Is La Paz, Bolivia Worth Visiting?
Many travelers in South America breeze right by La Paz, Bolivia's high-altitude capital, and miss out on a really awesome city. It doesn't top the lists of must-see destinations around the world and most travelers to Bolivia skip it altogether to head to the Salt Flats in Uyuni. I spent a week here and, I admit I wasn't immediately swept away by the city.
Is La Paz, Bolivia really worth visiting? My verdict: it's one of those slow burner cities that takes a little bit longer to fall for. But I can bet that after a few days you'll be enchanted with its quirky charm just like I was! Here's why it deserves a designated spot on your South American itinerary, as well as all the practical information you need to make it happen!
Getting to La Paz, Bolivia:
La Paz is serviced by El Alto International Airport, which is actually the highest altitude international airport in the entire world! The runways here are almost twice as long as normal airports because planes take much longer to slow down/take off given the thin air. Sitting high at nearly 12,000 feet (3,600 m), you can feel the altitude headache creep in shortly after landing. The locals are well-prepared to help you with this, though - you can head to basically any shop in the city and ask for "mate de coca" which will ease the high altitude sickness.
El Alto International Airport is around a 25 minute drive to the city center of La Paz. There are plenty of taxis waiting outside the small arrivals terminal to take you to your destination, and Uber even works here too! More on transportation and getting around the city later.
There are also several bus connections to and from La Paz, connecting the city to others like Puno, Copacabana, and Uyuni. South American buses in general don't have the best reputation, and from what I've heard, Bolivian buses are no exception. Not in the sense that they put you in any sort of safety concern, but just that they're highly uncomfortable with ungodly lengths.
To put that in perspective: I flew from Cusco to La Paz for around $100 which takes roughly an hour. The bus from Cusco to La Paz costs around $25 for a whopping 14 hour bus ride! I see time as the most valuable resource we have, so I didn't have a problem forking out an extra $75 for saving a day of travel.
How many days are needed in La Paz, Bolivia?
I spent a week in La Paz, which was probably just a tad too long. If you're a fast-paced traveler, you could see the city's main sights in 2-3 days and head onwards to see the rest of Bolivia. 5 days is about the maximum I would suggest for travelers to spend here - any more than that and you're going to run out of things to see.
Getting around La Paz
Uber and taxis are the primary methods of transportation that I used to get around La Paz, but it wasn't usually necessary since everything is centrally located enough to walk.
A staple of La Paz are the city's micros, sputtering minivans usually accompanied by an entertaining young guy who yells the destination out the window like a mad man to attract more riders. You can wave them down to catch the bus, and pay no more than BOB $2-3 (or 45¢ per trip). Whether or not you take this rather chaotic form of transportation, it's a fun spectacle to witness.
Another great method of transportation offered in La Paz is the Mi Teleférico system - for locals, they are cable cars that connect the upper communities at higher elevations with central La Paz down below. For travelers, they're a cheap way to see 360 degree views of the orange elevated city!
Where to stay in La Paz
La Paz is a rather large city sprawled across a big geographical area. A good frame of reference to use for basing yourself is the Plaza San Francisco, which is a centrally located tourist hot spot with travel agencies, restaurants, and La Paz's busiest street, Avenida Perez footsteps away (also where the free walking tour meets each day, a great way to get acquainted with the city and meet other travelers).
I stayed at Hotel Rosario in this area, a lovely mid-range boutique hotel for around $65 per night for a double room. For budget travelers, there are plenty of hostels available - I saw them on just about every street corner.
What to do in La Paz:
1. At the top of my to do list was the Witch's Market!
Officially known as the Mercado de Las Brujas, the Witch's Market is at once the most peculiar and the most interesting tradition-turned-tourist-attraction I encountered in South America. In Bolivia, many ancient Aymaran beliefs are still very much practiced, and you'll find a whole host of different herbs, potions, medicinal plants, and spiritual objects sold here that people in Bolivia still use today.
The weirdest thing I encountered? Dried llama fetuses! Yeah, you read that correctly. It is believed that burying dried llama fetuses underneath your house as an offering to Mother Earth (Pachamama) will bring prosperity and good luck to your family.
How do they obtain these llama fetuses in the first place, you ask? I spoke with a shop owner who told me that no live llamas are harmed in the making of dried llama fetuses. She said they just retrieve the fetuses from llama miscarriages. I don't know why/how so many llamas are apparently miscarrying in Bolivia to keep up with the market demand for dried llama fetuses, but I couldn't really convey this with my broken Spanish anyways.
Truly though, the Witch's Market was one of the most fascinating cross-cultural encounters I've ever had, and this alone makes the trip to La Paz worth it!
2. Wander near Plaza San Francisco and Avenida Perez
I know I write in just about every travel guide I've ever published that aimless wandering is the best way to get to know a city. But it's just so true. There is so much life and vibrance to witness around these areas in La Paz.
I recommend spending a few hours wandering around, turning left and right on the street when you find something that sparks your interest. I stumbled across some street art, a plaza dance party going down, and many a quaint street while I wandered around here, all of which made me fall a little more for La Paz as a city.
3. Nature Day Trips from La Paz
If you're a nature lover, the surrounding area of La Paz is home to some incredible hikes and scenery. Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), only 10km from La Paz and accessible by public transportation, is a really neat place with crazy rock formations and landscapes that look like the moon, hence the name! I skipped this while I was there, and looking back, I quite regret that, so don't make the same mistake.
Further out is Mount Illimani for the really adventurous folks who want to do more serious, multiple-day climbing/hiking adventures. Here are some organized tours that go there if you're interested in that!
3. Cycle Bolivia's Death Road
Bolivia's Death Road (proper name North Yungas Road) will pack in adventure and is a must do on any thrill seeker's itinerary! Years ago this mountainside, extremely narrow road was used as a two-lane road (when really it barely constitutes a one lane road by today's standards), and ended up claiming 200-300 lives each year as a result of cars tumbling down the cliffs below.
Nowadays, there's a new, safer road that cars use as an alternative route, and the Death Road is now used as a massive tourist attraction for those looking for an all day-adrenaline rush on a bike. Be prepared for steep, hundred-foot drops mere feet away while you ride swiftly around corners, as well as passing beneath waterfalls and across unreal views.
I am so disappointed in myself because I was all booked and ready to go on this tour - then I started Googling Death Road horror stories that made me back out of the plan last minute. I let my anxiety get the best of me here, and I deeply regret that. Don't be like me and miss out on this unique opportunity! I only recommend this for the super adventurous types, though, as it can be dangerous and anxiety-inducing.
3. Ride the Telefericos
How many cities can you name right here right now that have public transportation in the form of cable cars!? La Paz's unique geographical location (the city center down in a valley with the suburbs scattered around the surrounding mountains) makes public transportation a little different than your typical metro or bus system here. The locals use these to travel to and from work to their houses, and tourists have taken to riding them to get elevated views of the city.
Once you're at the top, you can a sweeping view of the city with the typical orange-colored roofs of La Paz. Each ride costs less than 50 cents, making it an extremely budget-friendly way to get a birds' eye view of a city (not like that time I paid $20 USD to get to the top of the Eiffel tower...).
Tourist information for La Paz (for Americans):
A tourist visa is required to enter Bolivia. You can get it either in advance at a Bolivian consulate, or on arrival at major entry points like the El Alto International Airport. It's one of the stricter visa processes I've been through in 60 odd-something countries of travel. This is thanks to the US who makes it extremely hard for Bolivian's to enter the United States, so they reciprocated it and made it hard for us, which is only fair.
Make sure to check with recent State Department updates about what's needed for a Bolivian tourist visa, as it is subject to change.
What you need for a Bolivian tourist visa:
Recent bank statement (2 copies)
Photocopy of passport (2 copies)
Printed out itinerary of hotel/accommodation for every night you plan to stay in Bolivia
Printed out airplane tickets, not only leaving Bolivia, but taking you all the way back home to the United States
2 passport photos
Printed and filled out visa application
Yellow fever vaccination certificate
Visa fee of $160.00 USD
*** all blogs I read before entering Bolivia insisted that you must arrive with crisp, unmarked, like-new $20 bills amounting to $160. I literally went to several different ATMs to make sure that my 20 dollar bills were extra crispy (with a side of hot sauce) because I read so many accounts that they take this rule pretty seriously. Turns out... when I arrived at the La Paz airport (July 2018), they said they accepted cash, but they actually preferred that I pay in debit card. ***
Thank the US government for its own harsh reciprocity rules for this complicated visa process. The actual process of getting the visa on arrival wasn't that bad and went by rather quickly, and they didn't even look at half of the documents I provided. So I'm not actually sure how strictly it is enforced, and I can imagine some of these documents like airline tickets all the way back to the US would be difficult for on-the-go travelers. I would still advise to bring everything with you though, just in case you get a grumpy immigration officer. But don't take my word for it and definitely do more research when planning your Bolivia trip!
So, is La Paz, Bolivia worth visiting?
My vote: YES! Don't miss out on the opportunity to visit La Paz, where the culture and traditions of centuries past are still very much alive and well in a modern-day city.