La Paz is a unique city, located at the heart of Bolivia in the middle of the Andean mountains, lies a multi-layered hive of culture, history and innovation. It’s easy to get lost in the chaotic traffic or the never-ending streets, but if you plan carefully, you can see these five not-to-be-missed places in the labyrinthine city.
1) The El Alto Market (known as La feria 16 de julio)
Visiting the market in El Alto (the sister-city to La Paz that lies on the top-most layer of the city, over 3400 metres above altitude) is like entering a bazaar from a Star Wars film. The huge market stretches out over innumerable streets, often changing its configuration to confuse tourists and locals alike. By getting the red cable-car (teleférico) line up to the top station you’ll find yourself straight in the midst of the market madness. It takes place on Thursdays and Sundays and you’ll need to get there early to find the best steals. Think baby llamas, snake oil medicines, every single part of a car, signs, fresh fruit juice and piles and piles of vintage (probably stolen) clothes. Keep your wits about you and get shopping!
2) La Plaza Montículo
From jammed-pack streets of wares and hustlers to a quiet haven with a fantastic view of La Paz. The Montículo square (la plaza montículo
) is one of my favourite spots in an otherwise loud and lively city. A small, unassuming church sits on this elevated square and it is framed by stone walls, arches and teenage lovers sneaking off to kiss without their parents seeing. Come here on a clear day to watch the cable-cars and the buses drift and screech around the city like ants below, dwarfed by the majesty of the city’s ancient mountain, Illimani. Alternatively, you can come up here at night and watch the lights of the city flash on and off, the fireflies of nightlife in La Paz. This is also a top picture spot because of its panoramic view of La Paz and picturesque archways.
3) The Devil’s Tooth (known as La Muela del Diablo)
The Devil’s Tooth, a menacing protrusion on a mountainous landscape. The red curves of a skyline interrupted by a jagged edge, a tooth-shape, a molar. It’s a sacred space for the Aymara people, Auqui Kollo or the Father Summit, but it’s also rumoured to be the site of satanic rituals, sacrifices and ‘other dark stuff’ according to my suspicious Catholic pals. By taking a micro to the south of the city and getting a minibus to Pedregal from outside the San Miguel church you can hike up the entire mountain. Following the path you’ll enter through an archway and see a small town just under the jagged Devil’s Tooth. If it’s just after rainy season then you’ll be greeted by flowers, green and many locals having picnics before they scramble up the steep rock that’ll take you to over 3800 metres above altitude. With your head above the clouds, you’ll feel closer to heaven than to the devil. Whether you take a tour, a taxi or decide to make it on your own this is one of the must-see places in La Paz.
4) La Calle Jaén
In the historic, colonial area of La Paz, most of the archetypal buildings are dilapidated and run down. However, the small street known as ‘calle Jaén’ is full of interesting museums, bars and restaurants. Locals talk about this area being haunted by young orphans or mistreated wives of Spanish invading officers but in the day time these myths seem locked in the past. The houses are painted in bright pastel colours, the museums explore the folkloric history and custom of Bolivians and showcase a range of traditional instruments with live shows for tourists on certain days. At night time you can visit Jallalla, a mirrored neo-Andean bar designed by La Paz’s famous Aymara architect, Mamani Mamani or risk trying the locally-made absinthe (ajenjo) in the popular and long-standing pizza place and bar Etnos. It’s also worth walking a few blocks down to see the Murillo square, the home to the governmental buildings, street-food sellers and the largest amount of pigeons in a concentrated area that I have ever had the misfortune to witness.
5) Estado Hernando Siles
The stadium of La Paz, found in the Miraflores neighbourhood. You can take advantage of the new white cable-car line to fly over the busy minibuses and land a stone’s throw away from the stadium. This is where the two biggest teams in La Paz play against other Bolivian and international sides. Don’t let the battered seats fool you, this stadium is where the magic happens. If you want to see the Bolivian football spirit at it’s height then try to go to a derby match, known in La Paz as ‘el clásico’. This is a match between The Strongest and Bolívar, the two rival teams of the city. If you’re brave enough to buy tickets in either the ‘curva norte’ (the ultra Bolívar fans) or the ‘curva sur’ (the ultra tigres or The Strongest fans), then you’ll be treated to flags, fans without shirts on not even watching the game and singing in everyone’s faces and a full orchestra. It’s advisable to get tickets early from the stadium ticket offices rather than buy from the touts outside the stadium because they can often hike prices right up (you should never pay more than 100bs for decent seats at a derby or international game). Booze is not allowed inside the stadium but there is plenty of popcorn, sandwiches and sickly sweet coffee on offer. Beware of the toilets and try to pick up some of the home team chants to ingratiate yourself with the local super fans. This list of the 5 must-see places in La Paz is far from inexhaustible and I encourage you to ask helpful looking café and bar owners for their secrets and pick up a map, get out of the hostel and use your feet to discover some gems of your own.