I really didn’t know what to expect when I traveled to Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz, which at 11,900 feet above sea level makes it one of the highest cities in the world. I was somewhat concerned about the high altitude, however two years earlier I visited Cusco in Peru - another high altitude city at 10,900 ft above sea level – and I managed fairly well. I must admit that I felt a little dizzy and short winded my first day or so, but I seemed to adjust fairly well – thanks in part to drinking several cups of coca tea every day.
It was only when I had to hike uphill to my hotel in Isla del Sol at nearby Lake Titicaca did I really begin to feel the altitude – I guess you could say that I was really sucking for air. Of course, the altitude there was a good 1000-1600 feet higher than La Paz. The summit at Isla del Sol is 13,450 feet (4100 meters) .
The topography of La Paz is very extreme – the city lies in a deep canyon surrounded by the high mountains of the altiplano, and the altitude of the greater metropolitan area ranges from 13,300 feet (4060 meters) at El Alto to 10,200 feet (3100 meters) in Zona Sur, the relatively affluent suburbs. In most cities around the world, the wealthier people live in the hills. Not so with La Paz – the people with monies live in the lower elevations of the city in the suburbs of Zona Sur while the poorer people live in shanties scattered on the slope of the mountain or in high elevation El Alto.
During the winter season (and at nights) it can get fairly chilly and uncomfortable in La Paz especially if there is a stiff breeze. When you consider that the climate is considerably warmer in the lower elevations of La Paz, it is understandable that the wealthier people have chosen to live in Zona Sur.
The difference between central La Paz and Zona Sur is a difference of night and day. Besides the more agreeable climate, Zona Sur is considerably more modern with wide tree lined streets, fancy boutiques, chic restaurants and trendy clubs. In comparison, central La Paz is somewhat worn and frayed around the edges with narrow congested streets and many older buildings as well as remnants of Bolivia’s Spanish colonial past.