The top five things to do in La Paz, Bolivia

  • 03/03/2018
Panoramic view of La Paz from Tupac Katari Mirador
Panoramic view of La Paz from Tupac Katari Mirador Photo credit: Getty Images

By Jill Macnab

If you read much about travel, you can't fail to have noticed Bolivia popping up on nearly every 'top 10 countries to visit' over the last two years.

It's in that perfect sweet spot of still being completely local and authentic, but the basics of tourism are starting to pop up to make it easier to get around and learn what you should see and do.

I had two-and-a-half days to explore Bolivia's capital, La Paz, and fell in love with it completely. With the highest altitude of any capital city in the world (3689m), coupled with steep streets in every direction, it can take a while for your lungs to adjust, but it's most certainly worth it.

The scenery, the people, the food and the culture are all a spectacular.

Here are the top five things I recommend doing in La Paz.

Cable car tour

One of the best things that Bolivia's current (and first indigenous) President Evo Morales has done for the city is set up a cable car system as the main form of public transport.

There are currently five lines in operation, very simply named after different colours: Red, Green, Yellow, Orange and Blue, with each line's cars represented by each colour.

While it's simple to operate by yourself, and cheap (about 60 cents per ride); I recommend taking a tour. This will help to orientate you with the city, take you to places you probably wouldn't venture by yourself, and teach you a lot of history and local knowledge along the way.

For example, don't miss the car wedged vertically between two sheer cliff faces on the way up in the red cable car. Locals have two theories for this: it was an unfortunate car accident, and too impossible for the authorities to recover the car afterwards, or it was a government ploy to try to stop locals driving so fast around the hairpin bends in the surrounding area.

With another six cable car lines to open in the coming years, this is one of the coolest public transport systems in the world. 

Visit the El Alto markets

El Alto, at an altitude of 4095m, sits atop La Paz, and became its own city, separate from La Paz, 30 years ago.

The airport lies up here, making it the highest international airport in the world, and the open air markets which take place here every Thursday and Sunday are the largest in South America.

The markets cover an area over five square kilometres, and you can find anything from food to clothing to toys to electronics to animals, and everything in between. Rumour has it a tourist recently bought their very own baby tiger here.

If your mobile phone has been stolen, it's quite likely you'll find it again amongst these market stalls!

El Alto is known by locals and tourists alike as the 'rough part of town'. While lots of people venture up here by themselves, many prefer to hire a guide or join a group tour to feel more secure, and help navigate their way through the massive market. 

Try the local foods

There are few places in the world where you'll find a delicious street food meal that can fill you up for less than a dollar, while down the road, a top end restaurant serves some of the best and most lauded food in the world.

Around town you'll find street food stalls everywhere, serving local delicacies including saltenas and tucumanas (similar to empanadas), stuffed potatoes, choripan (chorizo in a bread roll) and multiple dishes made with sweetcorn, quinoa and locally grown fruits.

As for drinks, make sure to try an 'api', which is like a cold, non-alcoholic version of mulled wine; and a 'Chuflay' a local spirit called singani mixed with lemonade or ginger ale. Utterly delicious. 

Noma is a restaurant with widespread recognition, having won the coveted 'World Restaurant of the Year' award an incredible three times. So it came as a shock when Noma's Danish co-founder Claus Meyer decided that his next venture would be in La Paz.

Gustu fulfils every expectation in serving you one of the greatest meals you'll ever have tasted, all made with locally sourced ingredients by a staff who have been meticulously trained. It's an incredible feat of determination and skill that this has been made possible in a country which has very little knowledge of haute cuisine.

Plus, you can nearly always get a table.

Whether you're going high-end or cheap and cheerful, the food in Bolivia is uniformly good, with taste and flavours that leave you always wanting more.

Witches Market In La Paz.
Witches Market In La Paz. Photo credit: Getty Images

Go to the witches' market

There are two different types of witch in Bolivia; those who gain their powers from their ancestors, and those who have a 'moment' where their powers come to the fore with no prior indications. Both serve slightly different functions in Bolivian society, but as an outsider, one witch won't be too much different from the others. 

Head to the witches' market - a whole street filled with stalls - in either La Paz or El Alto to see some very unique sights, and buy yourself some protective talismen, or some curses to deliver to others when you get home.

You can also have your fortune read, where the witch will use coca leaves to answer any questions you have for them.

It's a fascinating insight into a completely different culture.

Cholitas wrestle against the titans in La Paz, Bolivia
Cholitas wrestle against the titans in La Paz, Bolivia Photo credit: Getty Images

Watch cholitas wrestling

Alright, so it's a tourist gimmick, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. 'Cholitas' are Bolivian women dressed in local attire, with long dark hair in twin braids, gravity-defying hats and beautiful, colourful weaved shawls.

You've seen Nacho Libre, this is Nacho Libra. 

I wasn't prepared for this to be as entertaining as it actually was. The women do a brilliant job of making us root for them, and their athleticism is quite extraordinary. There were many gasps from the audience after body slams or backflips.

If you're looking for a bit of WWE nostalgia from your childhood, or are a new fan courtesy of that brilliant Netflix series GLOW, this show is for you. If nothing else, it's unlikely you'll see this anywhere else in the world!

@jillthetraveller is a freelance writer and frequent traveller.