Bolivia / Travel

The Dizzying Heights of La Paz

After reluctantly leaving lovely Sucre, we caught a bumpy overnight bus to the colossal city of La Paz. I don’t think there’s been a place on our journey so far that I haven’t looked forward to visiting for some reason or another, but after reading a bit about La Paz, I didn’t have the highest of hopes. With phrases like ‘Stranglings are on the rise’ and ‘taxis are known for express kidnappings’, I was a bit wary. However, when researching about places to visit through South America you always come across horror stories, and La Paz seemed no more dangerous than many other big cities we had been to and it did have a lot to offer.

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Firstly, it’s a bizarre city which hangs off the side of several mountains. A lot of the city lies in a deep valley (which is still 3660 meters above sea level), with terracotta coloured buildings spreading up the mountains to the dizzying heights of El Alto – a satellite city. The best way to get a sense of how vast and also how ridiculous La Paz is, is by catching one of the three (soon to be nine) cable cars around the city. It’s exhausting walking up and down hills at altitude, so the cable cars offer incredible views but also a well earned rest. The red cable car line goes up to El Alto, and gives the best view of the city as a whole. The green line takes you to the lower parts of the city which gives you an idea of the disparity of wealth in La Paz with the small terracotta Lego houses turning into the large mansions of the wealthy and powerful. Generally speaking, the further south you go, the more temperate the climate and the richer the inhabitants.

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The weird and wonderful markets are one of the best things the city has to offer. In La Paz you can buy anything under the sun. Along with the cable cars, they were the highlight of my stay. We finally succumbed to the gringo cliche and bought ourselves some alpaca jumpers, and La Paz was the best place to get them. With huge amounts of choice, and very competitive prices, it was great for shopping. But it was not only knitwear that caught our eye, on the streets of the Witches Market in nearly every doorway were llama foetuses of varying sizes, shapes and colours. Used traditionally as sacrifices in Andean rituals, but now a big tourist draw, the llama foetuses are one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen all trip. Other merchandise also includes bizarre herbal remedies, dried toucan beaks and a wide range of locally handcrafted items.

The streets of La Paz are full of intoxicating fumes from the ancient buses dashing around the streets. You step out of your front door or open a window and are hit with the stench. Today I met a Venezuelan traveler who was in La Paz for the one day a year that it is pedestrianised. I told him I could hardly imagine what it would be like as the honking of horns and the smell of exhaust became synonymous with La Paz itself! That’s something I definitely won’t miss. The concern about air pollution and climate change hasn’t yet reached La Paz.

Much like many big cities, you can get almost any food you like in La Paz, whether it’s as good as you’d expect is a matter of luck. We found an English pub (there are several in La Paz, for gringos like us) not far from the Witches Market which offered us a nice reminder of home. They showed premier league football, had beer on draft and serve tasty fish ‘n’ chips! We usually try as much local food as possible, but after you’ve been on the road for three months you crave some home comforts. La Paz also has a pounding nightlife, but it seems very touristy and after long walks at high altitudes, frankly a bit unappealing. I was still a bit wary of the city at night, even though luckily we hadn’t had any issues, so we didn’t take full advantage of the wild nights La Paz had to offer.

It’s an exhausting city, and four days there was definitely enough for me. I come from London so I am used to big cities, it wasn’t La Paz’s size that was daunting, but it’s atmosphere (and probably the fume smell too). It’s tiring walking around, pretty much everything is on a hill. The altitude means you have much less oxygen than usual, so combine that with the uphill walks and the dizzying fumes, it makes for a lot of lightheadedness.

However, I am definitely glad we went. I would hate to live there, especially when there’s Sucre, a much more appealing option, 12 hours (or a 45 minute flight) away, but it’s an exciting city and its an experience within itself. La Paz is definitely one of a kind.

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