At 3500m above sea level, La Paz holds the title for the highest capital in the world. Its positioning is impressive, but what makes it remarkable is the product of the spirit of enterprising locals whose speciality is making things work. The sky is not the limit up here and what they’ve created is a wonder of culture, creativity, hustle and an Andean city done differently.
Of all South American nations, the indigenous population is highest in Bolivia which is evident in La Paz. You’ll see traditionally dress, hear the Aymara language, and even spot a mix of indigenous and Catholic motifs on the principal Church of San Francisco.
The connection is deeply spiritual, and visible at the fascinating Mercado de las Brujas or the Witches Market.
At first glance, the cobbled Calle Melchor Jiminez looks like an ordinary souvenir market, but then you notice the oddity of the wares. Namely the hanging llamas. They’re not stuffed, they’re dead fetuses and they’re surrounded by bottled potions, painted sugar tablets, amulets and herbs. Signs that we’re in a market of culture rather than commerce.
“The witches market is very important to our religion and has been for many many years,” says Maya, owner of Hanaqpacha Travel who provides tours to the market. “It’s the centre of our culture and the place where you can learn a lot about our beliefs of mother Earth and other gods and deities important to us.”
If you’re plagued with illness, misfortune or a broken heart this is where you would buy items for your witch doctor or shaman to assemble as a cha’lla, or offering to Pachamama, an Andean Goddess.
To get a closer look at the wares and gain a deeper understanding of how they are used, a guided visit is recommended. This will allow you entrance into a shop without fear of committing a curse-worthy cultural faux-pas.
“There are so many things that you will see that lose importance if you don’t understand what you are looking at. Some people get a bit freaked out about some of the things (like llama fetes) if you don’t know the whole context behind them. So having a guide is always good so you can fully comprehend all the amazing things you will see there” says Maya.
More intrepid spiritual explorers can venture to the less visited El Alto area which lies at the end of the red Mi Teleferico line just out of La Paz. Five minutes from the station is a street lined with small shacks. Here we see healers place trinkets seen in the market on mesas (altars) and watch numerous smoking stacks burn as offerings to Pachamama.
Each of the shacks belongs to a practising spiritual healer and if you are a local, family tradition will dictate who will heal you. But if you’re a visiting tourist, you’ll have to make it on your own, or surrender your spirit to a tour.
How to see it: The witches market downtown is just a short walk from the main plaza. It is a popular stop and is part of most free walking tours. The witches market in El Alto can be visited independently by riding the red Mi Teleferico line or guided by Tourisbus’ “Spells of El Alto” tour. Note that an enormous market takes place in El Alto on Thursdays and Sundays which will make the shacks harder to find and make it easier to get lost. It’s worth noting that it is not an area frequented by many tourists independently so the usual precautions should be taken to guard valuables.
One of the best perspectives of the sprawling city over the mountainous landscape is from the public Mi Teleferico transport system: the longest aerial cable-car system in the world. Not only will you be afforded an amazing birds-eye view of La Paz, but you’ll save yourself from battling the physical perils of high-altitude.
At the time of writing, more than nine lines connect different parts of the city (with more under construction), and at just three bolivianos per ride and a couple of hours you can ride them all. It’s an exciting way to see locals going about the day-to-day and see different barrios throughout the city.
You’ll soar above streets and between buildings on the white line; get a glimpse of Valle de la Luna (Valley of the moon) on the yellow; see colourful barrios as you climb up the red, and peer into mini-mansions on the way to Zona Sur on the green.
An astonishing view of the city can be seen at the end of the red line at El Alto, but for a spectacular sunset, ride up to the mirador at the end of the yellow line and grab an ice-cream in the Pollos Copacabana fast-food restaurant which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows. Here you can watch rays of the sun move over the mountains as it makes way for city lights flickering in the night.
How to do it: Tickets can be bought at any station and need to be bought for every change of line. You can also count up your rides and buy multiple tickets at once to avoid queuing. At the very least, buy a couple of extras to avoid peak hour lines! Also, try and stay away from Ajayuni station (red line) near Central La Paz on El Alto market days as the lines get outrageously long.
In the centre of a middle-class La Paz suburb is a quaint square with well-manicured gardens and a pleasant crowd. Across the road is one of the world’s most notorious prisons.
San Pedro Prison is known not because of its size, construction or the reputation of its inmates, but because of the way it works.
From the outside, San Pedro prison looks much like any other. A large, nondescript concrete building guarded by officers. But the similarities end at the exterior. Inside there are no guards or cells. Surprisingly there are families, jacuzzis and rough order.
This is because the prison functions as its own society with elections, an economy (albeit largely black market) and even real estate. The world learned about the bizarre reality of San Pedro prison in the book ‘Marching Powder’ by Australian author Rusty Young in 2003. The book tells the story of UK inmate Thomas McFadden, who ran tours of the prison and the author’s experience in the prison who learned about it on a tour.
Tours inside are now illegal, but picking the brain of a guide while standing outside its walls is well worth it.
How to see it: A very good description of the history and present-day state of the prison was given by our guide on the Hanaqpacha Travel walking tour which is highly recommended.
Travellers to the Altiplano region of Peru and Bolivia are likely to see traditional women dressed in bowler hats and full poller skirts. These women are called Cholitas, which comes from the racially discriminatory term cholo. In La Paz a special group of Cholitas have taken this moniker, their hats and skirts to the wrestling ring to turn things around.
Each week these fearless women put on a display of athleticism and showmanship dressed in beautiful traditional garments to wrestle, WWE style.
Full disclosure: this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Wrestling doesn’t tend to be. You will see women pretending to beat each other, pretending to wrestle referees and even male wrestlers – and vice versa. What’s important to remember is that it’s all pretend.
Wrestling in Bolivia is a long-standing form of entertainment. Nowadays, tourists can join in on the spectacle thanks to organisations such as Red Cap Walking Tours. Darren of Red Cap Walking Tours explains: “there is a tradition of fighting known as Tinku which is practised annually. But the type of wrestling on display at the Cholita Wrestling became popular with the rise of the Mexican Lucha Libre and WWF.”
It’s said that when the local wrestling scene needed a revamp, a local promoter tried all sorts of gimmicks, including women wrestlers. It’s safe to say that his gamble paid off as now the women are the stars of the show.
Aside from the impressive acrobatics and athleticism that this roleplay entails, watching the excited crowd is just as an exciting spectacle. Locals taunt the malos (bad guys) with Spanish obscenities and will even throw produce towards the ring. And in true WWE style, the Cholitas take their pretend trash-talk to the crowd including gringos, so if you don’t feel like being part of the show sit in the bleachers!
How to see it: The maze of El Alto isn’t one worth trying to conquer on your own at night. The easiest way to see the show is with a busload of other curious visitors which can be booked through Red Cap Tours. They will coordinate pick-up, drop-off and payment.
Where to stay: Most hostels are centrally located in the historical district of central La Paz near San Fransisco square. It is definitely the most convenient, but also busy. The university neighbourhood of Sopocachi is a 20-minute ride from the centre but offers a little more peace as well as trendy restaurants and bars.
Getting Around: Mi Telifetrico of course! But, if you need to get between stations, mini-vans and colourful colectivo buses fill in the gaps. They each follow a certain route shown by the signs on the windshield. Ask your hostel what signs to spot and what landmark to look out for when you need to get off. Once you’re there say ‘Abajo’ to stop the bus. To get across town at night, riding in official taxis is recommended.
Safety: Like most South American cities, La Paz has a reputation for being dangerous. While pickpocketing and express kidnappings have occurred, they can be avoided by using common precautions. Don’t flash your valuables, only carry around enough cash for your outings, avoid public demonstrations, and ride official taxis. You are more likely to feel unwell because of the altitude. In this case stay hydrated and take it slow. Regardless, La Paz has a way of working its magic for you.