La Paz is a crazy, fascinating city. I was reminded while wandering the streets of La Paz of a quote from the movie Clueless that I think describes the city perfectly. “She’s a full-on Monet… It’s like the painting, see? From far away, it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big old mess”.
Ok, maybe that’s a little harsh. But it feels fitting. La Paz is a stunning city. As you wind around the upper roads and examine the view below you, it’s hard not to be in awe of the beauty of this sprawling city which climbs up the mountains in every direction. But when you dive in and get up close and personal, it’s dirty, it’s smelly, and there is not a patch of grass or green anywhere.
Before spending time there, I had heard a lot of mixed reviews from travelers about La Paz. During my travel’s I heard the term “wonders of the world” thrown around quite loosely. A lot. Each natural tourist attraction claims that it is one. I got curious and did a google search to try to determine what the official “7 wonders of the world” are. I did not find 1 agreed upon list. However, in my search I came across https://www.new7wonders.com/en/cities, a listing of the voted upon “7 wonders cities“. Interestingly, La Paz made the cut. Being in South America already, I knew I had to visit the city to see for myself what the fuss is all about.
Despite being voted as one of the world’s most notable cities, many travelers seem to leave unimpressed. I heard from many travelers “A day or two is all you need”, or “I didn’t really like La Paz”, or “It’s good if you want to buy souvenirs”.
So upon my arrival in La Paz, I really did not know what to expect. I was a bit anxious about getting back into the high altitude zone, because it was such a relief leaving Uyuni and feeling like I could breathe again. Beyond that I knew I would come across a lot of street markets. I had heard about interesting things to do around the city. I had also been warned a few times about food poisoning.
Luckily I had gotten my day of food poisoning out of the way in Rurrenabaque, right? I figured after my horrific feverish night of vomiting that I had been officially initiated into Bolivia. It wasn’t until after I got so sick that people started sharing their own “sick stories” from Bolivia – apparently it happens to everyone visiting this country long enough. Despite the warnings about food in La Paz, I thought I was done. I was wrong. Beginning the night I got to La Paz, my stomach became rather angry again.
And this, sadly, put a damper on my entire time in La Paz. There were many things I wanted to do, but couldn’t because I was stuck in the hostel bathroom most of the time.
When I was feeling up to it, I attempted to visit the folklore museum, which offers a glimpse into traditions, customs and folklore of the region. Unfortunately it was closed when I got there. I also wanted to see the Cholita’s wrestling – but the office was closed when I went there too. Cholita’s, or Chola’s, are the indigenous women known for their colorful skirts and round felt hats. In La Paz, these women have taken to wrestling as a form of entertainment for locals and tourists. While I have no interest what-so-ever in wrestling, this just seemed like too bizarre of a thing to pass up. Sadly, I missed it!
Another controversial backpacker attraction in La Paz is their infamous San Pedro prison, which gained it’s attention with the popularity of the book Marching Powder (now on my t0-read list). Visitors would travel to the prison and take un-guided, and un-guarded “tours” of the prison. I did not have a chance to meet anyone who actually did this. Apparently it is a shady process that involves bribing guards, who mark the tourists arm and then let them wander freely around the prison. If anyone reading this has ever actually done it, I would genuinely love to hear about your experience – I am not sure this one is for me.
So, when I wasn’t stuck in doors dealing with the mutually hateful relationship between me and my stomach, I basically just wandered. I found a good vegetarian restaurant 10 minutes away from my hostel which offered it’s “menu del dia” (menu of the day) lunches for only 30 Bolivianos. I ate there several times. I mostly just walked around the city taking pictures. The city is truly a town to activate your visual stimuli. Walking up and down (and up and down) the mountainous concrete terrain is difficult for anyone not accustomed to the altitude, but offers unusual, interesting, and in its own right – even beautiful, views of what appears to be rolling buildings along the hillsides. This quirky place has zebra’s directing traffic, oddly dressed street performers, color outdoor markets, and a backdrop of stunning snow capped mountains – more than enough to keep a visual person like myself activated.