After almost a whole month in Peru, we only had 5 days left to spend in Bolivia. What can you do in 5 days? The country has a lot to offer, from jungle tours to salt flats expeditions and Ayahuasca retreats, but 5 days would not be enough to accomplish any of that. So we decided to concentrate on just one city: La Paz.
👉 Click here and scroll to the end of the article for the detailed info about how to get the Bolivian Visa in Peru (scroll to the end of the article)
Already on approach, we were captivated by the opening panorama of La Paz with Mt Illimani, brightly shining in the rays of the setting sun. The city must have started in the valley but with time it has grown into a bustling megalopolis and has taken over all the neighboring hills and mountains. What a view! Obviously, we had to prepare ourselves for lots of walking up and down! And all this at the altitude of almost twelve thousand feet above sea level! Quite a workout!
At first, La Paz seemed crowded, noisy and a little messy. Loud markets protruded into the streets, creating traffic jams, people running in every direction… But pretty soon we started to figure La Paz out and it actually became one of our favorite cities in the world! Yes, the city is definitely very much alive and has plenty to offer! So, here is our pick of what we decided to see and do during our 5-day visit:
1. Roam the Downtown
There is still a debate, whether the capital of Bolivia is La Paz or Sucre, a smaller town to the south-east. Sucre was made capital after Bolivia gained its independence in 1825. But La Paz became so economically important that all the action slowly moved there. Finally, a compromise was reached. Sucre remained a judicial capital, and La Paz became the seat of executive and legislative branches. So, is La Paz the capital of Bolivia? Yes and no. According to the constitution, no, but de facto, it is. Interesting! Do you know of any other country with such a predicament?
It’s nice just to take a walk around the busy downtown of La Paz. While some parts have winding streets and older houses, you will be amazed how bright, colorful and urban most of the downtown is. Large squares, perfectly maintained flower beds, wide avenues and monumental buildings… Sitting down at the Plaza Murillo in front of the Government Palace and feeding hundreds of pigeons reminded me of being in Europe.
2. Walk Around the Witches’ Market
The Witches’ Market, or Mercado de las Brujas occupies steep and narrow streets of the older part of downtown La Paz. While nowadays there are mainly souvenir stalls, you can still see some of the tents with all the weird stuff that gave the Witches’ Market its name. There are strange potions, medicinal herbs, amulets and talismans. You will even find ritual accessories such as dried frogs and llama fetuses. Yes, llama fetuses have been used for centuries: the locals bury them under their houses as a sacred offering to the goddess Pachamama (Mother Earth), to ensure good fortune and ward off evil spirits.
3. Learn About Coca at the Coca Museum
One of the coolest places, tucked away in a small courtyard near the Witches’ Market, is the Coca Museum. You can learn all about this amazing plant: its history, its cultural meaning for the Andean people. You will find out about healing properties of coca and how, unfortunately, its wonderful reputation was ruined by cocaine production.
At the end go up the second floor to the bar and try one of their special coca drinks. The menu is quite impressive: there is coca coffee, coca hot chocolate and, of course, coca tea… For those who prefer something stronger, there is a good selection of classic cocktails, but with the coca spin: coca margarita, cocamaister, coca mojito…. Michael had a cocaipirinha and I treated myself to a glass of a green Russian!
📍 The Coca Museum sells the best Coca Candy you’ll ever put in your mouth! 😀
4. Ride the Teleferico
The best way to get anywhere in La Paz is, without a doubt, the most innovative cable car system called Teleferico. It consists of 11 lines and covers even the most hard-to-reach areas of the city. The ticket is not expensive: in the end, it is a mass transit system and many locals use it to get to and from work. But it is so much fun just to ride it and discover La Paz from a bird’s eye view!
To make it easier, download the “Mi Teleferico” app. This way you can plan your trip and buy different combo passes, instead of paying every time you change lines.
Out of our cable car, we discovered several newer, really modern districts of La Paz and some really cool neighborhoods. We wouldn’t ever have found them otherwise!
5. Explore the Moon Valley
One day we rode the Teleferico to the very end of the Green Line and then took a taxi to one of the most amazing places: Valle de le Luna, or the Moon Valley. The taxi should cost you no more than 35 Bolivianos. I strongly recommend you go on your own, without buying a tour. This way you are not under any time pressure and can fully enjoy this fantastic place.
Tall and narrow spires point at the sky, intricate formations make you think of sandcastles and leave you wondering if Gaudi somehow saw it before creating his Sagrada Familia in Barcelona… There are paths and boardwalks that differ by length and difficulty. We walked the longer path, but we took our time and rested a lot. It was nice to just sit on a rock and gaze at this otherworldly landscape. At one point some local guy climbed one of the spires and played a native melody on his pan flute… An unforgettable experience!
6. Enjoy Local Restaurants and Live Music
In the evenings, don’t stay in your hotel. Come out to the busy streets of La Paz! Local restaurants and bars are alive with fun and music! One evening we ran into a Cuban band which we absolutely loved.
For some reason, there are a lot of Irish pubs in La Paz and they are very good. We enjoyed spending evenings there and hung out with different friends whom we met along the way on Peru Hop buses. Great time to share traveling stories!
7. Discover Fuente Magna
A 10-minute walk from Plaza Murillo in downtown La Paz will bring you to Calle Jaén, a quaint and artsy neighborhood with several small museums. First, go to Museo Costumbrista Juan de Vargas, where you can buy the combo ticket. It will give you access to four museums, where you can learn about the history of Bolivia and see some cool art. One of the museums, included in the ticket, is the Museum of Precious Metals.
Besides silver and gold artifacts of the Pre-Columbian era, you will see a rather large clay bowl that is sitting alone in a separate room behind the glass. This is Fuente Magna, a unique find for fans of ancient secrets.
Found near Lake Titicaca, the bowl has several cuneiform inscriptions, as if made in several strange languages. The problem is that these languages are not of any local origins. The closest “relative” of such cuneiform would be Sumerian, so the scientists made a conclusion that these unknown languages could be something Proto-Sumerian. It also matched some symbols of yet not deciphered Linear A in Crete.
They determined that some of the writing seems to be a prayer to the fertility goddess Nia. That makes me think of the Phaistos Disk from Crete. Can there be connections? Also, the fact that something from the ancient Mesopotamia ended up on the shores of Lake Titicaca thousands of miles away, opens up the whole Pandora box of questions… Who were these Pre-Sumerian travelers? What were they doing in Bolivia?
8. Visit Tiwanaku and Puma Punku
But it is not the Fuente Magna that makes La Paz one of the prime destinations for ancient history lovers. About a 40-minute drive away there are ruins of two Pre-Columbian cities: Tiwanaku (also spelled Tiahuanaco) and Puma Punku. A lot of legends and controversies surround the ruins.
Officially, according to carbon dating of some organic artifacts, the city existed between 500 and 900 AD. However, Arthur Posnanski, who spent a lifetime researching the ruins, claims it is not so. It is known, that all the ancient cities were built according to specific alignments: cardinal directions, positions of certain stars, constellations and even the sun. With time, those positions change because of a process called precession. So, Posnanski referenced the position of the Tiwanaku structures with positions of the sun during summer and winter solstices in the past and came to a sensational conclusion: the time when the position of the sun matched the Tiwanaku architecture happened 17,000 years ago!
Just look at these small holes in the stone, so perfect it could only be done by a machine. Carvings and lines of the other blocks are not any less precise. Look at the beauty of the Gate of the Sun, carved out of a single piece of andesite (the crack on the side was made later, as a result of neglect). Look at the gigantic 100-ton megaliths that were allegedly transported from the other side of the lake by reed boats (really??) Maybe an old Aymara legend makes sense: it says Tiwanaku and Puma Punku were not built by humans, but by the gods themselves… Or maybe they were built by the same Pre-Sumerians who left the Fuente Magna behind?
My absolute favorite place in Tiwanaku is the so-called Semi-Subterranean Temple. Buried underground, it avoided the destruction of the Spanish invasion and stayed preserved in all its glory. In the middle you will see the statue of no other than Kon Tiki. And carved in stone around him, there are 175 very interesting faces. Some are pretty recognizable as different races of the Earth and some are very strange, almost non-human.
What a mysterious place! One day we will return there and explore these fascinating ruins a little more… One day we will enjoy more of what Bolivia has to offer: the Bolivian visa is valid for 10 years!
But now, it is time to head back home… and to conclude our wonderful one-month-long journey through Peru and Bolivia with Peru Hop.
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