Although my main reason for going to Bolivia was to hike tall mountains, there are things to do in Bolivia besides mountaineering! Unfortunately, since the socialist (and later authoritarian) government of Evo Morales came to power in 2006, there has been a steep drop off in tourism due to a number of policies he enacted. For example, tourist visas to Bolivia are expensive and valid for only thirty days, US-based and other foreign airlines withdrew from the market (making Bolivia difficult to get to), and the foreign press accused him (fairly or not) of a creating a dangerous narco-state. He also aligned his country with Venezuela and Russia, who are generally perceived as enemies of the west. In fact, most Bolivians right now won’t say anything bad about the Russian War on Ukraine because their economy is reliant on trade and support from Russia.
So, while my guides said that prior to 2006 lots of tourists would come to Bolivia for all kinds of reasons, tourism has now been largely reduced to adventure-seeking people like me and those on three or six month sabbaticals travelling through all South America, but very few people just popping down for a week or two to see what the country is all about, like they might for Peru or Ecuador. But you should absolutely visit! There’s plenty to do and see, the food is incredible, and the people are so, so nice. I will say that it’s a lot poorer and rougher around the edges and more chaotic than the other South American countries I’ve been to, so it might not be an ideal introduction to the region, but I had a fabulous time and never felt unsafe.
If you decide to visit, here are a few non-mountaineering activities you can do around La Paz. There are other wonderful cities to visit as well, and the famous Salar de Uyuni, but I skipped that. Mostly because it was too far away, but also, because I had already gone to Salinas Grandes in Argentina this year, I didn’t feel like I’d be missing that much. But for most people, it’s a must-do in Bolivia.
Valle de Luna and Palca Canyon
If walking around La Paz at 11,700 feet elevation already has you winded and you don’t want to go too much higher in the big mountains but still want to hike, there are plenty of half-day hikes accessible from downtown by taxi and microbus. Valle de Luna is in the city and Palca Canyon is a bit outside the city. How far you can go in Palca will depend on the season. In the rainy season, the river can get very full and you might not be able to walk all the way through the valley to the town of Palca. Even if the river is lower, you’ll want rain boots during monsoon season. However, when I went in early October, the riverbed was totally dry. Finally, there’s Valle de Animas on the way to Palca. It looked beautiful, but I didn’t have time to hike there.
Tiwanaku (aka Tiahuanaco or Tiahuanacu)
Tiwanaku and Puma Punku are about an hour away from El Alto on a microbus. The Tiwanaku civilization preceded the Inca Empire and while much is unknown about these people, their architecture and symbolism is intriguing. The H-blocks of Puma Punku in particular are a source of much speculation and fun for conspiracy theorists and believers in early alien colonization of earth. While these sites are not as impressive in size and grandeur as many of the Inca sites, they are well worth a visit. Be sure to hire a guide to explain the symbolism and design – you’ll get a lot more out of your visit that way.
Most day trips to Lake Titicaca from La Paz go to Copacabana (no, not that Copacabana) and Isla del Sol. The photos of Copacabana look gorgeous and I’m sure a visit is worthwhile, but I didn’t have time for a full day trip. Instead, I opted for a quick jaunt to Huatajata to ride on a totora boat and eat some fresh trout from the lake. Totora is the style of boat used in the original Kon-Tiki expedition, and the man who runs the museum is the son of the man who built the boat for Heyerdahl’s later Ra expeditions. Huatajata itself is a cute little stop on the way to Copacabana, and will save you about three hours of driving, if you’re short on time like I was but have to see Lake Titicaca. You can easily get there from El Alto on microbus and don’t need to take a tour.
Death Road Biking
This was the one non-mountaineering activity that was on my can’t-miss list. North Yungas Road (The Death Road) from La Paz to Coroico was responsible for hundreds of deaths per year before it was replaced by the modern road. It is extremely narrow with 1,000 foot drop offs for much of the way. Now that there is a modern highway, it has become popular among mountain bikers, though motorized traffic is still allowed. There are also still occasional deaths of adventure seekers too, but as I was to find out, it’s really not dangerous if you don’t ride like an idiot.
I went with the top of the line outfitter, Gravity Bolivia and I’m glad I did. They were so pro and organized and safety-conscious. And they had everything we needed. They required us to wear gloves and a basic bike helmet the whole time, but everything else was optional. It was chilly, so we all started the day with with the pants and jackets they provide, plus the souvenir buff. Not trusting myself on a bike, I also opted to wear knee pads and a full face helmet, not just the basic one.
The ride started off at 15,239 feet with 8 miles or so on pavement to get a feel for the bike. We had to go around slow moving trucks on turns, but there wasn’t a ton of traffic and passing was easy. The guides had our group stop several times in this first segment for photos and just to make sure everyone was comfortable on their bikes. When we reached the toll stop for the new road, there was a 6 mile uphill segment, which no one wanted to ride, so they piled us back in the bus and gave us snacks while we drove to the official start of the death road.
Then the real part began. The guides gave a clear safety briefing, including explaining that the downhill party has to ride on the outside. This is opposite normal western hemisphere traffic patterns, but the logic is that the downhill driver can see exactly where his tires are, while the uphill driver is on the inside and can’t see as well. There wasn’t much traffic, but any time we did pass an oncoming car, we had to get to the left, not the right.
We stopped often on the way down for photo ops and snack breaks and to shed layers of clothing as the climate became more and more tropical. The whole experience was very tourist-friendly, but honestly, I didn’t mind. Riding downhill isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s actually really taxing on your body, especially if you never bike, and we had to pay so much attention to road conditions that the breaks were nice. Longer stretches on the bike would have been stressful. We stopped every five to eight miles, and the team used our big snack break to safety check everyone’s bike, which was great. For someone like me, the pace was perfect.
If you think about it too much as you ride, yes the drop-offs are scary. But you are totally in control of how fast you go, and the bus is always bringing up the rear. The guides briefed us on every segment – down to very specific details about sharp curves, waterfalls, and even one stretch where there are always stray dogs lounging on the road. There was really only section that freaked me out because it had all three factors – a super tight turn, the road was super narrow and extremely rocky and poor, and there was a massive dropoff. I had to pause for a second before I traversed it, but I did it on the bike and didn’t walk it.
The Death Road officially ends somewhere around 5,300 feet but we still had another 1,500 foot or so descent to the Senda Verde animal reserve at 3,812 feet. This is a really nice reserve that you can actually stay at or volunteer at. They have a number of animals that can’t be released into the wild and are doing good work. What’s also nice is that the whole Death Road is somewhat of an animal sanctuary now that traffic has been diverted off it.
The staff served us a delicious hot lunch and the option to take a hot shower, which I did. It also just felt great to be at this low elevation after several weeks in La Paz at nearly 12,000 feet and higher for hiking. I even had my first drink of alcohol in over two weeks – one single beer! And finally, we piled back in the bus for the long ride (along the modern road) to La Paz. Like everywhere in Bolivia, the distances are short but travel time is long. We were about 65 miles away, but it took nearly three hours to get back to downtown, making this one very long – but very fun – day.
Finally, in La Paz itself (or more accurately, in El Alto), you have to go for a night of cholita wrestling. Yes, it’s hokey. Yes, it’s extremely touristy. Yes, it’s freezing in the building. But so what? It’s unique to Bolivia and a wonderfully ridiculous way to spend a free night. This is Mexican style wrestling, think WWE from the 80s in America but even more fake and obviously staged, and with women in full cholita attire. They really get the crowd going too. Shout, cheer, boo, hiss, laugh. Something this absurd will be what you choose to make of it. You can arrange transportation from downtown La Paz (including your entry ticket, a snack, and a small souvenir) for about 100 Bolivianos (or ~$15).
2 thoughts on “La Paz Day Trips”
Another blog buddy of mine (Monkey’s Tale) recently wrote about their experience cycling Death Road and they said much the same thing you did – that it’s not that bad/scary/dangerous if you take you time and use your head. Well done!