by Virginia Crivelli
Travel Specialist, Trips SouthAmerica.
Multicultural city that will definitely blow up your mind as soon as you put a step on it.
Since the very beginning I started going down from El Alto airport to the city centre the chaotic transit and noise is what first caught my attention. The streets are full of cars, mini vans that work as public transport and old looking buses (from probably the 1980’s) that stop anywhere they want as soon someone raise his hand up and, of course, they’re constantly honking their horns (if you have ever been to Thailand you know exactly what I mean). When the transfer stops at a red light you can see a group of people dancing and performing in the middle of the street to teach locals about responsible driving practices dressed up with zebra costumes, I hope they are succeeding with that! Electrical wiring is, somehow, part of the local landscape that, in a weird way, gives this colourful city even more character.
This place is full of tourists all year round and this is why you have a huge range of possibilities and activities to choose from so I’ve chosen what, in my opinion, are the best of all and a must do if you have a few days to explore around.
Sports, adventure and adrenaline!
The “Death Road” An amazing not so deadly activity
While in La Paz you’ll hear in every single restaurant, pub and bar people proudly talking about their amazing experience doing the famous “Death Road”. Achieving this activity is one of the top bucket list in every traveller’s “Adventure things to do in South America”. I know the name of this activity can be a little bit scary but don’t worry about it, biking downhill this road you’ll definitely feel more alive than ever! Nowadays big trucks and buses are not allowed here and they have constructed a new pave road for them so it isn’t that dangerous anymore.
Las Yungas in The Andes Mountain Range (this place is in even higher altitude than La Paz, so it wouldn’t be strange if you feel a little bit dizzy in the beginning)
Who can do it? What is all this experience about?
Anyone can do it! You don’t need to be the fittest person in the world (I’m not), if you know how to ride a bike that’s good enough. Group Pic after briefing and before starting our amazing riding down the “Death Road” (It was really cold!)
What is all this experience about?
This experience begins very early in the morning, around 7 am, your transfer will pick you up from your hotel and take you in a 1 and a half/2 hour road trip to Las Yungas high up in the Andes (4700 mts high), here you’ll stop and your guides will supply you with your biking gear: a coverall, gloves, helmet and, of course, your bike. Is at this place where they’ll explain you the rules about what to do and what not to do while experiencing this ride (which side of the road you must cycle, how to overpass a friend, etc). This is also your last opportunity to use public restrooms for a while that, as in the whole country, aren’t great but it’s all part of the experience. After a group pic you’ll start riding downhill going from the arid mountains to the jungle in Coroico. You’ll feel overwhelmed by these stunning landscapes full of little streams and thin waterfalls!
Once you get to Coroico after, a few hours, a nice cold “Paceña” beer will be waiting for you to celebrate the occasion! And restrooms aswell! From here you’ll go to a Natural Reserve “La Senda Verde Animal Refuge” where a lot of volunteers are working to protect local species of flora and fauna (monkeys, parrots and much more) and you’ll have a well-deserved buffet lunch. At this place you’ll have the opportunity to do some optional activities such as ziplining, these ones for an extra cost.
Fooling around with my friends…
– Round trip transportation from La Paz to Las Yungas Valley and then from Coroico to La Paz.
– Mountain biking gear (excellent professional bikes, riding pants and jacket, gloves, helmet, scarf)
– 2 experienced guides, one in the front and one in the back so you’ll be never leave behind.
– Water all along the way.
– A beer reward once you finish biking J
– Buffet lunch.
What company should I use for it?
Even this activity is not a deadly one as it used to be long time ago, to make sure you’ll have the most memorable experience you should do it with the best ones. Gear is very important to have an unforgettable memory and the best one with the most professional guides is supplied by “Gravity Bolivia”, is true this is one of the most expensive companies but, you will get what you’re paying for: an excellent service that won’t disappoint you.
Approx. cost: U$D 125.
Pretending to look like an experienced biker (as you can see it looks more like a jungle now, it was warm and humid, I took off my jacket after this pic)
My Travel Tip: Death Road Excursion
It will be a long day. The climate varies from cold to humid and warm, so you have to take into account the clothing. There are some small vehicles allowed on the road. There are some rocks on the dusty part of the road and also some holes on the ground. And most importan everyone drives/rides on the left! So be careful and mind your riding!
Just to give you an idea of how steep can be falling down…
The “Urban Rush Free Falling”
Being a super hero and feeling like flying is possible
This is indeed one of the first things that you’ll see as soon as you’re on your way to your hotel from the airport. I was incredibly surprised when I saw this green high building wall and, suddenly, something was moving around on it! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized that what I was seeing was, in fact, a guy dressed up with a Spiderman costume! Yes, you can dress up as Spiderman or any other character of your preference and run, jump and free fall along this giant wall with the most professional and trained staff in South America. If you’re a big fun of adrenaline charged activities this is a Must Do!.
Afraid of heights? Maybe this is your opportunity to face your fears and show yourself and the world what you’re capable to do.
Imagine seeing this but from a long distance!
What’s this activity about?
Basically you’ll go to “Hotel Presidente” builing 17th floor where you will register and sign up to be able to run, jump and free fall from 50 mts high dressing up with a ridiculous costume J. All the people walking around the city literally look like little ants from here! Then you’ll have a briefing with your guides that will explain you how to do this and will let you practice in a lower wall inside the building. There are different styles of doing this activity, take a look at Urban Rush La Paz. Don’t worry, your guides can stop you anytime you want! You’ll have 2 ropes and 3 brakes to assure you 100% safety and all the materials they used come from the USA and France and the equipment is changed every 3 months.
Are they little ants?
Who can do it?
Pretty much anyone can do it. Of course, if you have a heart disease, you’re pregnant or you easily faint I wouldn’t recommend you this activity.
How long it takes?
It will take you an hour or less to get there, practice and finally do it.
– All proper rappelling equipment: safety harnesses, ropes, helmet, gloves.
– 2 guides to explain and help you doing your free fall.
– 1 Urban Rush T-shirt as a gift.
– Different costumes to choose from
What should I wear?
There’s no need to wear anything special but I would recommend you comfortable clothing: trousers, t-shirt/jumper and trainers. Once you get there you’ll be able to choose a costume if you want… come on! Don’t be boring!
Dressing for the occasion…
Cultural and Magical Encounters
1 – The Witches Market
One of the first nights in La Paz (of my 3 and a half months experience there) I was going out for dinner and, when I was walking to the restaurant, just 50 mts from my hostel, I saw a group of local people making a bomb fire in front of a building while throwing and burning different things I couldn’t properly see (which gave the smoke a funny and strange smell) meanwhile they were “praying” (or that’s what I thought they were doing). I must admit that my first reaction was trying to avoid them. Somehow, that random situation, kind of gave me goose bumps but, at the same time, I couldn’t stop myself from looking at them. That strange image was absolutely catchy, hypnotic and magical.
When I finally arrived to the restaurant I told my local friends about what just had happened and what I saw so they explained me I was staying at a hostel in the “Witches Market”.
That situation I was lucky to witness is a local ritual that many Bolivians recreate (mainly Aymaras) when moving to a new house or when they open a new business. What they burn in the fire (or sometimes bury in the foundations) is a llama fetus from miscarriages and when they “pray” they are asking the spirits for protection, happiness, health and good luck.
I highly recommend you to go and take a look around this incredible place but, be respectful, this is a very sacred business and Yatiris (the witches) are important ladies in society. They’re considered the last witch doctors in South America so, if you’re feeling altitude sickness or you just simply want that special person that occupies your thoughts most of the time of the day suddenly fall in love with you, this is the place to visit! Here you’ll find any kind of potions, spells, and medicines. A piece of advice: don’t touch and pick up things randomly or take pictures without the yatiris permission or they could put a spell on you!
Llama Fetuses at the Witches Market
2 – Cable Car: “Mi Teleférico”. A cheaper, time saving and ecological option
One of the fastest, cheapest and easiest ways of getting around La Paz is using their cable car system: Mi teleférico. This one is the highest in the world (4000 mts) and the most extensive in South America with 10 lines and is still growing expecting to have 16 lines by 2030.
This way of transportation was created to cover a basic need that people from the cities of El Alto and La Paz had since many of them work in one or another location and to reduce pollution because it works with electricity, part of which is provided by solar power. To get from El Alto to La Paz in a local bus could take up to 1 hour and cost 5 B$ (Pesos Bolivianos). With the “Teleférico” that time now was cut commute to only 10 minutes and with a cost of 3 B$.
As you can imagine, there are several routes to take, but I’ll focus in the main 3 lines that matter for touristic purposes:
- Yellow Line
Sopocachi Station: Parque Mirador Laikakota, Sopacachi neighbourhood
- Red Line
16 de Julio Station: El Alto, Open Air Market, Polifunctional de la Ceja (stadium where the famous Cholita Wrestling matches take place) & El Alto International Airport. From El Alto you have the best views of La Paz city and the eternal snowed Illimani Mountain Peak.
Cementerio Station: General Cemetery
Central Station: Plaza Murillo, Witches Market, Urban Rush, Mercado Lanza, Sagarnaga St, Jaen St. & Iglesia de San Francisco. From here you can get to Murillo St. and walk to Tarija St. where you’ll find a lot of good restaurants and pubs, one of my favourites is “The English Pub”, here I’ve tried the best Fish & Chips in the world! (yes, I’ve been to England!) and they also serve local dishes like “Piqué Macho” and a variety of vegetarian and vegan food, of course, they serve the best drinks in the whole city. Chris, the owner, is from La Paz and speaks great English and he uses to take personal care of the place.
From Tarija St. walk to Linares St. and take a look at all the colourful shops full of Alpaca sweaters, gloves, hats, blankets and more! When walking here on direction to the “Witches Market”, don’t forget to stop at “The Coca Museum”.
- Green Line
Irpavi Station: Gustu, Zona Sur (richest neighbourhoods)
What times does it work?
Cable cars leave the stations every 12 seconds and run 17 hours per day (5am-10pm).
What’s the cost and where can I buy the tickets?
The initial fare is 3 bolivianos ($0.43), with a 50% discount for students, seniors, and the disabled. Tickets can be bought at the station.
The picturesque Linares Street and the Yummy Pique Macho!, a great meal after a long day walking!
My Travel Tip: Cable Car Tip
If you want a guided walking tour and you’re in a budget find the Red Cap Tours, this one used to be tip based but due to a change of policies in the tourism industry, they have to charge a minimum fee to be a “fair” competitor. They also offer gastronomic tours and cooking classes for an extra cost.
3 – Cholita Wrestling. A Bizarre Experience Symbol of Women Empowerment
If you’re up to experience something out of ordinary, have a lot of fun and, at the same time, support Bolivian women in their fight against oppression “Cholita Wrestling” is a must!
This crazy and unusual activity is inspired in American WWF and Mexican “Lucha Libre”. Please, don’t expect it to be a demonstration of skills but a hilarious and funny show.
What makes of this activity to be one of a kind?
The main attraction are the “Cholitas” all dressed up in spectacular fashion with their typical clothes and jewellery featuring long braided hair, bowler hats and puffy, multi-layered skirts.
People sitting in the VIP section are sprayed with water while the rest of the audience throws plastic bottles, popcorn, potatoes and who knows what else at the wrestlers. This behaviour is expected and encourage by the cholitas being all part of the fun.
Why this wrestling is a symbol of women empowerment?
The word “Cholita” used to be a derogatory term for indigenous low-economic class Aymara girls that had been abused, discriminated and humiliated throughout history.
These brave women starting wrestling to prove their worth in this “man’s world” not only fighting against other women, also fighting against men. Running their own business give these women the opportunity to earn money, provide their families, be independent from men and staying away from domestic violence. The ring is a place where they can hold their heads high and be on equal footing with men.
Where and when matches take place?
This show are on Thursdays at 4:30 pm and Sundays at 5:30 pm at the “Multifuncional Ceja del Alto” and takes around 3 to 4 hs in total (round trip + show).
How can I get there?
You can take a bus or red line of the cable car to “La Ceja” but I wouldn’t recommend any tourist to go there on their own, El Alto can be a very dangerous place at night.
My recommendation is to book the extended tour with Red Cap, which not only includes entrance into the Cholita Wrestling match, but also takes you to the giant black market in El Alto where you have the chance to take the teleferico, buy some souvenirs, and take some stunning photos of La Paz from the viewpoints.
My General Tips for Bolivia
- Be patient.
Have in mind that you’re travelling to a 3rd world developing country so things don’t work as they do in your country of provenance. Sometimes people take their time to do things and they will do it in a slower and peaceful peace so waiting for your food in a restaurant longer than expected is definitely going to happen and a company picking you up for an excursion 10-30 minutes later than you have agreed is also something that could happen (in this case make sure you call them to remind them about you!)
- Be respectful with people and their costumes.
I’m sure you are coming to take a lot of pictures of the places and people wearing different colourful clothes but, please, before doing this, ask if it’s OK to them. Many of the aboriginals do believe that you’re “stealing” their souls when taking pictures of them and they can have different and, sometimes, aggressive reactions.
- About safety.
Another piece of advice is to Not hang your amazing professional cameras from your neck while walking around, mainly in big, crowded cities where violent robberies can occur. South America is not as dangerous as media shows but, like everywhere else in the world, you need to be careful and avoid going to slums, or places where locals tell you not to go. Take with you just what you need for excursions and to go out for dinner or to a pub, pickpocketing is pretty common. At night always take taxis and even better if you’re at least in pairs, it’s pretty common to hear about “gringos” that got robbed while walking going back to their hotel after a party when being a little bit tipsy or drunk.
- Drink mineral water.
Not in every country but, in Bolivia, I highly recommend you to drink bottled water. They also sell water in half litre plastic bags which I found very practical and also cheaper J
- Avoid street food.
I know that one of the activities that travellers like the most is trying typical and street food, my advice here is not to do it due to Bolivians’ hygiene standards are pretty bad if not inexistent (of course you have exceptions) this is completely related to the lack of safe water. Many of them re-use the same water to do washing over and over again. So, my fellow traveller, if you don’t want to have a funny tummy during your excursions, do not have street food.
- Eating Salad.
I’m writing about this because a lot of my groups when I was tour leading used to ask me this question. Can you eat the salad? And the answer is: depends!
If you’re eating in a local market (despite I don’t recommend it due to the lack of time you shouldn’t take the risk of getting sick and not being able to enjoy your excursions) do not eat the salad there!
If you’re in a tourist restaurant such as “The English Pub”, “Sol y Luna”, “The Steakhouse”, etc. You can definitely eat the salad here J These ones used to have prepared staff, equipment and strict hygienic rules, not to tell that most of them are owned by foreigners coming from Europe and different 1st world countries around the world.
- Have a light dinner and don’t drink alcohol if doing the “Dead Road” the next morning.
You won’t like to spend an entire day moaning while biking because of 1 night out! Not only that, if this is your first night in La Paz and in Bolivia, you still need to acclimatize to altitude and heavy dinner and alcohol aren’t the best combination at all.
- Drink coca leaves tea for altitude sickness.
Even if there’s no magical solution to counteract this feeling (witches wouldn’t agree with this), coca leaves tea properties help to relax and at the same time gives you the energy you need to start feeling better.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip and and it lived up to all our expectations. In case that you need more info or alternative activities in La Paz, do not hesitate in contact us!
We look forward to receiving you in South America!!
Travel Specialist, Trips SouthAmerica.