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La Paz is Bolivia’s principal city and at 3,600 meters (11,811 feet), is the world’s highest capital. Although Sucre is Bolivia’s official capital, La Paz is the actual seat of government and commercial centre. Spanish conquistadores founded the city in 1548 on the site of Choqueyapu, a busy Aymara village located on the strategic trade route between the Bolivian silver mines and the Pacific ports. Bolivia has the highest proportion of indigenous people of any country in South America, a fact not lost on any visitor to La Paz.

 

 

Relatively untouched by tourists, La Paz offers visitors a fascinating and genuine glimpse into South American life.

 

 

The drive from the airport to the city centre is unforgettable. You bump along poor roads passing slums and street markets until, rounding a corner, the ground suddenly falls away on one side and the great bowl of La Paz unfolds before you in what can only be described as one of the most dramatic skylines anywhere in the world. Modern skyscrapers soar from the pit, where a carpet of squat adobe dwellings claw their way up its steep lip, the diameter of which stretches nearly five km (three miles) from rim to rim. Majestic Illimani’s three snow-covered peaks dominate the horizon while all around, the Altiplano and snow-crowned summits of the Cordillera Real stand out against the deep blue sky.

 

 

The poorer districts of La Paz lie higher up and the wealthier districts lower down. The shanty adobe houses of El Alto, the satellite district that now contests La Paz for size, sprawl from the edge of the Altiplano high above the city centre. In contrast, the lower Zona Sur region is warmer, wealthier and altogether more comfortable than the city centre, and is favoured by expatriate families and wealthier Bolivians.

 

 

Notwithstanding the comforts of Zona Sur, nothing captures the essence of La Paz like the city centre: breathlessly steep cobbled streets lined with vendors; pulsating, seemingly—endless markets; and a huge population of indigenous women clad in bowler hats and brightly coloured traditional costumes, all set against the backdrop of Illimani and the chatter of Aymara.

 

 

Aside from the effects of high altitude, La Paz is an easy city to navigate on foot. A single main road lined with skyscrapers runs along the base of the canyon through the heart of the city centre, various points along the way being Ismael Montes, Mariscal Santa Cruz, Villazón and 16 de Julio (“the Prado”). If ever unsure of your location in La Paz, simply head downhill or towards the skyscrapers to return to the city centre.

 

Though cuisine is not often regarded as one of Bolivia’s more noteworthy points, the food can be delicious and invariably inexpensive. One of the highlights of local dining is the almuerzo or fixed lunch, which generally consists of a starter or salad, large bowl of soup, main course, dessert and possibly coffee, all for $1-2. Salteñas, mid-morning snacks of beef, chicken or vegetarian filling in a pastry ball, are also a delight. Don’t miss the delicious meat dishes of lechón (roasted pork), chicharron (deep-fried pork) and anticuchos (night-time beef heart kebabs—sounds disgusting, tastes divine). You can also purchase superb fruit and vegetables at ridiculously low prices in any of La Paz’s many food markets.



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