First Impressions of La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz Bolivia

La Paz is a sprawling city with a lot of traffic. Another thing it has a lot of is hills, which when you’re already struggling with lack of oxygen at nearly 4,000 metres above sea level makes it hard going. Even when going downhill I found myself worrying because I know that what goes down will eventually go back up again.


Lots of hills in La Paz…

On first sight I didn’t like the city much; it was too crowded and the traffic was manic with this constant tooting of horns. Then again, I felt the same way about Bangkok when I first went there, yet given time it turned out to be one of my favourite cities. Who’s to say that the same wouldn’t have happened with La Paz if I had given it time? However in the end I stayed just four full days, so we’ll never know. It was a relief to leave and get down to lower ground.


Near calle Sagarnaga

My hostel was right on Sagarnaga street, a street full of shops. Very touristy but interesting all the same. The shops sell the usual array of inca-style bags, table cloths, jewellery etc, along with the ever-present alpaca sweaters and scarves.

‘Isn’t there somewhere less touristy to buy alpaca?’, I asked the guide on my walking tour, ‘I mean where do you buy stuff like that from?’

Well the answer is that they don’t; hand-knitted sweaters and woven scarves are popular with visitors but the locals don’t buy that kind of stuff. It looks like if I wanted to buy myself an alpaca sweater I was just going to have to bite the bullet and become a tourist.

Just a block down from Sagarnaga is the famous witches market.  It’s a fascinating place; you can buy all kinds of things from a powder to make your latest crush fall hopelessly in love with you (very midsummer night’s dream) to llama foetuses (which you bury in the foundations of your new home/business to bring good fortune).

witches market

Witches market

witches market

Another interesting thing about La Paz is the prison. It sits right on San Pedro square in the centre of the city, behind an imposing wall.


San Pedro square, sometimes called Sucre square.  The prison is just out of sight behind the statue

It has an unusual history. On entering the prison inmates purchase a cell; the wealthier inmates live in luxury with cable TV, Jacuzzis and a wifi connection stolen from a nearby hotel. There is more modest accommodation available for rent, however anyone unable to pay is basically left to the elements. Often a prisoner’s family will move in with him (to save paying two rents), although the family are, of course, free to leave anytime.

It became notorious for offering (illegal) tours inside; at one point these tours were featured in the Lonely Planet guide. Many visitors went in order to enjoy some of the purest cocaine in South America, which was produced inside the prison.

If you want to know more about the incredible-but-true story of the prison I really recommend the book Marching Powder by Rusty Young, an Australian writer who spent time inside as a guest of British drug smuggler Thomas Mcfadden. I downloaded it from Amazon and it kept me quiet for the whole journey from La Paz down to Sucre.  The story is compelling.  The film rights to the book have apparently been bought up by Brad Pitt (in case you can’t be arsed to read the book and would rather wait until it comes out in a film version).


San Fransisco church, La Paz

My first day in La Paz I was hanging out in San Pedro square, waiting for my walking tour to begin, when I had an encounter with Mad Dave (although at this point I just knew him as Dave).

Dave is a New Yorker who hangs out at the square every day looking for people to listen to him talk about his experiences inside San Pedro prison. According to Dave, he was locked up inside for fourteen years, after attempting to smuggle cocaine across the border. He was released from prison last year and is now sleeping rough in La Paz, hoping at some point to make it back to the family he left behind all those years ago in the US.

He tells his story very eloquently, so I was somewhat disappointed to learn (when I shared my story of this encounter with the tour guide) that Dave actually had never been an inmate. A more likely scenario is that he went inside as a visitor, back in the days when visitors were welcome to go in and sample the pure cocaine.  Many of those visitors chose to stay for long periods of time, in order to par-tey.

Well he was very entertaining anyway; I still think my ten bolivianos (about £1) ‘donation’ to his cause was money well spent.

20 replies »

  1. So many interesting things about this place…witch markets, Dave, the fact that the prison let visitors try cocaine…wow lol. I totally understand not connecting with a place right away. I’ve learned that not every place is going to be the place for you. Sometimes a place never grows on you, no matter how long you stay there and that’s ok. At least you got to experience it. At least that’s what I tell myself 🙂

    • Yes you’re right. If I’d stayed longer I might have grown to love it but I might not. It’s one of those places you file away as ‘interesting’ I think

    • Yes I was there on my own. I wouldn’t say it was a safe place exactly, although I had no problems. It’s just important to take the usual big city precautions. Some areas are known as unsafe, such as El Alto and so I went there with a walking tour. In the evenings I mainly went to places nearby so I walked home; the 1 time I didn’t I got someone to call a taxi for me.

  2. I think La Paz sounds fascinating, but I can see why you might not have liked it as much as other cities. It’s really hard to be at that elevation when you’re not used to it, and then add a chaotic city and it’s not necessarily all that fun.

  3. Hi Sarah Ha ha ha Mad Dave. Did you buy some of the love potion just in case 😉 I love the whole idea of the prison and was aware of the Rusty Young and the Brad Pitt thing. It’s unbelievable isn’t it that families would ‘move into’ the prison to safe rent. I can see that catching on here when all the Prisons become Academias lol 😉 As always with my love xx

    • Yes the book is revetting; it plays to all the stereotypes we have about these corrupt south American countries.
      And no I don’t need love dust, my general magnetism is sufficient 🙂 yeah right.

  4. Sounds like such a crazy city and somewhere we would definitely love to explore one day! Would also love to meet mad Dave, he sounds interesting! Haha

    • Actually I still think Dave was an interesting character. Even if what he said wasn’t strictly true I think the gist of his story was true (even if it didn’t actually happen to him) and he told the story very well.

  5. Sounds like Dave is very good an “pan handling”! At least he makes it interesting unlike people who sit on a street corner with a sign that says “will work for food”. BTW, love that photo of the ladies in colorful clothes carrying their big bags!

  6. I’d love to visit Bolivia and La Paz, although there’s lots of other places in Bolivia that draw me too! I’m not great with altitude either!

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