillos) and percussion.
Make sure that you bargain the prices down when buying things like hammocks and the nice colorful Bolivian clothing that they have here.
You can buy bags, tablecloths, drink bottle shoulder slings, gloves, hats, wall hangings, finger puppets, postcards and souvenirs.
There is a cool shop that sells different types of Bolivian masks called Mama Coca. The witches market area is clean and well policed.
On the main street of the witches market is the coca museum Museo De La Coca
where there is a lot of information about the history of the Andes and coca.
You receive a guidebook when you go in and follow the numbers corresponding to the informational boards on the walls, its interesting.
Upstairs they sell drinks with coca including coca tea and coca coffee, there is also coca cookies, coca cinnamon rolls, coca cake and
coca bread with salami and cheese. At the entrance to the museum is a big wooden press that used to be used for pressing the leaves.
The Main Drag
Walk down the hill to the main drag, turn left past the cathedral and walk up through all
the stalls and vendors up to the bridge for a nice view of the gardens below, the markets and the people and city around you. It pays to keep
your camera hidden away until you want to use it. Don't take photos of the shoeshine boys, they don't like it. Some wear balaclavas to cover
their faces, its social stigma.
Protests and Marches
Protests are very common in La Paz. I have seen street marches with fireworks going off (huge bangs) everytime I have been here. I was in
La Paz on May 1st and there was major celebrations all day for May Day - National Workers Day. There were also major protests at the same time,
massive street marches with banners, signs and chanting. It was a great atmosphere and was very exciting to get into the middle of. There
was a stage with music and speaking and thousands of Bolivian people all dressed up and having a great day. It is the most crowded I have
ever seen the plaza areas.
Walking around La Paz getting a little disorientated is part of the fun, you can never really get lost. If you are lost, head down the hill
to the main street. Travel at night by taxi, bars are only licensed until 4am. I wouldn't advise going to certain afterhours clubs or bars
and I wouldn't want to mention their names either. Watch out for pickpockets in markets, bars and on the street. Be careful of anyone who
says the money you gave them is counterfeit when you know you just got it out of an ATM, this has been tried on me and after I said no and
that I had got it from an ATM, they backed down and accepted it. I guess for them it was worth a try.
Restaurants and Food
I can recommend some
restaurants - La Mia Pizza across and up the road a bit from the Hard Rock Cafe, they make a nice lasagne, pizza and falafel and have a
free salad bar, the man here speaks good English. The other is called 100% Natural, it is just down the street from the witches market,
they have nice soups, meals and cakes and have good service. I ate lunch a lot at Restaurant La Hacienda on Illampu Street, huge 4 course
meals for around $5USD, fantastic and recommended. When I stayed here for 6 weeks in late 2011 I bought fruit, vegetables and meat most days
from Mercado Rodriguez up from the witches market. I cooked it on my small hotplate in my hotel room.
Coming and Going
I have arrived into or left La Paz
in various directions by bus or plane, they being Copacabana
, Santa Cruz
and Colombia (by plane).
Domestic air-travel in Bolivia is quite cheap, there is a military airline owned by the government called Transportes Aereos Militares
(TAM) which is a bit cheaper than the other airlines, they offer a civilian service. I have travelled with them twice. Have fun in La Paz!