La Paz, Bolivia: what to do in the highest capital in the world
On first impression, La Paz, Bolivia, is just a big, ugly, dirty city, but once you give yourself a little more time there you’ll realise that yes, La Paz really is just a big, ugly, dirty city. Instead of using bins, people in La Paz just put their bin bags out in a pile on the street for dogs to chew into (which we’ve seen in a lot of places in Peru and Ecuador since), but the weirdest thing is that when waiting for a pick-up at 6am, we witnessed a government-employed, uniformed waste disposal man using a rake to pull out, spread and mash up all of the rubbish from the bin bags onto a giant mess on the pavement, with no waste disposal truck in sight. Bolivians, please explain.
At 4000m, if the altitude hasn’t hit you yet it’s going to hit you here. Walking up hills will be a struggle, and there are many! Because of the altitude in La Paz, the climate can be pretty cold and damp.
Granted, we’re not painting an excellent picture of La Paz here, but we did enjoy our time in the capital, we promise. One of the highlights was cycling down the North Yungas road; so don’t miss our in-depth guide to how to book a death road tour from La Paz.
Things to do in La Paz
Join the La Paz Walking Tour
As always, get yourself on the walking tour! If you’re staying in the Wild Rover, the tour that leaves from the lobby every morning is pretty extensive, including stop-offs such as the food market to find out about the Bolivian yapa, and the witches market for an explanation of ancient and modern beliefs (if you happen to have any combination of ailments ranging from appendicitis to a lack of cash flow, they have a potion for that), and La Paz’s most notorious prison, San Pedro, which is also one of the country’s smoothest cocaine production plants.
You can find out more about this prison (and allegedly go inside, although this isn’t officially allowed as of a few years ago) from an ex-inmate, Crazy Dave, who meets people in the plaza outside the prison every day at a vague 12-1pm. We didn’t do this tour, but apparently it gives really exciting insights into the prison’s unique setup. If you’ve read ‘Marching Powder’, this will be of much interest to you, as it’s this very prison that the book reports on.
Visit Route 36
As we mentioned before, there is an awful lot of drug-tourism in Bolivia. La Paz is the centre for such snow-nosed activity, and is home to the only official cocaine bar in the world, Route 36. If you want to take the inside knowledge of a certain ex-cocaine-producing-prisoner, the cocaine sold at this bar is terribly unpure and the prices are hiked for gringos. But hey, at least you can say you been?
Explore the Tiwanaku Ruins
A couple of hours West of La Paz, you’ll find the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku, built by one of the oldest civilisations on the continent. This excursion is 100% perfect for ancient history-lovers, and you can take small group tours that get you to the archaeological site, guide you round the ruins and the museum, answering any questions you may have about the people who left such a fascinating mark on Bolivia.
Watch a Cholita Fight
Think WWE, but with large-breasted women in skirts with plaits down to their waists hurling each other around in place of oiled-up men in hotpants. For around 90Bs, you can go and watch these fights in the ring (every Wednesday and Sunday). Believe it or not, it’s a fairly traditional evening activity in La Paz. Go in expecting a slapstick comedy rather than an epic battle and you’ll have a whale of a time.
Ride the La Paz Teleféricos
If you want to see major views of the whole city, get a teleférico (cable car) from Estación Central up to El Alto. Each ride costs 3 Bolivianos (30p). Even though the El Alto neighbourhood has been invested in much more in recent years and is now a tourist hideout thanks to the cable car, you still have to be extremely vigilant for thieves. If you’re worried or just want to have an experience that’s more informative than walking around on your own, check out some of the local tour operators who will take you up on the teleférico and guide you around the El Alto area.
Book a Death Road Tour
But number one for most visitors to La Paz is to book a Death Road tour. Featured on the Top Gear Bolivia Special (which at the time of writing is still available on Netflix), this was once the deadliest road in the world in terms of rate of, well, deaths. A new road was built in 2006 which has meant that the road is now only really used by residents or tourists on bikes, but it’s still a tight squeeze when those two parties meet, making you wonder how on earth this road is not one-way to vehicles. Check out our guide on how to book a Death Road tour from La Paz.
Where to stay in La Paz
We had wanted to stay clear of party hostels, and instead chose the much more mellow Adventure Brew Hostel Downtown. However, since our friends from Santa Cruz were staying in the Wild Rover party hostel, and it was only £5 each for a bed in a 20 (yes, twenty) man dorm, we decided to double book accommodation on the day we arrived (ballers) in order to experience this magical place everyone raved about. Despite being loud, obnoxious, void of any trace of Latin culture and the kind of place where the wall of fame features the people who racked up the biggest booze tab that night, we freakin’ loved this place. Despite only being official guests on the first night, we ended up using our wristbands for entry every other night, whether for a quick drink or a full party.
Facilities are excellent (hello, shiny new toilets!) and staff were brilliant at simultaneously fuelling and controlling the chaos without dampening the fun. Surprisingly, food tastes pretty good at the bar too, though admittedly the hash brown breakfast did spark the first session of 6 weeks of solid stomach bug for both of us and almost every person from the hostel that we met later on. Despite the trip to Puno’s emergency room a few days later, we’d probably still eat from there again.
The one thing we didn’t like is that after last orders they piled us all into a bus that was so rammed we could barely breathe (unfortunately we got stuck standing in the aisle), drove us 30 minutes with no real explanation and then dumped us at an Irish bar so packed that we decided to leave after 10 minutes because Lozzy’s ponytail kept getting jammed between the different currents of people passing and it was starting to drip with their sweat. Ew. The night had been fantastic before that!
Though decidedly more chilled (perhaps too chilled for the name), Adventure Brew Hostel Downtown was a nice place to stay too. Beds were comfy enough, and the bar area was a nice place to sit and relax, though there were rarely any people down there. Breakfast was decent, with made-to-order eggs on bread and fruit. Showers were hot, but the bathrooms were open to the elements, so getting out the shower was pretty freezing. There was a bit more going on in the area around Adventure Brew than Wild Rover, but if you stay in Wild Rover it sort of consumes you and you forget there’s a world outside anyway.
We ended up staying in Wild Rover Cusco and visiting Wild Rover Arequipa to watch the football, and can hands down say that La Paz is the best for facilities and atmosphere.
Where to eat in La Paz
For meat sweats, head to Churrasqueria El Pollin on Avenida Camacho. The trays these guys bring out will have you considering veganism for weeks.
There are plenty of little typical Bolivian restaurants that will do a menu del dia for 10-12Bs. We found a great little one on Calle Yungas, you’ll see it from the large parrilla grill at the entrance.
Andy fell in love with the milanesa sandwiches sold from a little stall on Calle Oruro, opposite the big government building, and went back 3 times.
New things to try in La Paz (or actually, any of Bolivia if you can find them) are api, a corn-based sweet hot drink, and beef anticucho (you’ll find it tastier if you don’t know which part of the cow this is). Foodies will love the food tours on offer in La Paz!
For café vibes, Higher Ground, the ‘best coffee shop in La Paz’ is right opposite Adventure Brew Hostel – it is pricey but the hot banana bread is so so worth it.
Foodie note: empanadas are like, really disappointing in Bolivia. Fillings tend to be lacking, and sometimes are just salteñas (pastry with the most sad excuse for a dollop of cheese inside) in disguise. We miss the juicy satisfaction of Argentina’s finest!