La Paz is a city that will leave you breathless. And not just because it’s at an altitude of almost 13,120 feet [4,000 m]: even if your body acclimates fast, everything seems too large to be taken in. But Bolivia is good to its visitors, just like it embraces the 36 ethnic groups cohabitating within its borders.
On its sinuous streets, you will no longer find only backpackers seeking to connect with Pachamama or curiously looking for spells at Mercado de las Brujas. There are several divinities among the clouds of this Latin Olympus: not only folkloric, but palpable spirits shared by the continent. You can clearly notice the encounter of indigenous and colonial traditions, rich nature, and hope in the future. It seems very convenient that La Paz is in the heart of South America, between the Andes and the Amazon. In the end, it’s a city with a Latin American soul.
Mercado de las Brujas: Melchor Jimenez
Understanding through food
Bolivia has a natural abundance of ingredients. Many of them can be found at Mercado Rodríguez, an open market that sprawls endlessly through blocks and blocks where you can find quinoa, freshly grounded chili peppers, and street food.
This is only natural, since 90% of the 800,000 residents of La Paz live for street food. This tradition is taken so seriously that menus are constantly changing. At dawn, spicy soups will help you wake up; later, in the middle of the day, try a salteña, a kind of succulent empanada; by nightfall, anticuchos de corazón will close the banquet.
Mercado Rodríguez: Zona 1, Zoilo Flores
Gustu: Avenida Costanera, 10
To learn more about these flavors and their preparations, the team of the restaurant Gustu organized an informal gastronomic tour called Suma Phayata (“well cooked” in Aymara, one of the most popular native languages in the country). Founded by entrepreneur Claus Meyer, of the awarded Noma in Denmark, Gustu has a laboratory that travels the country investigating and spreading local cooking techniques and ingredients. This restaurant only uses ingredients bought from small producers, including the bar, where singani, a spirit distilled from local grapes, stands out.
Before they opened their doors to the public, Gustu was a school for young people who found themselves in a vulnerable situation. Mauricio Zárate was one of them and now he’s the restaurant’s sous-chef. “Here we learned something more important than gastronomy: the value of local people,” he comments. Other alumni of the course opened the restaurant Popular, in the city center, dedicated to home-cooked food like charquekan (an Andean dish with shredded beef).
In La Paz, bars concentrate a bit south, in the Sapocachi neighborhood. If the night takes you there, don’t just pass by the discrete facade of La Costilla de Adán. Inside you’ll notice that the decorations are not as minimalistic, and it has a room filled with antiquities. If you order the popular chuflay (a mixture of singani and ginger ale), pay attention to the legends surrounding the name of the drink, evoking the English expression “to fly.” Don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Altiplano, the Amazon, and the surroundings of La Paz
“City in the sky” is a nickname that suits La Paz very well, and for more than one reason. The people of the ancient Tiahuanaco civilization were looking upwards while they constructed their temples for the moon and the sun. The ruins of these temples and a mega city are still standing 43.5 miles [70 km] west of the city center, telling the story of a people that worked stone and metal in sophisticated and even mysterious ways.
The most adventurous travelers head east. There are, for example, bike tours leaving from La Cumbre – one of the highest peaks in the area –, on Carretera de la Muerte, to the city of Coroico. It’s a 37-mile [60 km] stretch going from an altitude of 16,400 feet [5,000 m] to 3,940 feet [1,200 m].
Little by little, the cold plateau lakes give way to enormous Amazonian ferns. But don’t let yourself be carried away by the exuberance of the landscape: you must really consider the risks. That’s why it’s a good idea to visit one of the recognized agencies to travel safely.
In the south of the city, you’ll find the Valle de la Luna, where erosion created great clay and granite elevations. The visit may take you through trails up to 45 minutes long. While strolling among these rock formations, you’ll hear the typical sounds of the zampoña flute, reminding you that even though it looks like another planet, you’re in Bolivia.
Cable car to El Alto: view from above
To reach El Alto you need to take the cable car. For many years, it was the highest district in La Paz, but three decades ago, it became independent and grew at such a fast pace that it’s now considered one of the biggest cities in Bolivia, propelled by the emerging Aymara bourgeoisie. Its new elite looks at the city from the height of their kitsch buildings with mirrored windows and lively colors that strike the eye even before you get off the cable car. Known as “cholets”, these buildings have several floors of stores, party halls, salons, and even soccer fields.
The apartments are on the higher floors, imitating the style of French houses – that’s the origin of the name, combining the words “chola” and “chalet”. Many of them are the work of architect Freddy Mamani, who sought inspiration in the designs of the archaeological complex of Tiahuanaco to create the self-proclaimed “Neo-Andean Architecture.” The interiors are even more colorful and futuristic than the façades.
Everything in El Alto seems to be filled with surprises. In our first encounter with Reyna Torrez, she introduces herself as a shy “cholita”. But 10 minutes later, she enters the boxing ring and grabs her opponent by the locks, performing all kinds of pirouettes and mortal jumps. But don’t worry, it’s a well-rehearsed show: three times a week, similar performances by women inspired by Mexican wrestling take place in this sports arena. “Today the cholitas are seen with less prejudice,” Reyna analyzes. “The battles we fight in the ring have a lot to do with the struggles and the strength of women in our society.”
In fact, cholitas represent a metaphor in Bolivia: in the past, it was a dismissive word for Amerindian women. Today they are considered one of the nation’s pillars. They have been able to conquer their space in different arenas and have always been proud of their traditions. In La Paz, most of them speak Aymara, a language that doesn’t have a specific word to say thank you, even though reciprocity is a big part of their philosophy. Meanwhile, the sun hides behind the snowy peaks and it’s hard not to repeat in our heads a sincere, “Thank you, La Paz!”
Luchadores Independientes de Enorme Riesgo: Coliseo 12 de Octubre, El Alto