Perched high up in the cloud, atop South America’s soaring Andean peaks, La Paz has long been a place of pilgrimage for backpackers. Intrepid travellers and hardy souls have for decades wandered the city’s cobbled streets, short of breath in the thin mountain air. It was a city of character rather than glamour, of hiking sandals and bunk bedded dorm-rooms.
How times change.
La Paz is a city in transformation, shaking off its alpaca fleece chrysalis to reveal one of the continent’s most dynamic and exciting modern destinations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the city’s vibrant and glamorous Zona Sur neighbourhood, which will this August see the opening of Bolivia’s first five-star design hotel, Atix.
With a design inspired by Bolivia’s rich biodiversity and floors designed around the nation’s different biomes such as the Amazon and the Valley of the Spirits; the sculptural glass building is both a radical landmark and truly Bolivian at heart.
The transformation of La Paz doesn’t stop there. The foodie whirlwind which revealed Lima’s dining credentials to the world has continued its journey east, with a flurry of hot new openings in La Paz. First came Gustu Gastronomίa – opened in 2013 by the team behind Copenhagen’s gastronomic juggernaut, Noma. Co-Founder Claud Meyer has now set his sights on Atix’s signature restaurant, Ara, where he will serve up ultra-local and creative interpretations of traditional Bolivian cuisine.
Downtown, plant-based Ali Pacha opened in March, crafting nuevo cuisine in quirky surroundings with a focus on under-appreciated produce and Bolivian micro-producers; whilst hip Sopocachi is the epicentre of the rippling Brooklyn effect, with hidden speakeasy La Costilla de Adán attracting young and in-the-know Bolivianos from across the city.
Culture vultures can sample the city’s exciting contemporary art scene with the reopening of Salar Galeria following a decade-long renovation. The opening exhibition will be a retrospective of the colourful, quirky and uniquely Bolivian works of the country’s most celebrated living artist, Gastón Ugalde.
Specialist operator Aracari saw that change was afoot and has been hard at work tracking down a wealth of exclusive experiences. From a private audience with Carmen Rosa – champion of the city’s famous frill-skirted “wrestling cholitas” – to a tour of La Paz’s Ethnographic Museum with textile expert, poet, anthropologist and proud Aymara Dr Elvira Espejo, the Aracari team can offer unparalleled access to the city’s hidden gems.
Perhaps the ultimate way to see the city is from the air, on the cable car which ascends through the clouds to the urban jungle of El Alto, high on the plateau above La Paz. Aracari offers a guided tour of the neighbourhood’s colourful Cholets buildings with their designer, Freddy Mamani, a champion of El Alto’s unique Andean culture.
The signs are clear – this is a city in metamorphosis. Leave your hiking sandals at home; grab your heels and book your flight: this is a new La Paz and you’d be a fool to miss it.
Aracari (www.aracari.com / +511 651 2424) offers a 10-night ‘Best of Bolivia’ itinerary from £3,900 per person on a double occupancy basis including four nights at Atix, a chef’s table at Gustu, a private “wrestling cholita” match and a city tour of La Paz, time in Salar De Uyuni, Eduardo Avaroa Reserve, Sucre, Potosí and Lake Titicaca. All tours, on the ground transfers and domestic flights are included. Return international flights from London to La Paz start from £800 via Bogota.