Exploring La Paz, Bolivia
The second country in my major South American trip of 2018 was Bolivia. I’ll admit it, I was nervous about this one. Unlike a lot of the other South American countries, Bolivia requires a visa for Americans. This is not particularly problematic in itself. However, what made it possibly problematic for me was the fact that I did not have time to get a visa from a Bolivian consulate in the US, which is the recommended option. Instead, I opted to try to get a visa on arrival. I had read about getting a visa on arrival for Bolivia at the El Alto Airport in La Paz, and I encountered a huge amount of contradictory information that was mostly outdated. Doing what I could, I prepared all the possible documents before I let the US and got on the flight from Cusco, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia hoping that everything would run smoothly. You can read about my experience getting a visa on arrival for Bolivia.
Thankfully, everything went smoothly with the visa, and once I had a Bolivian visa that was valid for 10 years, I met my driver at the airport, and he took me to the hotel. As we were heading to the hotel, the first thing that struck me about La Paz was how hilly it was along with the extreme urban density. I could not imagine how someone could find their way around considering all the twisting and turning roads that go up and downhill and every possible way, but the driver navigated very easily like it was second nature to him.
After about 30 minutes or so, we arrived at the Qantu Hotel, which is located in the center of La Paz. Even though the hotel did not look like much from the outside, it was actually very tastefully decorated and very comfortable. I was given a room on a high floor that gave me a nice view of the city. Once I settled in, I briefly took a walk around the surrounding area to get my bearings. However, since it was the mid-afternoon, I decided to spend the rest of the day in my room taking it easy, studying a map, and figuring out what I wanted to see during my only free day in La Paz the next day.
The next day, I awoke early and had an early breakfast. Once breakfast was finished, I headed down to the tour office that is located in the hotel to book a tour that would take me out of La Paz for a bit. Even though I had already booked one tour for Bolivia prior to leaving the US, I wanted to see some more of the country. I ended up booking a tour for literally the next day. Once that was squared away, I headed out of the hotel with my camera and city map in my pocket ready to explore the treasures that La Paz holds.
The first place that I came upon was the Church of San Francisco, which is located in a busy plaza not far from the hotel. Even though it was still relatively early in the morning, the plaza was already bustling with people. I’m not religious, but whenever I see a historic church, I can’t help myself; I have to go in and check it out, especially if it has some beautiful artwork inside.
The church, which is a colonial church with decorations dating mainly from the 16th and 17th century, is free to enter. The church is definitely worth checking out a for a bit, especially if you enjoy history and art since there are a lot side altars along with the high altar that hold beautiful paintings and sculptures.
While the church itself is free to enter, there is a museum about the Church of San Francisco right next door. There is a very modest fee to enter, and you are assigned a guide based on your language. Since my Spanish is not particularly good, I opted for the English version and was guided throughout the museum by a university student who was studying English to become a teacher. She was informative, gave some interesting information about the church, and took me up to the roof of the church which gave some beautiful views of La Paz. This was by far the best part of the short tour. Once the tour was finished, I continued on my way.
After a little bit of walking uphill (admittedly, it was a struggle due to the altitude), I arrived at the central square with La Paz Cathedral (Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, La Paz), the Legislative Palace, and the Government Palace of Bolivia. It is not possible to go into the Legislative or Government Palaces, but it was possible to go into the Cathedral, which I would recommend doing. Right next to the Cathedral is the tomb of Andrés de Santa Cruz, who was President of Bolivia in the early to mid 19th century.
The tomb of Andrés de Santa Cruz is watched over by an honor guard, and it was while I was hanging out in that area that I saw a group of flamboyantly-dressed and fun-loving Bolivian youths take pictures with them. One of the girls, who was dressed in a purple outfit, had absolutely no problem hanging onto one of the guards while he kept a stoic and straight face (see the photo gallery below). To be honest, I’m actually surprised the guards did not do anything or yell at her.
Of all of the sites I saw in La Paz, the site I really wanted to see was the so-called “Witches Market.” Because of the somewhat confusing nature of the streets, I actually got somewhat lost trying to find it despite the fact that it is very close to the hotel. However, I eventually found it, and I am glad I did. It is probably one of the more unusual things that I have seen in my travels.
The Witches Market of La Paz is a street that is filled all kinds of different items that are thought by locals to bring good luck. The types of items include llama fetuses, dried frogs, herbs, a variety of stone carvings, and different types of folk medicines.
I only noticed the llama fetuses hanging from the door of one shop because some other tourists were busy photographing and pointing at them. I would have easily passed right by without noticing them otherwise. While I have seen many strange things during my travels throughout the world, this is the first time that I had ever seen dried out llama fetuses.
Admittedly, it was definitely somewhat macabre to see dead baby llamas strung up and hung outside the doorway of a shop. However, I have a fascination with these types of things, and why they are used since it gives a great insight into the local culture and their beliefs. Now, I know some people might not like seeing these types of things, but I think that is one of the key reasons on why people should travel and see things like this. The world is very big, and there are all kinds of beliefs. The more people are exposed to these ideas and beliefs, the more likely it is for people to get along, understand, and respect each other even if they do not agree.
It is possible to spend days and maybe even weeks in La Paz without seeing everything, but since I was on a tight schedule, I did not have the opportunity to see a lot of the museums that I had been hoping to see. By the time I got to the ticket office for them, the main office was closed, and I was told to come back tomorrow. However, I had tours booked the next two days, so it was not possible. In addition, while I had the desire to continue to explore as much as I could of the city, I was reaching the point of exhaustion. I had literally been on my feet and on tours for the last several days, and I knew that if I did not want to burn myself out, I needed to take it easy. Ultimately, I decided to call it early and went back to my hotel where I crashed.
However, I am extremely glad that I got to check out some of La Paz. It is truly a fascinating city that deserves to be explored in more detail. I have no doubt in my mind that I will return there one day in the future.
Have you been to La Paz, Bolivia? What did you think of it?
Please enjoy the photo gallery! All photos were taken by me using a DSLR and iPhone.