***DISCLAIMER:*** If you have visited La Paz and thought it was great, click away now and go back to watching funny cat videos on YouTube because the chances are you’re not going to like this post. The opinions here and my experience in La Paz may be my own but after hearing countless others rave about this city, which I am now struggling to understand why, I want to offer people an alternative perspective on Bolivia’s infamous city.
‘Concrete jungle’ is a given, but why is this city the stuff of nightmares you might wonder. Are you sitting comfortably?
Firstly, driving into La Paz is a harrowing experience to say the least. In most of the outer districts of the city, police jurisdiction is completely rejected by the inhabitants. Having lost faith in their country’s police force, they now take the justice system into their own hands. Lynching, yes, LYNCHING is currently practised by the inhabitants of these La Paz districts to punish thieves and criminals. What’s more, dummy-like scarecrows that worryingly resemble people are strung up on lampposts and left hanging from nooses on telephone poles around these areas, designed as a visual warning to criminals that lynching is practised here and their crimes will not be dealt with by the Bolivian police but instead punished by this medieval and inhumane practise.
Is that nightmarish enough for you yet?
If it wasn’t hard enough to sleep at night after seeing the hanging bodies suspended around the city and knowing the harrowing meaning behind them, Bolivia is also renowned for its ridiculously frequent strikes and protests. However, what people failed to mention to us was how violent and aggressive these can get. On entering La Paz, we were greeted with crowds of angry protesters barricading the roads with flaming barrels set alight to ward off visitors and sharp stones lining the roads to burst the wheels of anyone trying to enter the city. Later, our bus driver told us that we were lucky not to have our tires slashed..
If this wasn’t enough to foreshadow how disappointing and dangerous we would find La Paz, we soon found out anyway. Petrol stains and plastic bags litter the streets of La Paz while the pavements are adundent with malnourished dogs who sleep sorrowfully on the sidewalk. The majority of our interactions with people consisted of being stared at, barged past, snapped at and ignored, told to get out of people’s shops and leave the premises. Very rarely did we ever feel safe or welcome. From a bird’s eye view, La Paz itself appears as an empty shell of concrete, full only with the smells of decay and the sight of animal disease and human poverty. Even in the safety of our hostel, we heard stories from other travellers about muggings, theft and brutal attacks on tourists. One guy I met was bandaged up and his face blue with bruises from being jumped by three men the other night, beaten up, mugged and left on the street.
It’s not only the look, atmosphere and (overwhelming) smell of the city which justifies La Paz as ‘the stuff of nightmares’ for me but also it’s bizarre and disturbing tourist attraction of the infamous ‘Witches Market’. Filled with dubious drinks advertised as potions and luminous ‘candies’ made from glue, the Witches Market is better known for its dried llama foetuses. Ripped from their mothers’ wombs before they can even take their first breath, these baby llamas are strung up by their necks, legs bound and mouths stuffed. Regardless of the belief system behind this strange spectacle, the reality of seeing a dozen baby llama corpses displayed for human fascination is both morbid and ultimately pretty sad.
Although we knew what we were getting ourselves into by visiting the witches market, the famous El Alto market in La Paz that spans 36 blocks and is constantly raved about by blog posts and travellers alike was a disappointment which we were not prepared for. After hearing about this market’s impressive size, great atmosphere and vast selection of exciting gifts to buy, we were not expecting what awaited us. We were glared at, pushed past, purposely ignored by stall owners when asking questions in clear Spanish and always on guard from pick-pocketers as our coat pockets were constantly touched and groped by strangers. We were also told we could browse interesting textiles stalls and markets here offering unique artisan products, however the only things we found for sale were spare car parts, second hand sweatpants and car tyres salvaged from the scrap heap.
Overall, coming here as a tourist was both an enlightening and harrowing experience. So, would I ever return? Definitely not. Would I recommend fellow travellers to visit La Paz? No chance. Do I believe that this place deserves the esteemed reputation it seems to have? The answer is the same.
I can only imagine that people view La Paz in a positive light because it acts as a gateway to bigger and better things like the infamous ‘Death Road’, the spectacular Salt Flats or the beautiful Bolivian countryside, that their positive experiences with these cloud their view of La Paz as a place that wasn’t too bad because it lead them to these other places. But for us, having to stay in La Paz for 8 days to sort out passport and visa issues meant we were trapped in a city we have grown to despise and it honestly felt like a prison sentence.
To conclude, I don’t doubt that Bolivia has so so much more to offer than this city, I don’t doubt that our opinion would be different if we had not been confined to La Paz, and of course a whole country is certainly not defined by one city within it. But sadly it has tainted my desire to return here. So, goodbye Bolivia, I’m afraid we won’t miss you. Now onto bigger and better things in Argentina 🇦🇷🌞
Where we stayed: Adventure Brew Hostel (my rating: ⭐️⭐️)
What to eat: the only great thing about La Paz for us was a small vegan cafe called Cafe Vida. The food is out-of-this-world good and obviously super healthy. It’s beautifully decorated interior and strong wifi made Cafe Vida our safe sanctuary in La Paz, a place for us to hide away from the horrors of the city and feel safe and content 😌
What to do: try not to cry?
Top tip: don’t stay out after dark, it really isn’t safe
(The two photos below of the hanging dummies are the only ones that are not my own and were taken from The Guardian and Alamy websites as it was always too unsafe in these areas for me to take my camera out in public but I felt it was important to show what I was talking about. All other photos as usual are my own)