La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz (the City of Our Lady of Peace) was founded and named on October 20, 1548, by a Spaniard, Captain Alonzo de Mendoza, at present-day Laja situated on the Tiahuanaco road. Soon after, La Paz was shifted to its present location, the valley of the Chuquiago Marka (now called the Río Choqueyapu), which had been occupied by a community of Aymará miners.
The 16th-century Spanish historian Cieza de León remarked of the newfound city: ‘This is a good place to pass one’s life. Here the climate is mild and the view of the mountains inspires one to think of God.’ But despite León’s lofty assessment (perhaps he mistakenly got off at Cochabamba), the reason behind the city’s founding was much more terrestrial. The Spanish always had a weakness for shiny yellow metal, and the now-fetid Río Choqueyapu, which today flows underneath La Paz, seemed to be full of it.
The Spaniards didn’t waste any amount of time in seizing the gold mines, and Captain Mendoza was installed as the new city’s first mayor. The conquerors also imposed their religion and their lifestyle on the indigenous people, and since most of the colonists were men, unions between Spanish men and indigenous women eventually gave rise to a primarily mestizo population.
If the founding of La Paz had been based on anything other than gold, its position in the depths of a rugged canyon probably would have dictated an unpromising future. However, the protection this setting provided from the fierce Altiplano climate and the city’s convenient location on the main trade route between Lima and Potosí – much of the Potosí silver bound for Pacific ports passed through La Paz – offered the city some hope of prosperity once the gold had played out. By the time the railway was built, the city was well enough established to continue commanding attention.
In spite of its name, the City of Our Lady of Peace has seen a good deal of violence. Since Bolivian independence in 1825, the republic has endured over 190 changes of leadership. An abnormally high mortality rate once accompanied high office in Bolivia; the job of president came with a short life expectancy. In fact, the presidential palace on the plaza is now known as the Palacio Quemado (Burned Palace), owing to its repeated gutting by fire. As recently as 1946 then-president Gualberto Villarroel was publicly hanged in Plaza Murillo.