Few cities in the world have as spectacular a setting as La Paz. Glimpsed for the first time as your bus or taxi crawls over the lip of the narrow canyon in which the city sits hunched, it’s a sight that will leave your lungs gasping for oxygen they can’t have. At over 3500m above sea level, amid a hollow gouged into the Altiplano, it’s a scene of stunning contrasts: a central cluster of church spires and office blocks dwarfed by the magnificent icebound peak of Mount Illimani rising imperiously to the southeast. On either side, the steep valley slopes are covered by the ramshackle homes of the city’s poorer inhabitants, clinging precariously to even the harshest gradients.
With a population of around 835,000, La Paz is the political and commercial hub of Bolivia and the capital in all but name (technically, that honour belongs to Sucre). Though protected to some extent from the tides of globalization by its isolation and singular cultural make-up, La Paz feels very much part of the twenty-first century, its manic bustle and offbeat, cosmopolitan feel luring travellers back time and again. Founded as a centre of Spanish power in the Andes, La Paz has always had a dual identity, with two very distinct societies – the indigenous and the European – coexisting in the same geographical space. Hi-tech international banks and government offices rub shoulders with vibrant street markets selling all manner of ritual paraphernalia for appeasing the spirits and mountain gods that still play a central role in the lives of the indigenous Aymara.
The Aymara, in fact, make up not only the majority of the city’s population, but also that of El Alto, La Paz’s militant, red-brick alter ego, which continues to outstrip it in terms of rural migrant-boosted population, and often media coverage. For them, working life in La Paz is conducted largely on the streets, and at times the whole place can feel like one massive, sprawling market. Though you’d imagine the exigencies of life at high altitude would make the pace of life quite slow, in reality it’s often more frantic than Buenos Aires or Rio, not least during the winter Fiesta del Gran Poder, when young and old alike dance in riotous celebration of the sacred and the profane.
Horrendous congestion and belching-black pollution notwithstanding, most visitors find La Paz’s compelling street life and tremendous cultural energy warrant spending at least a few days here, even if conventional tourist attractions are limited to a scattering of colonial palaces, plazas and churches in the centre of town. The city’s museums, while perhaps not fully doing justice to Bolivia’s fascinating history and culture, are nevertheless much improved from only a decade ago, and likewise warrant at least a day or two’s browsing. The absence of green areas, meanwhile, is more than redeemed by the sight of Illimani, tantalisingly glimpsed through breaks in the urban sprawl.
La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de la Paz – “The City of Our Lady of Peace” – was founded on October 20, 1548 on the orders of Pedro de la Gasca, the supreme representative of the Spanish Emperor in Peru, to commemorate the end of almost ten years of bitter civil war between rival Spanish factions fighting over the combined territories of Alto and Bajo Peru. Sited in the Choqueyapu valley, the city developed an economy based on commerce rather than mining.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
The merchants of La Paz grew rich through the trade in coca from the Yungas to the mines of Potosí, and the city also prospered as a waystation on the route between the mines and the coast, and between Lima and Buenos Aires. By 1665 some five hundred Spaniards were living in La Paz, with a much larger indigenous population housed on the other side of the fledgling city across the Río Choqueyapu. In 1781 an indigenous army led by Tupac Katari twice laid siege to La Paz, though the city survived and held out until it was relieved by the army sent from Buenos Aires that finally crushed the rebellion.
By the time Bolivia’s independence from Spain was finally secured in 1825 (see Argentina attacks), La Paz was the biggest city in the country, with a population of forty thousand. Though Sucre remained the capital, La Paz was increasingly the focus of the new republic’s turbulent political life. In 1899 the growing rivalry between the two cities was resolved in a short but bloody civil war that left La Paz as the seat of government, home to the president and the congress, and the capital in all but name.
The twentieth century
The first half of the twentieth century saw La Paz’s population grow to over three hundred thousand. In 1952 La Paz was the scene of the fierce street fighting that ushered in the revolution led by the MNR, or Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario. The sweeping changes that followed further fuelled the city’s growth as the Aymara population of the Altiplano, released from servitude by the Agrarian reform, migrated en masse to the metropolis. This migration from the countryside profoundly changed the character of La Paz, quadrupling its population to over a million and transforming it into a predominantly Aymara city, albeit still ruled by a wealthy European-descended minority.
The twenty-first century
While this ethnic and geographical gulf is hardly without precedent in Latin America, age-old tensions reached a boiling point over the first half of the decade, with violent civil disturbances toppling a series of neo-liberal presidents. Plans to export natural gas via a Chilean pipeline prompted the first “gas war” in 2003 (see Bolivia’s first indigenous president). Further unrest over the unresolved gas issue erupted in May and June 2005 with hundreds of thousands of indigenous protestors massing in La Paz, effectively cutting off the city and effecting the resignation of then-president Carlos Mesa.
The reign of Evo Morales
With the 2005 election of Bolivia’s first (and it’s looking increasingly likely, most enduring) indigenous president, Evo Morales, the Aymara finally achieved real political power and the traditional campesinos vs the state ferment was superseded, to some extent, by a wider geo-political cultural spat between the radical Altiplano and the right-wing lowland departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija. Yet while much of the violence and unrest has taken place far from the capital, demonstrations by discontented miners, pensioners, fuel protestors, hunger strikers in the main Post Office and indeed anyone at all who feels hard done by, underlines the fact that La Paz, in its strategic relation to El Alto and the Highland Aymara communities, remains a vital crucible for popular protest.