We had no expectations for La Paz. Two days before we arrived, fresh (actually, not so fresh) off of our salt flats tour, we were still on the fence about whether to go at all. But the availability of an overnight bus from Uyuni touted as being less awful than all other long-distance Bolivian buses clinched the deal. After 10 bone-jarring, freezing hours careening around unpaved roads, all I can say is that the other buses must be brutal. We got to La Paz early in the morning, bleary-eyed and in need of recuperation, with plans to stay for a night or two before moving on. We ended up staying for five nights. We explored the city but also found time to sleep in, go to the movies for the first time on this trip, eat lots of great food, and get a bit more acclimated to the altitude– although we still got breathless from even small inclines.
La Paz is an unwieldy, sprawling city. The center is in a valley, though still at 3,500 meters–I recognize that altitude is a big theme on here lately. There are high rises and historic churches surrounded by hills, with the buildings growing more ramshackle as the heights increase. Gorgeous, snowcapped Mount Illimani looms over the city. It’s a surprisingly fast-paced place that also manages to feel like a giant marketplace. Literally everything is for sale on the street, from the typical woven crafts and street food to knockoff electronics and Brian’s fancy new “Swiss Army” knife. The indigenous Aymara make up the majority of the city’s population, many distinctively dressed in Chola clothing (bowler hats, boots, voluminous skirts). Highlights of our visit (other than the movie theater) included exploration of massive local markets (including the famed–but tiny and mostly gross– witches’ market), attempts to avoid the daily rain storms, trying a handful of great restaurants (including impressive but out-of-context Gustu, from one of the founders of Noma), and checking out the gorgeous Iglesia de San Francisco. We left the city rested and ready to take on the Inca Trail, after just a few days at Lake Titicaca.