La Paz/El Alto: Cities of Markets

PUBLISHED ON JAN 29, 2018 — TRAVEL
Mirador of La Paz
View of La Paz. Surrounding the city are the mountiains Illimani (guardian of La Paz), Huayna Potosi, Mururata, and Illampu

Where is La Paz?

La Paz is the governmental center and de facto capital of Bolivia. Located in the northern area of Bolivia about a 3 hour drive from Cococabana, the city’s buildings propogated densly along the hills gave me the impression that it was Cusco’s big brother. Like Cusco, it is incredibly high in altitude (3650m). Higher parts of La Paz operate at >4000m. While the buildings on the hills imitate a similar urban design to Cusco, it has a few key differences.

For one, being in Bolivia creates cultural and economic distinctions from the Peruivan sibling. Secondly, it’s far far larger than Cusco, which has a few big implications from an experience standpoing. For one, the market scenes are far more grand and diverse in La Paz than anywhere else I’ve been to so far in South America. Because the city is so large and varied in gradient of elevation, the residents take Ski Lifts to get to places (which they called the Mi Teleférico! And unlike most ski resorts, its cheap (3 sol or .50 cents), operates all year round, and successfully transports thousands of people a day without issues.

Teleférico
The Teleférico transports thousands of people a day!

Right next to La Paz is El Alto, the second largest city in Bolivia and at an elevation of 4,150m. It hosts nearly 1 million people and the largest market in South America, the Feria.

Map of La Paz
Map of La Paz

Note: I’m personally calling Cusco and La Paz sibling cities based on my experiences. This is not how most locals of the area consider the dynamic.

Culture/Life

Forget most preconceived notions you have of Bolivia. Even at the border I was told by foreigners they heard La Paz was dangerous. Sure, it may be true that if you lack common sense you can run into issue but for the most part the city is safe and people are incredibly nice there. La Paz is a sea of culture if you can make it over there, and it is totally worth a visit. I was originally planning to spend only 2 days there. I ended up spending a week.

The culture is strongly influenced by the markets, which I’ll describe in another section. Because its dense population, you’ll see stark contrast in lifestyles feet from eachother.

While Bolivia is very beautiful and cheap, it is also very obviously poor. For the most part, a shop in La Paz will often be accompanied by at least 10~20 similar shops adjacent to it. I haven’t studied the countries economics extensively, but based purely on my experience of being here I believe that a lot of the economic challenges in Bolivia come from the redundancies in shops from a inventory and location standpoint. Markets are built from diversity, and the Bolivian markets over compete in similarity.

I mentioned this in the Cocacobana post, but one of the things to watch out for is protests. As the political environment in Bolivia is not particularly stable right now, La Paz is the worse place of all to be when there is political unrest (or best if you want action). At the center of the government in Bolivia, La Paz is politically active. While in La Paz, I experienced a protest during the Dakar and talking to locals heard the city becomes restless during political controversy.

Protests in La Paz
Police line up for Protests in La Paz

One of the other things that stood out in my mind was the respect for the dead. In the middle of the city La Paz has a large cemetery and you can usually find people bringing flowers to lost ones on the weekend.

A view of the cemetery
A view of the cemetery

Music in La Paz

Bolivians are incredibly proud of their music and in most street corners you can find someone selling some sort of small sovenior instrument. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to visit the Museum of Music and listen to a concert of traditional Bolivian tunes. The instruments they have there are nothing like I’ve ever seen, and I highly recommend visiting the museum when you have the chance.

Here’s a few images from my time at the Bolivian music museums. I’ll append a video at a later date of some of the music. Unfortunately I don’t have good enough internet here to do that today.

A strange instrument made from a turtle shell
A strange instrument made from a turtle shell

Variety of Guitars in South America
Variety of Guitars in South America
More Instruments!
More Instruments

Markets

If you go to La Paz, it is essential you make your to the markets to understand the city. The city has built itself and it’s culture around the markets, and La Paz hosts some of the largest markets in South America.

There are two markets you should visit if you make it over to La Paz.

Witches Market

The witches market is a cool little street located on Calle Jiminez that hosts a lot of artisanal goods. If you need anything like colorful bags, cups, clothes, or something else that with a custom Bolivian look, this is the place to go. With the Bolivian Sol / Dollar as cheap as it is, you can pick up a variety of goods for a very reasonable price, making the Witches Market the perfect stop to pick up souvenirs. From a price standpoint, if you want to get as low a price as possibe expect to haggle normally around 5~15 Bolivianos off market price.

Feria Market

Specifically, the Feria Market is open on Thursdays and Sundays and is the largest market in South America and is located at the top of La Paz in El Alto. You can find about anything that you could possibly need in the markets as the markets are simply gigantic. Based on the size of the market, it is amazing there is anyone left able to actually shop for things! Whether you go here on a mission to get cheap goods, or to see a market which takes up the surface area of a large city and defines the life for a large portion of inhabitants in Bolivia, Feria is something you should take the time to see if you make it to La Paz for a weekend.

A view of the Feria Market
A view of the Feria Market

Food

The markets are great in La Paz and the food is really cheap. While the American dollar will go for a long distance in the city, I quickly became tired of the constant fried food they had. Salteñas, Fried chicken, and empanadas are quite tasty, but the fried food is “EVERYWHERE” and it’s impossible to escape. By the 4th day I ended up resorting to getting my own food from the markets and cooking it myself. The vegetables were top notch and they have a wide variety of goods. I suggest considering cooking if you spend more than a week in the city to give yourself some shelter from all the fried food that will consume your diet.

If you end up in La Paz, you’ll have a tendency to want to stay up in the top toward the main center of the city. Make sure to head down the hills for at least 30min to an hour to see the architecture completely change and the area get far wealthier. It is very clear as you head down the hill where foreign culture had an impact on the architecture of the city.

I had a LOT of things to do, so to be honest I spent a majority of my time at La Paz in a cafè. A few recommendations:

1. Check out Berna Cafe and ask for their Mochachino. It’s pricer than most local coffee (20 Bol), but top notch.

A sunny day at Isle Del Sol
A well designed Mochachino at Berna cafè

2. Check out the Three Amigos cafè for a Hogwarts Adventure. I was completely surprised when I found a Harry Potter themed cafè. It’s definitely a unique shop worth your time to visit particularly if you’re into the fantasy genre.

Feel like a student at Hogwarts at the Three Amigos
Feel like a student at Hogwarts at the Three Amigos

Attractions Near La Paz

If you go to La Paz, I’ve heard you need to go to Death Road. I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the time to manage a visit but I’ve heard its an incredible experience where you take a bike on a treacherous rode in the middle of beautiful scenery. Make sure to check this out if go to La Paz and see if it is worth a visit. Depending on the bike, the lowest price I’ve seen was around 300 Bolivians, (~$42).

View of La Paz at night
View of La Paz at night

Conclusion

La Paz is a bustling city that is well worth your visit if you make it to Bolivia. With as large as it is, you can be sure you’ll find something that makes the trip worthwhile for you.

Chaio,
Andor

TAGS: TRAVEL