I landed in Bolivia after a grueling overnight flight from Miami in El Alto, the highest international airport in the world at a dizzying altitude of 13,323 feet (4,061 m). Coming from the flat land of Minnesota at meager 830 feet (264 m) above sea level and a restless night’s sleep, I felt exhausted, unbalanced and elated all the same to finally be in Bolivia.
A driver from our hotel picked us up and drove us the short 8 miles or so down into the heart of La Paz. As we left the bustling run-down city of El Alto and meandered down the impossibly steep, colorful streets of La Paz I looked around me in fascination. In all my travels around the world, I had never seen anything quite like La Paz. Built within a giant bowl-shaped canyon with streets as steep as ski hills, there she laid before me: A metropolitan area of over 2 million people densely populated within the sheer rocks that surround La Paz and lead to the majestic, snow-capped Andes.
And then I saw her in all her glory and was awestruck. La Paz seemed to go on forever into the distant altiplano, the highlands for which this part of Bolivia is known for.
Despite my fatigue, I was at the edge of my seat peering outside the car window with my mouth open in stunned surprise at the color, the craziness and the impossibility of La Paz. I remembered a page I’d read in my Lonely Planet describing La Paz as having “medieval-looking buildings ascend the slopes with Seussian haphazardness” and laughed at how true the author was. La Paz was truly out of this world and like nothing I’d ever seen.
Depending on the time of day, the drive from the airport down to La Paz can take either 20 minutes or over an hour. The windy, serpentine roads that snake down into the heart and soul of the city become overwhelmed with traffic as cars, buses and mini buses crowd the narrow, overpopulated streets and fight for the right away.
I was struck by the steepness and the riot of color throughout the city. In fact, everywhere I looked it was bursting with color outside the car window. I think La Paz is the most colorful place on earth.
When you reach the center of La Paz, you are only half way down. The city keeps going down for miles until you reach the bottom at Zona Sur which I swear is an entirely different climate zone. We stayed in the trendy, touristy central of La Paz near the gorgeous Plaza San Francisco simply to acclimatize. We were doing a big hike in the next few days and going all the way down to uppity Zona Sur would prove to be too low. Imagine that!
I sat fixated to the car window trying to breathe it all in. I had only been in La Paz for a half an hour and already I was overwhelmed with it all. I would find that along with a slight sense of dizziness, the colors, the sounds and the pace of La Paz would continually give me sensory overload over the next few days. It was a good thing we were headed for the peace and tranquility of the mountains!
The colors outside on the street were so incredibly brilliant it almost hurt your eyes. For the color-deprived people in the northern hemisphere, it was instant eye candy!
We arrived at our hotel and thankfully our room was ready. After over 20 hours of travel, we were both exhausted yet I had plans for that afternoon. I was to meet with a local non-profit in town called Sutisana to learn about their amazing work in saving women from prostitution and changing their lives.
But first it was time for a quick shower, some lunch and a look around the live wire neighborhood that never seemed to sleep.
We had booked a room at the lovely Hostal Naira, the perfect location for sightseeing and acclimatizing to the high elevation for the next few days.
The rooms were quaint but clean. The staff was overwhelmingly welcoming, and the location was by far the best. There were shops, markets, restaurants, cafes and the best of all, amazing people-watching right outside our doorstep. It was going to be a busy couple of days ahead of us exploring the amazing, colorful and quirky La Paz. I could hardly wait!