What would it look like if you took a city of a couple million people and dropped it at the foot of a volcano on the edge of the Altiplano and the Andes mountains? How would you get around such a city? And where would a city like that get its drinking water?
With an average elevation of around 4,000 meters (13,000 ft), La Paz finds its own answers to these questions. The capital of Bolivia, the city is overwhelming, breathtaking and unique.
The urban area seems to cling to the remarkable geography, a living being, roots extending down valleys while branches grow up towards hills and mountains. Neighborhoods and their streets snake through canyons and up and down steep inclines, and the longest and highest cable car network in the world moves citizens quickly between barrios. Meanwhile, the majority of the potable water is channeled from melting Andean glaciers. For a photographer, the vistas, city streets and culture of La Paz will thrill and delight. Let’s explore some of your best photo opportunities in this post.
A few tips to get us started… If you arrive at La Paz via the main airport, you will find yourself up in the El Alto neighborhood / satellite city. The distance to the city center, Casco Viejo and the Prado areas is quite far, and you’ll take forever to get there on a bus. The cost of a taxi will be worth it in my opinion, although you will be charged more if you’re a foreigner/outsider (even if you speak Spanish). If you have a working SIM card for your phone, you can also check out Uber for getting around, as the company is now officially allowed to operate in La Paz. For short trips up and down the Prado, just hop in one of the minibuses and pay a few bolivianos.
To see all the essentials and the best of the city, you’ll want to plan for at least four nights, with three full days. If you want to include some of the other activities outside of the city, give it five to seven days. To give you a benchmark, I spent six nights in and around La Paz.
El Alto / Avenida Panoramica
Take one of the cable car lines (Mi Teleferico) up from La Paz center, and you’ll immediately see why they named the neighborhood El Alto (“the high”). Sprawling out across the high altitude plain, El Alto looks down into the La Paz valley, a condor staring down from above. From the eastern edge of the El Alto area, the land plummets into a vast canyon, and you will find numerous viewpoints that highlight the breathtaking urban development.
A good plan of action is to save an afternoon and take the Red Line up from Central Station to the top. Get off here and then walk the length of the Avenida Panoramica, south to the Yellow Line. (this street changes names several times, but you should be able to follow it by keeping the city/valley on your left) You can take the Yellow Line back to Sopocachi, and then ride a taxi or bus to the center. While some are better than others, there are too many good viewpoints to count. Walking this way will also get you right into the Aymara markets and street life of El Alto.
Recommended for: City and mountain views, markets and street views
Mercado de las Brujas
Around the Witches Market is where you will find much of the La Paz tourist infrastructure, hostels and that kind of thing. But don’t let that stop you. Take a photowalk through this area in the morning hours and enjoy the many oddities for sale. In the markets, you can see everything from dried llama fetuses, to frogs and turtles, armadillos, feathers, herbs and even witch doctors. For architecture and street photography hounds, the area is home to a fair number of interesting shops, alleyways and colonial-era buildings.
Also, I would recommend not staying in this area. Go to the Prado or Sopocachi neighborhoods, as you’ll find better accommodations and better prices.
Recommended for: Markets and street photography
Mirador Killi Killi
When they built a city in a steep mountain canyon, they practically made a city for panoramic views. Even with so many fantastic viewpoints, I can safely say that Mirador Killi Killi is one of the best. Set on a hill just east of the city center, here you can take in a nearly 360 degree panorama of the valley. On one side, you can see all the way to El Alto, and on the other, the vista and landscape rises all the way up to the 21,000 foot summit of Volcano Illimani. And in between, high rises and buildings stand like so many sentinels.
Best time of day for photography will be late afternoon and blue hour. With clear skies, after sunset you can see the alpen glow atop Illimani, and the city will light up like a million diamonds on all sides.
Recommended for: City views, sunset and blue hour
Parque El Monticulo
Filled with families and rimmed with vendor stalls, the Monticulo Park is a relaxing bit of greenery in the Sopocachi neighborhood. Stop by this park for new angles on the La Paz cityscape and a close-up view of the sprawling hills and houses. Best time to visit will be early morning, or after sunset for blue hour and night photography.
Recommended for: Cityscapes, during night and blue hour
Plaza San Francisco
The San Francisco plaza and cathedral is the heart of La Paz. Think buzzing traffic and brimming crowds. Here you can get fun shots of vendors with their handicrafts, traditional sweets and street food. You can also set up shots with the colonial and Spanish architecture as background. Many important events and festivals will take place in this plaza as well, which can give you a lot of opportunities for action and street photography.
Also nearby, you can check out Mercado Uyustus. The alleyways and streets are packed with shops and vendors, with goods hanging from floor to ceiling. The feeling can be claustrophobic, but use your wide angle lens and look for compositions among the crowds and mayhem.
Recommended for: People and street photography
Mi Teleferico / Yellow and Green Lines
Now it’s time to get a more close-up view of the urban La Paz cityscape. Grab a ticket for one of these cable car lines at a Mi Teleferico station. The Green Line traces down the valley, repeatedly going up and down hills, hugging the terrain with the buildings close below. And the Yellow Line will take you up to El Alto, as mentioned above. If you get a bright and sunny day, you can combine an outing on these two lines to truly immerse yourself and your camera in all that La Paz has to offer.
Note that the cable cars are fully enclosed, with no opportunity to open any windows, so all your shots will have to be through the glass. If you have a dark hat or scarf, try using this to surround your lens and block out reflections. A polarizing filter can also help in this case.
Recommended for: Cityscape views
Qhana Pata Mirador
At the top of the Teleferico Yellow Line traveling from Sopocachi, exit at Qhana Pata station. Walk out and to the north just a few paces, and you’ll find Calle Mirador. The street lives up to its name, as you will get a straight shot all the way down to the center of La Paz. You can also explore some of the back streets here and look for other compositions among the many block/brick buildings.
Recommended for: Cityscapes, best during morning and daytime
Valle de la Luna
Upon arriving at this site, you’ll feel like you stepped into another world at Valley of the Moon. At Valle de la Luna you’ll find walkways that snake through a small badlands area, where erosion has whittled the earth and clay into spires, hoodoos and jagged ridges. The majority of the vegetation is long gone, save for cactus and some hearty bushes.
There is a small entrance fee, and the best time to visit will be in morning or afternoon, as there is no shade and the sun can feel quite strong at the high altitude. In morning or late afternoon, the valley will be a spooky wasteland, the shadows from the clay formations casting long across the badlands.
Recommended for: Landscapes and nature
Cholitas Wrestling is one of the most fun and unique stops you can make in La Paz. This is Lucha Libre wrestling, Bolivian style, performed mostly by the Aymara “cholitas” women. You’ll enjoy a lot of loud, cheesy and over-the-top wrestling moves, with the performers repeatedly coming down out of the ring and into the crowd to wrestle each other among the benches and chairs.
To get there, take the Teleferico Yellow Line to El Alto, then grab a taxi. Or you can purchase a tour with included bus transport from any of the agencies or hotels in town.
Recommended for: Action, sports and fun
Cristo de la Cumbre
Ringed with snow-topped Andean peaks, Cristo de la Cumbre is a high mountain pass about an hour from La Paz. Beautiful (and desolate) views stretch out in all directions, and here you can get a sense of the true grandeur of the Andes. For South America, this is also the dividing line between east and west.
The high altitude Altiplano lies to the west, and in the east, the land descends all the way to Las Yungas and the Amazon basin. La Cumbre pass is also the start of the famous (infamous?) Death Road, or Ruta de la Muerte.
Recommended for: Landscapes and mountain vistas
Ruta de la Muerte
The old Yungas Road over La Cumbre pass, from La Paz to Coroico, eventually came to be known as Ruta de la Muerte… the most dangerous road in the world, with up to 300 travelers killed en route every year. Since the opening of a new highway, the Yungas Road has come to be used mainly as a trail for downhill mountain bikers, although you may still find some locals using the route. If you’re feeling adventurous, hook up with one of the tour operators in town. They will set you up with a sturdy downhill bike and a guide for the epic 40-plus-mile downhill ride. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, you can rent a bike in town, take a bus to La Cumbre and do the trip yourself.
As far as photography goes, you’ll have no shortage of photo opportunities along the way, with everything from high-altitude tundra, to rain forest and waterfalls, and the treacherous road itself waiting for your camera lens. Some of the best places to stop are near the San Pedro waterfall, where the road narrows to a mere track along the face of the cliffs.
And speaking of waterfalls, you may pass through and under a couple waterfalls during the ride (depending on the season), so it’s a good idea to have your camera in a weatherproof backpack or bag. Also keep the temperature changes in mind. You’ll descend all the way from mountaintop tundra to a jungle. Condensation on your equipment is likely.
Recommended for: Sweeping landscapes, from tundra to jungle
Photographer’s Guide on DailyPhotoBlog
Skilled photographers know that good photography is about subject, lighting and composition. So my Photographer’s Guide series on DailyPhotoBlog aims to give you the best chance to create shots you love, by bringing you to the most photogenic places and the most beautiful viewpoints. (i.e. the subjects) The composition and lighting is up to you!
Additional Creative Commons images from Flickr: