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La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia, while Sucre is the constitutional capital and the seat of the Supreme Court. La Paz was established in 1548, and is in the Andes.
The sight from the air as one flies into La Paz is incredible. First, one sees the sprawling shantytowns of El Alto, slowly giving way to the sight of La Paz itself, clinging tenuously to the sides of what looks like a large gash in the earth.
La Paz was built in a canyon created by the Choqueyapu River (now mostly built over), which runs northwest to southeast. The city's main thoroughfare, which roughly follows the river, changes names over its length, but the central tree-lined section running through the downtown core is called the Prado.
El Alto International Airport (LPB), El Alto. This is the world's highest international airport; at 13,313 ft/4,058 m above sea level, it's almost half as high as a jetliner's cruising altitude, and takeoffs require a longer runway due to the thin air.
Most South American airlines (LAN, TACA, Avianca, SkyAirline etc.) serve El Alto Airport as well local airlines (Boliviana de Aviación (BoA), Transporte Aéreo Militar (TAM), Aerocon and Amaszonas). Most international flights will make a stop over in Santa Cruz to pick up or drop off passengers.
If you are taking a TAM flight OUT of La Paz airport be VERY careful to verify which airport it is leaving from, some TAM flights leave from the El Alto Intl airport and others from the military base airport.
The main bus terminal is in Central Park, near the upper end of the Prado (Google Map) and a 15-20 min walk from most hostels. Note that buses arriving from Lake Titicaca (the route for entering overland from Puno, Peru) and Sorata terminate at a plaza near the city cemetery (Cementerio) farther to the west. Buses from Quime terminate in the El Alto bus terminal.
Buses leaving La Paz usually stop in El Alto to pick up more passengers. It sometimes takes one or two hours until you really leave the city.
Another option to go from La Paz to Cusco, Copacabana or Puno to take one of the Bolivia Hop buses. This service allows you to hop on or hop off at any of these places. They also provide border assistance in Spanish and English and do not make unauthorized stops. Bolivia hop is a new company and appears to be well ran and very safe.
There are three types of shared public transportation in La Paz: regular buses or "micros"; shared vans, called "mini buses", and shared taxis running set routes advertised on the windshield, called "trufis". The former cost Bs 1,30 while the second are Bs 1,50-2,30 depending on duration. All types have their routes indicated on the windshield, but mini buses have the bonus of fare collectors hanging out the side, yelling out routes in a rapid, auctioneer-like manner. You can hail a bus or mini bus anywhere; to get off, just yell out "¡voy a bajar!"
The easiest way to get around is by taxi. They aren't metered, so agree on a fare before boarding; a ride within downtown should be about Bs 6-8. If you want to go further, ask two or more taxi drivers before boarding. A normal ride by taxi from downtown to a place within the city won't cost more than Bs 20.
What to see
Sagarnaga Street, (just south of Plaza San Francisco). La Paz' main tourist strip. It's mainly a market street with artesano and souvenir stores, but you'll also find budget hostels, tour and travel agencies, cafes, and lots and lots of backpackers. Don't be suckered by the roving sellers of "trilobite-in-a-rock".
The Witches' Market, (Mercado de Hechiceria or Mercado de las Brujas). Calle Linares between Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz. Vendors sell llama fetuses and dried frogs for Aymara rituals, as well as soapstone figurines and aphrodisiac formulas. This street is also the best place to pick up a charango or other Bolivian musical instrument.
Eloy Salmon. Shops on this street sell cheap electronics.
Calle Jaen. One of the few places in the city with preserved colonial buildings, currently housing several interesting museums.
Plaza Murillo. Contains government buildings and the city cathedral.
The Valle de La Luna. Surreal, weathered rock. Just outside the town of Mallasa. 30-40 minute bus ride (depending on traffic) down the La Paz valley.
The Thursday & Sunday Market in El Alto or Feria de 16 de Julio. A huge market held in El Alto every Thursday and Sunday. This mostly Aimara market is one of the world's biggest, and a person can find just about anything.
Lucha Libre de Cholitas, Polifunctional de la Ceja, El Alto (From San Francisco, take any mini-bus bound to Ceja and stop 200m after the autopista toll.). The tourist entry ticket is pricier but includes some snacks and souvenirs. The show starts around 5pm with men fighting for the 1st hour before letting the Cholitas on the ring.
CIRCULAR Circuit of Culture and Art: One ticket for three awesome museums, Visit La Paz museums, one ticket for three within a week! With the aim of promoting the cultural and historical heritage of La Paz and Bolivia, we launched a single ticket to access the circuit, which will be sold at tourist agencies, hotels and The museums of the circuit. The Three Museums of the Circuit are San Francisco Museum: a Catholic-indigenous face, the National Ethnographic and Folk Museum: a Trip through Bolivian Cultures, and the National Museum of Art: Exhibitions, collections, history and more.
Museum San Francisco, Plaza San Francisco. This restored religious complex has housed some of Bolivia's most important historical moments, including the birth of the Independence Revolution of 1809. Also, one can climb the church tower to get a panoramic view of both the indigenous and Mestiza quarters. Displays are in Spanish and English along with personal guides.
National Ethnographic and Folk Museum, Ingavi 916, esq. Jenaro Sanjinés. The MUSEF shows us the Bolivian cultures in their historic dimension and their current situation. These cultures are alive in the cities and the countryside, in markets, schools and churches, in streets, the jungle or a minibus. Not a single corner of Bolivia escapes its diversity. And to understand this complexity better, the MUSEF offers us an incomparable tour. 20Bs entrance. Very good but all in Spanish.
National Museum of Art, Calle Comercio esq. Socabaya. No doubt, the tour through the National Museum of Art is a ride through the history of Bolivian art, its paintings, sculptures, photos and other artistic expressions; a singular experience for both national and foreign visitors.
Tiwanaku Museum (Museo Tihuanaco)
Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo de Arte Contemporaneo), Av. 16 de Julio 1698 (Prado). The permanent collection upstairs (Bs15) contain many works by renowned Aymara painter Mamani Mamani. The downstairs gallery containing work by students and up-and-comers is free.
Coca Museum, Calle Linares 906. A favorite of foreign tourists, this small museum details the history and significance of the coca plant, including the effect of the U.S. War on Drugs. The displays are in Spanish, but booklets of complete translations in other languages are provided. According to the museum, crack cocaine is the greatest epidemic since the Plague in the Middle-Ages. And yes, there are free samples of coca leaf for visitors.
Musical Instrument Museum (Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia), Calle Jaen 711. Displays a huge collection of sound-producing devices from Bolivia and beyond, some of which you can play yourself. The museum was founded by charango master and inventor Ernesto Cavour, and some of his creations on display (such as multi-bodied guitars) are downright bizarre.
Museum of Precious Metals (Museo de Metales Preciosos Precolombinos), Calle Jaen 777. Pre-Columbian treasures in silver and gold.
Submerged Museum (Museo Subterraneo), in front of the city stadium. Hardly deserving the name "museum", it's essentially a small outdoor plaza sunk into the ground with a huge replica Tiwanaku monolith in the middle of it. The original one used to be there, but it was moved back to Tiwanaku for preservation.
Bolivian Andean Textile Museum (Museo de Textiles Andinos Bolivianos), Plaza Benito Juarez 488. It exhibits a large variety of textiles and weaving's from all the Bolivian/Andean communities. It's a must-see for weaving lovers. It also displays several garments, like ponchos, from all these regions. The museum also includes a shop (90% of your purchase belongs to the artists) and it is located at lovely house in Miraflores.