Introducing Bolivia & La Paz

Why visit Bolivia? In recent years, Bolivia has become one of the fastest-growing destinations in South America. Earlier this year, the UK edition of Conde Nast Traveler named Bolivia Latin America’s next destination. Despite all the attention, Bolivia is not for everyone. For starters, US citizens need a visa, which is onerous, expensive, and complicated (see below for more details). Secondly, most of Bolivia’s key sites are at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 13,000 feet over sea level, a challenge for some travelers. Thirdly, the infrastructure in Bolivia is not ready for prime time and does not hold a candle to Peru’s hotel and lodge stock. Finally, getting from A to B in Bolivia can be difficult and may involve long drives, in some cases on unpaved roads. Having said all of this, Bolivia is definitely an up-and-coming place to visit and has a great deal to offer: natural wonders second to none; great colonial architecture; plenty of opportunities for active/adventure travel; a rich and interesting culture; and a rising food and wine scene. Bolivia also offers just about every terrain possible – from high peaks soaring over 21,000 feet over sea level, to endless altiplano valleys, down to steamy forests in the Amazon jungle. For anyone who is curious and intrepid, Bolivia will not disappoint – but – you have to visit with an open mind and be ready for adventure.

History in 1 minute: Bolivia’s history goes back over 5,000 years. The Tiwanaku civilization (which originated around Lake Titicaca) reigned supreme for nearly 3,000 years and was one of the foundations of the Inca civilization in the 15th and 14th centuries. The Spanish arrived in the 1530s and colonized the country. Rich silver mines (which you can still visit today) were discovered in the 1540s and at one point provided over one third of all the income of the Spanish crown. Bolivia became independent in 1825. The period since independence has been tumultuous to say the least, with over 100 revolutions. The country has experienced relative stability since 2005.

La Paz. Bolivia has two capitals: Sucre, the constitutional capital, and La Paz, the de facto capital of the country. La Paz is one of the most unique cities in the world. The city is divided into 3 sections: El Alto (at 12,000 feet over sea level) where the airport and some of the poorest neighborhoods are located; El Centro, the main part of the city and where most “Paceños” (natives) live (at roughly 10-11,000 ft over sea level) and the Zona Sur neighborhoods (roughly 9,000-8,500 ft over sea level) where the more upscale areas are located, such as Calacoto.

The strange topography of the city means that in 30 minutes or less, you can zoom down highways that drop 3,000-4,000 feet in elevation, down the side of a mountain.

The city has no mass transit or subway, and traffic is heavy night and day. To get around quickly, your best bet is to use the teleféricos, or cable cars, which crisscross the city from one end to the other in minutes, with breathtaking views to boot. La Paz is a bustling city with a small colonial center. What it lacks in the physical beauty and charm of say, Quito, Arequipa, or Cuzco, it makes up in sheer energy. Here are some recommended sights in and around La Paz:

City Center: This is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of La Paz. Start in Plaza Murillo, the heart of the old city, where the Presidential Palace and the Cathedral are located.

From here, walk to Jaén street, the best preserved colonial avenue, where a number of museums are located. The best museum in this area is the Museo de Etnografía y Folklore, which will give you an overview of Bolivia’s indigenous civilizations and native art (located at Invgavi and Sanjinés streets, and housed in a beautiful colonial era building). If you are interested in contemporary art, visit the gallery of Mamani Mamani, one of Bolivia’s leading pop artists, who keeps a studio and shop on Indaburo Street.


Another fun place to visit is the so-called Witches’ Market, where you can buy everything you need for spells, good fortune, and to appease the gods. Another interesting site is the Valley of the Moon, about six miles south of the “Centro”, which consists of a series of canyons and giant spires formed by wind and water erosion.

A great place for a casual lunch is Bronze restaurant and the most sought after table for gourmets is Gustu (created by the co-founder of Noma in Copenhagen). La Paz is nutty, noisy, and bustling, but you cannot help but get caught up in the crazy energy of the city.

Outside La Paz: the two best options, which can be done as day trips, are Tiwanaku and Lake Titicaca.

I have to start by saying, Tiwanaku is not Machu Picchu!  One must not compare one site with the other, they are totally different, starting with the fact Tiwanaku is much older and set in a barren plain, not in a breathtaking setting. The premier archaeological site in Bolivia is a UNESCO world heritage site and is located at 13,000 feet over sea level, about an hour and a half from central La Paz.  Tiwanaku is by far the most influential society in pre-hispanic world, and their customs shaped the Inca and Wari civilizations. The site has over 1,600 years of history, and features a number of plazas, monumental statues, courtyards, and temples.

The architecture is simple, solid, and impressive, including enormous blocks weighing more than 25 tons. Do not miss the Bennett Statue (so-called because it was discovered by an American archaeologist named Bennett) which is housed in its own pavilion. The other must-see site is the famous Sun Gate. Take time to wander around the ruins and imagine what life just have been like ages ago.

Most travelers to La Paz visit Lake Titicaca as a day trip. The journey usually includes a visit to the town of Copacabana (do not miss the white cathedral, a place of pilgrimage for the Aymara people in the region), and a visit to either the Isla del Sol and/or Isla de la Luna for pleasant hikes, great views of the lake, and perhaps a walk on an ancient Inca staircase. Personally, I would recommend spending the night in the Isla del Sol at a small (and very simple) lodge, then return to La Paz after one or two nights. Doing this entire journey in one day is way too much and with the high altitude, exhausting.

Where to stay?: I recommend two hotels – Casa Grande and Atix. Casa Grande is a modern, glass enclosed high rise, in the Calacoto neighborhood. This is a contemporary business hotel, with efficient service and comfortable rooms. Across the street is Atix, Bolivia’s first Design hotel, In a modern tower. Atix has more personality and is much trendier, filled the contemporary art of Gastón Ugalde (Bolivia’s answer to Andy Warhol, who works in just about every medium).  Rooms at Atix are smaller but functional and well appointed. The restaurant at Atix is excellent and will give you a taste of modern Bolivian cuisine, as the staff trained at Gustu (see above). I found the service at Atix warmer and more personal. Both hotels are considered among the best in the city, and usually under $200 a night. There is no true luxury hotel in Bolivia, and nothing that can compare with say, Belmond Palacio Nazarenas in Cuzco or Lima’s Country Club hotel, for example.

Practical Advice:

  • US Travelers need a visa. The visa is difficult because the Bolivian government requires you either apply in person at a Bolivian consulate/embassy,  or send the passport in the mail. Bolivia does not allow a visa service like CIBT to do the paperwork for you. the visa  costs $160 and usually lasts for 10 years/multiple entry. My advice is to appy at least a month ahead, so you have enough time for the process.
  • Adjusting to the altitude – If you are coming from Puno, Peru, then you are already acclimated. If you are coming from the USA or from a lower elevation, take it easy the first 24/48 hours you are in La Paz. Drink loads of water, have your big meals at breakfast and lunch, and pace yourself.
  • Crossing from Puno. There is a border crossing in Desaguadero, and the crossing takes about 1 hour, start to finish. Desaguadero is an unattractive town whose sole purpose is to handle frontier matters. If you are traveling with a local tour operator or destination specialist, the local guide should be able to transfer your luggage and you must show up in person at Peru + Bolivia immigration to present your entry/exit forms and get your passport stamped. Make sure you keep the small forms given on arrival/departure as you will need this paper when you leave Bolivia.
  • Money matters: I used USD whenever I needed cash, and had no trouble. Bolivians are dynamos in calculating the exchange rate, on the spot. I did not want to get stuck with Bolivianos (the national currency) which is worthless outside Bolivia. If necessary, I would change maybe $50 US for tips or entrance fees where dollars are not accepted, and that’s it.
  • Weather: Because of the altitude, nights are cold, year round. If the day is sunny, temperatures can rise to 70F. at night, it will be freezing or close to it. The coldest months are June to September, when it will dip below freezing at night. My advice is to dress in layers, so you can change quickly in case it gets cloudy or windy. The rainy season runs from December to March, typically with showers in the afternoon. It very rarely rains all day.

Courtesy of Ignacio Maza