One famous thing about La Paz is that it is the highest Capital city in the world and sits at about 3,500m above sea level – some bits are higher, some lower. Another famous thing is that it hosted the Dakar Rally for a couple of days (this) January 2017. I was lucky enough to travel with the Dakar Rally and stay in La Paz for a day and a half.
Apart from work, my mission during this time was to see and hopefully take pictures of the ladies with bowler hats, and to buy my own alpaca hat with flaps to cover your ears.
We drove in from Oruro and were greeted by a LOT of people, including some dressed as zebras. (Inexplicable).
It is a bigger city than I thought it would be – with the greater metropolitan area having a total population of around 2.3 million.
An unexpected thing was that it is nestled within in the ring of a group of mountains. The houses are built right up to the peaks – some are shanty towns and as these peaks reach about 4,000m it must be a bit grim both because of the altitude and because of the cold. But not all are shanty towns – there are some lovely houses and gardens which I know because …
There are multiple telefericos. There are three, and they are long and have lots of stops along the way. These allow you to navigate a good part of the city by air. That’s gotta be fun, right?
La Paz was established by the Spanish in 1548.
The Spanish Viceroy in Peru established an administrative capital in Sucre and 1558. At this time Cuzco was included within this protectorate as well as parts of Paraguay. But the region was still ultimately governed by Peru.
In 1776 the governing authority of Upper Peru (Bolivia) was moved to Buenos Aires.
Since 1898 the legislative and executive branches of government have been located in La Paz, while the constitutional and judicial capital is Sucre. It is one of the few countries in the world that has two capital cities (can you name another?).
Another historical fact – Bolivian silver mines produced much of the Spanish Empires wealth, and Potosí, site of the famed Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”) was for couple centuries the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. Potosí is closer to Sucre than La Paz. Since the collapse of the silver industry it is has gone from being one of the richest to one of the poorest cities in the world and the Cerro Rico is still being mined for silver, mostly by hand.
The Whistle Stop Tour
Some of the history above I found out from a taxi driver that we hired by the hour to take us on a tour of the city’s main sights.
With limited time, we started early – up at 7am, breakfast and out the door by 8am. We headed straight to the downtown area where most of the tourist sights seemed to be located.
Located in the old town, Plaza Murillo has been the scene of dramatic political battles, with many Independence leaders killed on or near the plaza including Pedro Murillo who was hung in 1810. In 1946 President Gualberto Villarroel was set upon by group of enraged rebels who threw him off a balcony and proceeded to hang him from a lamp-post in the plaza. On a Sunday in January 2017 there were no protests, only an old man feeding pigeons.
Presidential Palace “Palacio Quemado”
The yellow Presidential Palace is located on the edge of the Plaza Murillo and if you are lucky you will be able to see the changing of the guard, which happens once a day. Allegedly the clock in the spire of the Presidential Palace runs anti clockwise – but I didn’t notice it so can’t verify.
The Palace has also born witness to some fairly gory political uprisings, with presidents being hung, committing suicide and being flung from balconies. The last being President Villarroel as mentioned above.
Described on Google maps as a ‘Monumental neoclassical cathedral’. The main Cathedral that is located on Plaza Murillo is big, but not as beautiful on the inside as the nearby Iglesia San Francisco.
Iglesia San Francisco
Construction started on the church in 1743 – after the previous building collapsed under a ‘significant snowfall’. Mass was underway when we visited so I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos – especially because of the ‘do not take photos’ signs. But it is very ornate, very beautiful and peaceful. There is also a convent and cloister within.
Still in the same area – the Casco Viejo, the Calle Jaen is a tiny alley that is the home for a number of small and contemporary galleries. Most were shut on the Sunday that we visited, but it should be on the list for visitors to La Paz.
My mission to buy a Bolivian hat made of alpaca wool and with flaps over the ears was accomplished in the one of the many shops on the streets around the Iglesia San Francisco. This is also the location of the infamous ‘witches market’. If you are looking for a remedy for an ailment, searching for wealth or looking to exact revenge on a cheating partner, La Paz’s Witches Market (Mercado de Hechecería or Mercado de las Brujas), is the place to go. In high demand are the dried llama foetuses which go into the foundations of new buildings to ward off evil spirits.
The short time that I was in La Paz doesn’t give me a great deal of authority as an expert but what I saw I liked … (in the same vein as ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like). My conclusion was that it is an intriguing city that doesn’t reveal all its secrets at once and that you need to start talking to people to understand better.
Other Agatha Bertram blogs –
Dakar Rally – Starting in Asuncion and finishing in Buenos Aires, a worms eye of the famous Dakar Rally.
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