Despite knowing very little about the city before my arrival, I knew I had to try and make the most of my 3 days in La Paz. I normally like to spend much longer in a city, but given the fact that I needed to get to Cusco for my Inca Trail booking, I was running low on time.
I had heard very mixed reviews of La Paz – words such as ‘dirty’, ‘boring’ and ‘dangerous’ are often thrown around when discussing La Paz and, quite frankly, my experience was so far from any of those descriptions (although I did make sure that I was careful, as always)!
My time in La Paz was weird and wonderful. I’m not a city girl and I was certainly bored of cities towards the end of my time in South America but La Paz felt different. It felt exciting. It felt real.
I experienced a culture so different to anywhere I’d ever visited previously and even managed to tick an item off my bucket list experience, so for that, I’m thankful to La Paz.
At 3,640m above sea level (or 4,150 if you’re in El Alto – a city in it’s own right), La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. You’ll find yourself catching your breath on many occasions – whether than be because you’ve just climbed a hill to your hostel at altitude, you’re gasping at the sight of a woman being thrown across the stage during a wrestling match or you’re simply in awe of the culture here.
I stayed at The Adventure Brew Hostel which I wouldn’t recommend. The breakfast was lacklustre, the hostel had no atmosphere and it’s located fairly far from the city centre – which is somewhat unsettling as a solo female traveller in a city that’s sometimes described as dangerous.
Everyone else that I met during my time in La Paz stayed at Loki Hostel and had raved about it, so if you’re looking for a hostel, I would definitely stay there! However, if you want to party (unlike me), Wild Rover is the place to be!
If you aren’t looking to stay in a hostel, La Casona Hotel Boutique looks lovely, yet still reasonably priced.
La Paz is easily accessible given the close proximity to El Alto International Airport. I booked a cheap flight from Uyuni to El Alto and then hopped in a taxi for 25 minutes to reach my hotel.
Bus travel in Bolivia can be somewhat harder than that of it’s neighbouring countries. Timetables are rarely online and staff rarely speak English, so it’s often difficult to obtain information about upcoming journeys. Protests can often affect road travel in Bolivia, so keep your eye on the news. To add to this, many of Bolivia’s roads are unpaved, so once you’ve finally got on a bus, the journey can be bumpy! However, it’s not all bad! If you’re travelling on a budget, the buses are very affordable and you’ll be treated to views of Bolivia’s stunning countryside.
Price – 3 USD (approx £2) plus tips
When I first arrive in a city, joining a free walking tour is one of my favourite things to do. Free walking tours aren’t allowed in La Paz, therefore tours are offered for a minimal amount but the tipping policy remains the same as a standard free walking tour – I chose the $3 Red Cap Walking City Centre Tour!
I had just arrived in the city after a super early morning flight from Uyuni and forced myself onto the 10am tour as I was short on time in La Paz and I knew I’d regret (the tour now runs at 11am which would have been very handy for me as I definitely needed a nap)!
The guides were brilliant, super engaging and full to the brim with interesting stories about the city. I know that I often recommend free walking tours, but this was one of the best ones I’ve ever done (especially combined with the ‘extended’ tour – more on that later)!
If you don’t fancy joining a free walking tour, these were my favourite stops on the tour….
Price – Free
San Pedro prison is infamously one of a kind. What immediately struck me is how discrete the prison is; backing on to one of the picturesque main squares in the city and without a single guard in sight, I certainly didn’t expect the building in question to be a prison.
While the Red Cap tour guides did a great job of explaining the premise of the prison, if you haven’t read the book Marching Powder yet, you definitely should before your trip! Marching Power follows the true story of a British inmate who was arrested in Bolivia for smuggling drugs. The novel gives you a true in-depth account of a prison unlike any other in the world.
San Pedro prison allows families to live with inmates and inmates must pay for their cell/food/necessities – to do this, they begin businesses within the prison. Notoriously, inmates began ‘tour guide’ services for adventurous tourists who wanted to experience life within the prison. While these tours no longer exist, you can still marvel in the beauty of the building and listen to the crazy stories outside!
While a somewhat sophisticated, yet autonomous, economy has established within the prison, it’s still a dangerous place to be… but I won’t spoil any more stories – you’ll need to take a tour or read the book!
Price – Free… unless you buy lots of food!
La Paz has an abundance of markets to explore… some of which are more crazy than others! To ease yourself into market life, head to Rodriquez Market first.
The food stalls in Rodriguez Market are typically run by Cholitas (traditionally dressed local women). We spent some time learning about these women, their lives and their clothes which was super interesting.
The guides gave us some street food recommendations which are friendly for Western stomachs and let us loose for a while to try some local delicacies – yum! If the high altitude is making you feel nauseous, be sure to pick up some coca leaves.
Price – Free…. unless you buy souvenirs… or… er… llama fetuses…
Now moving on to another market… somewhat more crazy than the last!
While the witches market is a great place to find souvenirs for loved ones, there are also some stalls covered in llama fetuses (the fetus are only sold if they are born dead or the mother has suffered a miscarriage – don’t worry, llamas aren’t killed to be sold in the markets), so avert your eyes if you’re of a sensitive disposition!
The Bolivian culture has a strong connection to Pachamama (‘mother earth’) and llama fetuses are often given to Pachamama when new buildings are erected. Burying the sacrifice under the foundation of the building brings good luck to the builder and residents!
Supposedly, the larger the building, the bigger the sacragice to Pachamama needs to be. Rumour has it that building developers would pry on homeless people, intoxicate them and bury their bodies instead of a llama fetus – let’s hope that’s just a rumour!
Price – Free
Plaza Murillo is one of the most important plaza in La Paz as it’s home to the Presidential Palace, Congress of Bolivia and Cathedral of La Paz – so it’s definitely worth taking a wander around this square!
Given the political buildings etc., you may find yourself in the middle of a protest during your time here. There were a few protests happening while I was in La Paz, but they were all peaceful and caused no issues at all.
Price – 17 USD (approx £13)
As the walking tour I’d joined that morning came to a conclusion, I realised that a number of the people I’d become friends with had booked onto an ‘Extended’ Red Cap afternoon walking tour also!
Having had the BEST morning learning about this incredible city, I couldn’t say no to an afternoon of continued adventures! While the morning tour shows me the ‘highlights’ of La Paz, things were about to get rough and ready in the extended tour – this tour is great if you really want to experience Bolivian culture and learn more about the local way of life.
I would highly recommend trying to join the Extended Red Cap tour on a Thursday or Sunday so that you get to experience the huge flea market.
These are some of my favourite stops on the Extended tour…
Price – 3 BOB for a single ticket (approx £0.33)
La Paz is split into two sub-sections, with the higher region known as El Alto. An impressive cable car has been installed between the main city of La Paz and El Alto which is easy to navigate and gives you great views of the rest of the city.
One of my favourite things about La Paz is that it’s surrounded by mountains and this is the best place to see them!
If you’re visiting on a Thursday or Sunday, you’ll also get to see the huge flea market from above whilst riding the cable car. This gives you a much better perspective of how huge the market is – you won’t quite believe it!
Price – Free to window shop
Thursdays and Sundays are home to the largest flea market I’ve ever seen – it spans more than 100 blocks through El Alto!
The Red Cap guides will help you barter for anything that catches your eye. I found that the flea market was more interesting to experience for it’s sheer size rather than the goods on offer. There was a real random selection of goods on offer in the section that we explored, but we were assured that you could find anything and everything in this market – including cars!
Of you’re going to explore the flea market without a guide, keep your wits about you at all times and watch out for pickpockets. I am fully aware that I had a somewhat sheltered experience by having a guide and there are ‘deals’ in El Alto market that are somewhat short of legal.
Price – Free
Now you’re probably confused as to why I’d recommend visiting two witch markets in one day… the witch market visited earlier in Central La Paz could be seen as the ‘tourists’ witch market. Yes, there were llama fetuses on display, but for the most part, the market is fairly mainstream and you’ll find some lovely souvenirs for your friends and family.
El Alto is home to the ‘local’s witch market’, the place that the people of La Paz actually visit for their medicines/ailments/sacrifices etc.
The roads are cramped, somewhat dirty and you’re likely to leave with watering eyes as a result of standing too close to one of the fire burners crackling away outside a witch doctor’s door.
Our guide asked who would like to have their fortunes read in cocoa leaves by a yatiri (witch doctor) for a small fee and I couldn’t say no. I was presented with three fortunes:
Overall, quite a gloomy fortune for me but somewhat better than another girl on our tour who was told that she would contract severe heart problems in the next 10 years…
Price – Free
We had spent so long being mesmerized by our guide’s stories about La Paz (and Bolivia in general) that the gates to the cemetery were closed when we arrived. After a lot of begging (and potentially a bribe… who knows…), a security guard let us in for a short amount of time so that we could conclude our tour.
As you’ve probably gathered from the mention of sacrifices and witch doctors already in this itinerary, Bolivia is a unique place. While the Spanish Catholic faith is strictly adhered to, Bolivians have their own subset of beliefs and customs which are truly fascinating, especially when you come from a secular family/country, like myself. So it only seemed right to end our tour in the cemetery discussing the Bolivian rituals and beliefs for the end of a life.
Price – 11 USD (approx £8.50)
Despite my insane tiredness from the early morning flight, I was having the BEST day with my new found friends and tour guides, so couldn’t say no to the next activity… watching Cholitas wrestling!
Cholitas are Bolivian women from the Aymara tribe famously known for their brightly coloured clothing including a wide skirt and bowler hat (which our tour guide earlier in the day explained has surprisingly British roots)! Two brothers in Manchester (cue the entire tour group looking at me to confirm that Manchester was in fact a place in England) began making bowler hats in the 1840s to sell to British railway workers in Bolivia; however, on arrival in Bolivia, they realised that the hats were too small for the British men’s heads. They tried to sell them to the Bolivian men but were unsuccessful, so they turned their attention to the fashionable Bolivian ladies who clearly loved the garment so much that it’s still a staple in their attire 180 years later!
While you’ll find most Cholitas selling goods on the side of the street, do not underestimate these incredible ladies. Work is extremely important within the Aymara tribe and these ladies run a multitude of businesses to earn money for their families. While I don’t exactly know how Cholita Wrestling became a ‘thing’, I imagine a group of particularly entrepreneurial women came up with the idea to lure people (particularly tourists) in and earn some more money!
While the wrestling was a very touristy affair, it was interesting to see another side to these women’s lives. I’m a bit of a wuss though and struggled to watch as they threw each other on the floor!
Price – Free
I decided to catch up on my lack of sleep from yesterday and treat myself to a lie in (something that very rarely happens on my travels)! It was a particularly rainy day in La Paz, so I decided to do some research for Day Three before heading out and exploring – we will discuss that in more detail later on!
Price – 20 BOB (approx £2.50) plus 40 BOB (approx £5) if you want to take photos
I’m not usually a huge fan of museums, but I’m even less of a fan of sitting around and doing nothing, so I had to find a rain-friendly activity!
The museum is home to a whole host of relics, weapons, coins, masks, fabrics and costumes from the pre-Hispanic era to modern day. My first day in Bolivia was a sensory overload, so this museum was a great way to learn about the culture in a much calmer environment!
My favourite part of the museum was the “3000 Years of Textiles” exhibit which showcases fabrics and outfits worn by the indigenous people of Bolivia. I studied textiles at school and love seeing how other cultures use fabrics/patterns/etc. so this was the perfect museum for me!
While inside the museum, I met two lovely Swedish girls and we decided to spend the afternoon wandering around La Paz, exploring the little side streets and shops.
Jaen Street is known for being the most picturesque street in La Paz, filled with coloured buildings. While it’s only small, you should definitely have a wander, peek into the shops and grab a bite to eat.
Price – Depends how much you eat!
I was pleasantly surprised with the food options available in La Paz. Despite it’s hugely traditional and spiritual culture, the food options within the city are very diverse and you’re likely to find something to suit everyone’s preferences.
Like the true Brit that I am, I had been away from home for just over a month and was craving a curry. Luckily, two of the Swedish girls that I’d met earlier that day were also Indian food fanatics, so we hunted down Delhi Curry Lounge and had the BEST meal – unfortunately some of the more recent TripAdvisor reviews aren’t great but we really enjoyed ourselves and spent the night giggling away while devouring good food!
If I were to return to La Paz, I’d be interested in taking a food tour!
Price – Various
My second day in La Paz was extremely rainy and drizzly, so I had a bit of a lazy day and enjoyed wandering around and meeting new people. If I was more organised and had more energy, I would have taken a day-trip outside of the city. La Paz is great, but I had covered most of the sights within my hectic first day and there’s some real gems to be seen outside of the city, such as:
It took a hell of a lot of convincing for me to book a tour to cycle down Death Road. I hadn’t cycled in more years than I can count (unless you count cycling through vineyards in Luxembourg and Argentina…) and I have a fear of heights, what could go wrong?
I had messaged every person I knew hat had done the tour to ask for their opinions before finally running to the Gravity office and booking a trip. You can book a trip with Gravity (who I found to be the most reputable company) online via Viator here!
I won’t babble on about my experience here, you can read a full in-depth review of my day here! If you don’t have time to read that article (although I highly recommend it – spoiler alert: someone in my group fell of the side of the cliff!), just know that I fully recommend this day trip. You won’t regret it!
Have you ever been to La Paz? How would you spend 3 days in La Paz?
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