Tucked into the curves and folds of a dramatic high-altitude canyon, La Paz, Bolivia offers Aymara culture, traditional and modern art, and cuisine that’s proudly (and deliciously) Bolivian. This vibrant city has so much going for it that we couldn’t cover it all in just one post, so welcome to our 3-part La Paz travel guide series! Part 1 covers what to do in La Paz including cholita wrestling, shopping, museums, architecture, and more plus recommended hotels in La Paz.
New heights in La Paz, Bolivia
As you descend from the high, flat altiplano city of El Alto into the city of Nuestra Señora de La Paz (which everyone just calls La Paz), it can feel like you’re stepping off the edge of the earth. The road snakes steeply down and your first glimpse of the metropolis below might seem like some sort of mirage. Sprawling between 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) and 10,500 feet (3,200 meters), La Paz fills a massive canyon that no sane urban planner would choose as the site for a major city. Picture Bryce Canyon in the US, but with more than 800,000 people living in it.
La Paz started small when gold was discovered in the river that runs through the valley. The city grew from there, becoming the highest administrative capital in the world (Sucre is the capital of Bolivia, but all government offices are in La Paz as is the Presidential residence).
Modern La Paz has a surprisingly young energy plus a growing food scene, art of all sorts, an innovative cable car system, and a newly empowered and proud indigenous culture that’s a joy to see. Rely on our La Paz travel guide series of posts to cut through what may look like chaos so you can discover the pleasures of La Paz.
What to do in La Paz, Bolivia
Get your bearings and mingle with the locals the easy way, by riding the city’s Mi Teleferico network of color-coded cable cars that crisscross the valley above the city. Some locals still grumble about the amount of money spent on the Doppelmayr-built transport system (reportedly at a cost of more than 700 million dollars) which debuted in 2014. As we write this, the 10 cable car lines cover 19 miles (30.6 km) and provide cheap and efficient access to virtually the entire city and the city of El Alto above. This allows tens of thousands of people to get around every day without sitting in the city’s infamous traffic. Bonus: the views from above the city are quite dramatic as you can see in the photos and time-lapse video in our photo essay about the Mi Teleferico cable car system.
Check out the unexpected and playful mix of Bolivian folk art, archaeological items, modern art, colonial art, and religious art at the National Museum of Art which is located in a historic building that recently got a stark modern extension.
Tranquil Jaen Street is one of the few surviving original cobblestone lanes in the city. Now a pedestrians-only street, take a stroll along it to see brightly painted heritage buildings now occupied by cafes, bars, shops, and niche museums (one is devoted solely to musical instruments).
The San Francisco Church and Museum anchors the main plaza in the downtown area of La Paz. You can’t miss it. A few Franciscan monks still live in the church and guided tours include the keys to locked doors behind which treasures, including gem-encrusted gold liturgical items and original 16th-century murals, are revealed. Huff up the bell tower for views over the city.
Near the San Francisco Church you’ll find the chicest shopping in town, a boutique called Mistura. Curated by a group of fashionable Bolivian friends, this shop sells the highest quality and highest style items in the city. More than 100 Bolivian designers provide elegant llama fiber blankets, alpaca sweaters, sterling silver jewelry, and more. Bolivian coffee, Bolivian wine, and high-end singani (the national booze of Bolivia) are also sold here.
Is it a sport? Is it a spectacle? Cholita wrestling is a little bit of both as two indigenous Aymara women (called cholas or cholitas), wearing traditional layered skirts, bowler hats, and fringed shawls, duke it out in a ring. It’s a campy, showy mash-up of WWF and Mexico’s Lucha Libre with braid pulling and the occasional cheeky smooch with a cute audience member thrown in. Pick up tickets, which include entry and transport to and from the match, at any tour company office. Go ringside for all the action in our post about cholita wrestling in La Paz.
There’s not a lot of historic architecture in La Paz, but around Plaza Murillo you’ll find three good examples. The first is the Metropolitan Cathedral of our Lady of Peace which opened in the 1620s after 70 years of construction. It was so poorly built that, in 1831, the structure had to be knocked down and rebuilt.
Next to the cathedral is the persimmon-colored Neoclassical Presidential Palace which is also known as Palacio Quemado or Burnt Palace because it was nearly burned to the ground in 1875. This is the traditional home of the president of the country, however, President Evo Morales moved out of the Presidential Palace and into an enormous brand new residence in the city’s tallest skyscraper that’s called Casa Grande immediately behind the old palace. The current president of Bolivia, Luis Arce who was elected in 2020, has also moved into Casa Grande instead of the Presidential Palace.
Colorfully dressed guards stand in front of both the cathedral and the Presidential Palace day and night, ostensibly to guard the president (though, as we’ve noted, the current president doesn’t live three) and to guard the remains of former Bolivian president and independence hero Andres de Santa Cruz who is buried in the cathedral.
Also on Plaza Murillo is the legislative building which was built as a bank, was used as a convent, and is now where legislators administer the country. As we mentioned, while Sucre is technically the capital of Bolivia, the actual administration of the country takes place in La Paz. Don’t miss the clock on the facade of this building. Since 2014 it runs backward as an odd statement about regaining the identity of Bolivia and leaving the influence of the west behind.
You’ll gain a deeper appreciation of Bolivian crafts at the National Museum of Ethnography & Folklore where collection directors have focused on the process, materials, and tools used to make traditional Bolivian textiles, metalwork, pottery, and masks. Their collection of masks and pieces crafted in feathers are particularly amazing. It’s all housed in a historic building in the central downtown area that was a private mansion (the stonework is gorgeous).
The Tiwanaku archaeological site is not located in La Paz city. However, you can get a taste of the site’s treasures in Tiwanaku Square. Located in the roundabout in front of the National Stadium, Tiwanaku Square is home to a replica of the Semi-Subterranean Temple, the most intact structure found at the Tiwanaku archeological site.
There’s a lot of street art in La Paz, but some of the most distinct work can be seen in the city’s General Cemetery where artists have created arresting murals on almost every available surface. See more in our photos essay about the cemetery murals in La Paz.
Bolivian self-taught architect Freddy Mamani has created a unique style which he shows off in buildings called cholets (a combination of the words chola and chalet) which incorporate fluorescent colors, geometric shape, wacky angles, and a lot of glass. The million-dollar, multi-story status symbol buildings incorporate retail space on the bottom, an event space on the second floor, an apartment or two above that, and a full-blown house for the owners on the roof. Bolivia Milenaraio Tours, a Bolivian-owned company that’s been running trips around Bolivia for more than two decades, offers an excellent guided tour of cholets. Afternoons are the best time to book this tour because the event spaces are most likely to be open and in the final stages of decoration for that night’s parties. Get the full story in our post about cholets in El Alto.
One of the most famous things to do in downtown La Paz is to take a stroll around the Mercado de Las Brujas (Witches Market in English). Here, streets are lined with vendors selling all manner of potions, talismans, herbs, and other goods (including llama fetuses) needed to perform traditional Bolivian rituals to secure better luck, love, money, health, education, and other life goals.
A few years ago, La Paz city unleashed a crew of people dressed up as zebras to patrol crosswalks (sometimes called zebra crossings) and playfully remind drivers about pedestrian safety. Famously, US comedian and TV host Jon Oliver fell in love with these civic-minded critters and featured them on his show Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver. This, as you can imagine, was big news in Bolivia. Your best chance of seeing a zebra in Bolivia is in the busy downtown area during morning and afternoon rush hours.
Where to sleep in La Paz, Bolivia
The most stylish boutique hotel in La Paz, Bolivia is the Atix Hotel. The 53-room hotel opened in 2017 in the southern part of the city (Zona Sur). Rooms are more or less as you’d expect, though native wood headboards, their own bottled water, and universal electrical outlets are nice touches.
Public spaces at the Atix (atix means “the one who thrives” in the local Quechua language) are decorated with pieces of large-scale modern art by Bolivian artist Gastón Ugalde. The plunge pool in the rooftop bar is a surprise, though mostly for show. Service is attentive and the hotel restaurant has big ambitions.
Hotels in the central downtown area of La Paz are mostly cheap hostals, so Hotel Rosario La Paz stands out. Part of a small locally-owned group of hotels, Hotel Rosario has 40 rooms in a colonial building and offers the full roster of mid-range hotel services. This combination attracts a lot of tour groups. Though the hotel is located on a very busy street not far from the Las Brujas Market, the environment inside the hotel is surprisingly peaceful.
The Altu Qala is the first truly 5-star hotel in La Paz. It’s the result of an ambitious multi-year project that created a 10-room hotel (including five huge suites) in a historic Republican era building that was painstakingly restored including bringing in a team of traditional Bolivian stone workers to re-create the interior one stone at a time (altu qala means high stone in the Quechua language). A modern, two-story, glass addition was added on top and there’s an exclusive bar and lounge on the roof. Rooms and suites feature brass beads, reclaimed wood accents, and sexy black and white tiled bathrooms. Mid-century lamps, a massive collection of Murano glass, and a chic palette of indigo and slate grey polish off the look and feel. As we write this, this hotel was still “nearing” an opening date…
Foreign visitors should note that non-Bolivians are exempt from paying hotel taxes in Bolivia. However, we found that some hotels still try to charge it. Know your rights in our post about how to avoid the hotel tax scam in Bolivia.
La Paz, Bolivia travel tips
Flights to La Paz land at El Alto International Airport, the world’s highest international airport, at 13,325 feet (4,062 meters) on a plateau above the city. Chances are, that’s much higher than wherever you’re flying in from so you’re likely to feel the altitude. Common effects of altitude are shortness of breath and fatigue, but you can mitigate those feelings by avoiding over-exertion, drinking lots of water (but only the purified kind, never water from the tap), and limiting alcohol which goes to your head faster at altitude.
Also, we got pickpocketed while walking around the central downtown area of La Paz (only the second time that’s happened on the whole journey), and we’re not alone. Don’t carry unnecessary valuables around with you in La Paz and be sure anything you are carrying is secure.
Use our La Paz, Bolivia city travel guide series of posts to plan your own trip to this one-of-a-kind destination.
Part 2 covers top bars and restaurants in La Paz.
Here’s more about travel in Bolivia
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