Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.
To visit Bolivia, U.S. citizens have to pay for an entry visa. We tried to obtain ours in advance, through the mail from the Bolivian Embassy in Washington, DC. We don’t recommend this route; our passports sat on someone’s desk for weeks until we called to inquire about them–apparently we hadn’t provided the postage-paid return envelope, which wasn’t mentioned in the instructions. Instead, you can get your entry visa when you arrive and you may even save a few dollars by doing so. Just make sure to bring with you all the required information.
We flew from Indianapolis — Miami — Lima, Peru — Santa Cruz, Bolivia — La Paz, Boliva (El Alto) with the international legs on LAN airlines. I enjoyed flying LAN. We were immersed in Spanish before we ever left the USA at the Miami airport. The planes were very nice and comfortable. After the overnight flight we had a longish layover in Lima–enough time to get some Peruvian money out of the ATM so we’d have some cash when we returned to Peru, eat breakfast, and take a short nap.
Although we were a bit annoyed we had to fly to Santa Cruz to get to La Paz, we enjoyed the daytime flight over the Andes. We flew over Lake Titicaca, which we would visit later in the trip, and saw some beautiful snow-capped peaks. Santa Cruz is Bolivia’s largest city. We only got a slight glimpse of it from the tarmac without a chance to disembark.
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Arrival and Altitude
The La Paz airport is actually in Bolivia’s second largest city, El Alto. El Alto is situated on a plane overlooking the city of La Paz, which is about 1,300 ft. below. The airport is the world’s highest commercial airport, at an altitude of 13,325 ft. For some reason, I expected the altitude to hit me as soon as we got off the plane. That wasn’t the case.
We found a room full of ATMs from which to withdraw some Bolivian cash (we had no problems with machines from BCP and BNB) and then located the ever important radio taxi. Every guidebook warns to only use official radio taxis for your safety. That being said, I found the taxi ride to be terrifying. There were no seat belts and the driver was in a huge hurry–he was quite amazing in his weaving in and out of traffic, using honks to communicate in a language I did not understand, and managing somehow to get us to our central La Paz hotel safely. Brian loved it. Me, not so much (this would become a common theme of this trip).
We stayed at the Hotel Rosario, which I can recommend. Our room was spotlessly clean, well decorated, and comfortable with lots of outlets. We found we didn’t need the adapters we brought with us, as virtually every place we stayed had outlets that accepted both European and US style plugs. The hotel also has an on-site restaurant, Tambo Colonial, a couple of gift shops, pretty courtyards, and great views of the city from the top floor. We managed to check-in and climb the stairs to our room before the altitude caught up with us.
Before our trip, I read a lot about altitude sickness. It is not something to take lightly and if you’re coming from a lower altitude, you should count on taking it easy for the first day or two. It seems simply climbing the stairs with our backpacks on was enough exertion to trigger it for us. I spent my first night in La Paz unable to eat anything, frequently visiting the bathroom to throw up. Brian was able to eat and fortunately because there is a restaurant on-site, they were able to bring soup to our room. By the next day, I was feeling better, though it took several days for my appetite to recover.
La Paz feels like a big city. There are people everywhere, lots of traffic, and vendors selling their goods along every sidewalk. We noticed a good number of people employed cleaning up trash and rubbish from the streets. In some ways the city felt very clean but at the same time it felt very polluted. Some locals wear masks and it doesn’t take long to understand why. Each vehicle passing by emitted a cloud of black smoke and clean air is difficult to come by. At times the fumes could be overpowering; we refrained from opening our hotel room window because the air inside seemed much more fresh and clean than that outside.
La Paz is also an amazingly beautiful city. Located in a valley some describe as a “bowl,” the city proper is Bolivia’s third largest. However, the metropolitan area of 2.3 million inhabitants is Bolivia’s largest. Colorful buildings are located everywhere you look, lining the mountain sides. Towering above it all is the mountain Illimani with its three snow-capped peaks.
The saleswoman in the Makaikuna Joyas de Plata jewelry shop located adjacent to our hotel asked us, “have you seen the cholitas yet? Those ladies own this town!” Indeed, these women in their traditional costumes were the first to catch our attention at the El Alto airport. The dress is regional–we would see them in Copacabana and Puno, Peru as well.
We had three full days to spend in La Paz, which we felt was a good amount of time to get an overview of central La Paz. We limited our sight-seeing to destinations we could reach within walking distance of our hotel–quite a lot, really!
Plaza San Francisco
A short walk from our hotel was Plaza San Francisco, which is home to the San Francisco Church and Monastery. It is a great place to people watch, but it is very loud and chaotic. Even within the church it’s hard to escape the pounding music outside. Each time we visited, mobile phone companies were having gimmicky contests and demonstrations just outside the church doors. The Centro Cultural Museo San Francisco is worth the price of admission (Bs. 20) as it gives visitors access to other parts of the church and monastery, including the roof, which offers awesome views.
Our guidebook said “the worst areas for crime are around Plaza Murillo…,” which is a shame because it made me less eager to go there. I’m so glad we went anyway. I think my most enjoyable experience in La Paz was simply people-watching in the Plaza. As soon as we arrived we saw this demonstration by school children:
Around the plaza is the Presidential Palace, the National Congress, the Cathedral, and the Palacio de los Condes de Arana, which houses the Museo Nacional de Arte. Sadly for us, the Museum was mostly closed for renovation, though it was free to see one temporary exhibit the day we visited in May.
Calle Jaén is lauded as La Paz’s finest Colonial street. The narrow cobblestone calle is picturesque, has wonderful views, and is lined with the Museos Municipales–a collection of four small museums. A combined ticket to the museums can be purchased in the lobby of the Museo Costumbrista (don’t be surprised if the attendants aren’t very friendly). Each museum is interesting in their own way. I enjoyed the Museo de Metales Preciosos because of its presentation of silver, gold, and copper works from the Tiwanaku culture–sadly, we decided we didn’t have time to take a day trip to the Tiwanaku archaeological site, so this gave us a chance to learn a little about the civilization. I also enjoyed the Pedro Domingo Murillo house museum. Murillo was a leader of the La Paz Revolution of July 16, 1809; he was martyred and the city’s central plaza now bears his name.
It seems everywhere you turn in La Paz, there’s an abundance of hand-made goods catering to tourists. Leather bags, woven tapestries and table runners, “alpaca” sweaters, and a plethora of other beautiful souvenirs are cheap and readily available. We had a long trip ahead of us and limited space in our packs, so we were weary of buying too much too soon. We also didn’t know what kind of goods we’d encounter in Peru and where the quality and price would give us the most bang for our buck. After having completed our entire trip, we were most impressed with the souvenirs available in La Paz. So if you go, plan on stocking up!
The Witches’ Market is an area of the city covering several blocks and hosting numerous souvenir shops selling all the above-mentioned goods. It is especially known for its dried llama fetuses, which hang from storefronts selling potions, herbs, and other remedies.
Sadly, it took most of our time in La Paz for my appetite to recover so we tried to eat as “light” as we could, considering most fixed menu portions are huge. Our first day feeling somewhat okay, we sought out the Pot Colonial Restaurant. We were there for a late lunch and were the only two diners in the place. We each ordered off the set menu for a very reasonable price (Bs. 40)–sadly, we could barely finish our food! I recommend visiting this restaurant–it may be geared toward tourists but it is in such an interesting location off Calle Linares, near the famous Museo de Coca (which we didn’t visit). You enter up a flight of stairs and the building is full of interesting (sometimes R-rated) wood carvings.
One evening when I didn’t have an appetite, Brian went to a pizza place up the street from our hotel and ordered a wonderful little pizza for us to share–paired with some baked goods we bought that day, it made for a nice little meal for our altitude-riddled bodies!
We ate at the Tambo Colonial Restaurant in our hotel a few times. Of course, we had breakfast there each day as it was included with our room. We also ordered room service as I mentioned above the first night. Another night, we went up to the top floor and both ordered their yummy stuffed avocado. On our final night in La Paz, we made reservations for a nice dinner at the restaurant. We both ordered steak–I ordered beef while Brian ordered llama. I usually like my steak medium-rare, but here I’d recommend asking for it well done. The presentation is awesome. The food itself was just good–not the best we’d ever had but good value for the price.
Stay tuned for more from Bolivia in Copacabana and La Isla del Sol!