A mad carnival of jostling pedestrians, honking, diesel-spewing minivans, street marches, and cavalcades of vendors, La Paz surrounds you: you'll love it, you'll hate it, but you can't ignore it. The city seems to reinvent itself at every turn – a jaw-dropping subway in the sky brings you from the heights of El Alto to the depths of Zona Sur in the blink of an eye. Standing hotels are remodeled at a manic pace, and new boutique hotels are springing up like rows of altiplano corn.
Coming from the Bolivian countryside, you’ll be struck by the gritty city reality. It’s the urban jungle, baby: diesel, dust, and detritus; blinding altiplano sun, cold cavernous corners of Dickensian darkness. Sharp-suited businessmen flank machine-gun-toting bank guards and balaclava-camouflaged shoeshine boys. Lung-busting inclines terminate in peaceful plazas. A maze of contradictions, where cobblestones hit concrete, and Gothic spires vie with glassine hotels, La Paz amazes and appalls all who enter.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout La Paz.
The city’s most unusual market lies along Calles Jiménez and Linares between Sagárnaga and Av Mariscal Santa Cruz, amid lively tourist artesanías (stores selling locally handcrafted items). What is on sale isn’t witchcraft as depicted in horror films; the merchandise is herbal and folk remedies, plus a few more unorthodox ingredients intended to supplicate the various spirits of the Aymará world.
This colonial building was constructed in 1775 of pink sandstone and has been restored to its original grandeur, in mestizo (mixed) baroque and Andino baroque styles. In the center of a huge courtyard, surrounded by three stories of pillared corridors, is a lovely alabaster fountain. The various levels are dedicated to different eras, with an emphasis on religious themes.
Fans of Bolivia’s lovely traditional weaving consider this small textile museum a must-see. Examples of the country’s finest traditional textiles (including pieces from the Cordillera Apolobamba, and the Jal’qa and Candelaria regions of the Central Highlands) are grouped by region and described in Spanish and English. The creative process is explained from fiber to finished product. The gift shop sells museum-quality originals; 90% of the sale price goes to the artists.
Anthropology buffs should check out this museum, one of the city's best. The building, itself a real treasure, was constructed in 1720 and was once the home of the Marqués de Villaverde. Highlights include an awe-inspiring collection of ritualistic masks and an exhibition of stunning weavings from around the country. A guided tour is available by calling ahead.
La Paz’s best-preserved colonial street is home to four small museums. They are all clustered together and can generally be bundled into one visit. Buy tickets at the Museo Costumbrista and continue to the Museo de Metales Preciosos, Museo del Litoral and Casa de Murillo.
The hewed stone basilica of San Francisco was founded in 1548 by Fray Francisco de los Ángeles. The original structure collapsed under heavy snowfall around 1610, but it was rebuilt between 1743 and 1772. The second building is made of stone quarried at nearby Viacha. The facade is decorated with carvings of natural themes such as chirimoyas (custard apples), pine cones and tropical birds.
Although it’s a relatively recent addition to La Paz’s religious structures, the 1835 cathedral is impressive – mostly because it is built on a steep hillside. The main entrance is 12m higher than its base on Calle Potosí. The cathedral’s sheer immensity, with its high dome, hulking columns, thick stone walls and high ceilings, is overpowering, but the altar is relatively simple.
As in many Latin American cemeteries, bodies are first buried in the Western way or are placed in a crypt. Then, within 10 years, they are disinterred and cremated. After cremation, families purchase or rent glass-fronted spaces in the cemetery walls for the ashes, they affix plaques and mementos of the deceased, and place flowers behind the glass door.
For a great view of La Paz, head in a taxi to the Tupac Katari Mirador, situated right on the edge of the rim that plunges down the valley to La Paz. It was – and is – a sacred Inca site and ritual altar where Tupac Katari is believed to have been drawn and quartered by colonialists.