Where does one even begin with La Paz? Bolivia’s largest city might be one of the most unique cities that I have ever visited. Seriously, this city is weird. I say that with the intention of it being as big of a compliment as possible. I’m not talking artificially weird like Portland or Austin where they try too hard to be as quirky as possible. I’m talking selling-dead-llama-fetuses-on-the-streets weird. If you can get over the initial shock and hatred of the chaos, then La Paz can quickly grow on you. As a backpacker, there is not much more that you could ask for from La Paz.
I’m not going to lie. I hated La Paz my first time visiting this infuriatingly hectic city. I was on my first solo backpacking trip and I was not even two weeks in. Let’s just say La Paz isn’t exactly your typical destination for your Intro to Backpacking class. I was overwhelmed by the chaos. I was a spoiled backpacker baby who thought travel was always going to be shiny and sexy. La Paz felt grimy and stinky. I had not yet grown to appreciate the city for all of its quirks, oddities, and unorthodox beauty.
I revisited La Paz three years after my first backpacking trip, much more hardened and wizened to the ways of travel. What was initially meant to be a visa run so I could return to my darling Cusco as quickly as possible turned into a month of traipsing around Bolivia. I even spent New Year’s Eve in La Paz after telling myself that I was never again celebrating a holiday here. I spent Thanksgiving 2016 eating Subway after a lengthy battle with food poisoning. Can you blame me? La Paz is one of those cities that might seem difficult to love at first, but after you spend a little bit of time here and get accustomed to the chaos, you can begin to discover all of the beautiful things about the city. You just have to dig a little bit deeper.
La Paz should be on every traveler’s bucket list. It is a city that welcomes travelers while also not giving a f*ck about them. And that is the best kind of destination. What do I mean by that? This city will not change for you or for any of the thousands of other travelers that pass through. If you aren’t built to survive La Paz, then you won’t. The city isn’t going to take pity on you and baby you just so you can have a good time. I think that’s why I hated it at first. Travel wasn’t supposed to be so hard, was it?
La Paz is an integral destination for any South American backpacking trip, yet save for a few hostels and tour agencies, La Paz has not changed at all to accommodate us travelers. It is still as gritty and as real as ever. It is a much different type of destination than anywhere in neighboring Peru, where some cities have started to lose their authenticity to start catering to the huge influx of travelers.
La Paz will change your life. Whether you end up hating or loving the city, La Paz is a place that sticks with you. This is not a city that you should miss out on.
How To Get To La Paz, Bolivia
First things first, how are you going to get to La Paz? With La Paz being Bolivia’s largest city and a central hub in South America, it is pretty straightforward to get here. Flying is the quickest way to get to La Paz, but bus travel in South America works just as well. I don’t need to explain to you how to book a flight so I’ll just cover bus travel to and from La Paz real quick.
If you are already in Bolivia, then you should have no problem. Every city will have buses that go to and from La Paz multiple times a day. From Sucre, a bus will cost about $15-20, depending on the quality of the bus. That was a 12-hour bus ride, so depending on the length of the journey, you can try and estimate a reasonable price to pay.
For travelers coming from Peru, the border crossing will take place near Copacabana, Bolivia. If you are from the United States like me, make sure you already have everything you need for a Bolivian Visa to expedite the process. The bus will most likely wait for you, but if you take too long, you might end up having to take a colectivo to Copacabana and then taking a bus to La Paz. From Copacabana, a bus to La Paz takes about 4 or 5 hours.
Another popular option among backpackers traveling from Peru to Bolivia and vice versa is with Bolivia Hop. Although a bit pricier, Bolivia Hop was worth the extra money for a border crossing with peace of mind. I accidentally overstayed my Peru visa by one day and had to go back and forth between the nearest town and the border so that I could pay my fine at the national bank. It added an extra hour to my journey but thankfully, a Peru Hop/Bolivia Hop guide stuck behind to help me out and watch my bags.
From Chile, a popular way to get to Bolivia and La Paz is through the Salar de Uyuni. If you book an Uyuni tour from San Pedro de Atacama, you can get the option to be dropped off in Uyuni. From Uyuni, it is a night bus to get to La Paz. From Argentina, you will have to cross over Bolivia’s southern border before taking a bus to La Paz.
The Best Things To Do in La Paz
I can’t think of very many cities that have as much variety of things to do as La Paz. The geography of the city makes it a very interesting place to explore. Whether you are wandering through the city of La Paz itself or on the rim of the bowl near El Alto, La Paz has a plethora of things to do.
Explore The City On The Mi Teleferico Cable Car System
Perhaps the coolest thing about La Paz is their cable car system. It has truly revolutionized the city as the go-to way of getting around the sprawling metropolis. At about 30 cents per ticket, traveling via Mi Teleferico is about as cheap as it gets. The system, which is barely a decade old, has helped the vast city of La Paz feel a little smaller, less crowded, and significantly more modern. Seriously, I can’t gush enough about how cool and revolutionary these have been for the cities of La Paz and El Alto.
There are various lines all throughout the city. At 30 cents per ticket, you could dedicate an entire day and $5 to exploring the city and finding hidden gems all over. Oh yeah, and each cable car has Wi-Fi, as if you needed another reason to love these things. Just hop on over to one of the stations, buy a ticket from the boleteria and fly over the city to your heart’s content.
Catch A Football Game At Estadio Hernando Siles
This was one of the cooler experiences that I’ve had in South America. Despite Bolivia not being particularly known for their strong football program, that doesn’t make them any less passionate about the sport. We caught an international friendly between Bolivia and Paraguay. Despite neither country being an international powerhouse, the atmosphere was still fantastic. If you are lucky enough to have a game going on while you are in La Paz, it is absolutely worth going. It is one of the world’s highest football stadiums and it offers some incredible views from the stadium itself.
Visit the Witches’ Market
Remember when I mentioned those dead llama fetuses earlier? This is where you can find them. Although the Witches Market of La Paz has started catering more and more towards international tourists, it is still worth a visit for the last few stores that still sell traditional wares. Why is it called the Witches Market? Well, the locals sell a variety of goods that are believed to have supernatural powers or purposes. The dried llama fetuses, for example, are often buried under a building prior to its construction as a sort of sacrifice and form of good luck. Other things you can find along this street are things like love potions, mysterious herbs, and more.
Visit the Colorful Neighborhood of Chualluma
This is quickly becoming one of La Paz’s most popular destinations. It is pretty easy to see why. In a sea of bland red buildings, Chualluma stands out as a much-needed splash of color. Designed and painted by Knorke Leaf in 2019, Chualluma is La Paz’s newest and hottest attraction. Check out my guide on visiting this unbelievable neighborhood here.
Go To A Cholitas Wrestling Match
Like I said, La Paz is full of some very unique attractions. One thing that has captivated backpackers worldwide is the Cholitas women’s wrestling matches that take place a few times a week in El Alto. Originally started as a way for the local women to let loose and empower themselves, it has become must-see entertainment for travelers and locals alike. Think lucha libre or WWE but with indigenous women dressed in their traditional garb. It is quite the sight to see.
Visit the Plazas of La Paz (Plaza Murillo, Plaza San Francisco, and Plaza Sucre)
Like most South American colonial cities, a lot of the hustle and bustle of the city takes place in the Plaza de Armas. La Paz has quite a few main plazas, but the three main ones would be Plaza Murillo, Plaza San Francisco, and Plaza Sucre. Each plaza has a peaceful park surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings. The plazas of La Paz make for great spots for a bit of people-watching or just a quick break in between exploring the rolling hills of the city.
Catch Some Kill-a Views from Mirador Killi Killi
See what I did there? If you want to catch an epic view of La Paz and the surrounding mountains, then Mirador Killi Killi is the spot to be. When we celebrated New Year’s in La Paz, we rang in the New Year at the top of Mirador Killi Killi. Although a bit dampened by the rain, seeing the vast city light up under the colorful fireworks was an incredible experience that I wish I remembered more of. Even on a normal day, Killi Killi is worth visiting. If you get a clear day, the view of Illimani is absolutely to die for. And side note, Killi Killi means armpit in Filipino which always gave me a good chuckle.
Take A Free Walking Tour of La Paz
I’m not usually a walking tour person but as beginning backpacker my first time in La Paz, I decided why not. This was actually one of the more interesting walking tours I have ever taken. La Paz doesn’t exactly have the most glamorous past so it is interesting hearing about the history that took place or is still taking place on these hectic streets.
Go Shopping At El Alto’s Markets
El Alto is the sprawling city located above the city bowl of La Paz. One of the main attractions here, aside from the epic views, are the markets where you can buy anything you can imagine for dirt cheap. With El Alto being made much more accessible through the cable car system, there’s no reason not to pay a visit to La Paz’s sister city. If you though La Paz was chaotic, oh boy, you are in for a treat when you visit El Alto.
Visit Mercado Lanza
If you don’t feel like going all the way up to El Alto to cop some cheap goods, Mercado Lanza might be the spot for you. Situated next to Plaza San Francisco right along the bustling El Prado, Mercado Lanza is a major hub in La Paz. Whether you are looking for local eats or cheap souvenirs, Mercado Lanza has something for you.
Walk Through Colorful Calle Jaen
La Paz, if you don’t speak a lick of Spanish, means Peace. If there is a city out there whose name is about as unfitting as La Paz’s, I would be hard-pressed to believe it. Calle Jaen is perhaps the only place in La Paz that might be worthy of its name. And it is only about two blocks long. However, this is one of the more beautiful parts of La Paz and is a good getaway if you want some peace and quiet for a little bit.
The Best Day Trips From La Paz
Cycle Down Death Road (Yungas Road)
View this post on Instagram
Just a typical relaxing bike ride down the world's most dangerous road, where you're never too far from certain death 🙃 the 64 kilometer stretch was once responsible for 200-300 deaths a year, so naturally it is one of Bolivia's top attractions for thrill seekers and idiots. Definitely one of the most exhilarating and challenging things I've ever done in my life #Bolivia #Biking #GoPro @GoPro
Death Road is one of Bolivia’s top attractions. Back when this road was frequently used by cars, its death toll would hit around 300 per year. These days, a new road has been built and the remains of Yungas Road have become a tourist playground. This 60-70 kilometer ride is as big of an adrenaline rush as it gets. I absolutely loved Death Road, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. This lengthy journey can be grueling and if you have even the slightest fear of heights, it can be daunting. It is all downhill but the rocky gravel roads are punishing.
For more on Death Road, check out my complete guide to this death-defying adventure.
Climb Up To 5,400 Meters At Chacaltaya
This might be the easiest 5,000 meter mountain that one can summit. The hike takes only about 45 minutes from the trailhead. Once you reach the top, congratulations! You’ve made it to 5,400 meters above sea level. If you are lucky enough to get a clear day, the views are jaw-dropping. Above is the worst-case scenario. We barely got any views. Our friend went a few days later and had a day devoid of any clouds. That view was absolutely insane. Ours? Not so much. Thankfully, the tour only costs around $15 and packages in Valle de la Luna.
Visit Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Although it pales in comparison to the other Valle de la Luna down in San Pedro de Atacama, this moon valley is still worth visiting. Just outside of La Paz, one can take a colectivo to the outskirts and pay a small entrance fee to roam around this otherworldly area. You only need about an hour here, although you could spend significantly longer just taking it all in. The views of the surrounding mountains and the city of La Paz are also incredible.
Visit The Ruins of Tiwanaku (Tihuanaco)
These ruins about an hour and a half outside of La Paz are some of Bolivia’s most impressive. I’ll admit that that doesn’t mean much, but for history and culture lovers, this is a great way to experience that. The ruins themselves aren’t much to look. You won’t find anything particularly grandiose like the ruins of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. However, the history behind the ruins are interesting. They have been dated to long before the Inca and many of the structures and statues are still well-preserved. It costs about $15 to take a tour from La Paz, although you can figure out transportation to Tiwanaku on your own for much cheaper.
Hike To The Lagunas Of Pico Austria
One of the adventures I regret missing out on the most was the Pico Austria hike. This challenging trek gives you some incredible views of crystal clear blue lagunas at the base of snow-capped peaks. I’d seen plenty of these around Cusco and Huaraz in Peru, but I didn’t know that you could get these kinds of views in La Paz as well. This is one of the more expensive day trips, and most agencies won’t leave unless you have at least a group of 4 going with you. With it being low season and rainy season, I was hard-pressed finding a group and ended up having to save this for another time. It definitely looks worth the visit, if you get the chance.
Hike Up The Muelle del Diablo
Meaning Tooth of the Devil, the Muelle del Diablo is a popular hike among locals. The views are undoubtedly amazing from a vantage point like that. I didn’t actually have time to go on this hike it but you can get a glimpse of it in the center of the picture above. It definitely looks like a pretty hellish climb.
The Best Multi-Day Trips From La Paz
Summit Huayna Potosi (3 Days)
Mountaineers often come to La Paz just to summit the monster that towers over the city. Huayna Potosi is a colossus of a mountain and stands at a whopping 6,088 meters above sea level. The process of summiting such a behemoth takes three days, with an optional day dedicated to practicing for the ice climb section of the trip. I’ve met quite a few people who have tried summiting it. None of them actually made it to the top. This is not something for the faint of heart, and I didn’t even try to attempt it. However, it must be one of the most rewarding feats to actually accomplish.
Visit The Amazon Jungle Or Pampas Near Rurrenabaque (3 – 4+ Days)
A testament to Bolivia’s diversity is that the Amazon Jungle is just a 30 minute flight from La Paz. We flew over the snowy Cordillera Real and then ten minutes later we were flying over the lush greenery of the dense rainforest. Although I can’t stand the heat, I was willing to put up with it for the jungle. I wanted to stay here forever. Rurrenabaque is perhaps the cheapest place to book excursions into the Amazon, so take advantage of that while you are here. Two options are the Pampas and Madidi National Park.
A 3-day tour of the Pampas is a great way to see a ton of animals along the river, although you spend most of your time on the boat or at the lodge. If you take a jungle tour to Madidi, then you have a much lower chance of seeing a lot of animals but you will be more active and actually exploring the jungle on the ground. If you have time for both, do both. My biggest regret was booking a return flight in advance and not having enough time to explore Madidi.
Salar de Uyuni (3 Days)
Hands-down, the Salar de Uyuni is the most iconic of Bolivia’s destinations, and deservingly so. This otherworldly region the country can feel like an entirely different planet sometimes. The three-day tour gives you a wide range of adventures and views, from the vast salt flats to colorful lagunas in the altiplano. This is a can’t-miss experience while in Bolivia. From La Paz, you can take an overnight bus to Uyuni and start the three-day excursion that same morning.
If you thought Huayna Potosi was high… Nevado Illimani stands at a towering 6,440 meters above sea level. For those brave enough to attempt to summit Illimani, you will need four days and a lot of physical endurance. This is no easy feat and should not be attempted unless you have significant mountaineering experience and high fitness levels. I mean, look at that monster. It absolutely dwarfs the massive city of La Paz.
The Cordillera Real
The Cordillera Real mountain range is one of the most incredible in all of South America. There are tons of potential multi-day treks that one can take in this region. My biggest regret about La Paz was arriving in the rainy season and not being able to take on some of these unbelievable mountains.
Where To Stay in La Paz, Bolivia For Backpackers
Another great thing about La Paz for backpackers is how many great hostels there are too choose from. Most of the hostels in La Paz will cost less than $10 a night and serve as great home bases for exploring the city and meeting fellow travelers.
The Best Hostels in La Paz
The Wild Rover in La Paz might be my favorite of all the Wild Rovers in South America. The property is spacious and modern and has an amazing location. Of course, the real reason people come to Wild Rover is to socialize. No other hostel throws a party quite like Wild Rover. Locals and travelers alike flock to Wild Rover’s bar to get loose for a crazy night out in La Paz.
It is impossible to mention Wild Rover without also mentioning Loki. The two rival party hostels go hand in hand. I’ve stayed at my fair share of both Lokis and Wild Rovers and no matter how much they compete against one another, they are very similar in pretty much every way.
Adventure Brew Hostel
One of the first backpacker hostels in La Paz remains one of the finest. Adventure Brew now has two locations and both are great options for travelers. The original hostel is Adventure Brew Hostel, which served as my home base for my first few nights in La Paz. They opened a new hostel a few blocks away with an even better location called Adventure Brew Downtown. I haven’t stayed there but if the vibe is anything like the OG Adventure Brew, then it is guaranteed to be a good time.
For travelers looking for something a bit cozier and a little less social, El Prado Capsule Hostel is an incredible choice. I have never stayed at a hostel like this one before. The bed felt like a spaceship, with lots of buttons and lights and air conditioning and even a TV.
After spending a few days in the jungle this hostel was a welcome and comfortable change. Its location is fantastic, right on the main street of La Paz surrounded by restaurants, shops, and nightlife. The Wi-Fi here was also shockingly fast, as I was able to back up and upload thousands of pictures from the jungle in just a matter of hours. If you need a comfortable night of sleep, this is your spot.
Nightlife in La Paz
I wasn’t sold on the nightlife in La Paz, at first. For such a big city, I was expecting a lot more. Turns out, I just wasn’t going to the right places. La Paz boasts some of the most lawless nightlife of any large South American city. Seriously, legend has it that there is even a cocaine bar where you can order cuts right from the bar. I recommend something more tame, though.
The nightlife in La Paz won’t be as wild as somewhere like Brazil or Argentina but you can still have a lot of fun in this city. As a backpacker, try to take advantage of the party hostels that also double as popular spots for the younger locals. Wild Rover and Loki always had a good crowd of locals mixed in with the gringos. The nightlife in La Paz starts kicking off a little after midnight. I’d recommend making your way to the bars around 1 or 2 AM. There are quite a few nightlife districts in La Paz but your best bet would be along El Prado. While you will find clusters of nightlife, you can also find scattered bars and clubs throughout the city.
For a trendier scene, you can visit the more upscale neighborhood of Sopocachi. Few travelers stay in this area so it is much more local, as well. More than likely, you will need to take a taxi or an Uber from your accommodation to get here. I don’t have any bars or nightclubs to specifically recommend because they all kind of felt the same to me. I did have a fantastic time at Magick, though. This is where we went for our New Year’s celebration after ringing in midnight at Mirador Killi Killi. This place was absolutely wild, and my group was the only group of foreigners there. It was a rave that lasted well into the morning and one hell of a way to ring in the new year.
Safety Advice for La Paz
La Paz is a cocaine capital of South America. While it doesn’t have the reputation that somewhere like Colombia might have, drugs are very prevalent in the city of La Paz. Like I mentioned earlier, there’s even a cocaine bar where you can buy it over the counter. There is a prison specifically for drug dealers here. Cocaine in Bolivia is extremely cheap, which makes it very sought after by travelers. I’ve met Aussies willing to risk it all because it cost 1/100th of what it would cost them back home.
All I have to say is be smart. Most hostels won’t think twice about kicking you out if you are caught with drugs. The police won’t exactly be on your side, either. And of course, when it comes to the drugs itself, you don’t really have a way to hold the drug dealer accountable, do you? You aren’t sure what they’re going to be selling you. You aren’t sure if it’s going to be safe to take. It’s just not a very smart idea in general.
Walking At Night
I’m not trying to scare you or anything. I haven’t had any problems in La Paz with safety but I can definitely see why La Paz might sketch some people out. Basically, be street smart.