Life in La Paz
When I first told my friends & family that I was going to Bolivia I got a lot of negative or worried feedback. The main reason I wanted to go to was to see Tiwanaku in La Paz. Originally, we were only going to stay for a few days. I’m so glad we changed our minds and stayed for 4 weeks.
Just because a place is perceived as poor doesn’t make it dangerous. Like anything in life, you must use your common sense. There are areas of La Paz that I was advised not to get cameras and phones out etc. But for the whole of my 4 weeks I never felt in danger or as though I had to protect my belongings. Even the stalls and those selling on the streets are not pushy if you do not want to buy. I was very relaxed here.
My biggest negative comment is that some of the streets and roads are really narrow. Therefore, when walking around the pollution from the cars can get rather overwhelming. Mix that with the altitude and it could feel like there wasn’t enough ‘fresh’ air.
My first impressions were certainly positive. As soon as you landed at the airport and had jumped in a taxi the view on the way down was just amazing. The city is very large and has an endless amount of roads here, there and everywhere. I’m surprised and impressed that the taxi driver knew where our hotel was. Especially given the fact that access to our hotel was actually inside a car park. See my review of Lhamouri Living Apartments. This was a great apartment and very secure.
Everyone was very pleasant and after being shown to our apartment we felt at ease straight away. We settled in for the night and took in the amazing view from our balcony. The city is lit up beautifully at night and it was nice to chill out and take in our surroundings.
The next few days we did suffer from altitude sickness. It felt like a hangover. Really not fair seeing as though I haven’t touched a drop on my trip so far. I got over it much quicker than my partner as I was drinking the tea from the coca leaves which helps you recover from altitude sickness quicker. Highly recommended. Our hotel had kindly provided some for our arrival. La Paz is the highest capital city sitting at 3,650 meters above sea level. It was quite the adjustment. The newest city in Bolivia, El Alto, is an impressive 4,150 meters above sea level.
When we first arrived even taking a walk to the shop got us out of breath.
Eating in La Paz
Our apartment was based in the Santa Barbara area of La Paz and we had a supermarket close by. We were also very close to Plaza Murillo and San Francisco Square. Along all the streets you will find many stalls to buy fruit, snacks or drinks.
I have heard many people getting sick or contracting food poisoning in La Paz and unfortunately, we were not the exception this time. It is important to remember where you are and when the hygiene is not quite up to the standards of home. Always buy bottled water and stick to fruit that can be peeled or food that can be cooked/boiled. Check out my Eating Vegan blog which goes into this in a bit further detail.
We did however find an amazing little Vegan restaurant called Café Vida which we made multiple return trips to. There were others in the area such as ‘Namaste’ and you can find vegetarian dishes in most restaurants which you can alter to a vegan diet.
If you’re a fan of home comforts and looking for a McDonalds however, you will not find one here. An interesting story our tour guide told us was that McDonalds just couldn’t financially survive here. Because the food is so cheap in La Paz bringing in an international company like this just didn’t work because people refused to pay the high prices. We were told that is was so expensive that people would go there after their weddings as a treat.
When I first arrived and was taking a walk through the streets I saw many of the mini cabs (trufis) which people would hop on and off randomly. I remember thinking ‘how on earth would you know where you are going’. Even after 4 weeks and a guided tour of La Paz I’m still a little underconfident with these.
However, they are a really cheap option to get you around the huge city. They beep when they have capacity and each trufi takes a different route which is sign posted on the front. You can just flag one down and you can pay as you leave. The journeys only cost between 2 & 2.60 Boliviano (approx. 20p – 26p) depending on which area you are travelling from.
Another fun way of getting around is by using their cable car routes which take you all over the city. You have to queue up and get a ticket before you can jump on. I travelled on the red, yellow and green line and I was told by our tour guide that they are expecting 11 different lines in total to be in working order by the end of the project.
The green line takes you into the richer area of La Paz and there is a certain neighbourhood that you cannot even enter unless you live there and have a special security card.
There are also independent taxis if you don’t fancy the stress of trying to coordinate around the city. Just make sure they have a four-digit code on the side of the car which shows they are legitimate taxis.
After speaking with one of my tour guides it became abundantly clear that La Paz is a city full of spirituality. They believe that you must give a gift to mother earth (preferably something with sugar in) before you can take anything from her. Even if you are wanting to construct a new building, if you haven’t given an offering to mother earth then the construction workers simply will not work for you. They also believe the mountains are their protectors.
If you are ever feeling depressed, stressed or afraid and your family notice that you are not quite acting like yourself. For example, you lose your appetite or you cannot sleep, then they believe that you have lost your soul. It is believed you must call your soul back to you within 3 days or you will die.
If it is believed you have lost your soul, then the people of La Paz will take a trip to the Witches Market where a ritual will be performed to call it back to you.
If you take the red cable car to the top of El Alto on a Thursday or Sunday you will find a market fair taking place. Here you can buy an abundance of things from named clothes to stolen car parts to exotic animals. I even saw a box of baby chicks ready to be sold. There is not a police presence here. Food and drinks are being sold by the road side and you can pick up some coca leaves here.
This is also where the Witches Market is.
The women of La Paz usually sell at the markets and the men are usually drivers. An interesting fact that was pointed out to us was that if you see one of these ladies then they are usually not as curvy as they first seem. It is desirable in La Paz to be on the curvier side, so women purposefully make their bodies seem bigger than they are. If a lady’s hat is straight, then this means she is taken otherwise if it is slanted then she is single.
Cocaine & Alcohol
La Paz has an abundance of cocaine in the city, but this apparently is not the problem here and the youth are more susceptible to having alcohol related problems. Although walking the streets I saw many police officers and guards there seems to be a lax system when it comes to criminals. For example, many people of power have skipped La Paz after being discovered to be stealing money and are now hiding out in the USA. We were told if you ‘lost’ your phone you would most likely find it for sale at one of the market stalls. There was an abundance of stolen cars from Chile. There was even an illegal graveyard.
Although in tea the coca leaf is beneficial to health, extracting cocaine for drug use has caused many issues. When chewing the coca leaf, it only acts as a mild stimulant similar to that of coffee. The coca leaf was originally used in the Coca-Cola recipe before they removed it.
There are plenty of tours to take advantage of in La Paz and plenty to see. There are a few options below to choose from:
Home based Travel Agents such as ‘Viator’
We used Viator to arrange our Cable Car Tour of the city. This was extremely cheap at roughly £6 per person. Viator are an easy and reliable company to use. Especially if you feel more comfortable using an English-speaking company who are easy to contact. I spoke to them via Facebook when I had a query and got a very swift response.
Bolivian Travel Agent.
In some cases, it is cheaper to use a Bolivian Travel Agent. For a couple of our trips we used a company called Kanoo Tours. The advantage of using a Travel Agent rather than walking into an office off the street is that they provide you with support should you have any issues. One trip we had organised through Kanoo Tours to Chacaltaya Mountain & Moon Valley just did not turn up to pick us up. We were waiting outside Kanoo Tours office for around 1 hour. Unfortunately, Kanoo Tours were not open at the time. However, when we returned to complain they gave us their full support and confirmed that they even had cameras outside the office. This proved when talking to their tour company that they did in fact fail to pick us up. On this basis they gave us a full refund and gave us a free tour to Tiwanaku. Had we been dealing with the Tour company direct it would have just been our word against theirs.
‘Off the Street’ Company
This will be your cheapest option if you want a tour. We did use a company like this to go on our Chacaltaya and Moon Valley tour after our first failed attempt. For comparison this tour cost us 90 bolivianos (approx. £9). If we booked with Kanoo tours it would have cost us around £11 and if we decided to go with Viator it would have cost us around £20. Not much difference for that trip, but if you went on more of the expensive tours the savings would be much bigger.
The problem with this option is if they never picked you up and I have seen this commented on a few forums. It would just be your word against theirs.
We did have a really great trip and a fantastic tour guide who was obviously very passionate about his country and what he does for a living.
Making Your Own Way
You can make your own way to most of the sites in La Paz. You can organise your route using the trufis, cable cars or taxis. If using the trufis and cable cars your cost will be significantly reduced. We thought, however, as the trips were really cheap anyway it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to find our way around. You may be more coordinated than me. The benefits of this is that you can go to these sites at your own pace and you do not have to stick to a tour guide.
Leaving Your Tour Group.
Speaking of which, it is possible to get transport with your tour group and leave them at the site. We did this at Tiwanaku as the guide does not take you to all the important parts of the site. Just bear in mind that if you are not with the tour group when they depart they WILL leave you behind. No ifs or buts they will not wait. If you are going to veer off just make sure you keep them in sight or know exactly where they are headed.
We took a bus trip up to Mount Chacaltaya which is approx. 5500 meters above sea level. You must make sure you are acclimatised to the altitude before heading up here. The bus journey up is quite heart stopping in itself. The windy roads are so tiny that it feels like the bus is literally inches away from tumbling down the side of the mountain. If you are afraid of heights just don’t look down.
Chacaltaya is an abandoned ski resort. It used to be extremely popular, but we were told that the snow had disappeared due to global warming. It was really sad to see. One you are in the car park area you have the choice to climb to the top of the mountain. Don’t worry if you don’t fancy it, the altitude makes it difficult and we had a few that stayed behind on our trip. There were a couple that struggled on the way up as everyone reacts differently to altitude. If you feel well and fit enough though, I would certainly recommend attempting it. The view from the top is unbeatable. Take your pictures quickly if you have a good view, as them clouds come rolling in quicker than you could imagine.
Chacaltaya is currently 15 Boliviano entrance fee.
Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
We also took a bus trip to Moon Valley. I believe this is quite easy to get to on your own, but it was part of an all-day trip, so we went with a tour. Once inside there are two routes you can take. A 15 min route or a 45 min route. Do both if you get the chance. The Valle de la Luna takes its name from the strange formations which make it look very similar to the surface of the moon. I was told Neil Armstrong named this location, but I am not sure how true this is. These formations have been caused by constant erosions of wind and rain to the mountain over many years. It’s a great place to walk around and see some awesome viewpoints. Many of the structures have been named such as ‘Grandfather’ and ‘turtle’ due to their similarities. See if you can spot them.
If you do fancy getting here on your own I believe you can take the green line to the end and then jump on a trufi. Again, you could always take a taxi, it is roughly around 45 mins from the centre of La Paz, but traffic can get hectic at times
Moon valley is currently 15 Boliviano entrance fee.
If you are planning a trip to Tiwanaku make sure you visit Puma Punku. This is included in your ticket but has been known to be missed off tours (I speak from first hand experience, we had to take two trips). At Puma Punku you can see all the monolithic structures and famous ‘H’ blocks that still today remain a mystery. No-one knows exactly how they made these structures with such precision without modern day technology. Some theorists say that alien intervention was the cause and others believe that the people of Tiwanaku had advanced technology that has since been lost.
In both the Puma Punku site and Tiwanaku site you will see both red and grey stone used. It is important to note the properties of the grey stone which is believed to be granite. It would have been incredibly hard to cut using the simple tools the Tiwanaku people had. So how did they do this with such intricacy? Some cuts look like they are laser beam straight and they all have perfect 90-degree angles. At one part of the site there are 7 grey stone blocks facing symmetrical to others. If you place a compass inside these boundaries the magnetic field caused by the stones cause the compass to go haywire. Some of the slabs are so large in structure that they seem impossible to have been moved. There are so many questions at this site. It is a must to go and see if you are in La Paz. Just make sure you don’t miss out on anything if you are taking a tour. Even if it means stepping away temporarily.
Entrance fee is 100 Boliviano and this includes access to 2 museums, the Puma Punku site and the Tiwanaku site.
Uyuni Salt Flats
This is an incredible trip if you have the time to go. Uyuni is around 8 hours South of La Paz so depending on the trip it can take between 1 and 3 days. There are various options to get to Uyuni including bus or plane. Once there I recommend travelling by 4×4 as the landscape is very harsh on vehicles. Make sure you book your tour in advance through a reputable company who will be well equipped if there are any car troubles.
Make sure you bring lots of photo props as this is the perfect location to have some fun with your photography and videos.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a trip that I ended up taking but I am certainly hoping to return and get another chance. I was told by many other tourists that it was an amazing trip and the landscape is surreal. Let me know if you go and what you think of it.
Transport from La Paz
We were travelling to Cusco from La Paz and decided to use Bolivia Hop. This is a great option for transport between LA Paz, Copacabana, Puno, Arequipa & Cusco. Check out my review here.