La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia, while Sucre is the constitutional capital (the seat of the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia)). La Paz was established in 1542, and is located in the Andes mountains. Altitude of the city ranges from about 3900 meters above sea level (where the airport is located) to 3100 meters in the lower residential area; that makes it the highest national capital in the world.
The sight from the air as one flies into La Paz is incredible. First, one sees the sprawling shantytowns of El Alto, slowly giving way to the sight of La Paz itself, clinging tenuously to the sides of what looks like a large gash in the earth.
La Paz is sheltered in a spectacular canyon
La Paz is built in a canyon created by the Choqueyapu River (now mostly built over), which runs northwest to southeast. The city's main thoroughfare, which roughly follows the river, changes names over its length, but the central tree-lined section running through the downtown core is called the Prado.
La Paz' geography (in particular, altitude) reflects society: the lower you go, the more affluent. While many middle-class Pacenos live in high-rise condos near the center, the really rich houses are in the neighborhoods southwest of the Prado. And looking up from the center, the surrounding hills are plastered with makeshift brick houses of those struggling in the hope of one day reaching the bottom.
The satellite city of El Alto, in which the airport is located, is spread over a broad area to the west of the canyon, on flat and higher ground.
El Alto airport is the world's highest international airport; at approximately 4,000 meters above sea level, it's almost half as high as a jetliner's cruising altitude, and takeoffs take a bit longer due to the thin air. There is an airport departure tax of $28 for international flights, Bs15 for domestic flights.
From the airport, the official rate for a taxi into central La Paz is Bs 50 (about 6 USD). Shared vans cost about Bs 4 (0,50 USD).
The main bus terminal is located on Av. Ismael Montes, near the upper end of the Prado. Note that buses arriving from Lake Titicaca (the route for entering overland from Puno, Peru) terminate at a plaza near the city cemetery (Cementerio) farther to the west.
Buses leavin La Paz usually stop in El Alto to pick up more passagers. It sometimes takes almost an hour until you really leave the city.
There are two types of shared public transportation in La Paz: regular buses or micros, and shared vans, called mini buses. The former cost Bs 1,30 while the latter are Bs 1,50-2,30 depending on duration. Both types have their routes indicated on the windshield, but mini buses have the bonus of fare collectors hanging out the side, yelling out routes in a rapid, auctioneer-like manner. You can hail a bus or mini bus anywhere; to get off, just yell out "¡voy a bajar!"
The easiest way to get around is by taxi. They aren't metered, so agree on a fare before boarding; a ride within downtown should be about Bs 5-6.
If you ever find yourself to be lost, in general the easiest thing is to simply walk downhill. You will eventually find yourself on the Prado or another main avenue, then You'll be able to take a taxi to the downtown, if your on the southside of the city (Zona sur) a taxi could cost around 12 bs.
The Witches Market in La Paz
Sagarnaga Street, just south of Plaza San Francisco, is La Paz' main tourist strip. It's mainly a market street with artesano and souvenir stores, but you'll also find budget hostels, tour and travel agencies, cafes, and lots and lots of backpackers. Don't be suckered by the roving sellers of "trilobite-in-a-rock".
The Witches' Market (Mercado de Hechiceria or Mercado de las Brujas) is on Calle Linares between Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz. Vendors sell llama fetuses and dried frogs for Aymara rituals, as well as soapstone figurines and aphrodisiac formulas. This street is also the best place to pick up a charango or other Bolivian musical instrument.
The Mercado Negro ("Black Market"), though not very clandestine, is quite comprehensive, selling clothing, household items, liquor, and other products in its many blocks.
Eloy Salmon Shops on this street sell cheap electronics.
Calle Jaen is one of the few places in the city with preserved colonial buildings, currently housing several interesting museums.
Plaza Murillo contains government buildings and the city cathedral.
The Valle de La Luna - surreal, weathered rock. Just outside the city. Take a local bus, or join a tour.
Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna) in La Paz
Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Arte Contemporaneo), Av. 16 de Julio 1698 (Prado). The permanent collection upstairs (Bs10 admission) contain many works by renowned Aymara painter Mamani Mamani. The downstairs gallery containing work by students and up-and-comers is free.
Coca Museum, Calle Linares 906. A favorite of foreign tourists, this small museum details the history and significance of the coca plant, including the effect of the U.S. War on Drugs. The displays are in Spanish, but booklets of complete translations in other languages are provided. According to the museum, crack cocaine is the greatest epidemic since the Plague in the Middle-Ages. And yes, there are free samples of the sniff stuff.
Musical Instrument Museum (Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia), Calle Jaen 711. Displays a huge collection of sound-producing devices from Bolivia and beyond, some of which you can play yourself. The museum was founded by charango master and inventor Ernesto Cavour, and some of his creations on display (such as multi-bodied guitars) are downright bizarre.
Museum of Precious Metals (Museo de Metales Preciosos Precolombinos), Calle Jaen 777. Pre-Columbian treasures in silver and gold.
Submerged Museum (Museo Subterraneo), in front of the city stadium. Hardly deserving the name "museum", it's essentially a small outdoor plaza sunk into the ground with a huge replica Tiwanaku monolith in the middle of it.
La Paz is one of those cities which is a sight in itself, and there are several viewing places or miradores offerring impressive panoramas.
Parque Laikacota, at the top of Av. Ejercito west of the city center. The best panorama from within the bowl, with clear views of the city and the rugged terrain to the east, all the way to Mt. Illimani. Admission is Bs1.
Mirador Monticulo, next to Plaza Espana. This small park (free entry) has a church and lots of trees which block much of the city, but the clear view of Illimani makes it an evening hotspot for couples.
In the heart of downtown, Av. Camacho points straight to Illimani, and from the intersection with the Prado it's framed by skyscrapers in an interesting juxtaposition.
One of the most recognizable aspects of Andean culture is its folk music, which you can enjoy at a number of peñas, or music clubs.
Huari, Calle Sagarnaga 329. Its location makes it the convenient choice for foreign tourists, so be prepared for extreme tourist prices and slightly tacky decor. (The ancient Incas probably didn't have black lighting.) Nonetheless, the music and dance performances are excellent.
Marka Tambo Calle Jaen 710. Considered among the best for serious fans of the music.
Try Monje Campero at the beginning of Av.16 de julio.
Also you can go to 16 de Julio near to Plaza del Estudiante.
La Paz is a good place for buying maps of the country, but be aware that Bolivian maps has a reputation of containing errors. Topographical maps are available in 1:50 000, 1:100 000 and 1:250 000. The most popular maps, including the 1:250 000 version of Cordillera Real and the 1:50 000 version of Volcan Sajama are sold by street vendors that roam Calle Sagarnaga and from stalls along el Prado. But the best place to buy maps is the "Instituto Geografico Militar", IGM. The instituto has two offices in town, listed below.
Edificio Murillo No. 100, Calle Juan XXIII Parallell to Calle Murillo at the end of Calle Rodríguez. This office is likely to be closest to where you stay and sometimes has as map or two on offer, but most often asks you to come back mañana when they still don't have the map you want. It's has a nice atmosphere though, and makes a nice visit for mapophiles needing that fix of fresh map air.
Oficina Central, Estado Mayor General, Av. Saavedra No. 2303. This is the place to go, but a little out of the way. It is said to be open afternoons, but it's best to visit between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Closed if there's a soccer game in the nearby Stadium. Take a micro marked "E. Mayor" from Plaza San Fransisco. The unmarked entrance is 20 m down Av. Saavedra from the main car entrance to the Estado Mayor. Surrender your passport in the window marked IGM, get a number tag to hang around you neck and walk down the road and to the left. Many maps are only availible in copies for 30 Bs a sheet. An original is 40 Bs.
Most of the fancier restaurants in La Paz are at the bottom of the Prado, around the vicinity of Plaza Isabel La Catolica.
Utama, top floor of Plaza Hotel, Av. 16 de Julio 1789 (Prado). With its fabulous view of the city, the Utama has served the likes of Fidel Castro and Alberto Fujimori (embattled former President of Peru), yet the main dishes (Bolivian and international, in portions ample for two) are only around Bs50($6.50).
Angelo Colonial, Calle Linares 922. A dark, bohemian cafe set in an old mansion decorated with scads of antiques. Serving Bolivian food and the best drip coffee in La Paz.
Tambo Colonial, in Hotel Rosario. Lavish breakfast buffet for Bs20 ($2.50), great international and local food at night. Try the Lake Titicaca trout with Beni almonds: one of the best dishes I've had in Bolivia. Not open for lunch.
Madero, Av. 20 de Octubre by Plaza Avaroa. Bolivian cuisine in a nice, creaky wooden interior resembling an old attic. Try to get the table in the upper dining room by the window, looking out over the plaza.
Naira, Calle Sagarnaga 161. Catering mostly to travelers (and guests of the hotel -- see below), but a good sampling of Bolivian dishes. Expensive.
Alo Cubano, Av. Aniceto de Arce. Best place to pretend you're back in the fifties plotting a pan-American revolution with Fidel and Che.
Contigo Peru, second floor of Edificio Alameda (on the Prado). Good ceviche and other seafood.
New Tokyo, Av. 6 de Agosto 2932
Eli's New York Deli, on the Prado. Try ordering with a thick New York accent and see what you get.
Sultan, el Prado, close to Plaza del Estudiante. Great arabic fastfood in an unpretentious setting. Try the falafel for 7 Bs. Order a "super" for 10 Bs if you're hungry and be there for lunch when the boss isn´t around (bigger portions).
There's a string of inexpensive pizza and hamburger joints on the west side of Avenida 6 de Agosto south of Plaza del Estudiante. Sergio's is considered the best, and is good for checking upcoming music venues.
Pizzeria Italia, Calle Ilampu 809, serves nice breakfasts with a friendly smile.
La Mia Pizzeria, Calle Ilampu, below one of the two "Pizzeria Italia" branches on Calle Ilampu. Cheaper than "Italia" with more american style pizzas. 1.2 l beer is US$2. Take-away availible.
Al amir, Murillo 824, has nice Arabic food.
100% Natural, Calle Sagarnaga 95. The cheapest and most popular backpacker café on Sagarnaga. Often full, especially around 11 a.m., but serves huge sandwiches and great vegetarian burgers in a cosy atmosphere.
Alexander Coffee, Av. 16 de Julio 1832 and other locations. Bolivia's answer to Starbucks, and not a bad one at that. With good sandwiches, espresso (even frappuccinos), clean interiors, and Putumayo CDs for sale at the counter, the only reminder you're still in Bolivia is the uniformed guard by the entrance.
Pepe's Coffee Bar, Calle Jimenez. Great coffey and a nice calm getaway close to the tourist ghetto. Sandwiches are disappiotingly small, but tasty.
Oliver's Travels, Calle Murillo, is a lively English bar run by charasmatic proprietor, Oliver (surname "Travels"). Shows most major British sporting events and provides a good British-based food menu at reasonable prices. Customers may even be entertained by Oliver himself, though he is known to operate several aliases in order to avoid this sometimes gruelling activity.
Sol Y Luna, Calle Murillo, is a Dutch owned traveller's hangout serving a contemporary menu and mid-range prices. Good atmosphere and potentially lethal dart's board. Service is painfully slow and staff are not particularly helpful with complaints.
Mongo's, Manchego 2444, is one of the popular places for travellers. It also attracts many locals, many of whom are described on the backpacker circuit as "gringo chasers". Gringo males will have little trouble getting their bone smooched by some local talent at this little gem of a place. On weekends it's open till around 4 AM.
Ram Jam (taxidrivers should know) near Plaza Abaroa there is another popular place, It's open till 4 AM, the new legal limit for serving alcohol in La Paz. It certainly pales in comparison to Mongo's but if congestion, poor music and poor service are your thing....
If you do not want to plan where to stay overnight, you can do that in loco by walking on calle Sagarnaga or calle Illampu. These streets are merged into fairs and museums, so are full of people all day long. There are many different hotels in all price ranges. There are about 8 Bolivianos(Bs) per dollar(2006). Be sure to inspect your room before signing the register.
Hostal Austria, Calle Yanacocha 531, 235-1140. Very popular with backpackers , offering warm water, friendly staff and a central location. Singles Bs35, shared room Bs25.
El Solario, Calle Murillo 776. Another backpacker joint. Warm water, shared bathrooms, laundry service and OK staff. Singles Bs35, dormitory Bs25.
Hostal Naira Calle Sagarnaga 161, 235-5645, Fax 231-1214. In business since 1975, with a good restaurant in the basement and a popular cafe (Coffee Banais) on the ground floor.
Hosteria Blanquita, Santa Cruz 242, is a nice place, with a friendly staff, offering doubles for 70 Bs.
Hotel Continental, top end of Calle Illampu. Doubles with share bath is 80 Bs. 10% disocount with HI-card.
Adveture Brew New Hostel, Ex Hotel, great rooms, booking a bit disorganised but its new so give them a chance. Single 56 Bs, Double 112 Bs.
Hostal Cactus, Calle Jimenez. Very popular with the pseudo-hippie types (Your revolution is over!! The bums lost!!) who continue to sponge off the state and their parents with supposed moral justification. 30 Bs for privates (10 Bs for lentil soup)
Hotel España, Av. 6 de Agosto 2074, 244-2643. Located in the Sopocachi district close to numerous nice restaurants, the España has a charming garden courtyard as well as a solarium. There's a single net-connected PC in the lobby. Singles $24, doubles $34.
Hotel Rosario, Av. Illampu 704, 245-1668. Located in the Aymara District close to the Witches Market and many touristic attractions. Has a Colonial style building with sunny patios. Free Internet. Complementary Tea and Mate de Coca. Singles $28-$31, doubles $39-$43.
Ritz Apart Hotel, Plaza Isabel La Catolica 2478. Five stars and all suites in the heart of Sopocachi.
Hotel Europa Tihuanaco 64, 231-5656. Luxury hotel located just off the central Prado.
In crowded areas be careful for pickpockets and bagslashers. A common trick is that one person spills something on your clothes, and while you or he wipes it off another person lifts your wallet or slashes your bag.
Be vigilant when checking into a hotel or hostel. Keep a hand on all your bags/belongings at all times. Acting as if they work for the hotel, opportunist thieves will create a diversion and snatch the nearest unattended bag.
If you are approached by police in civilian clothes don't show any valuables or your passport. And certainly don't get in a taxi with them. Undercover police are strictly ordered not to hassle tourists. There have been several cases of muggings and things going missing from bags or luggage after "drug searches". Insist on being taken to the police station before giving them access to your things.
There have been several cases of violent muggings in taxis. Don't take unregistered taxis. Lock the doors and don't allow other people to share the journey with you.
Another popular daytrip is the bike ride down the world's most dangerous road or Death Road. It's a 70km long scenic ride downhill to Coroico. There is an average of 100 fatalities a year, a world record, mostly due to the Bolivian driving style than to the road itself. Although it's a narrow, winding road with big drops on the side, going down by bike is probably the safest way to get to Coroico and there are several tour agents in La Paz offering the trip.
Bolivian Astrid Tours, Sagárnaga 389 (esq. Illampu), (591-2)2116756. Recommended tour agent with good equipment and a low price.
Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, Av. 16 de Julio #1490 (Edificio Avenida), (591-2)2-313849, is the one mostly recommended by the guidebooks, but is relatively expensive (about $50 for the deathroad trip), but you get what you pay for, the guides are great and the bikes all have disk brakes and are well maintained . It also offers other mountainbiking trips, but doesn't operate in the rainy season.
For those needing to travel this road by bus (on their way to Rurrenabaque, for example) there's now a new, half-complete paved road down to Coroico. Not all bus companies take it, though, so inquire when you buy your ticket. Bolivian officials close this new road at seemingly random times for construction (which has been ongoing for the last 12 years).
A lot of travel agencies on Calle Sagarnaga and Calle Illampu organize climbing. The most popular mountain is Huayna Potosi. Travel agents will carry any tourist to the top for US$100-150.