The drive from the airport to the city centre is unforgettable. You bump along poor roads passing slums and street markets until, rounding a corner, the ground suddenly falls away on one side and the great bowl of La Paz unfolds before you in one of the most dramatic skylines anywhere in the world. Modern skyscrapers soar from the pit of the bowl, from which a carpet of squat adobe dwellings claws its way up steeply to the lip, which stretches nearly 5km rim to rim. Illimani’s three snow-covered peaks (6,462m) dominate the horizon majestically while all around, the Altiplano and snow-crowned summits of the Cordillera Real stand out in incredible clarity from the deep blue sky.
Unlike most cities, the poorer districts of La Paz lie higher up and the wealthier districts lower down. The shanty adobe houses of El Alto, the satellite district that now challenges La Paz for size, sprawl from the edge of the Altiplano high above the city centre. In contrast, the lower Zona Sur region is warmer, wealthier and altogether more comfortable than the city centre, and is favoured predominantly by expatriate families and better-off Bolivians.
Notwithstanding the comforts of Zona Sur, nowhere comes close to the city centre for capturing the essence of La Paz: breathlessly steep, cobbleways lined with street vendors; pulsating, seemingly endless markets; and a huge population of bowler-hatted cholita women clad in brightly coloured traditional costumes, all set against the backdrop of Illimani and the chatter of Aymara.
Aside from any effects of high altitude, La Paz is an easy city to navigate on foot. A single main road lined with skyscrapers runs along the base of the canyon through the heart of the city centre, named at various points Ismael Montes, Mariscal Santa Cruz, Villazón and 16 de Julio (“the Prado”). If ever unsure of your location in La Paz, simply head downhill or towards the skyscrapers to return to the city centre.
Transport in La Paz is cheap and surprisingly efficient. Taxi rides in central La Paz cost US$0.75. Shared taxis cost around US$0.4 and buses half that. Minibuses add greatly to the city’s bustling atmosphere with young boys leaning out of the windows to shout bus routes to non-readers.