Bolivia is often in the route of any backpacker traveling around South America, however there’s not that much information on why you should visit it and what to do besides Salar the Uyuni and the Death Road.
We only had 3 days in La Paz, that by the way isn’t really Bolivia’s capital; the capital is Sucre. During our time in Bolivia we realized that we could easily spend a week around the country to make most of it, but since it was too late for any rearrangement, here’s a list of the 5 amazing things you could do when visiting La Paz:
1. Watch Cholitas Wrestling
What the heck is Cholitas wrestling? Cholitas Wrestling my friend, is the most peculiar and awesome local thing to do in La Paz. The show is in a non-touristic area of the city, so I would highly recommend you to book a tour – most Hostels will offer that.
So, you are still wondering what is that and why you should go?! Hold on, I’ll tell you! Cholas are how in the past people use to call the Bolivian native women in a pejorative way, nowadays its considered a crime to discriminate them and the Cholitas, how they kindly call them now, are free to go around and visit places that they weren’t supposed to go before.
They use a specific type of outfit; long puffy skirt, braided hair and a British male hat. If you are walking around the city centre you probably going to spot few of them.
Basically the Cholitas wrestling are those women fighting dressed traditionally. It’s definitely the coolest, weirdest thing you going to see in La Paz.
The tours run every Thursday and Sunday night, please go on Sunday as you going to experience that together with locals. It really is worth it!
2. Visit one of the largest flea markets in the world
Within La Paz district, the expanding El Alto neighborhood became its own city; at a higher altitude than La Paz, El Alto is considered one of the most dangerous places in Bolivia. So, why should you risk and explore it? Well, you definitely shouldn’t do it on your own, but when visiting El Alto you will be able to see one of the largest flea markets in the world.
The market starts as soon as you drop off from the cable car; if you do decide to go on your own, please remember to not have any valuable object on you, it’s recommended to not have even your original passport in this area as people can pretend to be police officers to steal from you. They also try to distract you in all possible ways, so they can “pick pocket” you. Greg was one of their victims; they spitted on him, so he would take his hands out of the pocket giving them free access to it, however we had been advised by our guide that this could happen and fortunately, Greg kept his hands where were and nothing was stolen.
You can find all sort of things at this market, from car’s parts to underwear and you sure can see how the local life is in here. Towards the end of the street there’s another witches market, bigger than the one in La Paz; if you are doing it with a tour they will tell you both, cool and creepy Bolivian traditions.
We’ve done it with the Red Cap walking tour, where we combined El Alto and Cholitas Wrestling on the same day. We had a great time with them.
3. Go to the public cemetery to see the best graffiti in the city
Bolivians are very attached to their family and although majority of population is catholic, they do believe in life after death.
The traditions around a funeral are enormous, from burying their beloved ones with all sort of things they used to like in life to not keep paying for their mausoleum after 5 years of the death, so the family member can finally move on into his next life.
So, with so many mixed and rich cultural values, the public cemetery in La Paz is definitely a must see “attraction”.
I believe this cemetery is different than most of the ones in other countries: it’s rather festive than a sad place. The government promotes a street art contest and the winners get a wall over there to present their best job. Instead of dark graves you will find a very colorful place. You can’t miss it!
4. Hike the former highest ski station in the world
Here’s where you realize global warming is a real threat. Chacaltaya mountain is at 6,000 meters above the sea level and used to be the highest ski station in the world.
All the snow that used to be there has melted and the ski station is now abandoned. We didn’t have to hike from the bottom of the mountain to its top as cars can go up to 5,500 meters leaving you with just a short distance to go by foot.
Because of the altitude, hiking can be harder than you think, so make sure you have plenty of water and either Coca leaves or floral alcohol to help you on the way. Going slow is also advisable.
The view from the top is surreal and if you manage to get there in less than half an hour make sure you go to the next stretch. The guide normally recommends people to stay no longer than 45 minutes around the mountain because of the lack of oxygen.
If you lucky, you may get to see a Bolivian celebration over there.
5. Check out the place Neil Armstrong compared to the moon
The first astronaut to stomp on the moon visited Bolivia and while golfing, saw, what he said looked like, the surface of the moon. Since then, La Paz is base of the Vale de la Luna – the moon valley.
You can visit this place on your own as public transportation will leave you there, the entrance fee is 3BS and the circuit to go around the cool sort of canyon shaped walls lasts about 40 minutes.
Besides the place, on your way there you will notice the wealth difference between the downtown and this area as the moon valley is located in a rich neighborhood.
There’s not much to see, but what there is, is totally worth it.
Why the death road is not on our list?
You may be wondering why we didn’t add Death Road to our itinerary in La Paz; well, we actually did.
We had the tour booked and everything ready to go on the infamous Death Road in Bolivia, however just 4 days before we had planned to cheat death, a fatal accident happened right there.
We were in La Paz during the rain season and the Death Road is more tricky than usual. We actually didn’t believe that accidents could really happen since is one of the biggest tourist attraction in the country …until it happened!
We opted to cancel our tour for 2 reasons:
1. Dying was really a possibility
2. We wouldn’t enjoy ourselves as much as we would like
Why do I say that? Because after knowing that somebody lost their life in a tour that was supposed to be fun, you realize that you may be so scared, that won’t be a pleasant experience at all.
We did hear from other travelers that it was a good tour and that few people actually fell during the time, but nothing worrying. We also heard that there’s more deaths than what is out in the media. We obviously can’t confirm whether it’s true or not.
For us, the safest option was not to go, do I recommend it? If you are confident enough with your bike skills and if the weather permits, yeah sure! Otherwise I think it doesn’t worth the risk.
Let me know if you need any other tip!