La Paz has all the elements of a big South American city: streets jammed with mini-van public buses and taxis honking angrily for no apparent reason; modernism, colonialism, and Catholicism blending with indigenous heritage; people selling anything and everything anywhere and everywhere. Add specific local characters, such as bowler-hatted, brightly-clothed cholitas selling fruit to animal entrails to strange black-and-white dehydrated potatoes. Or shoe-shiners on every street corner looking ominous in black balaclavas, though according to locals they’re just hiding their faces due to the stigma of the profession. Combine all that with a lung-busting altitude of 3,200 m / 10,500 ft, and you have La Paz. You can do and see a lot in 48 hours in La Paz.
In the end, La Paz turned out to be worth more than 48 hours of our time, but what we did see just made us want to come back for more. If only to see The Fighting Cholitas.
View of Illimani
Being high in the Bolivian altiplano may be hard for the un-acclimatized, but one benefit is the gorgeous surrounding mountains, especially the three-peaked Illimani (6,438 m / 21,122 ft), the highest mountain in the Cordillera Real.
Illimani is a landmark and symbol of La Paz and can be seen from many spots in the city. We walked (slowly) up to Mirador Laikakota, a small park on a hill southeast of the city center, and rested our oxygen-deprived lungs while enjoying the views of La Paz below in the bowl-like valley and Illimani sitting high above.
48 hours in La Paz: Lanza Market
Lanza Market (Mercado Lanza) is an odd multi-level building with rows upon rows of stalls. But it’s really the place in La Paz to get a quick, cheap meal.
Colorful juice shacks on the second nivel serve fresh juices, some with local fruits such as cherimoya, mixed with milk or with a little water.
On the third level, tiny one-bench kitchen kiosks serve breakfast and lunch. On the morning we arrived, after a bumpy, sleepless overnight bus ride from Uyuni, we were hungry and in need of coffee. Next to an elderly local reading the newspaper, we settled into a kiosk for egg sandwiches and coffee for less than $4.
48 hours in La Paz: Red Cap Free Tour
We always look for city free tours after taking a great one in Sydney, Australia, during our visit in March. Free tours are really free but the guides work for tips, and they are usually informative and entertaining.
La Paz’s Red Cap Free Tours begin at Plaza San Pedro for an introduction to one of the cities most famous locals, the San Pedro Prison. The prison is infamous from being a city within the city, where prisoners hold jobs, rent their living space, and even live with their wives and children.
The tour spent a lot of time on cultural rather than historical information about La Paz, such as stories about the prison, the Bolivian cholitas and their bowler hats, and why there are llama fetuses for sale in the Witches Market.
We enjoyed a break from the facts and dates and learned a bit more about the ways of life in La Paz.
48 hours in La Paz: Witches Market
Why are are there llama fetuses for sale at the Mercado de las Brujas?
Most of what is sold on Calle de las Brujas is used as offerings to Pachamama, mother of the sun god Inti and goddess of the Earth. Rituals of offering to Pachamama have continued to modern day. Even though 80% of Bolivians are Catholic, many of the rituals of the pre-colonial time still exist, including the practice of burying a llama fetus under a new house or other construction to bring good luck.
The brujas sell other charms, such as potions to bring love or find a job, and necessities for altars and other methods of keeping Pachamama happy (she’s said to be responsible for the region’s earthquakes).
48 hours in La Paz: Basilica de San Francisco
I mentioned that most Bolivians are Catholic, right? The Basilica de San Francisco (across the plaza from Lanza Market) reminds of this fact, and even after months of visiting churches and temples around the world, Basilica de San Francisco stunned me.
The mannequins of the saints in ornate dress line the interior walls and the giant golden altar glimmers like a treasure, but the most amazing aspect of the basilica is actually its exterior facade. Along with the statue of the Saint Francis, the facade includes Inca masks, coca leaves, tropical birds, and other symbols of the region. The Catholic missionaries included local religious and agricultural symbols in the design of the church to suggest a marriage of the indigenous religion and Catholicism, making it easier to convert the locals.
And the marriage seems to continue to this day: while many Bolivians are Catholic, many also practice ancient cultural traditions.
48 hours in La Paz: Terminal de Buses
Whoever thought that a bus station would be an attraction? When it’s designed by Gustav Eiffel, it is.
Grab a salteña, Bolivia’s perfected version of the empanada from Salta, Argentina, from one of the outdoor kiosks outside the former train station and admire a great example of French art deco design. Eiffel designed buildings across Latin America, such as the Estacion Central in Santiago, Chile, and the Bolivar Bridge in Arequipa, Peru.
While we can’t say much for the hostel where we stayed, or the restaurants where we dined, our 48 hours in La Paz left an impression in both our hearts. Something about it stays with us and lures us back for more.
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