I’ve lived in La Paz for six weeks now and am finally getting used to the insane traffic, bustling fruit markets and lung-burning altitude. When you can finally breathe properly, you realise that the highest city in the world is a treasure trove of fascinating places to eat, drink and be merry. Here are my favourites.
MARKET El Alto market
La Paz’s poorer, vaguely untrustworthy little brother is the city of El Alto, perched high up on the hill. El Alto’s vibrant market is a bit like a sensorial punch in the face: everything from second hand clothes and greasy cogs and wheels to boxes full of squirming puppies are sold in a hot smog of cooking smells and car exhaust. If you have the stamina to hunt, there are real treasures to be unearthed, although it’s best not to take your own treasures with you – children roam the stalls picking the pockets of browsers.
HOSTEL Loki hostel
Loki is not for the faint-hearted. This modern hostel and lively bar hosts young international backpackers, and whilst the facilities and location are fine, guests are all here for the fun. Drunken merriment in the upstairs bar is guaranteed; a good night’s sleep is less likely. The first time we Loki-ed it up we arrived for a quiet drink and ended up being plied with tequila and dancing on the bar in alpaca jumpers. Head on a Saturday, as they have themed nights that end in debauchery.
RESTAURANT: La Coca
If you want authentic Bolivian cuisine without the worry of food poisoning from a dodgy saltena stall, La Coca is for you. Cosy and simple inside, the offerings are equally simple but taste incredible, and they do a brilliant three-course lunch menu for 22bolivianos (about 2). The red quinoa soup makes me make involuntary happy noises, and their fresh strawberry juice is pink nirvana.
COFFEE SHOP: Café Blueberries
Our local for hungover Sundays, Blueberries is a friendly little garden café that manages to feel calm and relaxed in the centre of buzzing La Paz. The pancakes made from Andean blueberries are out of this world – combine them with fresh coffee and orange juice and the world seems like a better place.
Mongo’s is the best of both worlds. The epitome of cosy pub for the first part of the evening, with wood fires crackling merrily in different parts of its warren-like rooms, by midnight, in true Cinderella style, Mongo’s becomes a busy club, with live music, Salsa lessons and a happy, noisy crowd. They also excel in making two of my favourite things, namely mojitos and steaks, so they get my vote.
MUSEUM: Etnografia y folklore
Possibly two of the loveliest historical displays I have ever seen live in this little treasure of a museum, converted from a beautiful colonial building complete with carved wooden balconies. The first is their exhibition of Bolivian carnival masks, a huge, darkly lit corridor of gorgeous and grotesque caricatures, all of which with a long, intricate history to their meaning and a specific dance to accompany them. The second is a display of feather art and costume from around the country, a room I could spend days in – the enormous plumed hats, headdresses and even feathered nasal piercings are fascinating.
STREET: Sagarnaga and Linares
This block may be a little bit of a tourist trap, but it’s worth the gringo prices and occasional tacky souvenir place for the gorgeous rainbow of alpaca clothes and tapestries on sale, hanging over doorways and tumbling out of the shops into the street like a woolly rainbow. The fascinating Coca museum and the bizarre witches market (magical llama fetus, anyone?) stop a trip to Sagarnaga being purely about buying pretty things.
DAY TRIP: Valley of the Moon
Technically defined as ‘badlands’, La Valle de la Luna looks, as the name suggests, like a moonscape. Huge raggedy rock teeth rise from the ground and Andean cacti and flowers grow in their crevices. Walk all around them and enjoy the rather otherworldly calm they emit – it feels like light years away from the city.