I have wanted to tour Bolivia since I fell in love with this South America back in 2007. The prominence of the indigenous culture and the diversity of its land intrigued me to the max. After a month backpacking, here’s a list of the top things to do in La Paz and beyond.
Over half of Bolivia’s population belongs to an indigenous community, which means that there traditional culture is still very much a part of what you see and experience on a daily basis. Many people speak a native language as a primary language, in addition to Spanish, traditional dress is everywhere, and coca leaves have a place in pretty much everyone’s pocket.
Indigenous women walk around the city wearing beautifully colored skirts, with their long shiny black braids and tiny derby hats. Often, they are carrying extremely heavy loads (or babies!) in blankets tied to their backs. It is difficult to imagine the hard life that many of these women live.
Many people make their living through farming or a form of selling – be it fruits/veggies, handmade crafts, typical juices, or food in the plaza, on the streets, or from a restaurant out of their home.
Going in, I knew Bolivia would be an experience. When I backpacked South America in 2010, I met many fellow travelers that told me I just had to travel and tour Bolivia. While every story had tales of incredible land and interesting cultural insights, I must admit that they shared some not so pleasant experiences – broken buses, travel stopping strikes, and mixed reviews of customer service. Every traveler seemed to agree that, when going to Bolivia, you need to add an extra couple days of “just in case.”
The good news is, while we did have a few issues, Bolivia didn’t dissapoint!! Here are my tips to tour Bolivia like a pro, starting with things to do in La Paz, it’s capital city.
Tour Bolivia Safely.
Things to do in La Paz (or not do) … don’t drive!!
La Paz is a vertically sprawling city. Thousands of clay houses climbing high up into the mountains. It was quite striking to see the deep green mountains peeking out from the areas that had less housing development.
La Paz, though, is a functionally chaotic place. I seriously have never in my life seen such hectic driving. I honestly don’t know if there are traffic rules or it’s just a free flowing jungle. There are seemingly millions of extremely old cars zig-zagging through 7-8 way traffic. And, no, that’s not 7-8 lanes. That’s 2 (albeit relatively wide) lanes but with absolutely no order. Cars literally just zoom alongside, in front of, around…. Whatever little space they see, they make it happen. Please, don’t drive, just pay someone who knows the road!!
Tour Bolivia Deliciously.
Things to do in La Paz: eat a rellena and drink coca leaf tea!!
La Paz is at an elevation of 13,500 feet / 3640 meters, which means that you could experience altitude problems your first few days. You might have a slight headache, find yourself tight chested or your heart pounding as you walk the steep city streets.
Stop for an occasional coca tea at a local cafe!! Coca leaves are a natural, legal and traditional remedy for altitude funkiness. Coca leaves have forever been used in local Andean culture for nutritional, religious, and medical purposes. When I climb high altitude mountains, we often bring coca leaves for tea and water.
My friend Teresa and my’s favorite snack was the rellena. Similiar to the an empanada, it is a dough made out of either plantains, potatoes, or rice and then filled with raisins, potatoes, meat, and vegetables. It was finger lickin good!! The best part was opening it a bit and then adding whatever toppings you want: a spicy chile paste, a spicy peanut sauce, cabbage, and/or cucumbers. Yummy, yummy, yummy. And, did I mention it costs less than $1USD?!
Tour Bolivia Magically
Things to do in La Paz: Catch a spell at the Witches Market!!
Bolivians are very in touch with Mother Nature. In fact, her name is “Pachamama.” While there are many things to do in La Paz and various types of markets all over the city, the one of particular interest is the Witches Market.
In the La Paz Witches Market you will find all types of statues and figures of higher-beings, salts and sweets to burn for Pachamama, medicinal herbs, and all sorts of interesting things.
Being someone that feels very linked to Mother Nature and this world around me, I like the idea of Pachamama. I bought her statue which consists of 3 heads, Pachamama in the middle and with the other 2 representing family. A turtle surrounds her for good health, a frog for wealth, and a snake for protection. In all, it is the energy of this world!
For me, Pachamama is good reminder that I can’t control everything and that I am only one part of this incredible world. In the end, I need to respect it and do what I can to make it what I want it to be.
Tour Bolivia Luckily.
Things to do in La Paz: Keep an eye out for the llama fetus!!
Another interesting find was the thousands of bird-looking llama fetuses tied together and hanging, or sitting, in heaps. Wait… what?! Why, you might ask? When some purchases one of these llama fetuses, a Witch blesses it and wraps it in brightly colored llama wool. Then, the person takes it home and buries it for good omen and a watchful eye.
This belief is deeply rooted in their culture. It’s estimated that 90%+ homes have one of these llama fetuses (sullus). Additionally, as I was told, many construction workers will not work on a property if it has not yet been blessed. These llama fetuses are also buried around the New Year in preparation for a healthy and prosperous next 365 days.
So, how do they get these fetuses? From what I was told, it is normal for not all the young to survive when a mother llama has babies. When she has still-born babies or a miscarriage, people give them to the witches. So, while I’m sure there are some sacrifices, I’m hoping too many baby llamas aren’t prematurely killed!
The woman from whom I bought my Pachamama was supposedly a witch. While I had seen the statue at many areas in the witches market, when this soft-spoken woman started talking to me, with the way she explained the Pachamama, I knew I wanted to buy from her. She seemed so wise and had such a warm presence. She told me about natural healing, uses for some of local Andean plants, and about some of the salts/sweets were burned and when/how to use them.
Tour Bolivia Unprejudiced-ly
Things to do in La Paz: Take it as it is.
For people in the USA or Europe, the concept of the Witches Market, Pachamama or the llama fetus might seem strange. Or, against religion. Or, whatever else. But, in the end, these are people that are practicing customs that are thousands of years old.
I’m not to say whether or not they have true powers to cure, give blessings, or see into your soul… but I am sure they are in touch with this world on a level we can’t even process. And that alone definitely gives them an insight we don’t have. Whether or not you agree, it’s important to value and respect the traditions of local cultures.
There are many things that just don’t work in Bolivia, aren’t very efficient, don’t go as planned or don’t make sense to you. But, Bolivia is a beautiful, culturally rich and geographically diverse country that deserves you to go in with an open mind and take it as it is. Enjoy it’s differences. Learn something new. Look at something from a new perspective. Whatever it is that Bolivia makes you see, be grateful for it. It’s a special place.
Tour Bolivia After a Breakfast of Champions.
Things to do in La Paz: Sit at cute cafes and savor fresh, crunchy bread.
There are so many cute little cafes if you bum the side streets. And, the breakfasts are cheap and outta this world!! Fresh, crunchy bread, jams made of fresh fruits, coca tea, fruit, and fresh squeezed or blended fruit juices. We couldn’t get enough!
Tour Bolivia Courageously.
Things to do in La Paz: Bike Death Road!!
Okay, I’m gonna save this for a whole ‘nother article because it’s such an adventure that’s theres’s too much to tell. It’s a story that deserves it’s own spotlight. I celebrated my birthday by biking Yungas Road, aka, the world’s deadliest road. It was quite the celebration of life.
Put together an epic plan and tour Bolivia off the beaten path.
After a couple days, head out of the city!! Bolivia is a geographically diverse country with so much to explore. Check out the rest of the articles and set your “what not to miss in Bolivia” list!
- Uyuni Salt Flat Tours and the famous funky perspective photos
- Bike Yungas Road, aka, Bolivia’s Death Road
- Visit Coroico, a colorful little jungle village and it’s hidden waterfalls
- Take the Cable Car across the skies of Cochamba
- Check out the jungly Villa Tunari
- Spend a few days in Copacabana and Sun Island, Isla de Sol
- If you get caught in a strike, don’t worry, so did we. What to do?