Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 28 December 2008

La Paz. Remember to breathe.

I could take the time to list all the “world’s highests” that can be found in La Paz, but that wouldn’t paint the proper picture of the city I have come to know and love over the past few months.

It’s true that La Paz is the world’s highest capital city (followed by Quito, and then ever-so-closely by Bolivia’s judicial capital, Sucre). It’s also true that its airport (which is actually in El Alto, the closest thing to a suburb that Bolivia can muster, but don’t expect to find a Starbucks here, El Alto is one of Latin America’s fastest growing, most indigenous and frenetic cities) is the highest commercial airport in the world. The landing strip is extra long to allow for longer braking time at 4,010 meters above sea level (over 13,000 ft).

But, rather than dwell on these superlatives, I’d like to share a little bit of what La Paz has meant to me.

As I left for the bus terminal last Sunday afternoon, Don Francisco, the kind soft-spoken man who manages the day shift at the Hostal Austria (my home in La Paz) joked that I should just get married and stay in La Paz and that my parents would understand. La Paz, by Bolivian standards, is a metropolis. And, true de form, it is filled with busy city folk. But the Don Francisco’s and the chatty licuado (fresh fruit juice) ladies quickly break down the big-city stereotypes.

After my first trip to La Paz in early October, it has become somewhat of a home base for me as I have explored Bolivia in my post-Peace Corps adventures.

While it isn’t the most beautiful of cities, it is certainly dramatic. The vast altiplano abruptly gives way after El Alto and tumbles downward into the valley where La Paz is found. Buildings cling to the sides of the steep mountain valley walls as the city sprawls downward. La Paz, due to its altitude might be one of the only cities in the world that defies the standard practice of rich folk to build their homes higher in order to get “the view”.  In La Paz, the lower your altitude, the higher your status…

I spent many days over the past few months running errands in La Paz (dentist visit, applying for a Paraguayan visa at the Embassy, shopping for artesania, recharging on good food after trips into the campo, etc.).  I have come to love the chaos, the simultaneous colonial and indigenous charm, even the public transportation system.

I feel fortunate to have been able to spend time getting to know this frenetic place.  It is rarely a traveler’s favorite place if they just pass through, but, give yourself time to adjust and La Paz will not disappoint.


Mt. Illimani (well over 20,000 feet high) looms over the city of La Paz.


La Paz is a shoppers dream. Streets are lined with hundreds of stores selling locally crafted art and goods. Alpaca sweaters and silver jewelry fly off the shelves of the stores on Calles Sagarnaga and Linares.


View of La Paz from the children’s park, which also happens to host one of the best views of the city. And an alligator slide. 🙂


Plaza Murillo. Presidential Palace (read: Evo sleeps here!) and Cathedral. The hostel I stay in is about one block away from here.


Calle Yanacocha. Trufis, taxis and Micros labor their way up this steep thoroughfare all day long.


The Wiphala is the rainbow-colored flag representing Indigenous rights, culture and heritage.


Tiwanaku. These pre-Inca ruins outside of La Paz are still being excavated, but archaeologists have already revealed sophisticated treasures, art and evidence of the scientific achievements of the Tiwanaku culture which thrived around Lake Titicaca as far back as 1500 BC.


La Puerta del Sol. The Gate of the Sun.




Yours truly.


La Paz, as seen from the El Alto highway.



  1. Beautiful!!

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