LONELY PLANET, BOLIVIA ED. 9, JUNE 2016
LA PAZ: True Grit at 3800 Meters
By Brian Kluepfel
La Paz is a mad carnival of jostling pedestrians, honking, diesel-spewing minivans, street marches and dances, cavalcades of street vendors. It surrounds you, for good or for bad. You’ll love it, you’ll hate it, but you can’t ignore it.
21st century La Paz seems to re-invent itself at every turn–new money has brought the jaw-dropping teleferico–a literal subway in the sky which brings you from the heights of El Alto to the depths of Zona Sur in the blink of an eye. A sleek new express bus system, PumaKatari, gets commuters home and back quicker than ever before. 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, machine gun toting bank guards and balaclava-camouflaged shoeshine boys. Lung-busting inclines terminate in peaceful plazas.
You can get anything here, from the cheap-but-hearty pork sandwich de chola and ubiquitous salteña to Asian and European fare.. Sushi and shishkabob sits comfortably alongside mote and potato-based meals on the capital’s gastronomic smorgasbord.
La Paz is a city of Gothic proportions, world-class views and a multi-ethnic cultural imprint unique to the Americas. It’s sinister and serendipitous – often at the same time. While there’s plenty of petty crime, traffic and pollution, La Paz is somehow so unique and so odd that it could very well become the highlight of your trip.
Most of the city lies within a preposterously steep valley at around 3660m. Medieval-looking buildings ascend the slopes with Seussian haphazardness finally spilling over the edge into the rough commerce hub of El Alto, while to the south the three-peaked Illimani (6402m/21,003ft) watches over it all in stately serenity.
A few days wandering the frenetic markets, high-quality museums, crafts stalls, cloistered nightclubs and winding alleyways will not disappoint. This is also the staging center for many hikes, bike trips and excursions into the fascinating Andean wilderness areas that surround the city.