It’s a shame how your entrance to a city can affect your overall impression of it. I had not long been in Bolivia when I took a local bus from Copacabana to the capital, La Paz – a journey that was supposed to take just over three hours, but slowly and painfully extended to five, meaning I entered the city in not the best of moods…
The landscapes on the journey from the shores of Lake Titicaca and through the mountains had been spectacular – especially as the sun set and the great big full moon came out. But my contentment crumbled away when we hit the sprawling suburbs of La Paz, in rush hour. An undeterminable amount of lanes of solid traffic stretched for miles, while the same grocery store, pharmacy, metal workshop and garage seemed to appear every few hundred yards, making me think it was just a rolling scenery screen from a cartoon.
The bus then decided to terminate not at the bus terminal – because “Nobody wants to get off there” – but instead in the Cemetery district. Trying desperately to hail a taxi, I stood with my pile of luggage where the bus had deposited me in the road. Locals daringly skipped between ruthless vehicles – my taxi nearly killed about five people by the time we reached the hostel.
I stepped over rubbish bags and mounds of hair that had been piled outside a hairdressers, to reach the door of the hostel I’d selected as the cheapest in town (El Solario; £2 p/p). Things didn’t improve once I was inside – I was buzzed through a metal barred gate and stepped into a fluorescent strip-lit stairwell. My room was on the third floor, with only an internal window and a lumpy bed.
I vowed that night to get out of La Paz as soon as possible, not caring what it might have to offer upon deeper exploration.
I spent three nights in La Paz, and every day I walked the city, which seemed marginally better than that first night, but I still couldn’t get it out of my head that the place was a dump. The city centre consisted of tragic, once-elegant colonial buildings that were being left to rot, and oppressive 1960s office blocks.
I have been in the mayhem of many capital cities, but somehow their pandemonium was vibrant and proactive. It seems the people of La Paz have been in a state of chaos for so long they have simply become accustomed to it; therefore no one challenges the rubbish-strewn streets, the broken pavements, the dilapidated buildings and the jumble of electricity cables on every lamppost. Only one elderly lady spoke out as I negotiated a three-lane onslaught of traffic with her: “Qué desgracia! Qué desgracia!” She exclaimed as we dodged honking taxis and fuel-belching buses dating from the 1950s.
One short street of well-preserved colonial buildings, some cosy European-style coffee shops and old-fashioned, creaking bookshops were redeeming features of the city for me, but otherwise my mind had been made up – my escape ticket out of La Paz had been booked.
(You won’t find any photos of La Paz here as I was too scared to take my camera out.)
My tips for La Paz
- The street of well-preserved colonial buildings is Calle Jaen. There are four museums along this street for which you can buy a combined ticket.
- Hostal El Solario (Murillo 776) was basic, but clean and friendly. Also has a well-run travel agency downstairs through which I booked my Salar de Uyuni tour, which was good.
Eating and drinking (my favourite things to do)
- Coffee shops and cafés I enjoyed included Café Angelo Colonial in the vaults of the Museo Nacional de Arte, but accessed from Calle Socabaya. Next door, the Hotel Torino’s restaurant and separate café looked good, too.
- If you’re craving the comfort of some home-cooking like I was, head to the English pub Oliver’s for bangers and mash, cottage pie and pints of PG Tips. Good sofas and book exchange make for a cosy afternoon, too. It’s moved up the stairs above Sol y Luna (Murillo with Cochabamba), a bar-restaurant serving tasty Dutch dishes.
- For quick and budget food, Eli’s Pizza is a 1950s-established chain of American-style diners. The branch at Avenida 16 de Julio serves dishes such as stuffed potatoes and salteñas as well as their ‘famous’ pizzas.
How to escape
- Thankfully, flights now operate between La Paz and Uyuni (TAM are cheapest, book through a travel agency as their website is rubbish; Amaszonas also fly this route – www.amaszonas.com), so if you’re heading for the salt flats tour, you no longer need to endure the 12-hour bus journey.
- Buses leave to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca (3-5 hours), Santa Cruz and Uyuni among other destinations every day.
Postscript: I have since revisited La Paz, with quite a different point of view…!