Downtown La Paz

Plaza Murillo and around

Plaza Murillo is the traditional centre. Facing its formal gardens are the huge Cathedral built in 1835, the Palacio Presidencial open to visitors, in Italian renaissance style, commonly referred to as the Palacio Quemado (Burnt Palace), it has twice been gutted by fire in its stormy history, and, on the east side, the Congreso Nacional.

In front of the Palacio Quemado is a statue of former President Gualberto Villarroel, who was dragged into the plaza by an angry mob and hanged in 1946. Across from the Cathedral, is the Palacio de los Condes de Arana, dating from 1775, with a beautiful exterior and courtyard, now the Museo Nacional de Artewww.mna.org.bo It has a fine collection of colonial paintings including works by Melchor Pérez Holguín, one of the masters of Andean colonial art, and also exhibits the works of contemporary local artists.

The streets around Plaza Murillo are lined mostly by buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Running northwest to southeast by the plaza is Calle Comercio where you'll find many shops; from Plaza Murillo towards Plaza San Francisco it is a pedestrian mall that fills with street vendors selling all kinds of wares. To the south of Plaza Murillo, on Calle Mercado between Ayacucho and Colón is the impressive-looking Alcaldía Municipal. A block away, on a plazuelaat the corner of Calles Comercio and Colón is the church of La Merced. Northeast of the plaza, on the corner of Calles Ingavi and Yanacocha, is the church of Santo Domingo (originally the cathedral), with its 18th-century façade. In the palace of the Marqueses de Villaverde is the Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore, renovated 2005-2008. It shows the cultural richness of Bolivia by geographic region, through textiles and other items. It's worth a visit and has a good library and videoteca. Also worth a visit is the Teatro Municipal, the city's main performing arts centre.

Calle Jaén

To the northwest of Plaza Murillo is Calle Jaén, a picturesque cobbled street with pleasant views, home to the city's finest examples of colonial architecture. In colonial times it was known as Calle de la Cruz Verde, in reference to a cross in one corner. Legend has it, that the cross was there to ward off a ghostly carriage that always came by at midnight.

Museo Costumbristaion Plaza Riosinho has miniature displays depicting the history of La Paz and well-known paceños. It also has miniature replicas of reed rafts used by Norwegian, Thor Heyerdahl and Spaniard, Kitin Muñoz, to prove their theories of ancient migrations.

Museo Casa Murillo, was originally the home of Pedro Domingo Murillo, one of the martyrs of the abortive La Paz independence movement of 16 July 1809. The colonial house has been carefully restored and has a good collection of paintings, furniture and national costumes of the period. There is also a special room dedicated to herbal medicine and magic (Kallawaya).

The Museo de Metales Preciosos is well set out with Inca gold artefacts in basement vaults, and also has ceramics and archaeological exhibits.

Museo del Litoral Boliviano houses artefacts of the War of the Pacific and an interesting selection of old maps.

In addition to the Museos Municipales and also in a a colonial house is the Museo de Instrumentos Musicales run by Ernesto Cavour and based on 30 years of research. The International Charango Association is based here and lessons are available.

San Sebastián, the first church built in La Paz. Nearby is the excellent Museo Tambo Quirquincho, housed in a restored colonial building, it displays modern painting and sculpture, carnival masks, silver, early- 20th-century photography and city plans.

Along El Prado

El Prado is a pleasant boulevard with a tree-lined median with several statues. Many government offices, stores, tour operators, and cafés are located here. As the city's main artery, it is always bustling with people and vehicles. 

The church and monastery of San Francisco dates back to 1549 and is one of the finest examples of colonial religious architecture in South America and is well worth seeing. The church is richly decorated using native religious themes; the mestizo baroque façade clearly displays how the traditional baroque vine motif is transformed into an array of animals, birds and plants. The interior contains huge, square columns and gilt altars. Housed in the monastery, the Centro Cultural Museo San Francisco, www.centrocultural-museosanfrancisco.org, offers access to various areas of the church and convent that were previously off limits, including the choir, crypt (open 1400-1730), roof, various chapels and gardens. Fine art includes religious paintings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, plus visiting exhibits and a hall devoted to the works of Tito Yupanqui, the indigenous sculptor of the Virgen de Copacabana. There is a pricey but good café at entrance.

On the west side of El Prado, in a 19th-century house which has been declared a national monument, is the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Plaza, with an excellent selection of contemporary art from national and international artists. Rotating exhibits, some work for sale. The Museo Fotográfico Núñez de Arco has an interesting photo collection of the early excavations of Tiawanaku and old photos of La Paz and surroundings.

The Museo Nacional de Arqueologíaor Museo Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku), www.bolivian.com/arqueologia, contains good collections of the arts and crafts of ancient Tiahuanaco and items from the eastern jungles. It also has a two-room exhibition of gold statuettes and objects found in Lake Titicaca.

Parque Central Urbano, is a linear park along the shores of the Río Choqueyapu. The river runs in culverts under the park, which has an open-air theatre and sports fields. The park is the scene of the Alasitas festival.

Uphill from Plaza San Francisco

Behind the San Francisco church a network of narrow cobbled streets rises rise steeply west into La Paz's most important tourist district centered around calles Sagárnagaand Illampu, where many hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and souvenir shops are found. Here you will find the highest concentration of tourists and pick-pockets. Much of this area is also a permanent street market. Handicraft shops and stalls selling alpaca and llama woollens, jewelery, leather goods, musical instruments and more, line the lower part of Sagárnaga from Plaza San Francisco to Illampu. So informal is the retail trade here that stall holders go for lunch leaving their stall with a piece of plastic or blanket over it to show that it's shut.

After a few days wandering around La Paz you may come to the conclusion that it's one great street market, and you wouldn't be far wrong. Everything you might need you will find in the streets: fruit and vegetables, razor blades, Vicks Vaporub, MP3s, Snickers bars, dried llama foetuses - anything, in fact, you'd find in the local supermarket. The llama foetuses are used to protect a dwelling from evil spirits and you can find great piles of them, like extras from a horror movie, in the Mercado de Hechicería(Witchcraft Market) or Mercado de Brujas (Witches Market) on Calles Melchor Jiménez and Linares, which cross Calle Santa Cruz above San Francisco. Interesting charms, herbs and potions for every need are also sold here.

The excellent Museo de la Coca is devoted to the coca plant, its history, cultural significance, medical values and political implications, with explanations in Spanish and English. In the same building is the Museo de Arte Textil Andino Boliviano, a small collection of old traditional weavings (not to be confused with the larger Museo de Textiles Andinos Bolivianos, in Miraflores).

If you look beyond the tourist area, you reach La Paz's main market district. On Max Paredes, between Santa Cruz and Graneros, is the Mercado Negro, a bewildering labyrinth of stalls where you can pick up a cheap pair of Levi jeans, or almost anything else. Where Max Paredes meets Avenida Buenos Aires, you'll find one of the liveliest streets in the indigenous quarter, where small workshops turn out the costumes and masks for the Gran Poder festival . This is the main market area and the streets are crammed with stalls selling every imaginable item - household goods, clothing, hats, food, festive goods. Do not expect to go anywhere in a hurry in this part of the city; just enjoy the atmosphere and the marvellous views of omnipresent Mount Illimani. Note that this is not a safe area, so don't take valuables.

Eloy Salmón is a street filled with shops and stalls selling the latest technological devices, from digital cameras to motherboards. The Mercado Rodríguez is a riot of colour, fruit, vegetables and identifiable and unidentifiable parts of animals. The main market days are Saturday and Sunday mornings but there are stalls here every day.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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