Water boils at 87.6 degrees Celsius in La Paz, Bolivia. The boiling point is so low because the city’s elevation is so high – La Paz is situated at an average height 3,650 metres above mean sea level, making it the highest capital city in the world. But why is La Paz located at such a high altitude? It doesn’t seem the most logical place to position a city, especially a capital city.
Why did they choose this impractical place?
The founding of La Paz
La Paz wasn’t always the capital of Bolivia. It came into being in 1548, founded at the behest of Pedro de la Gasca, a respected diplomat who had been sent to South America to quash a rebellion stirred up by Gonzalo Pizarro (the younger brother of Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of the Incan Empire). Gonzalo had rounded up an army, deposed the viceroy of Peru appointed by Emperor Charles V, and was going around calling himself the king of Peru. Pedro de la Gasca managed, through his powers of negotiation and military prowess, to bring the rebellion to a swift and relatively bloodless end (Gonzalo and the key leaders of the insurgency were of course all executed). La Paz was founded to commemorate the end of the civil war. Hence it’s rather grandiose name: Nuestra Señora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace).
In its early days La Paz was essentially just a staging post, a convenient stopover point between Potosí (a city built alongside a silver mine that proved to be the richest silver mine in history) and Lima, capital of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru (which covered most of South American continent at the time).
When Bolivia became independent in 1825 it was Sucre, near Potosí, that was made the national capital. But by the end of the century the mines of Potosí had started to run dry, and Sucre was losing its power base.
In 1898 La Paz was made the administrative capital of Bolivia (Sucre remains the constitutional capital).
Plaza Murillo, La Paz
Plaza Murillo, in the centre of La Paz, is flanked by the Presidential Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral of La Paz, and the National Congress of Bolivia. It has been overrun by revolutionary battles on at least ten separate occasions. La Paz indeed.
One of the lampposts in the plaza was used to hang Gualberto Villarroel, the 46th president of Bolivia, in 1946.
The Witches’ Market, La Paz
The Spanish conquistadors managed to convert much of the indigenous population of Bolivia to Catholicism. Except the locals didn’t really abandon their old ways; they just added the new to the mix, swirling it all together into a loving, irreversible syncretism. And this is nowhere more evident than at the Witches’ Market (Mercado de las Brujas), where you buy potions for wealth, love, and protection – amongst other things – from an assortment of Catholic witches, who, to top things off, are wearing black hats – although they aren’t quite the black conical hats you see witches wearing in cartoons.
If it isn’t a potion you’re after then there are dried frogs and desiccated toads to buy; there are dead baby llamas, stuffed ocelots, and armadillo hides.
Llama foetuses, used as an offering to Pachamama (an Aymara earth goddess whom the Spanish supplanted – not altogether successfully – with the Virgin Mary), are one of the most popular items in the market. If you’re building a new house then there’s no more auspicious way to begin proceedings than to bury a llama foetus on the site.
The triple-peaked, snow-capped Illimani is considered La Paz’s guardian. As far as this goes the mountain hasn’t really done anything tangible for La Paz as yet, but at least it isn’t an active volcano, so it isn’t likely erupt and kill everyone anytime soon.
At 6,438 metres altitude Illimani is the second tallest mountain in Bolivia (Nevado Sajama, at 6542 metres elevation, is the tallest)
Valle de la Luna
Located ten kilometres from the city centre, this geological oddity – formed through the erosion of soft sedimentary soils – is certainly a peculiar place, although it doesn’t really scream surface of the moon to me (nor does it resemble any of the images of the moon captured by various space missions). Still it is unquestionably an unusual and photogenic landscape, and a visit here isn’t a bad way to pass the time if you have a few hours to kill during your stay in La Paz.
NOTE: I’ve heard that a few tourists have been mugged at Valle de la Luna, so it’s probably best to go in a group.
La Fiesta del Gran Poder
La Fiesta del Gran Poder, held during late May/early June, is the biggest celebration of the year. It involves thirty thousand or so participants dressing up in folkloric Aymara costumes and parading through the streets of La Paz, ostensibly in the name of el Gran Poder (the Great Power – i.e. Jesus Christ) but with plenty of references to traditional Aymara customs and gods, including Pachamama. The festival was initially restricted to the Aymara community, but it has since become a city-wide event. It is also a time of extreme public drunkenness.
In all, it’s a lot of fun, and it’s well worth planning your visit to La Paz to coincide with La Fiesta del Gran Poder if you can manage it.
But back to my initial question: why is the capital of Bolivia situated at such a high elevation?
It’s because Bolivia’s Altiplano, which is home to the vast majority of the Bolivian population, has an average height of 3,750 metres elevation. La Paz, at 3,650 metres elevation, is relatively low-lying. It’s also situated in a bowl between surrounding mountain ridges, which means it enjoys a relatively temperate climate.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Practical information and how to reach La Paz:
La Paz has it’s own international airport; it’s called El Alto International Airport, and it’s the highest international airport in the world, at 4,058m.
WARNING: If you do fly into La Paz, and you depart from a low altitude environ, then you are almost certain to experience altitude sickness to some degree. If you aren’t confident you can cope with the altitude, then do yourself a favour and spend some time acclimatising at lower elevations before making the trip here.