La Paz, also known by the full name Nuestra Señora de La Paz (“Our Lady of Peace”), is the administrative capital of Bolivia. La Paz, which lies between 10,650 and 13,250 feet (3,250 and 4,100 meters) above sea level, is the highest capital city in the world, and is home to the world’s highest golf course, football stadium, velodrome, and airplane landing strip. Located 42 miles (68 km) southeast of Lake Titicaca, the city lies in a deep, broad canyon formed by the La Paz River.
The Spanish Viceroy of Peru had La Paz founded in 1548, in an area where a major native aboriginal civilization, the Tiwanaku culture, had existed for almost 1500 years. La Paz rew as the Spanish Empire extracted silver from the area.
Since the Bolivian revolution in 1952, La Paz has been the center of political turmoil, in which the government changed hands repeatedly, after revolts by rival military officers, and as a result of coups, counter-coups, and caretaker governments.
La Paz is renowned for its unique markets, unusual topography, and rich traditional culture.
The full name of the city, Nuestra Señora de La Paz, means “Our Lady of Peace,” and commemorates the restoration of peace following the end of the civil wars in Peru and after an insurrection in 1544. The city is also known as Chuquiago Marka, or Chuqiyapu from Aymara. “Chuqi” means “gold,” and “yapu” means “farm.”
Located in west-central Bolivia, 42 miles (68km) southeast of Lake Titicaca, La Paz, which is at an elevation of between 10,650 and 13,250 feet (3250 and 4100 meters) above sea level, is the world’s highest national capital.
La Paz is near the famous mountains including the Illimani (guardian of La Paz), Huayna Potosi, Mururata, and Illampu. On the western side of the Altiplano divide, about an hour to the west of the La Paz, is the site of the tallest mountain in Bolivia and ninth tallest mountain in the Andes, the Sajama Volcano.
La Paz was built in a canyon created by the Choqueyapu River (now mostly built over), which runs northwest to southeast. The city’s main thoroughfare, which roughly follows the river, changes names over its length, but the central tree-lined section running through the downtown core is called the Prado.
View of La Paz from Avenue del Ejército.
The weather in La Paz is usually bright and sunny all year. The high altitude means temperatures are consistently cool throughout the year, though the diurnal temperature variation is typically large. The average maximum daytime temperature in January is 77°F (25°C), dropping to an average maximum of around 71.6°F (22°C) in July. The city has a relatively dry climate, with rainfall occurring mainly (in showers most afternoons) in the slightly warmer months of November to March. Average annual precipitation is 22.6 inches (575 mm).
The industrial pollution of water supplies used for drinking and irrigation is an environmental issue.
While many middle-class residents live in high-rise condos near the center of the city, the houses of the truly affluent are located in the lower neighborhoods southwest of the Prado. The surrounding hills are plastered with makeshift brick houses of the less affluent.
The satellite city of El Alto, in which the airport is located, is spread over a broad area to the west of the canyon, on the Altiplano.
The Cerro Rico, from which the Spanish drew most of their silver.
While there is evidence that the Andean region was inhabited 10,000 years ago, from about 100 C.E., a major Indian civilization called the Tiwanaku culture developed at the southern end of Lake Titicaca, built gigantic monuments and carved statues out of stone. However, their civilization declined rapidly during the thirteenth century.
By the late fourteenth century, a warlike tribe called the Aymara controlled much of western Bolivia. The Inca Indians of Peru defeated the Aymara during the fifteenth century and made Bolivia part of their huge empire until the Spanish conquest in 1538. The Incas forced their religion, customs, and language, Quechua, on their defeated rivals. But the Aymara resisted full assimilation, and maintained their separate language and many customs.
On behalf of the Spanish king, Pedro de la Gasca (1485-1567), the second viceroy of Peru, commanded Captain Alonso de Mendoza to found a new city commemorating the end of the civil wars in Peru. The city of La Paz was founded on October 20, 1548, as a commercial city, lying on the main gold and silver route to the coast. The Spaniards, who came for the gold found in the Choqueapu River that runs through La Paz, enslaved the former owners, the Aymara people. The primarily male Spanish population soon mixed with the indigenous people, creating a largely mestizo, or mixed, population.
In 1549, Juan Gutierrez Paniagua was commanded to design an urban plan for La Paz that would designate sites for public areas, plazas, official buildings, and a cathedral. La Plaza de los Españoles, which is known today as the Plaza Murillo, was chosen as the location for government buildings as well as the Metropolitan Cathedral.
During most of the Spanish colonial period, Bolivia was a territory called “Upper Peru” or “Charcas” and was under the authority of the viceroy of Peru. Local government came from the Audiencia de Charcas located in Chuquisaca (modern Sucre). Bolivian silver mines produced much of the Spanish empire’s wealth, so Spain controlled La Paz with a firm grip.
In 1781, for six months, a group of Aymara people under the leadership of Tupac Katari (1750–1781), besieged La Paz, destroyed churches, and destroyed government property. The siege was broken by colonial troops from Lima and Buenos Aires, and Tupac Katari was executed.
By 1800, La Paz had become the largest city of Upper Peru, acting as the center of population growth and agricultural production. Many large estate land holders, known as haciendados, lived in La Paz for most of the year while they maintained a small community of indigenous people to live and work on their haciendas (landed estates). Fine examples of old Spanish colonial architecture in houses close to the central plazas remain from this period.
As Spanish royal authority weakened during the Napoleonic wars from 1803 to 1815, resentment towards colonial rule grew. Independence was proclaimed in 1809, but 16 years of struggle followed before the establishment of the republic, on August 6, 1825. The republic was named after the Venezuelan general who led South American independence, Simón Bolívar (1783-1830).
In 1825, after a decisive victory of republicans at Ayacucho over the Spanish army, the city’s full name was changed to La Paz de Ayacucho or The Peace of Ayacucho.
Simon Bolivar was the first president of the republic, and the country was divided into five departments: La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosi, Charkas, and Santa Cruz de la Sierra.Government Palace of Bolivia in downtown La Paz.
The Americas Building in Isabel La Católica Square.
By 1840, Bolivia exported more than it imported, allowing the government to invest in infrastructure. La Paz grew as the financial, commercial, and political capital, but was isolated by poor roads and the lack of rail lines leading over the harsh Altiplano to ports in Peru and Chile.
During the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), Bolivia lost its seacoast and the adjoining rich nitrate fields to Chile.
In 1898, La Paz was made the de facto seat of the national government, with Sucre remaining the historical and judiciary capital. By then, the Bolivian economy moved away from the largely exhausted silvermines of Potosí to exploitation of tin near Oruro.
Construction began, in 1900, on the international railroad network linking La Paz to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, thus solidifying the role of La Paz as the main city of Bolivia.
The first oil company came to Bolivia in 1921, when Bolivia was found to have great reserves of oil, in addition to it’s precious minerals.
A succession of governments, espousing laissez-faire capitalist policies, which seek to allow events to take their own course, was controlled by an economic and social elite that did little to create an economy based on genuine production of goods and services. Rather, they acquired wealth by controlling and selling natural resources. The living conditions of the indigenous people, who constituted most of the population, remained deplorable. Forced to work in primitive conditions in the mines almost like slaves, they were denied access to education, economic opportunity, or political participation.
In 1932, Bolivia and Paraguay fought over ownership of the Gran Chaco, a large lowland plain bordering the two countries thought to be rich in oil. Bolivia was defeated in 1935 and eventually gave up most of the disputed land, which was later found to lack oil.
The Chaco War led to growing dissatisfaction with the ruling elite, resulting in the emergence of the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, a broadly based left-wing party.
The party initiated a brief but bloody civil war in October 1949, but was defeated and exiled. The Nationalist Revolutionary Movement won the 1951 elections, but the results were called fraudulent by the opposition, and its right to the presidency was denied. On April 9, 1952, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement led a revolt and set into motion the Bolivian National Revolution.
Under President Víctor Paz Estenssoro and later, Hernan Siles, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement introduced universal adult suffrage, carried out a sweeping land reform, promoted rural education, and nationalized the country’s largest tin mines. This in turn sparked a great growth spurt in La Paz, as many working-class and poor migrated to urban areas.
In the mid-1960s, Che Guevara (1928–1967), an Argentine-born physician, Marxist, politician, and a colleague of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, tried to mount another revolution in Bolivia, but was betrayed by the Bolivian peasantry he had come to liberate to Bolivian troops, who killed him on October 9, 1967.
From 1964 through to the 1970s, control of the Bolivian government changed hands repeatedly, mostly after revolts by rival military officers. Alarmed by public disorder, the military, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement, and others installed Colonel (later General) Hugo Banzer Suárez (1926–2002) as president in 1971. Banzer ruled with Nationalist Revolutionary Movement support from 1971 to 1978. The economy expanded during most of Banzer’s presidency, but human rights violations and eventual fiscal crises undercut his support.
Successive elections in the 1970s led to coups, counter-coups, and caretaker governments. In the 1985, 1989, 1993, 1997, and 2002 presidential elections, no candidate won a majority of the popular vote.
Hugo Banzer was chosen to serve as president again in 1997. Banzer used special police units to eradicate Bolivia’s illegal coca, producing a dramatic four-year decline in Bolivia’s illegal coca crop. Those left unemployed by coca eradication streamed into the cities, especially El Alto, the slum neighbor of La Paz, exacerbating social tensions and giving rise to a new indigenous political movement.
In 2002, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (born 1930) again became president. In October 2003, Sánchez resigned after two months of rioting and strikes over a gas-exporting project that protesters believed would benefit foreign companies more than Bolivians.
On December 18, 2005, Evo Morales (born 1959), the indigenous leader of the Movement Towards Socialism party, was elected to the presidency by 54 percent of the voters, an unprecedented absolute majority in Bolivian elections.
Morales is also president of Bolivia’s cocalero movement—a loose federation of coca growers’ unions, made up of campesinos who are resisting the efforts of the United States government to eradicate coca.