Flying into La Paz from the jungle is one of the great flights you can take in Latin America. In 40 minutes you go from verdant green with chocolate brown rivers snaking their way through the dense jungle below to the stark barren mountains of the Andes. But when I landed at the airport in El Alto I had to face another classic South American experience – the political demonstration. I walked across to the airport bus only to be told that all routes down to the city of La Paz were blockaded.At the airport I teamed up with some savvy locals and we managed to persuade a taxi driver to find a way through to the south zone, from where, I was told, I could get a local bus up to the historic centre where I was staying. Now, according to the guidebooks, you should only ever take official radio taxis. Lack of regulation here means that anyone can paint the word taxi on the side of their car and they’re in business. Unfortunately, that business can also mean kidnapping tourists and keeping them hostage for several days while they empty your bank account. Luckily, I made it to my hotel with all my luggage and money intact.
La Paz is not an immediately attractive city, but there’s no denying it has a spectacular setting. It sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains and volcanoes at a height of 3660 metres. The sprawling new city of El Alto where the airport is and which is inhabited primarily by people of Aymaran ethnicity, spreads over the rim of the bowl onto the altiplano. Whenever protestors want to make their voice heard, it’s relatively easy to block off all access and effectively paralyse the city.
There is some great colonial architecture and some good museums around Plaza Murillo and Calle Jaen and it’s also a fascinating place to people-watch. Local Aymaran women walk around in traditional clothes and hats often with huge bundles on their backs containing goods for sale or children. They trip up and down the steep narrow roads undaunted by the altitude, while recently-arrived tourists huff and puff.
But really in La Paz it’s all about the views. There’s a relatively new cable car system linking various places in La Paz with El Alto which offer tremendous views. It’s not really a tourist attraction, but it’s cheap and fun. You can see below the unfinished houses with exposed red bricks and roofs of corrugated iron. Apparently, if your house remains unfinished, you’re exempt from taxes.
You can bike down the so-called Death Road to Coroico, although I’m not great with heights so I was happy with the bus ride down. Even that was hair-raising enough. One of the best things I did was to take a trip to Cerro Chacaltaya. The only way to get there is by organised tour and I really hate being herded around in a minibus, so I was initially reluctant. However, despite the bus being late to pick me up, it was still a great trip.
The bus takes you up another stomach-churning road to a refuge from where you can climb and scramble to the top of the mountain. Every step is hard-going due to the thinness of the air and you have to take frequent rests, but the views from the top were out of this world. At 5395m above sea level it’s the highest I’ve ever climbed.
Like many big cities, La Paz offers up its charms slowly and the longer you stay here, the more you appreciate it. However, winter is now here and the nights have turned freezing, so I’m looking forward to making my way down into the lowlands tomorrow.