Thursday, 22 June 2017

City Guide for La Paz

La Paz, Bolivia is one of those cities that isn't all that easy to navigate as a tourist. We spent several days in La Paz at a few different accommodations and we discovered that even if our hotel advertised themselves as being in the city centre, tour companies offering pick-up from city centre locations often disagreed. There doesn't really appear to be any main downtown centre and you always seem to be heading, out of breath, up a hill as it's bowl-like shape is 3,650m, above sea level, making it the highest capital city* in the world. The city is surrounded by the high mountains of the Altiplano and the snow capped peaks of Illimani. 

*not the capital city of Bolivia, but rather the capital city of the La Paz Department.

My suggestion upon arriving in La Paz is to acquire a map (paper map, if you're old school) or download and orientate yourself within the city. On our trip, we gravitated to Plaza Mayor as our centre, using it to figure out how far things were from each other and where it was in relation to where we were spending the night.

What I'm providing here is by no means an exhaustive list of things to do and see, places to eat or sleep, but rather should be used as a preliminary guide for your own discovery of the city. The things suggested within this post are the things we did on our trip, but I'm only recommending them because I did actually like them. 

What to do

On our first day we did a walking tour of the El Alto Market (open Thursdays and Sundays). It is an insanely huge local market where everything you can imagine can be purchased on these city blocks. From car parts, clothing, street food, to tattoos. The market was overwhelming and jam packed full of locals getting annoyed with us window shoppers getting in their way. The Skywalk Tour, which we signed up for through our accommodation (Pirwa Hostel--more on it below), was lead by two local guides who got us to the market with ease and showed us the entire shopping district, something I know we couldn't have comfortably done on our own. Our guides looked out for our well-being, gave us safety tips and made great recommendations of things for us to try.

The El Alto Market is a sight to behold and I definitely recommend going, either on your own or as part of a tour. Just go.

A few blocks west (up hill) of the Plaza Mayor is the Witches Market, El Mercado de las Brujas. Trinkets and raw ingredients, like Llama fetuses, used in rituals and potions can be purchased at this lively tourist market from a variety of places. It's hard to miss these interesting stores found along Calle Jiminez and Linares and are definitely worth a snoop around.

Mercado Lanza is an indoor market and one of the city's largest. Spread over four stories, there are book and clothing stalls on the first floors and the food vendors can be found on the upper levels. It's not a pretty building and for the first few days we actually thought it was a parking garage before we stepped foot inside and discovered what we had been missing. There so many of the small food stalls packed with people at little booths or elbow to elbow at counters enjoyed a bowl of hot food and watching wrestling or a soap opera on TV. We should have been eating our lunches here! 
It's open daily from 6am-8pm.

We were told that Bolivians love a party. There are so many celebrations that neighbourhoods don't bother taking down bunting because they will putting it right back up for the next celebration. We laughed when we heard this and thought it was an exaggeration until on one of our nights there we heard fireworks and came across a parade of brightly dressed dancers of all ages. Spectators lined the streets and offered drinks to the dancers as they passed by. I couldn't tell you what this parade was for but everyone was out for a good time. Bolivians really can let loose.

Located on Plaza Mayor San Francisco Church and convent museum or Basilica de San Francisco, is one of La Paz's most historically significant landmarks.  For a small fee you can get a tour of the museum, explaining its uses since its construction in 1743-1753. It's a minor Catholic basilica built by the Franciscan order. The museum portion of the building was restored and opened to the public in 2005. The church (free entry), uses a mix of Catholic symbolism and native art. Included on the museum tour is access to the roof and bell tower where you can view the city and peaked roofs of the church.

If you haven't heard about Cholita wrestling before, I highly recommend you Google it or better yet read an earlier post I did about my experience. We had booked our transportation to the venue and tickets to the event through our hostel, but many tour companies offer similar packages to the Sunday night event. We honestly didn't know what to expect, like it or hate it, it's certainly something you should experience for yourself. Girl Power!

Where to stay

As I mentioned, we booked our accommodations at several places as we were coming in and out of the city for various trips and needed to move around to best suit our needs.

Our first stay was with Pirwa Hostel, we arrived last in the evening of our first night in La Paz. It is a small place and we had booked ourselves into a four person room. We were only staying for two nights before moving on, but this was the perfect staring point as it gave us an easy introduction to the chaotic city. The staff here were so incredibly friendly and helpful, the beds were very comfortable and the shared bathroom was clean and had lots of hot water.

We booked our El Alto Market walking tour through the in-house tour company, Red Tours. Super convenient for us. I would highly recommend Pirwa Hostel for these reasons and for its affordability. Plus there was a dog, Sophie. You can't get any better in my books!

We next stayed at El Consulado, a high end hotel. We purposely booked this place because we figured we would be in desperate need of a good, hot shower and quiet bedroom after our trip to the Uyuni Salt Flats and overnight bus ride back. We were right. It was heaven. We experienced excellent service from the beginning. They let us leave our extra bags there before checking in while on our trip to the salt flats and even let us check in early when we returned from our tour. It is definitely more expensive than your average Bolivian hostel, but fortuitously for me I work in Canadian dollars and it was still quite affordable.

Breakfast was included with this hotel, but unfortunately, we had to miss out on it as we had booked an early tour for the next morning. The hotel instead provided us with a packed breakfast at no extra cost. I'm sure it wasn't as nice as the breakfast served in their beautiful conservatory, but it was just what we needed. I would stay here again, if just to be able to spend time in their garden room.

The Adventure Brew Hostel, is a party hostel. Its reputation precedes it. It does have more private facilities next door for the oldies like us, that are looking for a quiet night's sleep. This quiet side did have an unidentifiable smell in the hallway but luckily it didn't permeate into our room. In my opinion, the best part of this hostel, besides it actually being located in the ''city centre'', every night's stay gets you a free pint of home-brew.

How to get around

Bolivia is notorious for its traffic and seemingly lawless streets. Getting around the city of La Paz can be a challenge, depending where you are situated.

Mi Teleferico is a system of cable cars that connect neighbourhoods in La Paz and surrounding suburbs high above the traffic jams of the roads and people below. It was first introduced in 2014 to help alleviate the massive vehicle congestion the city experiences, the demands on gas and diesel, and the high cost of time and money it took to travel from La Paz to the higher suburb of El Alto. There are currently 4 lines and construction is underway for 7 more. Connecting many parts of the city and moving people about. As a tourist, it was a fantastic way to see the city with few obstructed views.

Along with regular taxis, the Trufis is another form of public transportation to get you around the city. However, unlike a regular taxi the Trufis drives on a set route, with the destination indicated on a card in its windshield. The vans hold multiple people and are a cheap way to get around if you can figure them out. Be aware that they can often take alternative routes when there's too much traffic or road blocks. As I don't speak Spanish and don't know the city at all, I wouldn't have attempted this on my own, but as part of the Skywalk Tour, it was a breeze.

Where to eat

The Bolivian culture very much is lived out on the street. People gather there to eat, socialize, conduct business, and celebrate. We saw all different kinds of food stalls on street coroners with people gathered and depending on the time of day determined what they were eating. Stalls and sellers changed from breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks all in the same spot at different times of day.
But doing so much travelling, sometimes at meal time you just want to be able to have a seat in a restaurant.

Luciemagas at Ave Illimani 1683, serves Bolivian home cooked food in Bolivian sized portions (spoiler they're huge!). Really, we could have shared one entree. The service here was very friendly, taking the time to explain the menu to us in English and even suggesting a special meal for my friend that was suffering from a dodgy tummy. The restaurant itself was very colourful and comfortable. It's a great introduction into some local food.

Restaurant 1700just look this place up. It is as incredible as the pictures will lead you to believe. It's located at Linares No. 906 (between Sagarnaga and Tarija near the Museum of Coca) . The food was delicious, staff was very friendly and decor incredibly medieval. It was a fun place to eat and we were given a bonus drink and appetizer. Free food is always going to win me over.

For the traveller in La Paz, Cafe Del Mundo should be your first stop (324 Calle Sagarnaga). Opened by a Swedish expat, it has become a hot spot for the nomads passing through the city. With a great menu, free WiFi, toilet paper, and a comfortable setting, we found ourselves drawn here on several occasions. Using it as a place to plan out our days while drinking coca tea and munching on European/Bolivian fusion food and conveniently located beside ATMs and a currency exchange.

And that's my La Paz. If you're planning a trip to Bolivia and debating about visiting La Paz, I would say that you should really consider adding it to your itinerary. Although it's a major city with a massive populace that can feel a bit overwhelming and unfinished, once you get past some of those rough edges it is really rather friendly and lovely in its own way.

Did I make you want to visit La Paz? What would you add to my La Paz, Bolivia city guide? 

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