To wrap up my blogs about my time in La Paz, I’d like to share some general observations and impressions about the place. La Paz really stands out to me when compared to the Latin American cities I visited last year. Buenos Aires had a distinctly European feel. Quito had a generic, big sprawling Latin American city feel. Panama City was a more modern and updated version of cities like Managua. But Nuestra Señora de La Paz…it’s its own thing. It’s unique. Some of my observations below likely apply to all Bolivia, but since I didn’t spend time in any other cities, they might not. If you visit Cochabamba or Santa Cruz or Sucre, you’ll have to let me know.
Let’s start with the obvious – the altitude. The official altitude of the city is 11,975 feet. It boggles my mind that people live this high. Bolivia had to fight for its right to host soccer games like all the other Latin American countries do because no one wanted to play in a stadium at this altitude. It’s impossible to run. And La Paz is in a bowl, so when you walk around, you’re always going up or down. There are no flat streets.
The Zona Sur – where all the rich foreigners live – is about 1,000 feet lower. El Alto, a contiguous city of roughly the same size where the airport is located, sits at 13,123 feet. These are not little towns, like Leadville, Colorado at 10,150 feet with a population of 2,600 people. No, both La Paz and El Alto have populations of nearly one million people.
Fortunately, snow is rare. I couldn’t fathom how they would be able to fund snow removal. But it’s just another strange thing about Bolivia to be at 14,000 or 15,000 feet in early spring and not see any trace of snow. Mudslides, though, are a real problem and monsoon season can be dangerous. You might have seen this 2019 mudslide in La Paz on the news. I drove around that corner the mud went oozing across like lava. Having seen the structure of the city and how crumbly the rocks and embankments look, I’m surprised catastrophes like this don’t happen more often.
Besides Zona Sur, La Paz has lots of distinct neighborhoods. I stayed in Sopocachi. I chose this neighborhood because it’s about one mile away from the main rowdy tourist drag, but still is very lively and a bit upscale and safe. Unbeknownst to me until I arrived, Sopocachi has a heavy Argentine influence. The streets around me were filled with French bakeries, parrillas, and places selling milanesas. I even saw a few painted walls reminding everyone that Las Malvinas son Argentinas. Despite these bits of familiarity bringing me back to the beginning of 2022, I stand by my statement that La Paz is unique. I never felt like I was in “Little Buenos Aires”. Mostly because no one (besides tourists) in La Paz is white, while most people in Buenos Aires are. But also because of general chaos that reigns over all La Paz.
Which brings me to cars. I drove in Ecuador and Argentina and Panama, and while it was tricky at times and slightly stressful until I got out of the cities, it was mostly fine. However, I would never ever drive in Bolivia. Never. Absolute madness, almost on the level of China. No signage anywhere, cars going every which direction, and unbelievable congestion in La Paz.
But also, it’s almost impossible for a tourist to rent a car. Gasoline is subsidized by the government and you have to have special tags on your car to buy it. The government tracks how much you buy, so that you won’t go sell the subsidized gasoline over the border in Chile, for example. Because of this, it can be rationed and some places simply won’t sell gasoline to foreigners. And if you can buy it, it will cost you a ton.
The same applies for Bolivians who choose not to register their cars. Apparently you won’t get a fine or ticket for driving an unregistered car, but you can’t buy gasoline through normal channels and have to get it on the black market for twice the price. When you drive around small towns, you’ll see signs outside little stores that are obviously not gas stations advertising gas for sale. Seems legit and safe.
Dogs also contribute to the chaos factor. Stray dogs are ubiquitous in Latin America, but in Bolivia, as you might expect by now, they exist on a whole different level. Everything is on a different level in Bolivia. While dogs are absolutely everywhere, not as many of them are stray as you might think. Lots of them in La Paz and El Alto have collars or are wearing little, often tattered, shirts, and you see lots of little dog houses outside buildings. The dogs are unkempt and probably in need of medical care, but very few look underfed.
Also interestingly, there is no dog poop. You’d think with all the dogs running amok there would be dog shit everywhere, but I saw some on a sidewalk a total of three times. Far less than anywhere else in the world. La Paz is actually quite clean in general. Yes, there is graffiti everywhere, but people take pride in their businesses and shops. Shopkeepers are out first thing in the morning sweeping in front of their area and I saw lots of city maintenance workers cleaning up medians and public spaces. As soon you get out of the city, it’s a free-for-all. Garbage lines the roadside for miles and miles (it’s even piled up beneath signs imploring people to put garbage in its place and keep Bolivia clean) and it’s really awful, but that’s a different story.
Over to the main tourist neighborhoods – El Rosario and Belén. La Paz has some excellent museums in this area. Most of the signage is mostly in Spanish only though, except for the Coca Museum. The proprietor of this museum will give you an exhaustive English language notebook, about 50 pages long, meticulously labeled to correspond to each photo in each exhibit, with more information than you could ever want about coca. The tone of the information is very anti-American, which I get. Coca is part of the Andean culture, and it was fine for Americans for a while too in medicine and drinks and other uses. Then the puritans decided no more and also decided that if other countries wanted to play on the world’s economic stage, they had to ban coca too. Queue the drug war and violence and destruction of cultures. The way we bully the world is absolute bullshit. I’ve had plenty of coca tea and candies in the Andes, and there’s nothing to it. It’s like CBD oil.
Even if you don’t understand Spanish, go visit the other museums too. There’s enough that’s purely visual, and it’s only $2.60 (20 Bolivianos) for a ticket to four of the connected museums. I loved the Ekeko exhibit and cholita dress exhibit in the Museo Costumbrista Juan de Vargas. I found the small Museo Litoral Boliviano interesting because I had no idea Bolivia used to have a coastline until it lost it in a war against Chile. And this is why Bolivians don’t care much for Chileans. Making fun of Chileans seems to be a national pastime, mostly their accent, but also the people in general. There is no love lost there. I also asked one of my guides about the Bolivian military and who they perceive as their number one threat. I think you know the answer.
The single strangest thing about all these downtown neighborhoods, though, was that every other shop was an optica (eyeglasses store). I am not exaggerating when I say you can find five or six of them in a row on one block, then go to the next block and find six or seven more, and the next block and the next. I don’t get it. Why is this such a hot business? To make it even more confusing, I hardly saw anyone in Bolivia wearing glasses.
One of the best things is that hardly anyone in Bolivia smokes. This was nice, especially after Argentina where everyone smokes. In my month in La Paz, I saw one woman smoking on the street and one dude (at Illimani high camp!!) smoking. That’s it. Two people. I did see the cigarette promo girls in my grocery store once, but no one was buying. My mountain guides said it’s a social thing. People might smoke hanging out with their friends on a Friday night drinking beer, but Bolivians don’t really smoke habitually.
To leave La Paz and head up to El Alto, you can take Mi Teleférico. Because La Paz is in a valley, a subway wouldn’t do anyone any good, so the city has a network of cable cars to get around. If you only have a day or two in La Paz, riding all the different lines is a great way to see the city. It’s a great public transportation option, but I was told it did lower a lot of property values for people living on the high floors of many buildings who lost their privacy. Mi Teleférico is relatively new and funded by the Chinese. It’s also heavily guarded, apparently against disruption by the endless protests around the city which often jam up streets (more on that in a moment). The signage is in Aymara first, with Spanish in much smaller letters beneath.
And this brings me to language. Language is an interesting thing in Bolivia. I found most Bolivians pretty easy to understand, but sometimes I’d be listening to a conversation among mountain guides and I wouldn’t understand several phrases or sentences in a row. This is because they would switch into Aymara, which is the predominant indigenous group around La Paz. They would flip back and forth between languages like nothing. They did tell me, though, that Aymara is not taught in schools. You learn it from your family or not at all, and even among different family members, some will speak it and some won’t.
But since I don’t know Aymara, let’s focus on Spanish.
- They use that word palta for avocado, instead of aguacate. So then I started quizzing my guides on other weird Argentinian Spanish words I’d picked up earlier in the year. Nope, they don’t use any of the rest of them. Only palta. The rest of their Spanish is rather standard.
- I did have a guide laugh when I said mande? for what? (like what you say when you didn’t hear or understand someone). He said it was such a Mexican word to use, though I’d heard it used all over Ecuador last year. In La Paz, everyone says Cómo?
- Everyone uses the English restaurant and not the Spanish restaurante. No idea why. It wasn’t just a typo on one sign; it was everywhere.
- I was talking to some guides about animals like llamas and alpacas and vicuñas, and I couldn’t remember the word for deer, and didn’t know the word for elk. Later, I looked it up and alce is the word for both elk and moose. But…these are entirely different animals. Just as how they use tortuga for both turtle and tortoise. This really bothers me.
- And the big one, aquí versus acá. When I learned Spanish in school, we always used the former. In the real Spanish-speaking world, I always hear acá and never aquí. I have never understood the difference between them and articles like this one don’t help at all: “Numerous blogs and “Internet experts” claim that aquí means “in this place” and acá means “to this place”, and is used with verbs of movement. Forget it now, please. Some others will try to convince you to use aquí instead of acá, as it is more correct, formal, and acceptable. Forget it too, please. There are countries in Latin America, where aquí and acá are totally interchangeable, countries where acá rules and people almost never pronounce aquí, and then, there is Spain, where the tendency is totally the opposite.” Bolivia – because Bolivia stands apart – is the first Spanish-speaking country in all my travels where I most often heard aquí. This made me feel great, just like when I heard people in Ecuador actually using the word chevere. I felt like I hadn’t been doing something so basic completely wrong in all my Spanish-speaking experience.
But back to our Mi Teleférico ride to El Alto. One of the first things you might notice when you get there is all the bizarre buildings. There are almost no trees at this altitude (except for some imported eucalyptus), so none of the buildings are wood. Everything is brick. So lots of brick buildings, bare mud and stone cliffs, and no trees – La Paz and El Alto are really brown. A brownish, reddish color everywhere you look. So this guy – Freddy Mamani – has started adding garish fronts to buildings. It’s New Andean architecture and it is something else.
You will also notice the ubiquitous public bathrooms. Public bathrooms are all over lots of cities in Bolivia, which is great, and they only cost 1-2 Bolivianos (around 15 cents) to use, but what’s interesting when you get out of the center of La Paz is that most also offer hot showers. There are lots and lots of these places advertising hot showers (though still not nearly as many baños as opticas). Which leads me to believe that many houses either don’t have hot water or don’t have indoor plumbing at all. I hesitated to ask any of my guides about this because they all lived in El Alto and I know they don’t have much money. It felt too prying of a question to ask how they shower.
They live in El Alto because the price difference between there are La Paz is staggering. La Paz is already cheap – I would go out for lunch most days and for about $2.30, lunch would include juice, soup, a full plate of rice, meat, and veg, plus dessert. And this was a heaping plateful of food and a huge bowl of soup, not a little cup. In El Alto, the same meal is $1.30, or 10 Bolivianos. I don’t understand how they can serve food so cheaply. And everything else is commensurately cheaper as well.
But speaking of food, Bolivia has amazing food! It’s not a cuisine that’s talked about much, but Bolivians are very proud of their food. In fact, Bolivia has the rare and wonderful honor of being one of only nine countries in the world where McDonalds is banned (sort of). McDonald’s tried but the sales weren’t there. Bolivians rejected it in favor of their own food. I love this. A few dishes you should try while you are there include:
- Falso conejo, which means fake rabbit. It’s breaded, thinly sliced beef and actually, it’s really nothing special. You should just try it because of the name. Like trying old clothes (ropa vieja) in Cuba.
- Llama. If, like me, you’ve gone your whole life unable to tell the difference between llama and alpaca, I learned that it’s simple. Llama is for eating and alpaca is for wool.
- The salsas. Most places I got chicken, the chicken the was rather dry, but this doesn’t matter because it always comes with a variety of sauces. Citrus ones, herby ones, hot ones. Bolivians love their salsa and they are so delicious.
- And finally, salteñas, the Argentinian-inspired version of empanadas. The name comes from the city of Salta in northwest Argentina where some Bolivian supposedly travelled long ago, found this delicious food, and started making it in La Paz when he returned. I was in Salta in February and didn’t have these anywhere, but my god, these are the world’s best empanadas. They have twice the amount of filling that you’ll get in an empanada anywhere else in the world, and they are filled with gravy, which they call juice, like a soup dumpling. You are supposed to eat the whole thing without filling a drop of juice. If you succeed, it means you are good kisser.
But back to the differences between La Paz and El Alto…the lack of face mask usage. Covid facemasks were still in full force in La Paz in October 2022. Inside, outside, everywhere. They were mandatory in common areas in my building and everyone complied. And no one got on the teleférico without a mask worn properly. Armed guards everywhere saw to that. Pretty much the only people not wearing face masks in La Paz were foreign tourists, which pissed me off. If you see all the locals doing it, be respectful and put one on. But in El Alto, mask usage dropped to about 50 percent really fast, and beyond that, less than 10 percent. So it was just a big city thing. Who knows if these big South American cities will ever drop face masks completely or if they’ll keep them, Asian city style.
And finally, whether you are in La Paz or El Alto, one thing you can expect is the endless sound of gunfire. Or probably just firecrackers but also maybe canon fire. La Paz is a city of endless protests, and the guidebooks say that if you find yourself near one, get away. But they seemed unavoidable. I don’t want to say that I have an understanding now of what it’s like to live in a war zone because I was never in actual danger, but most days, the gunfire sound went on for hours. This was the latest protest happening when I left, but there were so many. And the entire city of Santa Cruz was shut down the weekend before I left, but fortunately, that didn’t happen in La Paz because who knows how I would have gotten to the airport. Bolivia is a very political country with passionate people and lots of tension among groups. It really is like nowhere else.