La Paz was originally founded on the Altiplano in what is now Laja, a small town 30 km west of La Paz on the way to Desaguadero on the Peruvian border. In 1548 they moved down to the valley of the Río Choqueyapu thus escaping the cold winds of the Altiplano and getting closer to the alluvial gold in the river whose name in Aymara means 'God of Gold', today mostly underground and polluted beyond recognition. The city of Nuestra Señora de La Paz was founded on 20 October 1548, conveniently located between recently discovered silver mines of Potosí and Lima, capital of the Spanish colony. The choice of site for the city in a canyon proved to be a problem on more than one occasion. In 1781, a native rebellion led by Tupac Katari against the colonial power blocked the city, cutting its food supply first for two weeks and the second time for over two months. This situation has been repeated in recent times.

The official capital of Bolivia is Sucre in the southeast of the country, but La Paz became the country's biggest city after the decline of Potosí in the 17th century. While the supreme court is still based in Sucre, most other branches of government were moved to La Paz after a civil war in 1899. Although La Paz remains an important commercial centre, its economic superiority has in recent decades been surpassed by Santa Cruz. In terms of population, in 2008 it was estimated to be third after Santa Cruz and El Alto.

Since colonial times, the centre of La Paz has been around Plaza Murillo. The first real suburbs where San Pedro and Sopocachi, west of El Prado, and Miraflores, on a ridge to the east. The spread down to what is now Obrajes happened during the early 20th century while the development of the Zona Sur gradually followed. At the same time the slopes of the canyon have filled with houses and working-class areas have spread out farther and farther from the centre and include Villa Fátima and others with Villa and Alto in their names. However, the major pole of growth since the 1970s has been the bleak Altiplano surrounding the canyon of La Paz where El Alto (page) has become not only a city in its own right, but the second largest in the country.

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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