Perched on the edge of the altiplano, La Paz overlooks a landscape of great–if stark–beauty. If you fly into Aeropuerto Internacional El Alto, the plateau breaks without warning and reveals the deep, jagged valley that cradles the town. At dusk, as the sun sets on the bare flatlands that surround La Paz, a reddish glow envelops the city’s greatest landmark: the towering, snowcapped peaks of Illimani.
The city is nestled in a bowl-shape valley and ranges in altitude from 10,500 to 13,500 feet (3,200 to 4,100 meters) above sea level. The altitude might make things difficult at first, but it also ensures that La Paz is free of heat and humidity, and devoid of mosquitoes and other pesky insects.
Nearly half of La Paz’s 1.3 million residents and most of its indigenous inhabitants live in poorly constructed adobe and brick homes on a barren plateau called El Alto, which has grown so much, it is now a separate city with 800,000 residents. Downtown La Paz is more cosmopolitan, and the south of the city, the Zona Sur, is extremely European in flavor.
El Teleférico, the new cable car system (and the highest urban system of its kind in the world), runs down from El Alto and as far as Zona Sur. Besides offering a welcome escape from La Paz’s often murderous traffic, it makes for a spectacular ride, offering humbling views of the city spread out in the jagged, rocky valley. Security is good all along the line, and some stations are easily accessible and in popular tourist areas; head up at sunrise for the best views.