The Unlikely South American Capital You Need to Put on Your Bucket List
Even in the context of a huge and under-appreciated continent, La Paz, Bolivia’s high-altitude administrative capital, is something of an obscurity. Most travelers barely pass through for a stopover en route to the jewel-like mineral lakes, fuming volcanoes, and the lunar salt flats at Uyuni. All that is about to change.
Ignore what you’ve heard about the city’s lack of obvious attractions. Forget about the protests that used to regularly shut down the colonial center. And cast away all your doubts about the food: notoriously bland mountains of meat and potatoes, washed down with tepid coke or a passable lager called Paceña.
Thanks to an unprecedented period of political stability and peace (courtesy of the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales), improved infrastructure, and a bonafide culinary revolution spearheaded by the co-founder of Copenhagen’s Noma, La Paz is ready for its moment in the spotlight.
Go now, and you’ll find a city with an incredible setting more than 12,000 feet above sea level, with a captivating amalgam of architectural styles and tons of eccentric charm, from vibrant markets to remote neighborhoods perched atop stalagmite formations. It is, at this particular moment, a dazzling, dizzying antidote to the domesticated sameness of international style. Here’s our guide to the city’s best.
Where to Stay
La Paz hotels used to be either no frills guest houses or big American chains, but that all changed with the opening of the Atix Hotel in the swanky southern neighborhood of Calacoto, which is also the heart of the city’s burgeoning food scene. The city’s first boutique hotel, the Atix was built and decorated using indigenous materials, an extension of the modern-local aesthetic that is the core of the new La Paz.
Up in the historic center, a neighborhood historically associated with backpackers and bureaucrats, a second boutique hotel is slated to open in the coming months. Altu Qala will offer the first (for the time being, the only) stylish digs in colonial La Paz, just off the quiet Plaza Murillo.
Where to Eat
Much of the excitement in La Paz’s new food scene emanates from the affluent Zona Sur, where Noma co-founder Claus Meyer opened Gustu, his first restaurant outside Scandinavia, four years ago to near-universal acclaim. Like the New Nordic cuisine he helped spearhead in Copenhagen, the food at Gustu aims to raise awareness of, and increase local pride in, Bolivia’s products. Executive chef Kamilla Seidler has studded her menu with dishes such as açai-stained amaranth in a creamy Brazil nut soup, wisps of smoked Amazonian catfish layered with beetroot and sprouts, and an exquisite mid-meal cocktail of house-infused banana-coconut singani (a local brandy) spiked with banana vinegar. To eat at Gustu is to participate in a delirious (and delicious) culinary experiment.
Nearby, the kitchen at Ona at the Atix Hotel aims to conjure the sensory experience of the Bolivian landscape with such dishes as smoked trout cream with Andean seaweed and indigenous potatoes. The result is a perfect distillation of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake.
Los Qñapes takes a humbler approach, serving a concise menu of typical dishes from Bolivia’s subtropical lowlands. The simple café takes its name from a typical croquette made of yucca flour and cheese, which arrives at the table warm and pleasantly chewy. Order it with masaco, salty rounds of mashed plantains and dried, shredded beef, and mocochinchi, Bolivia’s national drink, made with dehydrated peaches.
Bolivia’s all-local "Kilometro 0" movement—a loosely knit consortium of "slow food" chefs, distillers, and bartistas inspired by their untapped national bounty—owes its origins to Gustu, but one of its most prominent outposts today is Ali Pacha, the only fine-dining restaurant in the historic center. There, a creative set menu veers away from the meat-heavy inclinations of traditional Bolivian cookery to focus on the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that have historically played a supporting role in local kitchens.
Casually romantic dining room at Propiedad Publica flips the Kilometro 0 concept on its head, using exclusively Bolivian ingredients to prepare pitch-perfect Italian food. The 24-year-old chef, Gabriela Prudencio Claros, an alum of both Gustu and Mario Batali's Lipa in New York, turns out a decadent oxtail and pappardelle ragu—perfect end-of-trip indulgences.
Where to Drink
Because of their commitment to the homegrown, Kilometro 0 restaurants such as Propiedad Pública and Gustu can serve excellent cocktails, thanks only to the rise of local distillers preparing artisanal liquors within the city. Not surprisingly, these distillers can be worth a visit on their own.
On the outskirts of El Alto, the immense satellite city that sprawls over the high plains adjacent to central La Paz, 1825 produces some of the finest vodka in the Western Hemisphere, using Andean glacier water and local wheat. Daniel Lonsdale produces his Amazonica and Andina gins under the label La República, layering such regional botanicals as cacao and a mountain herb called k’hoa (somewhere between mint and eucalyptus) over more traditional aromatics. In October, a pair of recent college graduates launched Andean Culture Distillery, Bolivia’s first whiskey still, with a product called Killa Moonshine, made from Andean maize. Operating out of a tiny distillery in the heart of the colonial city, the team hopes to gradually start experimenting with barrel aging and entirely new tipples made from indigenous grains such as amaranth and quinoa.
If you don't make the tasting rooms, find these spirits on menus from the quirky bars of the Sopocachi district—places like Diesel Nacional and the tranquil Café Magick—to the elegant Zona Sur tapas bar, Mercat, and the cocktail-centric gastropub, the Steel.
Coffee’s also entered a new artisanal moment. As happened in Colombia, where international demand consumes virtually all of the country’s high-quality beans, it can be virtually impossible to find good Bolivian coffee in Bolivia. Norma Chavez and Fabio Arandia are helping to change that at Typica, their newly opened coffee shop serving the city’s best brew in what are undoubtedly its prettiest surroundings. Set in a quaint, one-story house filled with antiques scavenged from the homes of aging relatives, Typica’s bright, chintzy charm would seem right at home in East L.A. were it not for its total lack of affectation. Order one of the local brews made with a Chemex, Chavez and Arandia’s preferred brewing method, to savor the distinct citric acidity of the highest-grown beans on earth.
What to See and Do
Though La Paz’s new culinary reputation is being made in the Zona Sur, the historic center is still where you’ll find the bulk of the city’s most fascinating sites.
Lacking the rich architectural heritage of Lima or Buenos Aires, La Paz’s beauty lies in its chaotic, contrasting textures. The best way to explore the city—after a day spent adjusting to the altitude—is on foot. Begin with the 18th century Basilica of San Francisco then continue uphill past the tourist shops selling alpaca sweaters on Sagarnaga and turn right onto Calle Linares to enter the Witch’s Market, the closest things to must-see sights in town.
Next to the Basilica, the immense Mercado Lanza is also the best place to try more traditional Bolivian cooking. Head to the top floor to find Doña Elvira and her addictive chorizo sandwiches. She’s been making them for 30 years, using a family recipe that combines pork, beef, and llama meat. She greets many of the hundreds of people that stream through daily, either with hugs or admonishments for staying away too long. (Doña Elvira is one of several street food vendors that make up a new circuit of puestos, or stalls, in the city center area that are coming on board with the Kilometro 0 program, with support from the team at Gustu.)
Once you’ve finished your chorizo, head to the far end of the same aisle to try Doña Elvira’s sister’s homemade buñuelos (deep-fried, cheese-stuffed pastries powdered with confectioner’s sugar), torn open and dipped into cups of thick purple api, a drink made from sweetened ground corn.
The Day Trip You Can’t Miss
If you’re in La Paz on a Thursday or a Sunday, hop aboard the recently constructed Teleférico, a growing system of gondolas that are the city’s high-flying answer to a metro, connecting La Paz proper to El Alto. The Teleférico's Red Line will drop you at the edge of the city’s immense Mercado 16 de Julio, where countless stalls sell everything from second-hand clothes to hand-woven woolens, medicinal herbs, and fresh honey spooned straight out of mobile hives wheeled around in glass cases.
Start your morning with a steaming bowl of fish soup or pork chops and potatoes roasted in a wood-fired oven, then get lost in the market for as many hours as you like. (There’s virtually no end to it.) If you’ve come on a Thursday, make your way to the Villa Esperanza branch of Manq’a. (Open only for weekday lunch, and you’ll probably need a cab). There, for just $2, you can get a traditional Bolivian “set” lunch—consisting of dishes such as quinoa soup and a baked bean casserole—prepared and served by students at a culinary school for at-risk youth, founded by Claus Meyer in 2014.
Though Gustu and Meyer have received their share of criticism (some local cooks are understandably irked by the presumption of a European chef touching down to "rescue" the local cuisine), Manq’a and the Kilometro 0 restaurants have undoubtedly changed the way people in vastly different parts of this fascinating city think about what and how they eat.
El Alto has grown exponentially in the last 40 years, from a town of a few thousand people to a city of more than 1 million. Such growth comes with its growing pains. Hire a taxi to drive you from Manq’a to the terminal of the Yellow Teleférico line on the other side of the city, and you’ll likely encounter maddening traffic along dusty roads crowded with vendors selling sheep skins or used clothing or PVC piping—evidence of the thriving, informal economy that keeps El Alto alive. But you’ll also see signs of growing wealth reflected in the exuberant architecture of Freddy Mamani: Technicolor façades lined up along busy roads like so many exclamation points, as madly geometric as pinball machines. This is the face of a new La Paz, a city proud of its indigenous heritage, connected to its soil, and still determinedly odd in the way it expresses that heritage to the world and to itself.
Drifting back down into La Paz proper on the Teleférico, the land will drop out below you as the ramshackle brick houses of El Alto cascade over the cliffs toward the stream of high-rises that has risen where a river once flowed. If you’re lucky, the triple peak of Mount Illamani will make an appearance on the horizon. Below you, small domestic scenes will play out in the courtyards and on the rooftops of the homes just below your feet. From this vantage point you’ll see clearly the staggering alien beauty of this city—and you’ll wonder why no one told you about it.