I started writing this right after spending an unfortunate amount of time in La Paz and then let it sit in my drafts. I’ve found this several months later and have found that I still don’t exactly look back on my time in La Paz with fondness. So I’ll just publish it. #yolo (All my original thoughts are typed out normally, all my 3-month afterthoughts are in italics.)
First off, Americans have to pay $160 to go to Bolivia, as well as prepare a bunch of random documents to get a Bolivian visa. That effort alone would honestly put me off from going anywhere, but after seeing so many Instagram pics of the Uyuni Salt Flats, I figured it would be worth it. Unfortunately, for the five hours spent at the actual salt flats, I spent about two weeks in La Paz, a city that did not always sit well with me. Oh, and getting that Bolivian visa started me off on the wrong foot as well. After getting everything ready and even going to the hectic Cusco General Hospital to get the Yellow Fever shot, I was turned back at the border because two of my eight $20 bills were not crisp enough. I had to pay a random salesman a few dollars to exchange my dollar bills for more crisp ones. Like why?
After spending two nights in the relatively isolated Isla del Sol and Copacabana, there was nothing more chaotic than hopping off a local bus in the middle of bustling La Paz during a thunderstorm and trudging up and down the city’s hills towards our hostel, fully equipped with those stupid backpacks that identified us as public enemy number one to the Bolivian locals.
I have never spent as much time in hostels as I did in La Paz, and that is extremely out of the norm for me. It is a testimony to how little time I actually wanted to spend in La Paz. I met many travelers who said they spent far too long in La Paz, but with almost all of that time spent at one of La Paz’s many party hostels. After my time ended in La Paz, I completely understood how one can easily get sucked into Loki or Wild Rover or some other hostel that became more of a safe haven from La Paz rather than a place to crash for the night.
La Paz means “peace” in Spanish, and my first thought was “this place is literally the opposite of peaceful”. It’s not until I stumbled into Calle Jaen on like day three or four that I found an actual quiet spot in the entire city. For the first few days, I loved the chaos of the city. It was what I typically lived for. Hopping into a packed minibus to who knows where, grabbing meals from any of the hundreds of small kiosks, and then playing frogger on the way home trying to avoid getting run over. It was all good fun for literally one whole day.
Almost everyone I know who went to La Paz caught terrible food poisoning. I was no exception. For two weeks, my stomach was in shambles all thanks to Bolivian food. The food in Bolivia is shit, there’s no other way to put it. After hopping around Peru and eating literally everything from everywhere, I thought I could do the same in Bolivia. Nope. Peru’s food is far superior, and will probably not systematically dismantle your digestive system. Bolivia’s cuisine is something you should stay away from, trust me. My last few days in La Paz, I regressed on everything I’ve ever held to be true and ate at American chain restaurants for almost every meal. My final meal was at a risky Bolivian Chinese restaurant (that itself should be a big warning sign), and I only did it kind of as a tribute to all of the trials and tribulations that my stomach had gone through for several weeks. Kind of like pouring one out for Pachamama, in a sense.
Please, just stay away from the food. Even if you see an adorable old lady grilling some delicious smelling burgers or salchipapas, it is not worth it. I don’t care if it costs 25 cents, it is still not worth it. I can still remember how good those burgers smell, but they literally taste like nothing. It’s like a water-burger. I don’t know how else to describe it. They put these delicious potato chip things in the sandwich and that tricks you into thinking that you’ve just had the best burger of your life because of how crunchy it was. That trickery worked for me when I was drunk in Peru, but I resisted it in Bolivia because I knew just how much food poisoning was packed in such a tiny, innocent snack.
Aside from the food, La Paz was overall just not a pleasant city. As a tourist, you could hardly go into a store without being glared at immediately. Don’t even try to touch something and leave without buying it. The storeowner will probably stop by the witches’ market and curse you and your family for all eternity, literally just for feeling a scarf or making eye contact with a sweater. I’m not saying all Bolivian people are rude people, but I’m also not saying that they were the most welcoming people of South America. Restaurants were not really that much different. Service is not a big thing in South America, and even less so in Bolivia.
I’m not saying La Paz is a terrible city that isn’t worth going to, but it is skippable in comparison to many of the other great South American cities. I unfortunately did not make it to Sucre or any of the other large Bolivian cities, but I’ve heard that they are all better than La Paz. Sucre was too far out of the way for me to visit, which is unfortunate because I’ve been told that that is the city that I should have accidentally spent weeks in. La Paz is a great home base for the rest of Bolivia’s otherworldly wonders, but don’t plan to spend too much time here.
Valle de la Luna was magnificent, but will only take about three hours out of your day. The witches’ market is a tourist trap, as are most of the other famous markets in La Paz nowadays. The Cholitas female wrestling was one of the most surprisingly entertaining things I’ve ever watched. I watched an official Mexican Lucha Libre event a few weeks later and it paled in comparison to this back-alley wrestling spectacle in La Paz’s ghetto. The views in La Paz are arguably fantastic, with the lower city being surrounded by hills and mountains. Seeing the vast expanses of the city and its unique layout (which kind of looks like a landslide about to happen) is one-of-a-kind.
As a backpacker who can literally adapt to whatever situation I am in, La Paz was difficult for me. Obviously this will vary for everyone, but I’ve heard the same sentiments from quite a few people. When I complained about La Paz on the Internet, Internet strangers concluded I was an 80-year old grandma that shouldn’t be traveling. They’re probably the same type of people that brag to their coworkers about how little sleep they got last night, or probably wear shorts in the winter and make sure everyone notices. La Paz is rough, and that’s not to say that everyone will hate it, but I’m not going to sugarcoat my experiences at a city just because “that’s how traveling is.” I know how traveling is, and I hardly ever complain about anything, but ugh, La Paz.
It’s worth the visit because you’re probably going to have to go there anyway, but not for much else. By the third day, you’ll be begging to get out.