La Paz Travel Guide
Introduction to La Paz
With the lowest parts of this city sitting at a gasp-inducing 10,100 feet above sea level (the airport is at a loftier elevation, as its terminals are 13,400 feet above sea level), La Paz is officially one of the world’s highest capitals.
While you might be in a rush to get going to whatever you want to see in this nation, there is plenty enough to do within easy reach of its city center, so take your time and get used to the thin air by taking a few days to sight see around this underrated city in Bolivia.
Cultural Attractions in La Paz
A good place to begin your tour of La Paz is at the Iglesia de San Francisco. Built originally in the 16th century, and rebuilt in the 18th century after a massive snowfall led to the collapse of the church’s roof, this religious landmark in Bolivia’s capital city is a mix of traditional Baroque architectural techniques and those of its native peoples.
The influence of the latter is evident in its many carved reliefs, as they depict tropical birds, snakes, and masked figures, while in the interior, European influence takes over, as its columns, altars and sculptures have a definite Spanish flair to them.
While looking around the main church area can be done free of charge, those wishing to access the monastery and the bell tower will have to purchase a ticket in order to do so.
With many First Nations cultures calling Bolivia home, getting a grasp on any one of them can be an exceptionally difficult task. Paying a visit to the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore (MUSEF for short) will help you greatly in this regard, as there are countless exhibits here that show off artifacts and artwork that these civilizations have created over many generations.
From the Amazon to the Altiplano, you’ll get to see the masks, weapons, pottery pieces, textiles, and other artifacts that all these individual cultures have created over the eons, all sorted into rooms in one of the more modern facilities in Bolivia.
Many of the animist beliefs of these tribes have persisted to the present day, as you will find out when you visit The Witches’ Market.
Here, you will find Witch Doctors selling pre-packaged spells and a variety of objects that have been imbued with supernatural powers.
For example, many Bolivians will purchase a miscarried dried llama fetus and bury it underneath the foundation of a home or business that they are constructing. This is thought to bring those that practice this ritual good luck and prosperity in the years ahead.
One word of warning: treat market vendors and customers with respect, as this is a religion that has been practiced since time immemorial. Additionally, don’t take pictures without permission, as it is rumored that some witch doctors place curses on those that have snapped away without asking first.
Other Attractions in La Paz
Located in the governmental center of La Paz, Plaza Murillo is the place to go if you are looking to take in a lot of sites in a small amount of time, while getting in some people watching for good measure.
The La Paz Metropolitan Cathedral, the Government Palace (home to the president of Bolivia), the National Museum of Art, the Bolivian National Congress, and other colonial-era buildings can all be found around its borders.
On a beautiful day in La Paz, many citizens will gather in this square to enjoy the bright sunshine while it lasts (mountain weather can be unpredictable).
As a result, you will find many vendors selling Saltenas and other sorts of Bolivian street food. Take advantage of this and chow down on a meat-filled pastry while you watch native La Pazians go about their business.
There are many day trips that are easily accessible from the city center of La Paz, but if you are short on time, none are quite as accessible as Valle de la Luna.
Situated only ten kilometers away from downtown, this wind and water carved complex of clay and sandstone will allow you to escape the urban chaos that can reign in the city center, as a walk through here will quickly have you surrounded by some truly beautiful natural rock formations.
The varied mineral content of the rocks results in a kaleidoscope of color that will humble you as you make your way through canyons that have formed over many millions of years.
The very plant whose leaves will enable you to cope with the high elevation of Bolivia has its own museum in the center of La Paz, as the Museo de Coca aims to clear up misconceptions surrounding this revered Andean plant. In North America, it is known to be the source of cocaine, one of the most notorious hard drugs out there.
It explains the plant’s use in rituals and medicine going back thousands of years to the origin of human settlements in the Andes, as well as the variety of roles it has played over the years with regards to legitimate uses (at one point, it was an ingredient in Coca-Cola … now you know).
Due to the sensitive nature of the exhibits within this museum, do note that photography is prohibited, so be sure to leave your rig back in your locker at your hostel to avoid a long trip there and back to stow it.