La Paz, the Highest Capital in the World
The high-flying city of La Paz will take your breath away, and not only for its altitude. La Paz sits at 3,650 meters above sea level and is the highest capital in the world.
The city of La Paz climbs the hills, resulting in elevations ranging from 3,000 to 4,100 meters (9,840to 13,450 feet). Overlooking the city is the towering triple-peaked Illamani, which is always snow-covered and can be seen from several spots in the city, including the neighboring city of El Alto. Actually, the greater La Paz metropolitan area is formed by the combination of 3 cities: La Paz, El Alto, and Viacha, with a population of approximately one and a half million– the second largest city in Bolivia (after Santa Cruz).
The city is full of contrasts. La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia but the mix of cultures – including Spanish and Indian–gives it a magical environment. The full name of the city was originally “Nuestra Señora de La Paz”. Its name commemorated the restoration of peace after the civil war –following the insurrection of Gonzalo Pizarro during the early phase of the Spanish colonization of the Andes.
The city was founded by Alonso de Mendoza in 1548 in what is today Laja, following the discovery of gold in the Rio Choqueyapun. Shortly after its founding, La Paz was re-established in its present location, in the valley of the Chuquiago Marka.
In 1549, Juan Gutierrez Paniagua was asked to design an urban plan that would designate sites for public areas, plazas, and official buildings. La Plaza de los Españoles, which today constitutes the Plaza Murillo, was chosen as the location for government buildings, as well as the cathedral. Interestingly enough, La Paz bus station was designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel, and is the main gateway for bus travel in La Paz with several daily departures to all the main Bolivian cities.
As the center of La Paz, it is bordered by the cathedral – whose towers were completed only in time for a papal visit in 1997– and by the Government Palace, or the Palacio Quemado, named for the number of times it has burned down (quemado = burned). Protecting the entrance are guards in red uniforms, in honor of the soldiers of the Pacific War (1879–84) in which Bolivia lost its seacoast to Chile.