The Path to Macchu Picchu

Apart from a few short domestic flights most of the Altiplano travel would be on the road.

Flight to La Paz

Although bus routes are available to La Paz from Uyuni , as with all Bolivian roads the infrastructure was rather rundown and prone to disruption by floods and landslides. With this mind and with no time to waste on a slow, bumpy and not particularly scenic 12+ hour bus ride to La Paz we opted for a 1 hour flight from Uyuni to La Paz.

The tickets had been booked in advance but the flight timings shuffled around a lot as the airline sent at least 3 revisions to the departure time via email. This was a small airline with challenges of its own it seemed.

La Paz was nothing more than a rest point between the Uyuni trip and the long bus road along the old Inca trails leading to Cuzco. I’d not heard rave reviews of the city and though yes it had a lot of Colonial-era architecture and more vibrant native culture than the more Hispanic cities of the southern nations (Argentina & Chile have relatively smaller native populations), the city had many issues.

  • High Crime rates (relative to other South American cities according to Lonely Planet)
  • Higher risk of contaminated food
  • Protests were common and were known to escalate into violence.

We’d planned a few short walks about the city centre during the day and planned to stay indoors after nightfall to minimize our exposure to more serious crime.

The hotel shuttle dropped us off at the small airport on schedule and we cleared customs & security without much of a hassle.

While checking if the gate was valid a man in a local poncho got up and hailed:


At this point I was stunned and was trying to recall anyone I might know in Bolivia before I soon realized it was an ex-colleague of mine.

I’d noted on Facebook that we would be intersecting our travel routes but I never imagined the odds of bumping into him at an airport in Uyuni!

We then exchanged our trip experiences to date and he shared his experience of the Atacama –> Uyuni desert jeep tour. He was a very skilled photographer and had taken some pretty awesome photos on that trip but did admit it was a rather rough few days.

We were then interrupted by the boarding call and agreed to coordinate our plans for La Paz upon landing. He was also using the capital as an overnight stopover before flying on to Cuzco.


The plane was a small one which hadn’t aged well. It was filled with mostly tourists and a minority of locals. We took off without incident and took in the bright white plains below which slowly gave way to mountains and more rugged terrain. Bolivia is a geologically diverse country with parched deserts, high mountains and thick rainforests. However the 1 hour flight didn’t pass much vegetation and we arrived in La Paz in reasonable time.

Drive to the city

I’d read a lot of the express kidnappings and other road-bound crimes in South America but in terms of safety lonely planet ranked La Paz as one of the most dangerous of the cities we’d be travelling through. I considered getting an airport taxi but decided to coordinate a pickup with the hotel. My ex-colleague had no issues with his airport taxi so I leave it to the reader to decide accordingly when landing in La Paz ;)

The hotel van ferried us through the winding roads from the airport to the city centre. La Paz is built over the sloping valley, with the pricey upper-strata of society in the lowest part of the valley along with the old city and poorer dwellings further up the slope. The higher up the slope, the poorer the inhabitants was the impression one could get from the first glance of the city from the airport road. The houses on the side of the road resembled the favelas of Rio and was in sharp contrast to the cities we’d seen till this point.


We were staying the night at the La Casona, a rather stylish colonial-era villa in the centre of the old city.

The hotel had its own museum hosting artefacts uncovered during its restoration.

This villa had been the home of a Spanish nobleman in the 16th century and the hotel had gone to great lengths to retain its old world charm.

original wall décor

ancient drain

City tour

After a traditional bolivian lunch of tough alpaca meat, broad beans and potatoes, we meet up with our ex-colleague and headed out to a walkabout of the city in the noon sun.

The street was cobbled and at a rather steep incline and the thin air didn’t help with the extra exertion required.

Witches’ market

We visited the Coca Museum which took us through the Witches Market. A market specializing in mystical animal products (like Llama embryos) popular among the native population and had its roots in the earlier Inca period.

El Mercado de las Brujas (witches market) was mostly a curiosity to tourists and we were advised to take photos discretely to avoid irritating the stall owners.

Museo de la Coca

The small museum was placed in a very narrow side-street and had a variety of unusual artefacts around it.

The inside of the museum had some pre-Conquistador native artefacts and some facts on Coca and its significance in Andean culture.

The museum covered all aspects of the coca leaf, from agriculture, consumption , historical significance and the modern issues of cocaine abuse.

It was quite clear the museum wanted to distance the humble coca leaf from its highly processed derivative cocaine. The museum was sympathetic to the coca leaf and highlighted various nutritional benefits of chewing coca leaves (tho the leaf is not so kind on the teeth). The boost to stamina and endure exhaustion were features that seemed valued in the early Andean society apart from the leaf’s use in religious ceremonies.

This quality wasn’t lost on the Spanish Conquistadors who used this stimulant in driving their native slave labour to endure immense physical toil in their Gold & Silver mines. Coca chewing is considered acceptable within Bolivia as its an important part of the indigenous lifestyle. The later exhibits described cocaine processing and showed the huge quantity of coca leaves that went into a handful yield of cocaine so you could visualize the huge variance in narcotic effect between a few leaves and small amount of the highly processed cocaine. This was followed up with interactive display of the negative health impact that cocaine addiction has on the human body.

The exhibit also included references to earlier versions of Coca-Cola that included extracts from the plant before this was discontinued in the 1920s.

It was a different kind of museum to what we’d seen so far and I found the material fairly educational. As continued onto the street we parted ways with our ex-colleague, he’d be flying onward to Cuzco while we’d be taking the 24 hour bus ride via Lake Titicaca to Cuzco. He was going to take a cable car to the highest point of La Paz and take some panoramic photos. Though I wasn’t too keen on exploring the somewhat shady looking shacks at the top but then again I might have been paranoid :D. We both admitted that other than a rest-stop La Paz wasn’t packed with a huge number of sights of interest.

You can see the distinction on the photo below from our hotel at the centre of La Paz. Note the shacks on the top inclines.

taken from the hotel rooftop

A somewhat blurry photo from the bumpy airport road

The Street Zebras

One of the most peculiar differences I noticed on the streets of La Paz were the dancing Zebras at the Zebra crossings.

These mascots would attempt to keep errant drivers & pedestrian to respect the zebra crossing.

They would perform some humorous stunts in order to uphold the traffic laws:

Search for the Gold Museum

We then attempted to locate the Museo de Metales Preciosos which housed various Precious metal artefacts from the Pre-Colonial era.

Police barriers

There was an ongoing protest near the central square (plaza) and the police presence was heavy in the city which did bolster to our sense of security. We were confronted by a steel fence barricade to the entrance of a road. Just as we were looking about for a bypass a tourist remarked that foreigners could pass through provided we just waved our cameras about. So we passed though the squad of cops (suited out in full riot gear) without any trouble. This zone was reserved for Government offices and being the limited to the Administrative elite, was devoid of the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city.

It was probably the most pristine part of the city I’d seen in La Paz.

We exited this oasis of calm by passing through another heavily fortified police barrier and continued our search for the museum.

However the street signage, inclined roads and the erratic GPS signal made this more difficult than predicted. As it was late afternoon and it would be dark by the time we’d be done with the museum we decided to skip it and return to the hotel.


We retired to the hotel in order to pack for the 24 hour bus journey to Cuzco via Lake Titicaca. The bus would pick us up from the hotel at 6am so we prepared for an early night.

La Paz was not a major tourist item on my list but has all the major conveniences of a major city and would probably be a stop on your tour of the Altiplano given that most bus & plane links go via the city. It’s a chaotic city with a great deal of sprawl though this lack of urban planning does give it an organic (albeit chaotic) characteristic that more adventurous explorers might revel in walking about. We were on extra alert for this stop due to numerous crime warnings on the travel guides, but encountered no trouble apart from navigating the confusing roads, squeezing past the crowded streets and getting a bit winded while climbing up the sloped roads ,while adjusting to the thinner air (world’s highest capital).

An additional tip for those flying into la paz directly from a lower altitude, try a more carb-heavy diet as it will be easier to digest than a protein one in the thinner air. Alcohol consumption should also be kept to a minimum.