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La Paz is the capital of Bolivia. It was established in 1542, and is located in the Andes mountains. Altitude of the city ranges from about 4100 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. The first thing one sees is 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.
Colonial buildings on Calle Jaen
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.
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.
- 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
- Tiwanaku Museum
- 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 1 (http://www.cocamuseum.com), Calle Linares 906. A favorite of foreign tourists, this small museum (currently under renovation but open) 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. And yes, there are free samples.
- 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.
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, yet the main dishes (Bolivian and international, in portions ample for two) are only around Bs50.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- There's a string of inexpensive pizza and hamburger joints on the west side of Avenida 6 de Agosto south of Plaza del Estudiante.
- 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.
If you do not want to plan the sleeping place, you can check that out in loco by walking through calle Sagarnaga or calle llampo. These streets are merged into fairs and museums, so it's full of people all the day long. The prices are pretty different assisting all the classes of tourists.
- Hostal Austria, Calle Yanacocha 531, 235-1140. Very popular with backpackers, offering warm water, friendly staff and a central location.
- Hostal Naira 2 (http://www.hostalnaira.com/) 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.
- Hotel España 3 (http://www.hotel-espana.com/), 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 4 (http://www.hotelrosario.com/), 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 5 (http://www.hotel-ritz-bolivia.com/), Plaza Isabel La Catolica 2478. Five stars and all suites in the heart of Sopocachi.
- Hotel Europa 6 (http://www.summithotels.com/hotel_detail.cfm?id=24652&) Tihuanaco 64, 231-5656. Luxury hotel located just off the central Prado.
The two most popular day trips from La Paz are to Tiwanaku and Lake Titicaca, though the latter (especially Copacabana) is pushing it a bit in terms of time.