The second week of our latest trip was a trip to Bolivia, including a few days in La Paz, a trip down to the Salar de Uyuni, and a tour up to Lake Titicaca. La Paz was a delightful surprise, especially after reading about all the “cautions” in guidebooks and from friends who had a less-than-ideal experience.
I am not sure La Paz is for the casual traveler, and it’s important to know what to expect. The altitude is high, the streets are chaotic, and the culture is surprisingly different, so if those sound like fun things, then maybe a visit to La Paz is for you. It’s not an easy city to travel to, but sometimes the best things take a little work, you know? For what it’s worth, I didn’t feel unsafe, and part of that is I wasn’t wandering around at all hours or taking random transport into the shadier parts of town. We enjoyed great meals, people watching, and taking in the culture.
La Paz is a foodie paradise (you didn’t expect that, did you??) with all cuisines on offer. For some reason, we landed at quite a few Mexican restaurants, but you name it, La Paz is serving it up.
Café Vida: I hadn’t expected one of the top restaurants in La Paz to be a vegan joint serving bowls of beans, chickpea stew, raw balls, and smoothies! It’s tucked away in a colonial courtyard, like many good finds in La Paz, and has great, healthy food on offer. We stopped in for lunch, which was perfect, and were treated to fresh bowls with themes like Inca (corn and potatoes), Mediterranean (beans, olives, pickles), and a delicious chickpea stew. Definitely worth a stop from the bustle and chaos of the city.
Kalakitas Food n’ Drinks: Another surprise was the popularity of Mexican food in La Paz. Despite wanting to try local food, many of the great restaurants in this foodie town are Mexican. This unique spot (again, tucked neatly away in a courtyard on the 2nd floor) served up fresh quesadillas, tacos, burritos, and tostadas (with veg options) and great drinks. The atmosphere is cheery and authentic, but warning, the chairs are uncomfortable.
Café del Mundo: A great find in the same neighborhood (near the shopping streets) is this three-story café serving up soups, smoothies, breakfasts, coffee, and snacks like nachos. Apparently owned by Swedes (?) it’s a gem with a cozy coffee shop atmosphere. Just watch your head on the stairs.
La Cueva: Yet another great Mexican spot near the cathedral on Tarija street (in the bustle of tourist restaurants). The platter for 2 has a nice sampler of good Mexican grub, and the atmosphere is cozy and authentic. I felt like I was at a place in San Jose, if I’m being honest. Sure, not very “local” but it hit the spot.
Gustu: Admittedly, we didn’t get to Gustu—it’s way on the southeast part of town, nowhere near where we were staying, and so many people, including our tour guide, cautioned us about heading out at night and running into trouble (for what it’s worth, we didn’t feel unsafe at all during our trip). It’s a splurge (a sister restaurant of Noma, in Copenhagen) and offers up tasting menus with a Bolivian spin. We couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to head that far across town.
Mi Teleferico: a definite highlight on our trip to La Paz. In fact, we had seen a NY Times article about the Teleferico a few years ago and it inspired us to add Bolivia to our list of must-see places. Called “the subway in the sky,” the Teleferico carries commuters high above across the La Paz valley, providing glimpses into the back yards and overlooks of the homes and buildings. Currently there are 3 lines (a 4th to be added in March 2017) and 5 more in the process of being built. Taking the Yellow line gives you a view of the city and up the steep hill to El Alto (“The High”, literally), at 13,615 feet. It costs 3 Bolivian dollars (about 50 cents). It’s an amazing way to see the city, and you can’t beat the price for a 6 mile ride.
Plaza Murillo: The main plaza is charming, filled with park-goers feeding pigeons with multiple strains of corn. Your standard church, government buildings, and street vendors line the perimeter of a very pleasant park.
Mercado de Las Brujas: The “witches market” is an unusual but popular tourist spot that lines Melchor Jimenez avenue, off of Santa Cruz street. Each vendor has stacks of interesting potions on offer, but the most alarming part of the Mercado are the stalls that have dried llama fetuses hanging from them (supposedly used to bury under new foundations for houses as an offering to Pachamama). They’re gross and everywhere. Very adjacent to non-dead-llama tourist shopping.
Black Market: A locals market, filled with pretty much anything you need from clothing, to fruits and veg, to house repair goods, to meats, nuts, poultry, and fabric, it has everything. It’s where locals shop (although our guide definitely said not to buy meat from the vendors slapping it around on blankets on the ground with their bare hands). You get a real sense of the city in the chaos, especially of the cholita merchant culture, which is very cool. Apparently it’s a bit sketchy after dark, so best to visit during the day.
Any Party You Can Find: Bolivians like to party. A lot. Apparently there are over 600 different parades and parties each year across the country. We stumbled on a huge Cholita (which means “small woman” and are women who proudly wear traditional dress of tiered skirts, shawls, and bowler hats) parade on our first day—with bands, dancers, and lots of drinking. If you find a party, or are invited to one, definitely go for it.
Hotel Rosario: This hotel is a charming boutique hotel in an old colonial building in the Belen neighborhood. The location is great—walking distance to markets and great restaurants. Rooms are comfortable (those facing the Illampu street are cheery, if a bit louder) and well equipped. The courtyard is great and breakfast offers western and local choices in a sizeable buffet.
Rocha’s Retstaurant Mirador: We took the Yellow teleferico line up to El Alto, which is larger than La Paz, and stopped in this restaurant for a snack and to take in the views. We ordered salchipapas, a traditional Latin American snack of sausages and potatoes. The view was great, but the salchipapas were not. Instead, enjoy the view from, and I’m not kidding here, the Pollo Copacabana in the teleferico station. Maybe grab yourself a chicken leg while you’re there.