To travel to La Paz, Bolivia, is to arrive in one of the most native and traditional cities on the South American continent. Although La Paz is not the constitutional capital (Sucre is!), it is the executive capital and seat of government, and is by many people regarded as the major city in Bolivia!
La Paz is one of the most interesting cities to travel to in Bolivia due to its unique cultural heritage and indigenous roots, still influencing present-day life in the city. In particular, a visit to The Witches’ Market, imperceptibly woven into the inner streets of La Paz, is an opportunity to explore traditional Bolivia and get insight into the country’s outstanding native culture.
The risk of getting to suffer from altitude sickness, or soroche in Latin American Spanish, can be minimised by approaching the La Paz altitude in the slow way – by bus – instead of flying in. In this way you will probably be able to climb the Andes Mountains without being too much affected.
Once in La Paz, especially when flying in, you will need to take it easy in the beginning to acclimatise. Since lack of sufficient oxygen is the cause of soroche, it is important to keep the need for oxygen down during the first couple of days at high altitude. Moreover, you will also need to ensure that you are sufficiently hydrated by drinking a LOT of water. Additionally, you may opt to follow the locals’ advice on drinking coca tea! In this way you will minimise the risk of getting to suffer from altitude sickness in La Paz.
In 2014 La Paz got its amazing cable car network Mi Teleférico, which is at present the longest aerial cable car system in the world. It serves the La Paz and El Alto metropolitan areas with ultimately 11 lines (Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Orange, White, Sky Blue, Purple, Brown, Silver and Gold) and more than 30 stations.
The Red, Yellow, and Purple lines link the two cities La Paz and El Alto, which are located at two different altitudes, El Alto 400 m (1,300 ft) above La Paz. This means that they until recently have been connected only by winding, crowded roads – often making the trip between them a real nightmare.
Using Mi Teleférico is a great way to explore La Paz from the air, as well as to get from one location to another relatively fast. Get information about the lines.
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Following the narrow streets with a whirl of activity, you will sooner or later arrive at the Mercado de las Brujas, The Witches’ Market run by Bolivia’s witch doctors, yatiris, officially wearing black hats. The cobblestone lanes are just off Calle Sagárnaga. It is a hotspot for the Aymara culture with traditional Andean handicraft products as well as for secret magic.
All kinds of knick-knacks are available, hanging down the shop fronts. Most striking are the dried llama foetuses and baby llamas which appear by the dozen along the street. Whenever the Bolivians build a new house, they bury a llama foetus under the foundation, since it is said to bring good luck. It is a sacrifice to the goddess Pachamama, Mother Earth, and such acts are classified as within white magic.
A whole range of dried products are for sale here among a number of other objects such as magic amulets, Inca mythology and spells. It is not immediately obvious what these peculiar and magic items are, or what they are used for. The vast majority are related to offerings for luck, love and health.
However, black magic with the aim of cursing or destroying someone else is said to exist here, too. Spell boxes, amulets, mystic figures, owl feathers, stones, dried frogs as well as snakes, pink candies and loads of powders with supernatural power are all displayed together with tourist appealing handcrafted goods such as woven bags, alpaca sweaters, ceramics and indigenous-looking dolls.
Powders, amulets and magic
The spiritual world is heavily represented in the shops which are densely stuffed with medical plants and herbs for rituals belonging to the Aymara universe. You can find whatever needed to cast a spell against people or spirits. The three animals from the Incan mythology, the puma, the snake and the condor are also present, symbols of power, wisdom and travel. This turns the market into an interesting place to get the feel of Aymara traditions and beliefs. It can obviously be seen as a cultural heritage from the Incas.
It is a fascinating and astonishing mixture of hocus pocus items. Whatever illness or bad conditions you may suffer from there are remedies to cure it to be found here. Surely, coca leaves and other remedies to prevent altitude sickness as well! Another service provided is fortune-telling, in case you dare and have a wish to look into the future.
Even if the vast majority of the Bolivians are Catholics, they still to a large extent follow old traditions and creed. The locals in Bolivia have in general no hesitation in believing in fortune-tellers or the characteristic La Paz witch doctors, the yatiris.
The square in front of the impressive Basilica of San Francisco is Plaza San Francisco (or Plaza Mayor de San Francisco), which is just round the corner from The Witches’ Market. It is a popular meeting place right in the middle of La Paz and the perfect place for people-watching! Sit down on the stairs and observe everyday life in La Paz in the beautiful square. It is a fine blend of indigenous La Paz and visitors from near and far.
The church is an Andean gold-leaf decorated baroque church, which was constructed in 1547 as a Franciscan convent, dedicated to St Francisco of Assisi. It is today the oldest church in the city of La Paz.
Unfortunately, in 1610, the massive structure collapsed due to an extremely heavy snowfall, and the church wasn’t rebuilt until at few hundred years later.
Close to the Basilica of San Francisco you will find the Museo San Francisco, telling the intricate history of the Franciscan order in Bolivia.
A few streets further to the east, you will arrive at the Plaza Murillo.
The Plaza Murillo is the central square in La Paz, located in the old town near Socabaya Street. It has been the key site for various political revolutionary battles in Bolivia, in more recent years in 1946, 1952 and 2002. In the 1946 conflict there was even a hanging from one of the lampposts here!
Originally, in 1558, the square was designed as part of a rectilinear grid by Juan Gutiérrez Paniagua, and soon colonial buildings appeared, including the government building housing a jail, the Royal Treasury, the Cathedral and the Bishop’s Residence.
The Plaza was originally named the Plaza Mayor, but was during the colonial period renamed Plaza de Armas. Later, after the independence, the name was changed to Plaza 16 de Julio. The square bears its current name Plaza Murillo after Pedro Murillo, a Bolivian leader who was hung by the Spanish troops in 1810 in the independence revolt.
The Plaza Murillo is often filled with pigeons and people crossing it – or chilling on the benches for a while!
Real spectacular is the building of the National Congress of Bolivia which has a clock running counterclockwise!
The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace at the Plaza Murillo is also known as La Paz Cathedral. The current cathedral is a fine neoclassical cathedral from 1835, which features a certain number of baroque elements.
In 1989 two lateral towers were added to La Paz Cathedral, an event that precisely coincided with Pope John Paul II’s arrival in Bolivia.
Do enter the impressive Basilica to see the wonder for yourself!
Continue northwest until you reach Calle Jaén.
The cobblestone street Calle Jaén is a unique and well-preserved example of the colonial building style and era in La Paz. The street name refers to the patriot, Apolinar Jaén, who was born in 1776 – and during his life was engaged in the trade of coca leaves.
Go for a stroll along the colourful houses in the street and notice all the architectural details. The street is also home to some excellent museums related to Bolivia’s history: Museo de Metales Preciosos Precolombinos, the Museo del Litoral Boliviano and Museo Costumbrista Juan de Vargas. Calle Jaén is really a true gem in La Paz!
La Paz is located in a canyon of the Choqueyapu River. There is another city situated right above La Paz on the Altiplano plateau, El Alto. El Alto har a major indigenous population.
Many visitors who travel to Bolivia / La Paz arrive at and get acquainted with El Alto before La Paz, since the airport serving La Paz is El Alto International Airport.
There is a considerable risk of getting to suffer from altitude sickness here. With a span from about 3,700 metres (12,100 feet) in lower La Paz to 4,300 metres (14,100 feet) in El Alto your breath is massively challenged in the beginning when walking around.
Chewing coca leaves, or drinking the coca tea offered everywhere, may, though, relieve a splitting headache and other unpleasant symptoms. This has been practised for thousands of years and is the native way to overcome / prevent altitude sickness.
Watch a cholita wrestling show in La Paz.
Cholitas are the indigenous Bolivian women who dress in traditional clothing, wearing skirt, shawl and a bowler hat. After some years of discrimination, the cholitas have in recent years gained recognition in society, and they are today again proud of their unique cultural heritage.
In this century it has become common that the cholitas perform wrestling shows, battling in the ring, where they show their acrobatic stunts, kicks and punches. They started practising the sport to get more self-confidence, make new friends and enjoy a new kind of power – all along with being more accepted in society. It all developed in an unparalleled way, creating this new entertainment scene in Bolivia.
Read more about cholitas in Bolivia and La Paz: How to be cool and chill cholitas in Bolivia
See: How to Travel Light
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‘Witches’ Market – Travel Guide to La Paz, Bolivia’
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Witches’ Market Travel Guide to La Paz Bolivia