La Paz, Bolivia
The City that Touches the Sky
Under the protection of the majestic Mount Illimani a city emerges from the depths, within the harsh climate of the Royal Cordillera of the Andes. At 3000 to 4000 masl (10,000 to 13,000 ft), La Paz literally touches the Andean sky.
The original inhabitants of the city were Aymara gold and silversmiths, although Alonzo de Mendoza claimed to have founded it in 1548. The lure of the city, of course, was its gold, found in the Rio Choqueyapu; and inhabitants found themselves somewhat protected from the inhospitable Altiplano weather. The city also enjoyed the benefit of being on the main trade route between Potosi and Lima.
By 1800, La Paz was the largest city of Upper Peru (Bolivia’s pre-republican name), serviced by large estates (haciendas) on its altiplano hinterland. After independence from Spain in 1825, increased revenues from royalties previously destined for Spain allowed for investments in the infrastructure of La Paz, although the city grew slowly during the 19th century as a series of unstable, often military, governments ruled the country.
In the last 40 years La Paz has also expanded south, down the valley, where despite limited flat and stable land, middle- and upper-class subdivisions have blossomed. The area houses many of the international diplomatic core as well as exclusive American, German, and French schools, and the types of services common in international and elite enclaves throughout the developing world. The southern zone is characterized by large, modern homes surrounded by trees, open streets, paved roads, and pedestrian areas.
One of the most cosmopolitan and complex urban areas in South America, La Paz is at least three cities in one. A bustling and clamorous indigenous city in the high El Alto suburbs. A Spanish colonial city that crowds around the Plaza San Francisco and other downtown squares. A modern, elegant European city that flourishes along the tree-lined avenues in the lower valleys of Calacoto and Aranjuez towards the famous Valley of the Moon.
Andean history comes alive in La Paz as indigenous descendants of the pre-Inca, Aymara culture fill the streets and markets every day of the week. Ask us for a comprehensive introduction to the city of La Paz.
Your visit should be tailored according to your specific interests and divided into three parts: Cultural, Panoramic, Popular. Also reserve some time for a visit to La Paz’ fascinating markets of crafts, traditional medicines, fruits and vegetables.
City Profile - A Global Village, Gateway to Bolivia
Visitors stepping off an airplane at La Paz international airport (actually in El Alto, at an impressive 4000 metres above sea level), are immediately struck by the windswept and almost treeless altiplano. Leaving the airport, visitors pass billboards advertising luxury hotels and global goods and confront a totally different reality.
Rapidly dropping 500 m into the canyon from the indigenous gateway to the city, the visitor is in the midst of a bustling, mestizo urban center. Continuing 10 km beyond the downtown area, the highway descends another 500 m to wealthy residential neighborhoods that resemble suburbs in the US or Europe.The conurbation of La Paz and El Alto — aptly described as the city that touches the sky — is one of the world’s most spectacular urban environments and can be depicted as an indigenous urban center overlooking a colonial city. In this metropolitan area of 1.5 million people, location and altitude accurately reflects class and ethnicity as well as the level of city services, demonstrating how social relations adapt to and shape the built environment.
La Paz, the seat of the government and administrative capital of Bolivia, is the largest city and center of commerce (Sucre is the constitutional capital and seat of the supreme court). The city that touches the sky is also the center of Bolivian culture and tourism.
Originally founded under the name of La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz, now known only as La Paz, the city is a vibrant mix of ethnic, colonial and international heritages. Located high above sea level, La Paz sits in a bowl surrounded by the high altiplano. Overlooking the city is towering triple-peaked Illimani, an always snow covered and majestic Andean mountain. As it grows the city climbs the hills resulting in varying elevations from 3000 to 4000 m, making it a dazzling and breathtaking adventure, and the point of departure for exploring outstanding Bolivia.
Nearby attractions include Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku) archaeological site, Lake Titicaca (including Copacabana, Sun and Moon Islands), the subtropical valleys of the Yungas and the World's Most Dangerous Road that connects La Paz to the Amazon basin via the little town of Coroico. Other activities include hiking or trekking the pre-Columbian trails that crisscross the Royal Mountain Range of the Andes.
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Culture and Museums in La Paz, Bolivia
The area around Plaza Murillo contains government buildings and the city cathedral. A couple of blocks away, Calle Jaen contains some well preserved colonial buildings, currently housing several interesting museums which relate Bolivia's history, traditions and musical culture.
Museo de San Francisco (San Francisco Museum) is a restored religious complex that housed some of Bolivia's most important historical moments, including the birth of the Independence Revolution of 1809.
Within walking distance of Plaza San Francisco, Museo Tambo Quirquincho features old photos, paintings and exhibits focusing exclusively on La Paz' history and culture.
Museo de Tiwanaku (Tiwanaku Museum) is an archaeological museum that exhibits not only the Tiwanaku culture, but also the Chiripa, Mollo, Inca and various other ancient cultures from Bolivia. The ground floor displays pottery and stone works from different periods as well as some mummies. The Inca collection (sculptures and tools) on the second floor is quite famous.
Museo Nacional de Arte (Art Museum) is dedicated to preserving Bolivia’s cultural heritage. Here, you will find the works of some of the most notable artists from the Americas during the colonial era. One of the museum’s highlights is the “Adoración de los Reyes y Adoración de los Pastores” by Gaspar Miguel de Berrio, as well as a room filled with the works of Melchor Pérez Holguín. You’ll also see various galleries containing modern Bolivian art works.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Museum of Contemporary Art) houses a permanent collection of works by Bolivian artists.
Have a coca experience at Museo de la Coca. An “Only in Bolivia” experience can be enjoyed at this unique museum dedicated solely to the coca plant, whose leaves have served as a vital part of Bolivian culture through the centuries. Here, you’ll find various exhibits where you will learn the history of the plant, its healing properties, and nutritional values. You’ll also know more about how the leaves are made into the notorious drug, cocaine. Your guide will even teach you the proper way of chewing the coca leaves.
Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia (Musical Instrument Museum) exhibits a large variety of sound-producing devices from Bolivia and beyond, some of which you can play yourself.
Museo de Metales Preciosos Precolombinos (Museum of Precious Metals, better known as Gold Museum) displays pre-Columbian treasures in copper, silver and gold.
Museo Nacional de Etnografía (Ethnography Museum) has been established to chronicle Bolivia’s rich local culture and particularly its folkloric and ethnic diversity. Here you will find exhibits displaying artifacts and art forms belonging to the country’s different indigenous tribes. One popular exhibit is the so-called “Tres Milenios de Tejidos”, which means literally “Three Thousand Years of Textiles”.
Museo de Textiles Andinos Bolivianos (Bolivian Andean Textile Museum) is another must-see for weaving lovers. It displays a fine collection of hand woven textiles and garments, mainly from the Bolivian Andes.
Panoramas - What to See in La Paz, Bolivia
Sky-high La Paz is an outstanding sight in itself, and there are several viewing places or 'miradores' offering impressive panoramas such as Mirador Killi Killi, Parque Laikacota, El Montículo... They all offer some of the best views of La Paz. Avenida Camacho in the heart of downtown La Paz points straight to Mount Illimani, framed by skyscrapers in an interesting juxtaposition, especially at sunset.
Valle de la Luna. Some 20 minutes from downtown, ancient erosion molded a topography that looks and feels like the moon. The Valley of the Moon is composed of accumulations of sediments, pressed by solid volcanic rocks. The strange chalky, stony sculptures were carved by hundreds of tributaries descending from the Andean glaciers, and these sculptures may suddenly alter under the effects of an especially violent rainy and windy season.
Popular La Paz - What to Do in La Paz, Bolivia
Calle Sagarnaga, the Witches' Market and Plaza San Francisco. La Paz' main tourist strip is mainly a market area with artisans and souvenir stores (Bolivian musical instrument, handicrafts, pewter and silver jewelry, alpaca sweaters and much more). It also includes the famous "mercado de las brujas" (witches' market), where vendors sell a variety of artefacts for Aymara rituals, including figurines and aphrodisiac formulas. In the upper area (Calle Eloy Salmon) you may shop for cheap electronics, while the lower area of the market houses the beautiful baroque San Francisco basilica – another famous La Paz landmark.
Many markets can be found in La Paz, each more or less specialized such as the huge El Alto market where you can find just about anything from iPhones to onions...
Ask us for a random Public Transport Guided Tour of the city. Experience real La Paz and explore at your own pace as we jump on and off public transport minibuses and micros at random, go to the end of the line, turn around and jump off at any place that looks interesting...
What else to do in La Paz...
Health and Safety
Beware of altitude sickness, especially when arriving directly from sea level. There is nothing worse than having to battle the effects of altitude sickness when you just want to enjoy the sights. First of all, rest and drink plenty of fluids. Give your body a chance to adjust to the altitude. Don’t try to start climbing up and down Sagarnaga street right away – take a day or two to relax, and avoiding tobacco and alcohol. We provide all our customers with a complete pre-departure dossier including tips and background information so you can fully prepare for Bolivia.
Medical facilities in La Paz are good and they are acceptable in the main tourist areas. In smaller cities facilities may not meet the standards expected. You should take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before travelling.
Traveling in an unfamiliar environment, a limited understanding of the local language and culture, and the perception of being a "wealthy gringo" are some of the factors that can put a traveler at risk. Most travel warnings for Bolivia give the same general advice, which is good to follow no matter what country you are visiting from.
Safe Travel Environment
More than just a priority, the safety and welfare of our customers is a top value, and is always of paramount importance to us when we design and operate our trips. We strive to provide a safe, comfortable, and relaxed environment for all.
Safety issues and travel precautions while in La Paz
Experience, learn, and grow in a new culture. Of course, travel in Bolivia is different from travel in a developed nation and certain logical cautions will be taken, based on our recommendations. However, one of the goals of a Bolivia trip is to really experience a culture, so participants can expect a unique, “off-the-beaten path” experience. We want to immerse the team in the culture, the food, the music, the language, the colours, and the nuances of a country and its people while at the same time ensuring safety for our clients.
Remember that our clients must be insured for medical costs and repatriation in an emergency. We recommend insurance for baggage, personal liability and cancellation as well. (If you would like advice on insurance please ask.)
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America and it is a good idea to avoid tap water, unwashed fruit, ice and all seafood. Vaccinations for tetanus, typhoid, polio and hepatitis are needed! Malaria and yellow fever precautions are not necessary in La Paz. (Note however that you may be visiting other sites, including mosquito infested areas during your trip with Fremen Tours Bolivia — e.g. Rurrenabaque...)
Bolivia is a friendly and relatively safe country to visit but it is important to stay alert when in busy public areas and to guard your belongings carefully. Muggings and violent crime against tourists are rare. We issue further advice on security to all participants before departure.
Weather in La Paz – When to Go
La Paz is located in the western part of Bolivia.
Through our intimate, small-group tours and private expeditions in this area you will be able to visit sites most tourists, even seasoned travelers, never find.
Join us on a discovery of a lifetime in La Paz.
Check our selected excursions in this area:
The following packages also include this area
Feel free to customize any travel package according to your own personal interests and the specific activities you expect...
Join us on one of our Natural History Tours or a Cultural Exploration into the heart of South America. Our programs are offered throughout the year, on a (very) small group basis and mostly in private.
You may also want to make an enquiry or design your own program of activities in this area.
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You may also check other Special Interest Travel and unusual tours or expeditions around Bolivia, including:
• La Paz, Tiwanaku, Lake Titicaca
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