Few cities have such an extraordinary setting as La Paz – “The City that Touches the Sky” – lying at over 12,000 feet above sea level. As you fly in you’ll see the pancake-flat Altiplano fall into a steep-sided bowl lined with a maze of adobe and red-brick buildings, mixed with modern skyscrapers at the base. And towering above it all is the snow-capped peak of Illimani, the sacred mountain.
After you’ve touched down at the world’s highest international airport and made your way downtown, your first impression is likely to be one of… chaos. If the altitude doesn’t take your breath away, the sights, sounds and smells of La Paz’s street life certainly will. This cultural melting-pot boils with colour, history, energy and eccentricity. Many of the women wear traditional clothing every day – brightly coloured and multi-layered petticoats, fringed shawls, lace aprons and, to top it all, bowler hats. It’s not put on for the tourists – La Paz doesn’t doll itself up for anyone – it’s simply a deep-rooted connection with history and identity. And just as you’ll see these ladies waiting for a bus alongside teens in skinny jeans and heavy eye make-up, so you’ll see gleaming international banks and imposing government buildings rubbing shoulders with oddly-named markets such as the Black Market and the Witches’ Market. In fact La Paz can feel like one giant street market.
Amongst this crazy carnival there are some places that must be seen if your time in the city is limited. The natural place to start is the Plaza Murillo, the historic centre of La Paz. It was given its official name in 1900 after General Murillo, one of the heroes of the Bolivian independence movement. On one side of the plaza is the neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana, a relative newcomer to La Paz’s religious buildings, having been started in 1835 and completed in 1989 when two new towers were added for the visit of Pope John Paul II. It’s an immensely impressive structure, built on a steep hillside and boasting a profusion of stained glass.
Next to the Cathedral is the Presidential Palace, also known as the ‘Burned Palace’ since it has been set aflame on several occasions since an uprising in 1875. Incidentally the red uniforms worn by the guards serve as a repeated message to neighbouring Chile to return land taken from Bolivia in the Pacific War (1879-84).
Possibly the most striking edifice in La Paz is the Iglesia (Church) de San Francisco, one of the finest examples of baroque-mestizo architecture in the Americas. Look closely and you’ll see intricate carvings of indigenous symbols, from masked figures to snakes, dragons and tropical birds. A stairway to the roof opens up fantastic views across the La Paz skyline.
Refresh yourself with a coffee – or something stronger – in one of the many little cafes and bars on the Calle Jaen, the best preserved colonial street in La Paz. In other cities this might be a slightly tacky tourist trap, but in this full-on metropolis that doesn’t go out of its way to cater for tourists, it’s a peaceful stretch of cobblestone and colourful buildings that is a perfect place to sit and watch people go by.
And when you’re in La Paz, there is no more rewarding pastime.