Potions and ponchos, bowler hats and beer, entertaining festivals and a stunning natural setting - all part of the heady mix that makes Bolivia's capital of La Paz such a fascinating destination
When you land at the highest airport in the world, it’s bound to take your breath away. But Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, would do that even if it wasn’t more than 3600m above sea level. This stunning city is ridiculously photogenic: set against a spectacular backdrop of snow-tipped Andes, it clings to the ragged insides of a massive natural bowl.
For me, the heart of La Paz is El Rosario district, where colourful cholitas sell their wears. We stayed in Hotel Rosario, just up the road from the Mercado de Hechiceria, or Witches’ Market, at the junction of Calles Santa Cruz and Linares. Here, you can buy any number of amulets, powders and potions – although you may want to avoid the ubiquitous llama foetuses. Apparently, it’s very lucky if you bury one in the foundations of your new building. Not for the llama, obviously.
Also in Calle Linares is the small but fascinating Museo de Coca. Coca leaves have been chewed by indigenous people for thousands of years, but are now at the heart of cocaine production. A breakthrough in anaesthetic? A harmless tonic? An evil curse? We decided to try for ourselves by sampling a handful of leaves - available free from the Museo and some of their mouth-numbing sweets - maybe that's why we semed to have an extra boost heading up the next steep hill. Be warned - there are plenty of hills in this city and you will struggle in the thinner air - we found ourselves constantly over-taken by 80-year old locals with heavy packages.
If, like me, you are drawn to bright colours, Calle Sagarnaga is shopping heaven! Lined with shops and stalls dripping with brightly coloured Andean materials, ponchos, hats, blankets, alpaca knitwear and musical instruments, it’s a riot of colour. El Rosario is the centre of the indigenous Aymara community. A classic image of Bolivia is the cholitas – with their distinctive bowler hats and many layers of petticoats – and this is where they come to sell their products and handicrafts. We bought a vivdly embroidered guitar case for about £3, a fully lined hand-made coat for £10 and - perfect if you are worried about weight allowances - delightful miniature nativity scenes with the characters in colourful Bolivian national dress starting at £1.
I can highly recommend the Festival of the Gran Poder in late May. Less well-known than other South American festivals, it was dismissed by a tourist agent we asked as ‘just lots of local people getting drunk’, but it’s well worth watching – or even joining in! This remarkable parade involves tens of thousands of folk dancers in fantastic costumes, dozens of marching bands, huge amounts of beer (it’s traditional – but strange to see hundreds of cholitas dancing along with cans of beer in their hands)… and it goes on for hours. The lengthy route includes Avenida Illampu so we had front row seats in our own room – very handy, as it went on from 8am to 11pm. When we ventured out into the street we were soon being plied with beer ourselves by our hotel owner and dancing along with one of the dance troupes. Stands were constructed outside the day before and locals set up camp to watch, keep the performers fed and watered or join in for a while – endlessly entertaining.
It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness but you can help prevent the effects by drinking copious amounts of water (try the local Trimate or coca-leaf mate teas). You will find yourself struggling for breath so don't try and fit too much in the first couple of days - relax and enjoy the scenery.
Where to stay
Hotel Rosario has attractive rooms set around courtyards, and a lovely reception area with free hot mate (local tea) on tap to help stave off altitude sickness. A £40 room for two includes a popular buffet breakfast, with fresh juices, cakes, French toast and eggs to order. There’s wi-fi, a mini-bar in the room, and 160 channels of television available.
I’d also recommend Hostal Estrella Andina, next door to Rosario, at less than £20 a room. It's a very pleasant, family-run hotel with good-value rooms, wi-fi, friendly staff, and a restaurant under construction (May 2009).
If you fancy really living the highlife, there’s always the Ritz Apart Hotel in Plaza Isabel la Catolica. Rates for well-furnished mini-condos are around £55.
Tambo Colonial in Hotel Rosario (Av Illampu 74) is reasonably priced for tasty dinners – especially the fish. Non-residents can buy their splendid brekky buffet (see above). Good-value set lunches abound, usually under £2. A few doors down from Rosario, I can recommend Las Brisas - an upstairs dining room with a good salad buffet, hearty soup and quality mains and puds, again for less than £2 a head. Or try the colonial grandeur of Café Torino (Calle Socabaya 457), where you can enjoy live music on Fridays with your buffet salad and choice of mains.
Out and about
Vivid local buses are everywhere and very vocal in publicising destinations. Taxis are cheap and plentiful – most trips in the city are around £1. A trip to the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), a fascinating landscape of weird rock formations at the edge of the city, will cost about £10 for two, including waiting time and entrance fees.
La Paz has a huge range of day trips and tours on offer from more than 40 agencies: visit Tiwanako pre-Incan remains; sail Lake Titicaca; cycle the Coroico ‘Death Road’ or punish yourself with a three-day tour to the fabulous Uyuni desert. Turisbus agency has an office in Hotel Rosario and is recommended, though pricier than many.
We flew LAN Chile from Santiago. The airport is in El Alto above La Paz and a taxi into town will cost around £5.
There are buses to Santiago (Chile), Lima (Peru) and destinations within Bolivia. Shop around for the best deals and ask to see the actual bus before committing!