La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital is a fascinating place. Many people use it as the starting point for a trip to the world-reknowned Uyuni Salt Flats or a thrilling trip down the famous “death road”. The city has a way of doing everything it’s own way and with it’s own unique character. Whether watching the ladies at Cholita’s wrestling fly, getting a bird’s eye view of the city from its one of a kind network of cable cars that soar above, or losing yourself in Mercado Lanza’s winding halls, La Paz is a delight to discover. Read on for our recommendations on the best things to do in La Paz, Bolivia.
After spending a blissful two weeks in Arequipa, Peru we took a Bolivia Hop bus from there to La Paz with a beautiful stopover in the Lake Titicaca area. We had heard so many conflicting things about Bolivia that we didn’t really know what to expect. Many fellow travellers raved about its unique character and rated it as among their favourite places to visit in South America, while others described it as lacking resources and pumped their blog posts up with scary stories about fake police robbery scams, non-existent toilet paper, poor customer service, and taxi kidnappings. This left us nervous but excited as we entered bustling La Paz.
Is Bolivia Safe?
First things first, let’s talk about safety. In our humble opinion (and you’re not allowed to hold us accountable if something bad happens to you), Bolivia is a relatively safe country and the risks seem to be unfairly overblown by some travellers and bloggers. Bolivia in general has a reputation for being a tough place to travel because road blocks and protests can hamper travel plans, and it is often seen as lacking the same level of development and infrastructure as its South American neighbours. Although those assumptions are somewhat true, things are changing in Bolivia for the better and we would hate for out-dated information to lead a traveller to skip La Paz or Bolivia all together.
While Evo Morales’ methods for hanging on to power are undeniably questionable, he has managed to get a lot of things done. Many roads around the country have been improved, there is a new tourist police force, a unique cable car public transportation system was installed in La Paz, all food vendors whether restaurants or market stalls have to undergo a health check and pass a food safety knowledge test, and even the street dogs in La Paz are safer than other places because city workers round them up once a year to give them vaccinations against common diseases. The ones who receive vaccinations get a green or orange collar so you can tell who has received their shots.
Fake Police, Fuera!
In La Paz, the real tourist police have all but put an end to the fake tourist police scam that you might read about. We did however, hear of someone getting roped into an elaborate scam in Santa Cruz, where someone asked a tourist to take a picture of another tourist, the other tourist was actually working with the fake cop and the tourist ended up having his bag “searched” which is scammer code for he was robbed. As with the fake police of the past, you need to refuse to give anything over to them unless it is in a public shop or police station. They will likely give it up with some push back and the chances of them following you if you walk away are very slim.
Likewise, registered radio taxis have killed the taxi kidnappings that used to happen in La Paz. Now as long as a taxi has a light on its roof it is registered with the government and the driver has to undergo a criminal record check, so it should be safe to ride in and they are abundant. In fact, the unregistered taxis are a rarer sight. The radio taxis in other cities aren’t as obvious, but often drivers will display their registration in their window, so look for the ones that do this and you should be safe.
As always, negotiate prices and don’t bother with tipping unless the service was truly exceptional because they likely already tipped themselves with an inflated fare. They don’t use counters like in parts of Ecuador, Argentina and Chile. Also as always, use extra caution late at night and travel with a buddy. Otherwise, we’ve met some really nice and helpful taxi drivers. One guy in Santa Cruz played heavy metal music for us and even asked to take a picture of us because he “had never had Canadians in his cab before”. We had just downed about 3 pints each at the Brown Fox so we obliged happily.
As is the case with many places in the world, driving remains the most unsafe thing you can do. Be sure to research long distance bus companies for safety accidents, and do use tremendous caution when crossing the city streets as cars rule the road here. If you’re doing so near Plaza San Francisco, look out for the people in zebra costumes. They are there to remind drivers to watch out for pedestrians and be safe on the road. You won’t be able to avoid risks related to traffic altogether, but you can’t back home either so don’t let fear of the roads stop you. Do be prepared for a potential road block, but know that we didn’t see a single one in our 2 months in Bolivia. Alfie, our city guide from HanaqPacha said anyone could email the office ahead of time to find out if the route they were planning on taking is clear of roadblocks.
As for theft and personal safety, we were fine walking around La Paz with huge (in the local currency folks) wads of cash to pay for tours, including after dark. Do keep your belongings close, and we heard that you might want to take money out before you go to El Alto so you don’t have to use the ATM there where robberies are said to happen occasionally. The area around Plaza San Francisco is safe even at night as many cameras have been installed.
As with anywhere, watch out for the distraction technique where some drops something, bumps into you, or splashes you to distract you while their friend robs you. One lady was extremely persistent in asking me to help her lift a heavy bag onto her back and I wondered if that’s what she was up to. At any rate, none of my stuff walked away from me so it’s possible she just needed some help from a stranger.
Altitude Sickness in La Paz
La Paz is considered to be the highest capital city in the world with an elevation of 3650m above sea level. As such, many people suffer symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, sometimes colloquially referred to as “altitude sickness.”
Definitely take a couple days to get used to the elevation before heading into the nearby Cordillera Real, and if you’re really suffering you should probably avoid alcohol and heavy exercise. Lots of people will tell you about all kind of folk remedies for curing altitude sickness but the only thing that really works is time and/or going to a lower elevation. Your body needs time to make more red blood cells so that it can make up for the oxygen it’s unable to draw from the high elevation air.
You can chew on coca leaves if you want, but all they’re good for is giving you a bit of energy and offering some pain relief. They do not cure altitude sickness; rather, they only ease the symptoms. Only walking downhill or making more red blood cells which is long process can cure it. But feel free to listen to that guy on the bus who just knows otherwise.
There are some prescription medications (dexamethasone) that can ease the symptoms of AMS for a short period of time, as well as some (acetazolamide aka Diamox) that can be taken prior to heading to elevations above 2500m to speed up acclimation. In my experience, Diamox made me piss like a racehorse, so I prefer good old fashioned time. But do talk to a trained medical professional about preventing and treating AMS as it is potentially a life-threatening condition, and try not to take the guy on the bus’ word for it.
While La Paz is generally fairly safe, one moment did scare the living daylights out of me. We were leaving Mercado Lanza when a man who was either extremely high on something other than a jungle plant, or was indeed a demon on earth starting staring at me with his dark, wide pupil eyes with such intensity I thought he may try to either eat my face like that guy on bathsalts, or swallow my soul on his way back to hell. To make matters worse, he followed me as I backed away from him across the bridge while telling him to f*ck off in English (because demons totally understand that). Mr. Zen was somewhere else taking pictures so I had to race backwards to the middle of the bridge before I finally lost him. Make no mistake; it was a big ass bridge. By the time I lost this freaky being, my legs were numb from the sheer terror of it all.
Scary paranormal or whatever the hell (heyo!) that encounter was aside, La Paz is a safe, vibrant, and exciting place that we loved. If you go, just watch out for demons/people who are high on I don’t know what.
La Paz Facts
La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia (Sucre is the constitutional one) and the country’s 3rd largest city. The city itself has a population of just shy of one million, while the larger metropolitan area including El Alto and Viacha has a total population of over 2.3 million inhabitants.
Despite being at an elevation that’s higher than most peaks in the Canadian Rockies at 3650m, it has a surprisingly mild climate. Nights can be cool, dipping to just below zero, but daytime temperatures are usually in the high teens and early 20s Celsius. We recommend a scarf and jacket for going out after dark, but the days were usually sunny and nice when we were there in August.
Getting there is easy since most roads lead there. We used Bolivia Hop from Copacabana to arrive by bus and it was a safe and comfortable journey. It took about 2 hours more than advertised, but welcome to bus travel in South America. Thank goodness for downloaded to offline podcasts!
While the city is not conventionally beautiful the way some other South American cities like Arequipa is, it is indomitably charming. From the witches market, to all the exciting happenings in Plaza San Franciso, to the views of nearby 6000m peaks, the city pulses with vibrant life. La Paz just seems to do everything with it’s own rhythm which makes it a unique and interesting place to visit.
The Best Restaurants in La Paz
La Paz has some incredible restaurants for all tastes and budgets. We found everything from great cheap local almuerzos, to fine dining at a fraction of the price you would pay back home, and even absolutely delicious ramen. The street eats are delightful too and we never suffered any of the stomach troubles that plagued us in Peru. In short, go to La Paz and stay for the food.
Here’s a sample of our favourite food and places we ate in La Paz:
These are kind of like empanadas but are filled with a more soupy filling. You should hear liquid when you shake one to know that it’s good. We liked the saltenas at Tia Gladys best.
Api con Pastel
Api is a warm traditional corn-based drink that is so comforting on cool, Altiplano mornings. Our favourite was the red and white mixed version. It is generally served with a small fried flour “cake” or pastel. It should only set you back between 4-10 bbs. You can get some great api con pastel in Mercado Lanza or in El Alto.
Sopa de Mani
This traditional soup is made with peanuts and pasta noodles and is both delicious and filling. It can be found just about anywhere and is a popular first course in almuerzos, but we had a great bowl at La Soperia beside the Greenhouse Hostel in Sopocachi.
Allegedly invented in Cochabamba, silpancho is a thin fried steak, generally served over rice and is a great budget eats option.
Yes, ramen! Izakaya Hinode in the Sopocachi makes some of the best ramen we’ve had since visiting Japan. The sushi wasn’t much to write home about but the ramen was top notch and great value.
Nestled in the fancy neighbourhood where all the expats live, Gustu is a restaurant owned by the same individual behind Noma, which is known as one of the best restaurants in the world. There you can try the bold experimental tasting menu or order à la carte and enjoy a Michelin-starred, fine dining experience for a fraction of what you would pay back home. We went à la carte and dined on some amazing food, wine, and cocktails for about the same as we would pay for a mediocre meal at an overpriced steakhouse back home. Gustu is definitely worth it. Be sure to take the telerificos (cable cars) to get there!
This is a drink made from cinnamon, cloves, and dried peaches. When we first saw it in the street we thought it looked disgusting (dried peaches look suspiciously like brains at the bottom of the cup) but they have been boiled for hours so they are safe to drink. It can be served either hot or cold and is a delicious refresco to be enjoyed any time.
This dish consists of thin strips of steak served with hot peppers, tomatoes, onions, and hard boiled eggs on top of fried potatoes. It’s not exactly healthy and is generally served in a stupidly large portion, so share with a friend.
If after that pique macho you’re craving salad and veggies, the offerings of Bolivia Green Kitchen are exactly what you need. We loved their build your own salad bowls and fresh squeezed juice, and best of all we got to eat so many veggies without getting sick. The pumpkin butter that they give you for their super fresh bread is also delicious.
If you’re craving red meat this is the place to go in La Paz. They serve large steaks and an all you can eat salad bar at reasonable prices which means you won’t go home hungry.
This cute place has Prost beer on tap, good happy hour drink specials,and food choices from all over the world, including a fantastic curry.
The Best Things to Do in La Paz
For $20 a person, you can do a food tour with a number of different agencies. We went with HanaqPacha and our guide Alfie was great. We toured around the city centre and sampled api, 2 different kinds of soup, silpancho (a flattened steak), two kinds of sandwiches, mochachinchi (peach drink), and two flavours of ice cream. At the same time, we also learned a lot about Bolivian culture and how to eat on a budget.
Cable Car Tour
Having enjoyed our food tour so much, we went with the same company for a cable car tour of La Paz. It was a great way to see the city and learn how to use the telerifico system which would come in handy when we went from Sopachachi to Gustu. We learned a lot about La Paz’ mysterious side as we looked for ghosts while we cruised over the cemeteries, watched people light offering fires at the El Alto witches market, and saw the car that went off the road to El Alto and got wedged into a cliff. Allegedly, the taxi driver survived but not without losing his legs first and now kids like to dare eachother to hike down to try to see the legs. Gruesome stories aside, we learned a lot about Bolivian culture and saw the city from a bird’s eye view, all for only $8usd each.
Plaza San Francisco
This is the place to be in central La Paz. The municipal government pays performers to put on their shows there, street eats are abundant, it is remarkably close to Mercado Lanza, as well as the San Fransico Cathedral.
Some people claim this is nothing but a sad tourist trap designed to make tourists part with their money while simultaneously denigrating Bolivian culture, but our experience was much more nuanced.
Cholitas are single Indigenous women who dress in the traditional Chola clothing and wrestling is a way for them to earn an income for their family, while also pushing back against machismo culture. It is also wildly popular with Bolivians as well as tourists. If you book your Cholitas wrestling ticket with an agency, it will include your transportation to El Alto to and from the centre, your entrance fee, “VIP” seating on the floor of the stadium, closest to the ring, a drink, and a small gift for about $15usd a person. If you want to do it more like a local, you can make your own way to the stadium in El Alto and sit in the bleachers with the rowdy locals who revel in lobbing insults and orange peels at the wrestlers. Your entrance will only be about 15bbs if you do it this way.
As for the show, it’s about as cheesy as wrestling usually is but we were entertained and the ladies did a great job of flying around the ring. Go with a sense of humour and you’ll likely enjoy yourself.
This street is the only colonial style-street left in La Paz. With colourful buildings and cobblestone streets, it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the city. It is rumoured to be so haunted that many paceños opt not to walk it at night and a green cross was installed to keep the spirits away. If you visit in the daytime, you’ll be treated to some delightful coffee shops, Negrito the resident good doggo, and museums.
Things to do in Bolivia from La Paz
There are a number of great activities that can be arranged from La Paz from any of the agencies around the centre. In general, they can leave most days so there is no need to book way in advance and you will save money by using a local tour agency. One caveat is that the best prices are usually for Spanish-speaking guides and an English-speaking one may cost more to hire.
Do the Choro Trek
This is Bolivia’s version of the Inca trail. It begins an hour’s drive from La Paz at Cumbre in the alpine at a chilly 4900m and then winds down along a path to Chairo which is near Corioco, a small city on the edge of the rainforest at 1350m. The 57km route features Incan paving just like what you’ll see on the Inca Trail in Peru, but is a fraction of the price and has way less crowds. It can also be done as a DIY with your own gear. Trips are usually 2-4 days. Just about any of the tour agencies in the centre can organize it for you for about 800bbs per person for 3 days and 2 nights of all-inclusive guided trekking.
Hike in the Cordillera Real
The stunning Cordillera Real, or Royal Range of the Andes are a sight to behold. With snow-capped peaks rising to over 6500m, they appeal to alpinists of all levels. We spent a splendid 8 days trekking in the range ending with a summit of Huayna Potosi at 6088m. During the trek, we were frequently the only people on the trail and were treated to superlative views. Anything from day treks to the 17 day Transcordillera thru-hike can be arranged from La Paz.
Climb Huayna Potosi
Huayna Potosi is one of the perennially snow-capped peaks that frame La Paz and El Alto. While challenging, a summit attempt is considered a beginner-friendly mountaineering experience. It can be added to a trek of any length in the Cordillera Real, or attempted on its own from La Paz with trips ranging from 2-3 days. If your only acclimation is La Paz, 3 days is probably best. A three day trek should be about 900bbs per person.
Cycle the Death Road
So named because this road used to claim many lives as cars slid off the steep edges into the valley below, the death road is now mostly closed to vehicle traffic and a ride down is one of the most popular things to do in Bolivia. The 65km trip begins at La Cumbre and ends near Corioco. While not anywhere near as scary as the name would suggest, it still requires riding with care as there have been tourist fatalities. We went with Altitude Adventures and lived to wear the t-shirt. Trips are about 700bbs.
Flight to Rurrenbaque
From La Paz, you can catch a relatively inexpensive flight to the small city on the edge of the rainforest. There you can arrange trips to nearby Madidi National Park in the rainforest or pampas (wetlands) for exciting wildlife viewing opportunities and visits to remote Indigenous communities. Nick’s Adventure Tours offers affordable trips into Madidi National Park.
Salar de Uyuyni
It’s a long ways to go, but many book their tour to the world’s largest salt flat in Uyuni from La Paz. Most operators offer to arrange the tour but not transportation so keep that in mind when you’re getting prices which seemed to range between 450-750bbs per person for a budget tour. More expensive ones start at 1500bbs per person but from what we read and based on what our guide told us, you don’t get much more added value for the extra money. The salt flats are a highlight of Bolivia for sure and we opted for a 3night/4day tour so we could see the beautifully coloured alpine lakes, flamingoes, stones in the desert, see geysers, and soak in a hot spring at sunrise, as well as tour the salt flats.
You can fly or bus to Uyuni from La Paz and arrange a tour with any of the operators there. That’s what we did and we only paid 450bbs a person for a 3 night, 4 day tour that included a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. I would recommend a company in particular but often the company that you book with is not the company that you leave on tour with. That said, we checked for tour agencies that had good ratings because if their partners were bad, that would be reflected in the reviews. We also heard that there is some talk of implementing a standard price for the budget trip of 1000bbs because as it is now, people can walk from agency to agency until they find the price that they like best. In our case by booking last minute in Uyuni, we got the last two seats in a car that was going to leave anyway and paid less than people on the exact same tour.
To conclude, La Paz is a fascinating place to spend a few or more days and well worth taking the time to do so. Let the city surprise you with its unassuming charms before heading out to explore all the amazing rest of what Bolivia has to offer!