We spent a week in La Paz Bolivia recently, purposely planing a long visit to give us time to acclimate to this city in the sky. La Paz was our jumping off point for an overland Bolivian tour. And at 11,893 feet (3625 meters) we knew we needed to take our time. And we have the time, so we spent 8 lovely days Living in the Sky – La Paz Bolivia.
The last time we spent time at this kind of altitude was 13 years ago when we arrived in Cusco Peru (elevation 11,152 feet/3399 meters) to do the 5 day Inca Trail Hike. Before leaving home our doctor had given us some prescription meds to help with altitude sickness. In hindsight, the extreme nausea, diarrhea, and dizziness I experienced in Cusco (enough to bring a doctor to our hotel room) I believe was due to those meds.
So this time we decided to not take any medicine. Instead we planned a long acclimation period, drank a ton of water, gatorade, tea and coffee, and did not drink any alcohol. We ate very light meals and allowed ourselves plenty of sleep. After just two days, we felt rested and no adverse symptoms, other than just a light headache and a bit of breathlessness.
We also think spending a week in Mexico City (7349 feet/ 2240 meters) probably helped as a stepping stone to Living in the Sky – La Paz Bolivia.
But still a bit muddled…
I will say however, our brains were a bit muddled the whole time. My husband Arne who serves as our CFO on the grand adventure could never quite get the exchange rate correct in his head. And me, the COO, could not get the dates straight…which resulted in us thinking our tour was beginning a day earlier than it actually was. Or maybe we are just getting old…
Living in the Sky – La Paz Bolivia
La Paz is the highest major city in the world. It was founded by the Spanish in 1548, but long before that time the indigenous Aymara and Quechua people and before them Inca people inhabited the region. Throughout what is now La Paz, El Alto, and surrounding area, archeologists have found sites of the aboriginal tribe Tiwanaku that had existed for at least 1500 years (there is a lot of intense debate of these dates see below).
When the Spanish arrived, they created “a commercial city, lying on the main gold and silver route to the coast. The Spaniards came for the Bolivian gold found in the Choqueapu River that runs through present-day La Paz. The Spaniards took the gold mines away from Aymara people and made them work as slaves. The primarily male Spanish population soon mixed with the indigenous people, creating a largely mestizo, or mixed, population.” Source Wikipedia.
Climate and Geology
The climate here is odd. It is tropical at 16 degrees south, the same as Tahiti French Polynesia. However the altitude in La Paz at 12,000 feet has both a rainy and a dry season but the high temperature throughout the year only varies between about 54F and 58F. It’s quit distinctive, and unlike any climate we have been in before.
The area around La Paz is made up of a sandy, loamy, glacial like soil…very unstable. The city is built on unconsolidated glacial deposits from the past ice age through which Choqueyapa River has cut to form the steep sided canyon. Because of high rainfall, unconsolidated sediment, and steep slopes landslides are a common occurrence in La Paz.
Beautiful, Surprising, Huge, Cultural and Delicious
We planned a week, thinking most of that I would be sick, but since we acclimated easily we had lots of time to enjoy this fascinating city. I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea what a beautiful place it is. So once we realized we had a lot of extra time, we planned an itinerary to see the most that we could. We had warmer weather than we expected too, so everyday we got outside and explored. The area known as La Paz is actually two cities. La Paz sits in the valley and snakes out and up in all directions from the original site on the river. Population of La Paz is 900,000. The city of El Alto sits on the mountain plateau above La Paz and stretches as far as the eye can see. This is the location of the international airport, Manuel Márquez de León International Airport, the highest international airport in the world. El Alto has a population of 1,100,000.
Here are our suggestions for how to enjoy Living in the Sky – La Paz Bolivia.
One of the most surprising things we found on arrival in La Paz was the outstanding gondola transit system. Mi Teleferico is the largest gondola system in the world. This rare, well planned, people-mover is designed not for tourists, but as a way of moving the more than 2 million residents around this mountain region. Wikipedia says – “Mi Teleférico, also known as Teleférico La Paz–El Alto, is an aerial cable car urban transit system serving the La Paz–El Alto metropolitan area in Bolivia. As of October 2019, the system consists of 26 stations along ten lines: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Orange, White, Sky Blue, Purple, Brown, and Silver.”
It is clean, efficient, fun and cheap costing only about 40 cents (USD) per ride. It is not designed to make money, rather to eliminate street traffic, connect areas of the region and provide the people an efficient and inexpensive way to navigate the two cities. About 150,000 people use the system everyday.
We took the time to ride all the lines during our visit, just for fun and for the views. Seeing this wonderful city from above really gives you an appreciation for the ingenuity and population. I highly recommend it when visiting La Paz and El Alto. The views are spectacular.
Guided Walking Tour
Using Get Your Guide we connected with the local tour company of Hanaqpacha Travel to spend three hours with a local guide walking and learning about the city. Our guide Fernando and Jenny, a guide in training, were excellent. Great English, very knowledgeable and fun to be with.
We explored many of the historic areas, learned about local historic figures and past violence and troubles. We learned to navigate the cable car, got insight into the two cities, the markets, and Cholita women.
The Witches Market
One of the most intriguing things we did was explore the Witches Market. This area of shops is where dozens of local women sell curious, obscure and strange items from llama fetuses to dried herbs and talismans that are a part of the Aymara rituals and spirits world. After hundreds of years of the Catholic Church suppressing the Aymara way of life, in recent decades these ancient customs have been allowed to come out of hiding. They never stopped these rituals; they just had to keep them tucked away. Today in La Paz you find a curious mix of ancient mystical beliefs and the Catholic religion.
One disturbing thing we learned though I need to mention. Our guide explained to us that the llama fetuses are used as a good luck talisman, buried under buildings and homes to appease Pachamama – Mother Earth. The larger the building the larger the animal. But deep in this belief is rumored human sacrifices that continue to this day. Our guide says it’s a common rumor that this may or may not happen…but why? He said that the larger the building, the larger the sacrifice must be to Pachamama. And there is rumor that some construction sites actually take homeless or drunks off the street and sacrifice them. Of course we found this horribly disturbing. Our guide was also sufficiently disturbed, but claims this ancient practice and the rumor has persisted throughout his lifetime. I found this article if you want to read more. Not a pleasant thing to think about.
On a lighter note, the Aymara & Quechua people and the Cholita women (I found this amazing article about the Cholita) are fantastic artisans and surrounding the Witches Market (where you can also take home your own good luck talismans) are dozens of shops selling beautiful hand made items. Popular weavings of bright colors are made into bags, headbands, wallets and even shoes. Alpaca sweaters, shawls, hats and scarves are gorgeous and inexpensive. You can see the women knitting on the street or in the stalls. We purchased gifts to take home and were amazed at the quality of work and cheap prices. The market also has handmade leather items, silver jewelry and ceramics.
The Lovely Cholita Women
Throughout the city the Cholita women sell flowers, produce, snacks and traditional foods on the street. You can also find outfitter stores for tourists in need of down jackets, hiking shoes and just about anything else you might need for your time in Bolivia.
We booked a food walking tour with Red Cap Tours. Our guide Amara was great and we were joined by another couple from Singapore. It’s always so fun to taste a city through a local guide. We had a great time. We tasted several Bolivian specialties including Anchipacha which is a popular grilled beef heart and potato kabob, and Cholita a very popular sandwich snack of pork and pickled veg and named after the Cholita women. Next we had Api, a warm creamy drink made from purple corn and popular for breakfast. With the Api we enjoyed a favorite morning street food called Pastel de Queso. Loved both of these.
Next we went into a restaurant to try two different kinds of pork – Chichorone is a popular crispy fried pork dish and Fritanga is a braised pork. Both were delicious. With the pork we had steamed potatoes and “dried” potatoes, a favorite of locals. The potatoes are dried in the sun for weeks then reconstituted.
We ended our tour enjoy Pique Macho, a dish of potatoes, beef and sausage in a rich and spicy broth and the national alcohol called Singani which is usually mixed with citrus and sours much like a pisco sour.
It was a great tour. We rolled home after so much food.
We visited four different museums during the week we were Living in the Sky – La Paz Bolivia. There are several more as well. I’ve listed the four here, in order based on the quality of what we saw;
National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore
National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore – If you only do one thing in La Paz it should be this. One of the best museums we have ever been in, even though it was presented only in Spanish. We still thought it was outstanding. Well funded by the Central Bank of Bolivia, and it shows, the exhibits are beautiful and professionally presented. We particularly enjoyed the textile and clothing section, the ceremonial mask section and the section on indigenous use of bird feathers in costumes and head dresses. A fantastic museum.
Museo Nacional de Arte
Museo Nacional de Arte – through art this beautiful museum tells a wonderful story of the people of the Andes, Bolivia and La Paz. I highly recommend taking the guided tour. Our guide Robert was incredible. For an hour and a half he gave a personal tour of the entire museum, helping us understand through the beautiful collection the culture, history, trials and tribulations of this amazing place.
Museo costumbrista Juan de Vargas
Museo costumbrista Juan de Vargas this museum is a bit of an mis-mash of things, but is worth a visit for the unique gold display of ancient Andean breastplates, jewelry and head pieces. It is also housed in a beautiful Spanish colonial building on multiple levels.
Museo Tambo Quirquincho
Museo Tambo Quirquincho – this museum was pretty disappointing, although it is housed in a lovely old Spanish building that once housed a market. But the art collection was unimpressive. Skip it.
One of the most important archeology sites in South America, Tihuanku sits about a two hour drive from La Paz. We signed up for an all day tour to visit the site with a guide through local company HanaqPacha Travel. It was a long drive in heavy traffic but I am still really glad we did it.
How Old is it Really?
There is much debate about the actual age of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our guide Teodoro, like many Bolivians, believe the site dates back as much as 10,000 years and was also visited by Aliens. UNESCO however, says the following;
“The city of Tiwanaku, capital of a powerful pre-Hispanic empire that dominated a large area of the southern Andes and beyond, reached its apogee between 500 and 900 AD. Its monumental remains testify to the cultural and political significance of this civilisation, which is distinct from any of the other pre-Hispanic empires of the Americas.”
Thinking has changed over time…
One of the reasons for the debate of the age of the site is the earliest archeologists incorrectly compared it to archaeoastronomy. To explain this better here is Wikipedia’s assessment;
“The dating of the site has been significantly refined over the last century. From 1910 to 1945, Arthur Posnansky maintained that the site was 11,000–17,000 years old based on comparisons to geological eras and archaeoastronomy. Beginning in the 1970s, Carlos Ponce Sanginés proposed the site was first occupied around 1580 BC, the site’s oldest radiocarbon date. This date is still seen in some publications and museums in Bolivia. Since the 1980s, researchers have recognized this date as unreliable, leading to the consensus that the site is no older than 200 or 300 BC. More recently, a statistical assessment of reliable radiocarbon dates estimates that the site was founded around AD 110 (50–170, 68% probability), a date supported by the lack of ceramic styles from earlier periods.“
It is believed that the Inca culture took some inspiration from this earlier Tihuanku culture. The Tihuanku also likely had some contact with the Wari culture during this pre-columbian period in the Andean basin.
The first recorded knowledge of the site was by the Spanish in 1549.
If you visit La Paz, this is a must see. Learn more here.
Accommodations and Food
Since we were booked to go on an overland trip that included the first night in a hotel in La Paz, we decided to spend our week in the same hotel to make things easy. The Qantu Hotel ended up being in a perfect location with easy access to everything. Our room was small but clean and comfortable. Breakfast every morning was hearty and the staff very kind.
During our stay, La Paz celebrated the Gran Poder pre-event (the actual Gran Poder is a giant festival in late May) and from the balcony of Qantu we had a spectacular view of the four hour long parade.
Throughout the week we explored different dining options around the central part of La Paz. Because of the backpacker set that visits here, there are many hostels, brewpubs, and simple and inexpensive eateries. There is also a wide variety of international cuisines available from Mexican, Italian or Cuban to Indian and Chinese. Of the places we ate we can recommend the following;
Popular Cucina Boliviana was by far the best meal we had, an in fact the best meal we had in a restaurant since my birthday dinner in Roatan last January, or maybe Pujol in Mexico City. No matter this was very creative menu that changes weekly. Our three course meal was delicious. A must do.
Tia Gladys is a tiny little hole in the wall that we walked by a few times before noticing it. Very popular for inexpensive, local Bolivian dishes as well as soup, salad, pizza and more. We tried the popular Bolivian dish Pique Macho here.
Cafe del Mundo is a lovely spot, frequented by the international backpacker crowd. Great service and international menu. Also a popular for afternoon pastry and coffee. I had a delicious soup here called Sopa Abuelo. Delicious.
La Groseria is another lovely spot overlooking the popular Sagarnaga street with a wide variety of coffees, beers, Bolivian favorites and international options. While I tried the local version of Chicken Milanese, Arne tried a quinoa bowl. Quinoa is a staple food here, an ancient grain harvested from Lake Titicaca.
La Boliviana this unlikely brightly colored place looks like an ice cream shop but has a quirky menu and daily special with a twist on local cuisines. We had a three course lunch that included wontons and falafel, meatballs and curry. We enjoyed it all.
Gracias La Paz
I am so grateful we had the time to explore deeply this amazing place…full of mystery, ancient customs, interesting food, and a culturally rich and diverse people. If you can, I highly recommend you visit La Paz. I’m sure you will be as intrigued as I was. Living in the Sky – La Paz Bolivia. Muchos Gracias Mi Amigos.
Please check back next week to read about our ten day overland trip in Bolivia with Intrepid Travel.
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