La Paz was never a city I wanted to visit. I never heard anything particularly good about it or particularly bad. When I chose to stay one night before going to Uyuni, home of the world’s largest salt flats, I had no idea what I would encounter.
The bold move in a new country is to go to a country club to play golf. This moon course was the coolest I have ever played.
I did not know what Bolivian food would be like but really enjoyed the atmosphere of Luciernagas restaurant and the traditional dishes.
La Paz is massive. At 14,900 ft, it is the tallest capital of the world. Descending from the top on the way from the airport to the hotel is a breathtaking experience. The views are incredible as is the density of the developments. One building is stacked atop another building and then another. As the taxi makes its way down, the traffic begins to mirror the housing as the cars are aligned bumper to bumper.
The Cable Car
The best way to see the gigantic city is to take the cable car. For less than $1, you can see all of La Paz.
Some places feel safe and some do not. La Paz was somewhere in the middle. I walked around the city center and did not feel any danger. The city was lively and, dare I say, had a similar energy to Shanghai. Still, my guard was up because I had read that muggings were common, especially by taxi drivers.
My experience with taxis was mixed. From the airport, I was charged the standard rate of 70 bolivianos without having to bargain. To golf, I was charged appropriately. The same is true from golfing back to the city center. Price gouging was not a problem. I did have one experience that put me on edge. Returning from the cable car to the restaurant, I needed a taxi. I jumped into one that was clearly marked as a taxi and had a dispatch radio etc. Right away something felt off. The driver wasn’t familiar with the restaurant. Moments later, he started speaking 100wpm in Spanish. I couldn’t keep up and said I didn’t understand. To which he replied, in Spanish, “Do you mind if I make a stop and pick up my wife?” To which I replied, in Spanish, “I do not have time.” Half a second later and with no explanation, he locked the doors. Stuck in traffic, I immediately said, “I’m going to walk,” and got the hell out of there. I might have been paranoid but I wasn’t going to find out what his intentions were, especially with Ms. TPOL in the car.
After that incident, I decided to walk to the restaurant. That’s when I noticed that there is Uber in Bolivia. That relief was short-lived as there weren’t any cars available. (That was the case all evening and the next morning.) Realizing the restaurant was a thirty minute walk away, my laziness got the best of me and I hailed another taxi. I put the address in my phone and watched the driver take the exact route there. To get back to the hotel, I had the hotel next to the restaurant call me a cab. Besides getting lost, that too was not a problem.
La Paz is not an opulent city. The poverty is apparent. That, on its own, does not make the city unsafe. What made me nervous was the uncertainty. Am I perceived as a rich tourist making me more susceptible to opportunistic thieves? Speaking the language may make me less of a target, but what about when you tell a driver to take you back to a hotel, a dead giveaway that you are not a local?
This uncertainty should not dissuade anyone from traveling to La Paz. It should just make you more aware of your surroundings and reinforce that trusting your instincts doesn’t make you a coward. It makes you a smart traveler.