Arriving in La Paz on our 12-hour overnight bus from Sucre was very much what I was expecting. It was very early in the morning, the city was enveloped by patchy cloud, and descending along the winding autopista from El Alto gave fleeting glimpses of a densely built, red brick city clutching to and smothering hillsides in all directions.
6 am in La Paz is a relatively serene time of the day. The roads are almost void of traffic, there’s a chilled humidity in the thin, high altitude (3,650 m – 11,975 ft) air and early morning risers are already on their way to work.
The bus station, however, is already gearing into manic mode. But then again, which South American bus station isn’t?
Home for us was in the Sopocachi neighbourhood at the Tinka Hotel. A quick brekkie, a little relaxation, and we were out the door making a bee-line for a cafe on the other side of town.
The quickest and easiest way to get there was by none other than the Teleférico, the world’s longest and highest urban cable car network. With the city’s dense population, steep terrain, narrow streets and terrible traffic, it’s one way to get people from A to B. It’s also a fab way for us gringos to see the city and some of the sights in this sprawling town.
In the city’s far southeast, the suburbs of Calacoto, San Miguel and Cota Cota are far from what the rest of La Paz is all about. Mansions, manicured gardens and lawns, private swimming pools, swanky restaurants, foreign diplomats and boutique hotels. Even the climate is different to the rest of La Paz, where it’s noticeably warmer thanks to being 500m lower in altitude.
In the heart of San Miguel is Typica, a cafe situated in a revamped house with oodles of personality, thanks to being decked-out with vintage bits and pieces.
We weren’t here to gawk at old dust collectors, though, as the main draw here is that fab Bolivian coffee. Available in a variety of filtration methods – Chemix, V60, French press and Aeropress – or good old espresso.
Let’s just say that we think this is the best coffee in La Paz. Well, from what we tried, anyway. Perfectly executed.
Food-wise, there are a few brekkie choices, a handful of sandwiches, crêpes and sweets.
Typica, Calle Enrique Penaranda 1075
Anyone that’s up for a bit of handicraft shopping need look no further than Calle Linares in the Casco Viejo district. Yes, it’s touristy and brimming with dozens of shops and stands selling all-things-colourful, but if textiles, ponchos, hats, beanies and trinkets simply have to fill your luggage – this is where it’s at.
Our favourite – not that we bought a single item – is the cobbled, bazaar-style passage at number 906, right by Museo de la Coca.
One of the more unique sights in La Paz, despite the shopkeepers not wanting the gringo attention, is the Witches’ Market – or Mercado de las Brujas.
Believers in witchcraft flock to the brujas with just about any kind of physical or emotional ailment, or requirement. From the common flu, to libido, good luck, happiness or callous revenge. Or maybe you simply want to find love.
Each store is packed with fresh and dried herbs, aphrodisiac potions, carved soapstone figurines, seeds, dried insects and starfish, frogs, snakes and llama fetuses.
As for those llama fetuses, they’re acquired from miscarriages, not by killing them. Burying one beneath the foundations of a new home brings luck, protection, happiness and health. So if you’re wondering why things have gone pear-shaped since buying or renting your new abode, well, you kinda forgot to do something.
Wealthier Bolivians, I’ve read, sacrifice a live llama for the same good fortunes. Tell that to the cops when they discover a four-legged body buried beneath your house.
El Mercado de las Brujas, Calle Jiminez and Linares between Sagarnaga & Santa Cruz
The largest food market in the city would have to be this one. There’s a designated, and somewhat small, market building which houses meat vendors and many empty spaces, but it’s the streets around Rodriguez that are the busiest.
Flower sellers, hundreds of varieties of potato, spices, fish from nearby Lake Titicaca, fresh bread, household goods, more seafood, and many, many people selling street food.
Salteñas can be seen just about everywhere, as can fried chicken that’s bubbling away in a pot of golden oil. This is served over boiled white corn with a spicy salsa.
Chorizo sizzles over coals, waiting to be stuffed into a bread roll for choripan. If grilled alpaca and potatoes is more your thing, then you’ve got that, too. Or how about bull penis soup?
For some of the best roast pork with crackling, seek out the lechón al horno ladies. You can usually smell the delicious pork before you even see them.
Mercado Rodríguez, Calle Rodriguez, Zona Central
Mercado Belen, which is very much a part of Mercado Rodriguez, can be found beneath a makeshift structure covered with tarps and sheets of metal. Just about everything here is of the fruit and vegetable variety, so no confronting smells or hacked-up animals to freak out those that have an aversion to carne or seafood.
It’s colourful, it’s lively and it’s all really cheap. Don’t leave your bargaining skills at home.
Mercado Belen, Calle Rodriguez, Zona Central
With so much street food in the precinct, it’s pretty easy to hop from vendor to vendor and fill up on all the cheap edibles. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other places to take a load off and eat with cutlery, rather than your fingers or jab into it with toothpicks.
It was the sizzling hunks of pork, chorizo and chicken that made us slow down and take notice of this beaten up eatery.
La Roca Eterna is nothing more than a doorway on the street with a char-grill on one side and a tiny, cramped dining room just beyond it. We were hankering some grilled meat, so we squeezed past the three occupied tables in the front room and discovered another area down some rickety stairs and up some others.
Low ceilings, char-grill smoke filling each room and locals a little surprised to be seeing two gringos in a local joint such as this. The attraction here is whatever is cooking on the grill, so parrilla personal (50) it was, for us. Léchon (roast pork), grilled chicken, pork steak and chorizo on creamy rice and potatoes. You’ve gotta love a Bolivian mixed grill!
La Roca Eterna, Calle Oruro 114
For something a tad lighter, you could always head a block up the road and choose from one of several cevicherías within metres of each other. Once again, it may cause a few double-takes from the locals, but we’re all here for one thing – the ceviche.
For a little bit of everything, ceviche de marisco (40) is the way to go – fish, octopus, shrimp, mussels, regular potato and sweet potato. A few sides are presented – like bread, fried corn kernels, lime and more of the marinading liquid.
Cevichería Punto Marisco, Avenida Juan XXII 207
Whilst the most popular street snack in Bolivia is the salteña – those empanada-like pastries filled with stewed meat or chicken with veg, olives and boiled egg – tucumanas can be found around the traps, as well.
Avenida 16 de Julio is a very busy thoroughfare. Busy with traffic and busy with humans. Tucked in a narrow passage beside a stairway and a building is an incredibly popular eatery where you can sample some of the city’s best tucumanas. Or so I’ve been told.
It’s standing room only, the passage is less than two metres wide, and it costs just 2Bs for one of the piping hot tucumanas. Unlike salteñas, these are fried and contain more potato than their baked cousins.
The benches in the eating passage are strewn with squeeze bottles of homemade sauces – some spicy, others more cooling. There’s a tomato & onion salsa there, too.
Head up the stairs and hang a right and you’ll end up in the place that delivers the tucumanas to the passage on the avenida. Not as cosy up there, but you can always drop in for seconds.
Tucumanas El Prado, Avenida 16 de Julio 1636
On the other side of Avenida 16 de Julio is Casco Viejo, the historic part of town, where things aren’t as crazy-busy as San Pedro, so getting around without choking on diesel fumes makes things a little more bearable.
Many of the city’s important political buildings are here – there’s Plaza Murillo, a bunch of museums, plenty of shops, banks, stunning old churches, and at it’s northwest corner – Calle Jaén.
Calle Jaén – the last photo at the end of this post – is a traffic-free street lined with preserved colonial buildings that contain galleries, museums, restaurants and shops. The street only spans a city block, but it’s a nice spot to escape the surrounding craziness, and get a glimpse of how the city once looked.
For those that like their books and coffee, then some time spent in the old Gisbert bookshop, one block down from Plaza Murillo, ought to make the agenda. Yes, it’s a bit of a book lovers paradise, but it’s the handsome cafe at the front of the store that got our attention.
Tall shelves filled with reference books and vintage typewriters, steampunk lighting and a dark, moody colour palette. Espresso, V60, Chemix, Aeropress, French press and even Vietnamese filter coffee is up for grabs. The high altitude beans are 100% Bolivian and the attention to detail is bang on.
The Writer’s Coffee, Calle Comercio 1270
Taking the red Teleférico to the immense satellite city of El Alto is one way get some incredible views from the high plains above La Paz. Timing it with a Thursday or Sunday can also give you the chance to experience the enormous market that sprawls along Avenida Panorámica, just outside Jach’a Qhathu teleférico station.
The market itself is purely a local one populated and frequented by the Aymara, an indigenous nation of the Andes and Altiplano. Aside from the minimal fresh produce, the market is heavy on selling bootleg dvds and software, car parts, medical equipment (new and used), used clothing, food stalls and much, much more.
A word on safety.
Much has been written about safety at El Alto market. Muggings, robberies and petty theft, and whilst we didn’t see or experience anything like this, we acknowledge that it can happen and has happened to some people.
It can also happen in your own city, too.
Non-locals stand out in a town like La Paz, so walking around flashing cameras, jewellery, phones and watches is going to draw even more attention.
Keep the photo-taking discreet and minimal, be smart and aware of your surroundings, and just relax and enjoy the experience. These people are here to shop and sell, not pounce on the first gringo that appears.
El Alto market is not a dangerous place and shouldn’t be avoided. We were only met with smiles, “buenos dias” and invitations to try food stalls. Ok, maybe the occasional curious sideways glances and locals rushing past wondering why gringos are even interested in such a place.
Another spot worth checking out up there is all of the Yatiri huts facing Avenida Panorámica and La Paz on the other side. Outside the huts are small fire pits where offerings are burned by the yatiri for prosperity, luck, health and even curses.
The Aymara take the yatiri very seriously as, in their eyes, they are the community healers medical practitioners. Anyone can consult a yatiri, providing you speak either Spanish or Aymara, and for 1-2Bs you also can have your coca leaves read and learn what lays ahead for you.
Staying in this arty, boho neighbourhood meant we were central to everything in La Paz. It’s very hilly – something you can’t avoid in this town – it’s relatively peaceful, it’s residential and it’s peppered with many local and international restaurants, shops, cafes, bars and lovely parks. If you’re after nightlife, this is the place to come.
It may not make a scratch on Mercado Rodriguez, but the neighbourhood market in Sopocachi definitely saves on trying to track down a supermarket in this town.
Aside from the fab juice bars that’ll blend up any combo you desire, there’s fresh produce, chicken & meat cuts, seafood, olives, cheese, vino and household goods. There are even a couple of specialty chocolate shops near the entrance.
If a supermarket is a must, there’s one about a block away, called Hipermaxi. Check the map below for locations.
Mercado Sopocachi, Guachalla
There’s very little to be concerned about when you see smoke billowing from the roof of a restaurant in these parts, especially when you stick your nose in the door and spot a char-grill loaded with what you see above. Chorizo, trout, steak and offal, glistening and sizzling before being piled onto smaller parrillas that get delivered to your table.
The weekends are manic at this family-friendly restaurant and star attraction is the parrilla for two (135). Anyone that orders from the grill gets dibs on the salad bar, which is basically everyone in the restaurant.
Some greenery is much needed to help with the onset of the meat sweats, especially after knifing into a mountain of grilled pork, chicken, tripe, intestine, morcilla, chorizo, beef and úbere. This is exactly what you get on the parrilla for two, something we struggled to finish.
What’s úbere, I hear you ask? It’s cow udder and, when char-grilled, it’s actually quite delicious.
El Rodeo, Avenida 20 de Octubre 2012
A wine bar in La Paz seems a tad out of place, but considering Sopocachi is one of the places to grab a drink in this town, maybe it’s not so unusual after all.
This cosy little space happens to be Australian owned and specialises in local Cochbamba wine, plus varieties from Chile, Argentina, Santa Cruz and bubbles from California.
Craft beer is also available, as well a great selection of small plates like trout ceviche, crostini with jamón serrano or stroganoff with toasted rustic bread.
Hallwright’s, Avenida Sánchez Lima 2235
For a touch of Vietnamese or Thai, you can get your fill at this popular eatery just metres from Plaza Abaroa. Fancy some stir-fry, phở, curry or lau?
Start off with a caipirinha or coconut mojito, then move on to summer rolls with shrimp or chicken (12/9). The fried spring rolls (9) come pretty close to the real deal.
The red curry (63) may be on the soupy side, but it sure packs a punch, and for a hit on rice noodles (64), it’s very easy to crunch into those if they’re piled with octopus and shrimp. It was a welcomed change to be seeing and eating vegetables again!
Don’t skip on dessert, either, as the passionfruit mousse and green tea sponge with tumbo (banana passionfruit) ice cream are both winners.
Vinapho, Avenida Sánchez Lima 2326
If Southeast Asian food isn’t your thing, and Chinese is, then a walk up to Plaza España in Sopocachi’s southeast corner is in order.
The streets surrounding the plaza are teeming with small eateries and restaurants, an area we discovered on our last night in town. Isn’t it always the way? You come across something fab and you have to leave soon after?
Pueblito China won’t win any awards for authenticity, but if it’s Bolivian-Chinese you’re after, these guys are sure to deliver. They don’t hold back on the garish decor, either. That bright yellow and green is bound to make the eyes water.
All plates come with rice, noodles or both – neither of which are rich in Chinese flavours. We’re in Bolivia, remember? Real Chinese flavours would terrify the locals. Still, our trucha (trout, 20) and chicharron de pollo (fried chicken in soy, 23) were very decent dinner options.
Pueblito China, Calle L. Uria de la Olivia 2705