Arrivals: hola, hello, high
The first thing anyone notices upon their arrival in La Paz is the altitude, and it affects everyone in different ways. You might throw up, you might feel faint, or you might have a headache for a few hours; personally, I only got the headaches, although I couldn’t walk up the stairs for a week without feeling breathless (the altitude is a convenient way to cover up how out of shape you are). Don’t worry, though: you’ll soon come to appreciate the altitude of Bolivia’s capital (the world’s highest, dontcha know) as one of La Paz’s many quirks that make it stand out as a unique Latin American city.
La Paz proper
From the airport in El Alto you descend further into the valley in which La Paz is nestled. One thing that’s immediately striking is the architecture: on any one street, you might find a quaint Japanese-style house and, nestled right next to it, a giant office block. In each of the towering glass buildings dotted around the city can be found reflections of the mountains that surround La Paz, and, of course, the gem of the Cordillera Real: the blue-purple, snow-capped Mount Illimani. The best views are offered by the variety of miradores, or viewpoints, located around the city, and although you can’t really see Illimani on cloudy days, this shouldn’t be a problem considering Bolivia is famously sunny and blue-skied (in three months, for instance, I only had to suffer two overcast days). It’s also tempting to bask in the sun, which blazes even in winter, in one of La Paz’s many lush green parks or squares.
People and places
At first I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb; I soon realised that, being six feet tall, blue-eyed and pale-skinned, this was of course the case. Nevertheless, people in La Paz can be extremely warm and friendly, particularly if you’re not donning gringo gear (llama jumpers, stripy traveller’s pants, etc.). Although my job as a journalist helped me make friends very quickly with a variety of Bolivian people – I interviewed writers, artists, rappers and footballers, all of whom were more than willing to show me the city – there are plenty of other ways to meet people; for example, there’s always a taller (or ‘workshop’) on somewhere, be it for philosophy or photography or accounting, and it’s very cheap and easy to join, say, a tennis club. It’s also free to listen-in on classes at the UMSA university.
La Paz was recently voted sixth in the Lonely Planet’s poll of the world’s top ten party towns, and living here, I can certainly see why. Akin to the Spanish tradition, people go out late and stay out late; what’s more, drinks are cheap, and given the altitude, you’ll find you need a little bit less before you’re merrily singing along to a Latin American classic (or Lady Gaga) in a Bolivian club. (In fact, Bolivia is one of South America’s cheapest countries in terms of living costs).
A few favourite hangouts:
Namas té: by day, a vegetarian restaurant with a great lunch menu; by night, an electro/drum and bass club opens beneath the restaurant, once monthly, complete with projections, an inside garden, and a swing.
Blueberries café: a Japanese-style café with cheap coffee, delicious chocolate tartlets, and lots of pictures of cats.
La Costilla de Adán: known as ‘La Paz’s best kept secret’, only Bolivians know about this old house converted into a bar, featuring a relaxed atmosphere and a bath.
Lakes, deserts, mountains
The location of Bolivia’s capital city also proves to be a perfect base to explore the amazingly varied landscapes that can be found in Bolivia. Lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Sun in Inca culture, are a mere three hours away; a short bus-ride to the jungle at Rurrenabaque and you can swap city life for snakes and crocodiles; and the beautiful salt flats aren’t too far away either. On the off chance you get bored of the city, then, a week(end) away in a variety of easily-accessible destinations – Peru and Chile included – will soon set things straight.
If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous and less European than Madrid or Buenos Aires, La Paz is certainly the place for you.
Do you speak Bolivian?
Bolivian Spanish isn’t difficult to understand given it’s spoken at a relatively slow, lilting pace. One thing you have to watch out for is the frequent use of diminutives: from quesito and cuentita to permisito and even por favorcito, you’ll find that in Bolivia, everything’s little (which isn’t that surprising considering that the average Bolivian is about five feet tall). A few useful words:
Chango: an affectionate term meaning ‘kid’
No ve?: a tag added to the end of a sentence, meaning ‘don’t you see?’ or ‘don’t you think?’
NIT: a part of Bolivia’s unique tax system. It doesn’t matter what it is, but when asked for it in a shop, you don’t have one
Keeping up to date...
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