Everyone that we had talked to and everything that we had read said that 1 day in La Paz was enough. The books all made it out to be a city where you stopover, and not spend any true time in. Since Andy and I typically like cities that others don’t, we weren’t really surprised when we really liked La Paz.
The city was very clean, was much more developed than we were lead to believe and had lots of things to see and do.
Bus Ride from Copacabana to La Paz
The bus that we took from Puno to Copacabana was really great. In order to avoid getting on a bus that we didn’t like much, we booked the same company to take us from Copacabana to La Paz, or so we thought.
When we booked our tickets, I was a little surprised that the ticket was hand written and no seats were assigned. I figured that this is maybe how things were done in Bolivia and didn’t think too much more about it.
The day of our bus ride, Andy went up to the bus terminal to double check the departure time while I waited for our lunch. When he came back he told me that our bus was not the same bus that we took from Peru, it was a much more basic bus. He then pointed out on our ticket that it said Diana Tours not Huayruro Tours, the company that we had taken originally.
While we toyed with the idea of losing our 30B or $4.50 each to take another company, I figured it couldn’t be that bad, opting instead to save the money and treat ourselves to a nicer dinner when we hit La Paz.
When we were able to get on the bus, I scoped out a good seat. This to me meant that I had a gringo behind me which made my bags feel more safe, something that I have been very aware of since our attempted bus robbing in Ecuador. There were quite a few gringos on the bus as the bulk of the seats were taken by a large group of 20 somethings as part of a tour.
The bus itself was very basic and reminded us of our first bus ride of the trip from Belize City to Flores, Guatemala. We knew that the buses in Bolivia would be basic so I wasn’t surprised when there was no air conditioning, only windows that opened. Surprisingly, the seats were actually quite comfortable and we had a decent amount of legroom.
We were told after driving about 45 minutes we would need to cross a ferry, then return to the bus. We took a few pictures of the bus getting onto a barge to cross the river before securing our tickets to get on the ferry. Others pushed and shoved, but I am trying to be less aggressive and more relaxed on this trip. I waited in line, not pushing to get on an immediate ferry. When our ferry left, Andy and I looked at each other and got a sinking feeling in our stomachs. We were the only ones from our bus on the next ferry, everyone else was already on the other side of the river. Even though every seat on the bus was taken, we weren’t sure if anyone would notice if we weren’t there, starting to panic as to what would happen with our bags and how we would get to La Paz should the bus leave without us. As is standard in South America, the ferry operator would not leave until the boat was completely full. We had to sit there, watching our bus, praying that it would not leave before we got there. Once the ferry was full, we took what was possibly the slowest boat ride of my life across the water. Once we docked, we ran as fast as we could to the bus, not an easy feat in the 12,600’ altitude. Less than a minute after we were on the bus, it left. We still are not sure if the bus was waiting for us or if it would have left without us, but are thankful that we made it.
To say that the bus ride to La Paz was direct would be less than accurate. One of the best stops we made was a 5 minute stop at a local restaurant, where the driver got out and flirted with a woman while eating a ice cream novelty. Andy caught it all on camera.
When we arrived in La Paz, we were dropped off at the tour office, not the bus terminal. Andy retrieved our bags which were covered in dirt after being stored under the bus. Luckily, we have bag protectors which save our actual backpacks from getting dirty in situations like this. After hailing a taxi, we were on our way to our hotel.
Things We Did and Saw in La Paz
One of the things that we knew we wanted to do in La Paz was ride the cable cars. I had read how La Paz had decided to use cable cars for public transportation as it would be prohibitively expensive to create an underground subway and buses would only increase already heavy traffic.
For 3B or 43 cents each, Andy and I were able to ride the cable cars. We took only the yellow and green lines as they were closest to our hotel and the direction that we needed to go to see other attractions.
When we got on the cable cars, we were surprised just how clean they were. They seemed like they were cleaned regularly and the windows were not scratched or covered in graffiti. This impressed us as we know how hard it can be to keep public transportation clean.
The ride was fun and we always felt safe. We were able to get a great view of the city and even noticed that the cable cars had solar panels on the top, something that we didn’t expect from a developing country.
Since we were staying in Sopocachi, we knew that we wanted to check out the more tourist heavy areas around the old quarter. Instead of taking public transit or a taxi there, we walked the 30 or so minutes to downtown, experiencing the neighborhoods along the way.
Even though Sucre is the capital of Bolivia, La Paz is the government headquarters of the city. We walked around and saw all of the government buildings including the security guards, dressed in traditional Bolivian gear, who protect the buildings. We also saw the equivalent of the CIA with their black SUVs, parked outside of the buildings.
Similar to Bogota, there were hoards of pigeons around the old quarter. It was arguably worse than Bogota though as there were a number of different vendors who sold bird food, making the problem even worse.
There were several churches in the area and while nice, didn’t impress us much, especially after the beautiful basilica we visited in Quito.
As we were walking around the historic part of town, we saw a free walking tour going on. We always hear a lot about these from other travelers and have considered joining, but decided to do our own tour, going at our own pace.
After visiting the artisanal market where we picked up a keychain which we’ll repurpose into a Christmas ornament, we headed back to our hotel. It was an interesting part of town but we were happy that we were staying in a neighborhood outside of the tourist center instead.
Valley of the Moon
One of the most interesting attractions that we saw in La Paz was the valley of the moon. The pictures that we saw made it look very interesting with large spikes of rock, making it look otherworldly.
There were tours, but always liking to do things on our own instead, we spoke with Zach, the owner of our hotel who told us how to get there by public transportation. We took the cable cars down and then tried to take a collectivo, or shared taxi, from there. After about 20 minutes of waiting and seeing only jam packed collectivos go by, we gave up and got a 20B or $3 taxi the rest of the way.
Once we arrived, we paid our 30B or $4.34 entry fee and started on the path. There was a short and a long walk, we opted for the long walk since we had traveled all the way there to see everything and didn’t want to spend only a short amount of time there. It was a little disappointing that the path was very American in that there were signs and ropes everywhere, something that makes photos look much less interesting.
After walking around for a bit and taking some photos, we were ready to go. It got hot in the sun and there was little or no shade which made the heat feel even worse. In the pictures that we had seen online, we thought that the structures were made out of rock, but in actuality they were a sandy like structure, very similar to the Badlands.
On the way back we were able to catch a collectivo. It was possibly the most uncomfortable public transit ride I have ever taken, with the exception of our hour long bus ride to the bus terminal in Quito. The mini bus was jam packed with minimal airflow, making for a very uncomfortable, hot ride.
Before we went on our salt flat tour we knew that we had to do some laundry. Our hotel offered a laundry service but we found a cheaper laundry service down the street. We dropped it off and picked it up 1 day later.
As Andy unloaded the laundry he noticed that my underwear was sewn together. We thought that was really odd. He then noticed that our socks were also sewn together. After more digging, we realized that everything that we had washed, which was the majority of our clothes, all had a hand sewn tag with a number on them.
We had to sit down with our cuticle scissors and cut every single tag off. I guess we did save some money, but there was a hook to it since it took quite a while to remove all of the tags.
Booked Salt Flats Tour
Our main reason for traveling to Bolivia was to go on a salt flat tour. We knew that every travel agency offered a version of the tour so we were going to compare tours, then book the best option for us.
Everything that we had read online said that the bus ride from La Paz to Uyuni, where the salt flat tours pick up is terrible. You are riding on the side of a mountain, some of the way on unpaved roads, with bus drivers who are driving double shifts, sometimes under the influence of alcohol. We decided that risking our lives to save some money was not worth it and made the call to take a short 45 minute flight instead, even though it was $350 per person.
After I had done some more research online, I stumbled upon Banjo Tours who offered a 7 day tour from La Paz down to San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, covering not only the salt flats, but also Sajama National Park as well.
We got excited when we saw that there was already a group scheduled for this tour on the same day that we were planning on going, hoping that we could go as part of their group. Sadly, when we contacted Banjo Tours, they told us we couldn’t join the group of 4 as a group of 6 was too large for the tour. We decided after some back and forth, that we would be comfortable paying the higher rate to go just the 2 of us instead, assuming that there would be no other groups that would be able to join us before we left. Luckily, there were 2 girls who joined us for the 3 day salt flat tour, which brought our cost down a little bit.
We really enjoyed our time in La Paz and think that others will as well. It is a very developed, clean city with many things to see and do. While many tourists stay within the downtown area, we branched out going to valley of the moon and staying in a neighborhood outside of the historic city center.
I would absolutely return to La Paz again in the future but this time, coming from a much lower altitude, I would take altitude sickness medication before I arrived to make sure that I was not sick. Since we came from other, high altitude locations, we were fortunate to not need any medication to feel normal.