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Travel Talk – La Paz offers plenty to fall in love with (June 3, 2015 issue)

Bolivia is one of the most unique and fascinating countries in South America, and its capital, La Paz, is an unbelievable city that offers constant surprise. La Paz is the highest elevated capital in the world with elevation ranging from between approximately 10,000 and 13,000 feet above sea level. The city is essentially situated in a bowl with the more affluent in the lower areas where there’s more oxygen, the downtown in the middle of the bowl, and everything spreading out from there. You will see people from all walks of life: Western backpackers, shoeshiners, indigenous saleswomen, businessmen. La Paz is home to Spanish and Inca descendants who contribute to the rich culture and history of Bolivia.
La Paz can be overwhelming. It’s large and sprawling and diverse. To get your bearings and learn more about the city and culture, start with a walking tour. Red Caps do many tours of the city, including a free and informative walking tour. This tour will start at San Pedro’s square which is next to the inmate-run San Pedro’s prison.
You will then visit multiple markets, which are a highlight of any trip to La Paz, see the presidential palace and go to San Francisco Square, next to San Francisco church. The church is worth a tour inside so that you can more fully see the fascinating blend of Aymara and Spanish culture that is so unique to La Paz.
The walking tour also includes the Rodriguez market (which mostly features food), the witch’s market, and the indoor Hidalgo market. However, La Paz has a market area for everything. If you need clothes, food, a computer, you can find it all at the corresponding market where you can bargain for just about anything.
The Witches’ Market, on Sagarnaga street, is the perfect place to find a souvenir. You could spend a full day wandering through the stalls. Traditionally, Calle Sagarnaga was where you could find a witch doctor or where you could find love potions, coca leaves, or other ingredients needed for your sacrifices. Though Bolivia was under Spanish rule until 1825, the Aymara culture (related to Incan culture) never died out, which is evident everywhere you go in La Paz.
Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, was one of the most important deities and continues to be venerated in many parts of South America. Pacha Mama protects those who travel on her mountains if they remember to make small offerings to her. Pacha Mama’s favorite sacrifices are coca leaves, candies, and alcohol. While these are available at the Witches’ Market, the Market is now mostly a tourist area. You can find alpaca scarves, llama sweaters, and everything in between.
While Sagarnaga street is the best place to find souvenirs, El Alto also has a market every Thursday, Tuesday, and Sunday. El Alto is a city located on the Altiplano above La Paz and was a part of the larger city until 1987. Many people of Aymara origin call El Alto home, and you will see many of the “cholita” women (women of native heritage who you will notice by their large colorful skirts and their bowler hats).
Not only will you be immersed in Aymara culture in El Alto, but you can also find stunning views of the city below. Since El Alto is like the rim of the bowl, you can clearly see the entire city of La Paz. After you have gotten a photo, consider returning to the city via cable car. The cable cars, called Teleferico, are a newer mode of public transport in La Paz. It currently connects El Alto to La Paz and is much quicker than the city buses while providing the rider with an another spectacular view of the city.
However, one of La Paz’s most popular attractions is not in the city and is not for the faint for heart. “The Death Road,” nicknamed the “world’s most dangerous road,” is a favorite for adventure seekers and tourists. The road was given its nickname because it used to be the only road connecting the mountains to a few small towns in a valley below.
It is on the side of a mountain and is the size of a one lane road. Today, it is mostly used by mountain bikers and visitors on bikes, though there are still a few cars that take this route instead of the slightly longer (but safer) new road. While Death Road can be intimidating, if you go with an established tour group, it will be an amazing experience.
A good group will provide you with the bikes, helmets, and pads necessary as well as biking pants, jacket, and gloves. You will be accompanied by highly trained guides who know the road and look out for your safety. The guides will also take pictures of you on the road! You start high on top of the mountains and come down through jungle. You will finish in a place that feels like paradise in the jungle before having lunch. You have the opportunity to see some amazing sites while enjoying a wonderful biking trip.
La Paz is a fascinating city with much to offer. It is busy and unlike any other place in the world. It has a unique art and culture and delicious food and drink. Api is a local favorite and singani is Bolivia’s original adult beverage.
La Paz is a favorite for adventure seekers but with its constant surprises, cheap fare, and local traditions, there is something for everyone in this city. It will constantly surprise, baffle, and amaze you until you realize that you have fallen in love with everything La Paz has to offer.