“It left me slightly perturbed to find out my hotel was right next door to the notorious prison! Inside, laws are enforced by stabbing & the prisoners earn money selling cocaine. Many ex-inmates offer tours within the prison walls but this is NOT recommended. There are stories of tourists getting stuck inside when they are assumed prisoners. This one is an “attraction” best avoided.”
La Paz, Potosi & Sucre in Bolivia
In 2017 I spent 3 weeks in Bolivia to sample the best this country has to offer. For most of my time, I was on a Bolivia Highlights Tour with Intrepid Travel which started & finished in La Paz. I came away in awe of this surreal & less discovered South American gem. Although the main event there will always be Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats), there is also much to discover in the Bolivian cities. Here are my 11 Top Activities if you are visiting La Paz, Potosi or Sucre…including one to definitely miss…& a travel conundrum.
You can read more in my previous posts A First Timer’s Guide to Bolivia & the unmissable Uyuni Salt Flats. There is also plenty to watch & listen to on my Podcasts & Video Diaries to get an even better flavour.
What are my Top 11 Things Not To Miss?
La Paz is the industrial centre of Bolivia & often the first port of call in the country. At 4000m above sea level, the airport is the highest in the world.
“On a clear day, the city is stunning as it sits in a bowl, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. At 3600m, being in La Paz can literally feel like you’re on top of the world!”
My best advice is to take a few days before you organise anything to adjust to the altitude as you never know how it will affect you. I like to think of myself as fairly fit but to reach my room on the 3rd floor of the hotel, I had to stop & catch my breath after each flight of stairs. You will get short of breath & La Paz itself has many hills which can be challenging. Some people suffer headaches, so be prepared.
This is an excellent way to spend 2 ½ hours to get to know the key sights of the city. I had Damian as my guide who spoke excellent English, was happy to answer any questions & had a wicked sense of humour.
The tour gives you a lot of background information & local knowledge presented in an animated way which is difficult to get from a guide book. The meeting point is San Francisco Church at 9.50am for the 10am start & 2.50pm for the 3pm tour. The guides wear orange & beige tops so are very easy to spot. I booked online via TripAdvisor but you can easily just turn up as they didn’t appear to turn anyone down.
On the tour you cover – San Francisco Church, Witches Market, General Market, San Pedro Prison, Plaza Murillo (Government Square) & finish in Calle Jaen.
2. ONE TO MISS – San Pedro Prison Tour
Of particular interest to me on the tour was when we stopped in the square just outside my hotel. Here, we were regaled with the fascinating history of San Pedro Prison. It left me slightly perturbed to find out my hotel was right next door! You can read all about it in the link but in a nutshell, there are no guards except on the gate & the prison is run by its own elected leaders. Families are free to come & go and often live within the prison walls. The children leave each day for school (on the other side of my hotel!).
“Idyllic though it sounds (?!), laws are enforced by stabbing & the inmates earn money selling cocaine base. The prison is notorious for all these reasons.”
Many ex-inmates & others offer tours within the walls but this is NOT recommended. There are stories of tourists getting stuck inside when they are assumed prisoners & not allowed to leave. This one is an “attraction” best avoided.
3. Witches Market (Mercado de Hechicheria or Calle de las Brujas).
No trip to La Paz is complete without at least one visit to the fascinating Witches Market (or every day you’re there like me!). Initially, it can be quite daunting when you see the plethora of baby llama & dried llama foetus hanging outside the shops, but I am given good assurance that all have died naturally. Inside, the stores are equally as interesting but less gruesome with powders & potions for every ailment going. You can also buy souvenirs, a talisman for good luck & anything you can think of to get your fix of coca for the altitude.
“The llama foetus are used in rituals to offer to Pachamama (Mother Nature) to bring good luck & burnt along with candies depicting all the things you wish for in your life.”
They say that the witches who own the shops don’t approach you to buy because you will choose your witch. I bought a number of talismen which were blessed with a ritual & wrapped in llama wool for luck.
Each statue represents a different wish for the future:
- Pachamama – general good luck for everything (my favourite & takes pride of place in my kitchen)
- Condor – travel (I have one of these too although it’s so well-travelled the wings are now clipped & it’s been decapitated. I hope that doesn’t impact on my luck!)
- Frog – wealth
- Turtle – health
- Puma – power
- Sun – energy
- A couple – love/partner
- Statue – studies, business
- Owl – wisdom
The Witches Market is also the best place to buy souvenirs at great prices. If you are going to Peru, similar items are much cheaper here so stock up before you leave.
IMPORTANT …don’t try to bring any of the powders & potions home as customs could cause a challenge!
4. Take a ride on a Cable Car (Mi Teleferico)
There are 4 Cable Car routes currently with 3 more being built when I visited. They are used as public transport by the locals to get up & down the (steep) hills surrounding La Paz.
“As tourists, we can take advantage of these for an impressive view of the city for a mere 3BOB. My advice is to wait until you have a clear day.“
When I first arrived, the mountains were in the cloud but after a couple of days, these cleared giving a spectacular view of the city, backed by snow-capped mountains.
The Red Line is closest to the city so the easiest to access if you’re on foot but if you get chance or opt for a taxi, I would recommend the Yellow Line as it’s longer & with better views.
5. Mirador Killi Killi (Viewpoint)
Again, only worth a visit on a clear day but here you will get the best panoramic view of the city across 3600. It’s a steep climb, especially if you haven’t had a chance to adjust to the altitude, so the best option is to go by taxi or bus. Free entrance.
6. Calle Jaen
The oldest street in La Paz & beautifully preserved. If you are a fan of museums then there is a lot to occupy you here, with 5 & an art gallery all in the same street. I didn’t visit these but found just walking around to be an interesting experience. Folklore says that Calle Jaen was haunted by ghosts until they erected the green cross at one end.
7. Iglesia de San Francisco
The main altar of this church is constructed from millions of US dollars’ worth of gold & is very ornate. For this reason, it is well worth a visit inside. Interestingly no candles are lit here, instead, people bring flowers as a blessing. No photos allowed.
8. Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)
Slightly out of town (10km from La Paz) but well worth the trip for an otherworldly landscape.
The terrain is made of clay which is being slowly eroded by natural forces to create shapes & canyons. There are 2 very well signposted walks – choose between 15 & 45 minutes, depending on how you feel.
Next, off to Sucre…
The official capital city of Bolivia, Sucre is a beautiful place to explore. It has an endless collection of whitewashed buildings (also known as the White City), markets, plazas, parks, Recoleta viewpoint & a fascinating cemetery.
9. Sucre Dinosaur Footprints (Cal Orck’o)
For me, the highlight was our visit to the Dinosaur Footprints (Cal Orck’o). The location of a cement quarry looks an unlikely tourist attraction but while digging for cement, removing rock laid down over millions of years, they came across the biggest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world. 12,000 to be precise!
“Originally the site was a river bed but movement of the tectonic plates has now created a wall featuring the prints of 8 different species of dinosaurs, dating back 68 million years. This includes the longest single track in the world at 500m.”
Check timings of the tours before you go to make sure you get an English speaker. In addition, include a walk down to the wall itself (you can’t do this individually). You will be equipped with a hard hat, but make sure you have sturdy shoes & the climb back up can be exhausting.
To see the marks left by these prehistoric giants is mind-boggling & made even more astounding when you can literally see how the earth has moved. It’s like these marks were done in the mud yesterday as the dinosaurs scamper away up the cliff. Well worth the bus or taxi ride to see.
10. Eat Local
I found the food in Bolivia to be delicious & it’s not the same if you don’t sample some of the local dishes along the way.
- Llama Chorellana. Llama steak served with a spicy tomato sauce & well recommended. The llama meat itself tastes like a cross between beef (but not as rich) & lamb (but not as strong a flavour).
- Quinoa. This is the staple food of Bolivia & seems to come with everything. It is also a beautiful crop to see growing outside the cities. The most inventive presentation was as a pizza base which I enjoyed in Uyuni.
- Salteñas. They look like pasties but contain soup. The way to eat them is to shake them up to mix the filling. Then hold upright & bite off the top corner. Use a spoon to eat the soup & the filling or try drinking it directly from the pasty. Finish by eating the remainder of the pastry. If you can eat one without dropping any of the soup onto your plate it means you’re a good kisser!
- Silpancho. This is best to share. It’s a huge escalope of beef (or you could have llama) with rice and a fried egg on top. The portions are enormous & take up the whole of a big plate.
- Pique Macho. Similar to a stirfry, containing beef, vegetables, spicy sauce and chips. A very traditional dish in Bolivia
- Sopa de Mani. Peanut soup best tried at the markets in Sucre as a real delicacy of the area.
- Chorizo Sausages. Another speciality of Sucre. Look out for the signs indicating “7 Lunares” as these are the best quality
Potosi is a colonial 16th-century Spanish town which is very pretty to explore. The main activity here is mining & all the men in town have a history or are currently working down the mine. As you walk around you can often hear the explosions emanating from the mountain. It is hard to believe that at one point in history Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world. I took up the opportunity to spend an afternoon learning more & visiting the mines in Potosi.
11. Cerro Rico – Potosi Mines
The tour started with a visit to the miners’ shop to buy a few items which would allow us access to the miners for questions & photographs. This included alcohol, coca leaves, tools and some dynamite (which was a little disconcerting!).
Before we ventured to the mine itself, we got dressed up. To look like miners, we wore blue suits with helmets and lights & had some comedy photos taken of us all posing with a prop in the shape of a huge stick of dynamite. Dressing up was all good fun until we saw the reality of life as a miner.
It was recommended not to enter the mines as they can be unstable, which is the impact of the mountain being peppered with so many tunnels. Even from the outside, it was an ominous looking place to work. When two young guys came out wheeling a cart along the tracks, our guide asked some questions on our behalf.
“They were both 20 years old & had just spent the previous 10 hours working down the mine. They weren’t wearing any protective gear, just normal, now filthy clothes. It was a very humbling experience.”
Although I respect the need to protect our own clothes, we all felt completely ridiculous in our get up. The privilege of being able to dress up for the experience as a voyeuristic tourist weighed heavily on me. It was very sobering.
The protective clothing did come into its own when we headed for the refinery. The mountains are very rich in minerals & here they were refining silver, lead and zinc. The working conditions were terrible, with very low ceilings & the threat of inhaling some vicious fumes.
The Travel Conundrum
The tour left me with a bad feeling in my mouth but also with a question. Are we right as tourists to visit these kinds of “attractions”?
“By not experiencing these things we can live in ignorance & enjoy the beauty of our silver jewellery without considering the back-breaking work that goes into producing it.”
We may have felt ridiculous in the outfits & like we were mocking these men earning a tough & honest wage. But surely it is better to see it for yourself than to pretend it’s not happening? The most important thing is that the money we pay to go on the tour reaches the miners. I know having gone with Intrepid that they would have carefully selected the tour provider to ensure it met their ethical standards, but I’m not convinced all tours would do this. And how much of our money does actually go to the locals anyway? So, when you’re in Potosi make sure you know what you are in for & make your own personal decision on whether you go or not.
- Hotel Osira in La Paz. If you would like to live among the prisoners! Jokes aside it was a great location on one of the main squares to watch the world go by.
- Hotel Cerro Rico in Potosi.
- Hostal Sucre in Sucre. Rooms surround a pretty square in the centre of the property.
- Angelo Colonial. An interesting restaurant built around a courtyard & my first taste of llama. Thoroughly recommended.
- Café 4060. So named as this is the altitude Potosi sits on. Fantastic food & apparently the best place to sample the famous Silpancho.
- Florin. A Dutch bar & restaurant & a great place to try a llama burger.
- El Pati. The place to eat salteñas but only go in the morning as if they still have some available in the afternoon, they are not the good ones!
- Siete Lunares de Julia Flores. Delicious chorizo rolls.
- Para Ti. A must for any chocoholics
- Joyride. A good selection of food & salsa dancing upstairs on a Tuesday & Thursday, starting at 9:30 PM
I didn’t get a chance to go but I would have loved to attend a night of Cholita Wrestling. Basically, the lovely cholita ladies (traditional dress, bowler hats) wrestle. Yes, …it is a thing & apparently a bizarre & fun evening if you’re in La Paz on a Sunday!
What do you think?
Where in Bolivia would you recommend visiting & why?
Which other cities offer something unique in Bolivia?
Where have you faced a similar conundrum over an excursion while travelling? Would you do it again or recommend to others?
To see more of my photos from Bolivia please visit my Gallery page!