How To Experience La Paz Like A Local

Feb 27, 2017
Most people relate traveling to Incan empires and high altitudes with Machu Picchu in Peru. However, not many know that its neighbor Bolivia is home to one of the tallest cities in the world at 13,615 feet above sea level -- La Paz.

At first glance, La Paz will take your breath away with its arid and quirky beauty. Built in and around a canyon created by Choqueyapu River, the city’s structures cling to the sides of the earth and spill spectacularly downwards. On a clear day, the imposing and snowy Mt. Illimani can be spotted in the distance.

Being born and raised in this environment gave me the opportunity to explore hidden treasures in this underrated city. In recent visits, I’ve experienced La Paz with more of a refined traveler’s eye and compiled mental notes of the places that remind me most of my childhood and are considered the city’s staples.

After learning about the beautiful lakes, Incan landmarks and defying hikes that this city offers, you too will be an expert in building sky-high memories of my hometown.

Here is my guide on how to tour La Paz like a local:

Your new best friend: coca leaf tea

Getting used to the lack of oxygen at La Paz’s altitude is simplified by a magnificent beverage known as mate de coca. This is a very popular herbal drink consumed as a digestive tea by locals and as a cure for altitude sickness by travelers -- this is why it’s so popular among mountaineers who climb the Andes. Whether you decide to chew on it or boil it, its effects will have you ready to walk in high mountains in a matter of days. Coca leaf tea is available at the airport (Aeropuerto Internacional de El Alto) and at any hotel, restaurant or inn in the city. It will also help warm you up as temperatures average in the mid-40s Fahrenheit.

Snacking on Coca-Cola and salteñas

Bolivian cuisine is as varied as the countries that surround it. Given that La Paz is cold and dry most of the year, it is known for hearty broths and a starch-heavy diet as well as for consuming enormous amounts of carbohydrates -- potatoes, lots of potatoes. Because this diet might not quite jive with the lack of oxygen in your system during the first hours of your visit, I suggest you try a lighter approach and snack on some baked pastry stuffed with out-of-this world meat-and-vegetable goodness, also known as salteñas.

When paired with an icy cold Coca-Cola or freshly squeezed juice of the day, salteñas are a snack not to be missed.  Visit Paceña La Salteña in the center of La Paz’s suburbs for award-winning salteñas, where you will catch most locals grabbing a quick bite around 11 a.m., between breakfast and lunch.

Red, yellow and green; not just the colors of the flag

I doubt there’s a better way to see everything in one of the highest cities in the world than to zip around above the city on the newest method of transportation: the “Teleferico,” an aerial cable car urban transit system. The network of three lines and 10 stations reaches the most important and historical areas of La Paz and gives riders unparalleled views of the city. This is also the most convenient way to acclimate to high altitude without having to walk the entire city.

The system was planned in order to address a number of problems, including a precarious public transit system, the high cost in time and money of traveling between La Paz and neighboring city El Alto, and the chaotic traffic with subsequent environmental and noise pollution.

Currently, there are three lines: red, yellow and green. To catch spectacular views of Mt. Illimani, the central cemetery and main urban areas, I recommend starting on the green line in Irpavi and then connecting to the yellow line in the Libertador station, which will take you to Satellite City in El Alto. Cars depart every 12 seconds, the fare is only three bolivianos (or $0.45), and the network is open 17 hours a day.

During the trip, travelers experience an altitude change of 4,000 feet. (I mean it when I say that you will fly to infinity and beyond!)

Travel to the moon at 13,000 ft.

That’s right, the moon. Located 6 miles south of downtown La Paz, the Valley of the Moon was named by astronaut Neil Armstrong as it reminded him of the surface of the moon. The rugged valley of battered clay and sandstone is a carpet of long, sharp spires. Trails are clearly marked, but they might be narrow and a bit steep. Put on your hiking shoes and prepare for sharp edges and uneven paths.

In the afternoon, you will also be able to find an indigenous musician standing on the top of one of the spires, blowing tunes through his Zampoña (Pan Flute) and adding some background music for a surreal experience. Admission is only $3, and there is also a free water station and souvenir shops on the grounds.

Don’t forget to tip the entertainer!

Totora boats on the brighter side of Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca is a pristine sacred lake that straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia -- a point that has created a friendly rivalry between the two countries as to which side is the best.

The lake plays a part in Incan mythology and recently was the site of the discovery of a submerged temple. Several of the lake’s 41 islands are also regarded as sacred. Especially important is the Isla del Sol, which was regarded as the home of the supreme Inca god Inti.

A visit to Lake Titicaca is not complete without a lunch of fresh trout and a Paceña– the local Bolivian beer of choice. For exploring the lake in style, indigenous people of the area have mastered weaving bamboo-like plants that grow in the lake (known as totora) to build boats. Taking one of these to an island on the lake for the day will give you a sense of what a Sunday afternoon ride in a Venetian gondola is like, only you will be surrounded by the breathtaking Andes Mountains.

The land of ancient Inca history and no cellular service

Located near the shores of Lake Titicaca, Tiwanaku was the spiritual and political center of a powerful pre-Hispanic empire that dominated this area. The millennia-old archeological remains can easily be explored in a single daytrip and include monumental stone buildings, the imposing Pyramid of Akapana, the Monolith, Gate of the Sun and a semi-underground temple. Schools in La Paz often take field trips to this UNESCO Heritage site to study the architecture, history and social aspects of the ancient civilization.

The most imposing monument at Tiwanaku is the Pyramid of Akapana which currently exposes one of its only surviving 59-feet walls. In the semi-underground temple, you’ll find 175 carved stone heads set into the walls, meant to represent the various ethnic groups that were once part of the empire.

Using your phone at the center of the temple is a bit challenging due to the electromagnetic fields that it radiates. Even compasses have lost track of their bearings here in the past, a phenomenon that not even tour guides can explain.

A hike to Muela del Diablo a.k.a. Devil’s Molar

After a couple days of taking in the heights and learning how to breathe again, you’ll be ready to start hiking. I recommend a trip to “Muela del Diablo,” or the Devil’s Molar. This is a volcanic formation that is shaped like a molar and rises between the Choqueyapu River and the suburbs in Calacoto. The name comes from myths of a great battle of archangels and demons where a demon loses a molar after being punched by an angel. It is believed that the volcanic formation is where this molar fell and that is why it takes after its shape. The hike can be completed in a couple of hours and will give you a glimpse at incredible views of the city and the valley. The area also is filled with “viscachas” – rabbit-like chinchillas that live and hop around vertical cliffs like nobody’s business.

The art of partying at altitude – yes, it includes coca leaf-based drinks

Paceños (natives of La Paz) are known for having a great time and for their drinking culture. Finding the best bars and clubs might be a challenge, as they tend to be hidden within neighborhoods. Here are some suggestions:

Diesel Nacional is a bar with industrial furnishings that include a railroad track along the floor, hanging girders and wall-mounted airplane engines. For cold winter nights, the bar also features a fire-place that will warm you up next to a craft cocktail.

Located in a picturesque colonial neighborhood on Jaen Street is Bocaisapo, a bar where you can mingle with painters, poets and musicians. Signature drinks include Ajnejo, a liqueur made with Bolivian spices that-- if not processed -- can have hallucinatory effects. Live folk music and long conversations with locals will keep you up until the sun comes out.

La Costilla de Adan is a two story bar-museum that holds more than 19,000 antique pieces from La Paz’s local flea markets. Unique artifacts range from lamps, dolls, radios and books to posters of old films covering the walls and ceiling. The signature drink of choice is the Leche de Negro, made with quince liqueur, brandy and coca. Pair this with specialty pies, port wine or tiramisu.

Reminder: In La Paz, smoking inside bars is still allowed. Be mindful that people will be smoking around you.

Don’t forget the souvenirs, including dried llama fetuses

No visit to La Paz is complete without checking out the Witches Market located in the center of the city. Unique souvenirs include dried llama fetuses, dried frogs and soapstone figurines. Wondering why one of the most sacred animals in the nation is hanging for sale? Llama fetuses are traditionally buried in the foundations of new constructions or businesses as a cha’lla (offerings) to the goddess Pachamama in order to protect the workers from accidents and bring good luck to the business. Although you might be tempted to take pictures, make sure to ask the store owner for permission beforehand. If you are in search of fortune telling, you will also find local witch doctors (Yatiris) roaming around with dark hats and coca pouches.

More traditional souvenirs like ponchos, alpaca hats, and bags made with local textiles can be found around the corner in Calle Sagarnaga. For convenient shopping, bring small bills and haggle for the best price.

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