La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

First in a series on Bolivia

My wife Rachel and I began our honeymoon in La Paz, Bolivia.  Although Peru (specifically, the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu) had been the main focus of the trip, I was eager to visit Bolivia’s Valle de la Luna and Isla del Sol.  In addition, I hoped the time spent at altitude in the Altiplano (high plateau around the Andes) would help us acclimate to the high altitude we’d face on some portions of the Inca Trail.

American Airlines B757 on approach to El Alto, La Paz's airport
American Airlines B757 on approach to El Alto, La Paz’s airport.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

We arrived at El Alto International Airport at 6:30am on Tuesday, August 11, 2015.  As suggested by the name (Spanish for “The High”), El Alto sits at an incredible 4,061m (13,325′).  In fact, it’s the highest international airport in the world.  Few models of wide-body aircraft can even land there.   El Alto sits on the plateau located above the canyon where La Paz is built.  The city of El Alto that surrounds the airport possesses fewer tourist attractions than La Paz, but is itself a very large city.  In fact, it edges out La Paz for the title of Bolivia’s second largest city in terms of population.

Streets of El Alto
Streets of El Alto

It was an interesting experience having the air pressure of the destination be lower than the cabin pressure during the flight.  I had a headache by the time we left the airport.  After passing through passport control, we caught a taxi from the stand out front around 7am.  The morning air was crisp and there was a low layer or clouds or fog.  As my Lonely Planet guidebook had indicated, Bolivian taxis don’t use meters, so it’s wise to confirm the price at the beginning of the journey.

The taxi driver quoted us a price of 70 Bolivianos (about $10) to our hotel, which was in line with the 50 Bolivanos (about $7.25) that my guidebook suggested a taxi to downtown should cost.  Our hotel was at the southern end of downtown, a slightly longer drive.  Within the city itself, most taxi rides were 7-15 Bolivianos.  I was pleased that the taxi had seatbelts, since I’d heard that safety standards in Bolivia were a bit lax.  (Actually, it was the last Bolivian taxi I rode in that had any functional ones for passengers.)

First look at La Paz from the heights of El Alto. The road down is visible at lower left
First look at La Paz from the heights of El Alto.

The edge of El Alto International appeared to be a boneyard for aging propeller-driven aircraft…I saw what I think were a couple of DC-3s.  The area around the airport appeared stunningly impoverished with run down cinder block buildings.  Disheveled stray dogs were everywhere.  After a short time, we came to the edge of the canyon that La Paz is situated in.  Roads follow steep switchbacks down into La Paz.  It was a pretty scary decent..  Driving down one rare straightaway, the taxi driver gunned it.  For about five seconds it felt like I was riding a rollercoaster.  Rachel, used to riding taxis of the developing world, was amused by the look of terror on my face.

Mi Teleférico's red line connects the area northwest of downtown La Paz with the heights of El Alto
Mi Teleférico’s red line connects the area northwest of downtown La Paz with the heights of El Alto

I was surprised when the taxi passed under a modern looking aerial cable car that connected downtown La Paz with the heights of El Alto.  The Lonely Planet guidebook (published 2013) didn’t mention it, which turned out to be understandable because the system, known as Mi Teleférico, just opened in 2014.  The three lines in operation (color coded red, yellow, and green) already constitute the longest aerial cable car system in the world, with more lines planned.  The system was intended to take some of the pressure off the dizzying roads that connect El Alto and La Paz.  The wisdom of that decision became all too clear when we rode the cable car the following day. Approaching El Alto on the red line, we saw a ghastly sight: A taxi wedged vertically (and crushed) in a crevice on the cliff below the city.

Traveling the roads connecting El Alto and La Paz is not for the faint of heart
I hope against hope that this wreck was the result of a prank, insurance scam, or an installation underscoring to locals that they should be taking the cable car instead of taxis rather than the remnant of a fatal accident that it appears to be.

We arrived at the Stannum Boutique Hotel (elevation about 3,535m/11,600′) around 7:30am.  Naturally, it was too early to check in, but we dropped off our luggage and rested a while in the chic lobby.  By “rested”, I mean I sat there on a couch while Rachel napped on my shoulder (even though she’d gotten three times as much sleep as me on the flights!).

By 9:15am the morning clouds had burned off to make for a sunny, pleasant day.  We decided to walk to Basílica de San Francisco, a 2.6km (1.6 mile) walk from our hotel.  The church was founded in the 16th Century, but was rebuilt in the mid-1750s following a structural collapse.

High rises of La Paz seen from the Stannum
High rises of La Paz seen from the Stannum

Downtown La Paz had many modern, attractive high rises.  There was heavy traffic downtown with little in the way of traffic control devices.  The fumes from the vehicles were quite noxious; no doubt emissions laws are laxer than in the developed world.

Basílica de San Francisco
Basílica de San Francisco

After about an hour, including a stop for snacks at a grocery store, we arrived at San Francisco.  The church has an attractive stone exterior.  Photography is not permitted inside.  The interior was relatively sparse compared to the splendor of European churches I’d visited.  That was maybe just as well, since Rachel told me stories of traveling in impoverished areas of Mexico where the interiors of churches were swimming in gold.  I was intrigued that some windows were made not of glass but of what turned out to be a thin, translucent stone.

Basílica de San Francisco's cloister
Basílica de San Francisco’s cloister
Flowers in the Basílica de San Francisco convent garden
Flowers in the Basílica de San Francisco convent garden

We went into the neighboring Museo San Francisco which offers guided tours for 20 Bolivianos (about $2.90).  The tour group was small, consisting only of Rachel, myself, and a Canadian woman.  We went upstairs to the cloister for the convent adjoining the church.  At the center was a garden for flowers and vegetables.  Photography was permitted in the cloister and garden but not the interior rooms.

The church's dome
The church’s dome.  The light colored stone at the center of the dome is actually translucent, at least when viewed from the inside.  These stone windows are in several places on the building.
Basílica de San Francisco roof detail
Basílica de San Francisco roof detail

After passing through the garden, our guide showed us rooms featuring the vessels which the monks once used to make wine.  A neighboring room featured a collection of religious art.  The tour passed back into the main church, on a floor above the main entrance of the church.  There were display cases with historic vestments.  From here, a narrow staircase led to the roof of the church.  There was a decent view of the surrounding city, though I suspect not as good as we would have had on the surrounding hillsides.  I admired the stonework on the dome and bell tower.  We descended another narrow staircase back to the museum entrance to conclude the tour.

It was just my luck that Rachel wanted to shop.  Sagarnaga, the street just south of the church, was filled with gift shops.  Many stalls sold similar alpaca wool goods: sweaters, hats, and scarves primarily.  There was a wide variety of sweaters, no doubt influenced by tourist tastes.  It is possible to find ones with conventional crew necks, full zip, quarter zip, and hoodies.

I was surprised how non-scratchy alpaca wool is; indeed, it’s quite soft and stretchy.  The shopkeepers identified some products as pure alpaca wool and some as blends.  It is my understanding that the sweaters are made with a machine, not by hand, and come in a wide variety of colors.  The patterns very as well, though it was surprisingly difficult to find designs that weren’t covered in multiple mini-alpaca images.  Prices in La Paz were fairly consistent through the different stores, roughly 90-120 Bolivianos ($13-$17.50) per sweater.

I’d only gotten a couple hours’ sleep on the plane and I was feeling the altitude, so I dragged Rachel away from the shops (though not before she acquired a Incans vs. Conquistadores chess set for her collection).  I’d heard warnings about flagging taxis down on the street in La Paz.  You run the risk of ending up with an unlicensed cab and there are reports of criminals using such taxis to lure tourists for “express kidnappings”.  The best practice is to stick with radio-dispatched taxis.  We stopped into a hotel and asked the front desk to call us a taxi back to our hotel.

Series on Bolivia

Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)

La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Bolivia

Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Introduction to Copacabana, Bolivia

Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill) in Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part II: Chincana and Nearby Sites

Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Scenic Tour of Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru by Bus


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