At first glance, the difference between La Paz and sprawling Santiago is their scale. The compact size of the Bolivian capital is dictated by its geography; its dense position within dramatic canyon walls makes it seem far smaller than its 472 square kilometres. The metro area of Chile’s capital, on the other hand, spreads out over 15,403 square kilometres in a vast valley in the shadow of soaring Andean peaks. One-and-a-half million people call La Paz home, while there are five times as many Santiaguinos.
Visiting them both on one trip—as we do during our new Natural Wonders of Bolivia & Chile small group tour—provides an enlightening glimpse of how two cultural centres have adapted to and been influenced by their Andean locales. From arts and leisurely urban pursuits to cuisine and dress, here’s how these two remarkable cities compare.
The low-down on high altitude
- La Paz: Your 12,000-foot elevation may require a cup of maté tea to combat altitude sickness.
- Santiago: At an average of 1,700 feet, Santiago lies in the centre of a massive basin encircled by mountains.
Bird’s eye views
- La Paz: Ride the Mi Teleférico cable cars, the world’s highest and longest aerial public transit.
- Santiago: Ascend San Cristóbal Hill and share the view with a stunning statue of the Virgin Mary.
Unique, culture-rich shopping and browsing
- La Paz: El Mercado de Hechiceria, or the Witches’ Market, boasts a curious collection of potions, talismans, and more.
- Santiago: The bustling Mercado Central, a confluence of fishmongers, butchers, and greengrocers, invites wide-eyed wandering.
A snack break
- La Paz: Tuck into a delicious salteña, a meat-filled pastry.
- Santiago: Go for a savory, cheese-filled empanada de queso.
A locally inspired cocktail
- La Paz: Try a yungueño, a mixed drink of local brandy, simple syrup,
and orange juice created in the valleys.
- Santiago: Sip a pisco sour, a blend of brandy and tart pica lime juice.
Wine from nearby vineyards
- La Paz: Sample Singani, distilled from white Muscat of Alexandria grapes in the high valleys.
- Santiago: You’re in Chilean wine country, so uncork your favourite wine from any of numerous wineries.
The skinny on fashion
- La Paz: Try on traditional alpaca knitwear and bowler hats.
- Santiago: Find 21st-century chic and sophistication at boutique clothiers in Bellavista.
- La Paz: Meander the cobbled streets around the San Francisco Cathedral.
- Santiago: Grab a bench by the Simon Bolivar fountain in the Plaza de Armas.
- La Paz: Explore Jaen Street, the remarkably restored colonial district home to notable museums.
- Santiago: Wander among the boutiques and avant-garde galleries of bohemian Bellavista.
Souvenirs and take-homes
- La Paz: You’ll find ample offerings of coffee, alpaca sweaters and scarves, and silver.
- Santiago: Duck into a bookstore for poetry by native Pablo Neruda,
or find copper trinkets in local markets.