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A Dangerous Day In Hindsight – El Alto Market

by Tony · 38 comments

El Alto, Bolivia

“The world is not as dangerous as you think,” was a common refrain from us when talking to our friends and family back in the states.

This is COMPLETELY true… for the most part… most of the time.

The only place on our travels where we ever felt aggressively unsafe was La Paz, Bolivia, one of the countries two capitals (the other being Sucre).

ATM Guard

Armed guards outside most of the cities ATM’s.

That hard to describe, but easily recognized, feeling of being constantly watched while walking through the city.

Rumors in online forums about robberies and targeted violence.

Since nothing terrible actually happened to us, it’s hard to say how much our fears can be credited to pure paranoia versus justified wariness. I do know that because of our constant “high-alert” level, we barely took our camera out to snap pics in any part of the city. Sorry for the lack of our own photos!

One place we went while in La Paz that totally earned its reputation as being dangerous was the Thursday Market in El Alto. While Meg normally plans the details of most of our day trips, I was in charge of this one to El Alto… so we were of course flying blind with respect to how much danger we could potentially encounter. But don’t fear: (Spoiler!) We survived.

El Alto, Bolivia – The Market To End All Markets

El Alto market view

A google search of markets near La Paz will quickly lead you to references of El Alto and it’s monster Thursday market.

El Alto used to be a suburb of La Paz, but has become its own city with a population of nearly 1.5 million people. It is one of the highest major cities in the world at 13,615 feet… Be sure to take deep breaths!

It is also the biggest city in the world built and inhabited by Native Americans. When I read that it had Bolivia’s biggest open air market, I was curious to see something so unique.

And unique it was.

We rode a local mini-bus (really a large van built for 8 with 20 people crammed in) 35 minutes from La Paz to an entrance of the market.

La Paz Bolivia Mini-Bus

Overwhelmed is not strong enough of a word to describe how we felt. Stretching over 5 square Kilometers, this market had everything:

Used car parts covering an area the size of multiple football fields.

People selling used books and parts of used books.

Illegal copies of CD’s, DVD’s, and computer software.

Half used medical equipment…



iPods and iPhones.

Yeah, you read that right… USED SYRINGES!

This market literally had everything. People were selling anything they had ever found in the back of their closet or in the trash.

After walking around for half an hour, it also dawned on us that we were the only foreigners in the entire market. While thankful that we were seeing something so off the beaten path, this also was my first clue that maybe there was a reason other tourists didn’t venture to the market that often.

We brought our camera to the market, but decided against taking pictures for two reasons. The first being that we were the only foreigners there and didn’t want to stick out more than we already did. The second was that we did not feel comfortable taking pictures of such poverty. All of this is a roundabout way of saying: Sorry we don’t have many of our own pictures! We had to use other peoples….

After an hour of wandering around the market, we were definitely ready to leave. The only problem… we had no idea where the exit was. If you do decide to venture to this market, definitely take a second to get your bearings upon first entering. You would not believe how easy it is to get lost.

El Alto Market Entrance & Exit

So while we were ready to leave after one hour, we spent a total of three hours at the market! Definitely interesting, but the day became a lot more exciting in hindsight when we got back to our hotel in La Paz and Meg researched where we had just been.

Whoops! I was supposed to do that before we went…

After 20 minutes of Googling, Meg slowly turned to me and without saying a word, passed her computer into my lap. She had multiple browser tabs open, all discussing El Alto market and how El Alto itself was not the safest area for tourists. Pickpocketing and straight-up robbery were common. Additionally, there had been a recent spree of tourists getting into mini-buses on the way to the market and being robbed at gunpoint and held for multiple days before being released.

To which I could only say to Meg… “At least they were released?”

We probably would not have gone to the market if we had read a few of these reviews before we went, but I was actually glad that we hadn’t. It was an incredibly unique experience, even more so once we realized how few tourists actually go.

Your Turn: Have you ever accidentally gone to a place more dangerous than you thought? Would you go to El Alto Market now that you know about its reputation? Please share below in the Comments section!

About Tony
Quit his job to try actually following his dreams for once... and is currently loving it. He is working hard to to make this life-style permanent by writing about his adventures and brainstorming money making opportunities with his partner-in-crime, Meg.

Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) March 16, 2013 at 9:46 pm

It is probably for the best that you guys didn’t take out your camera and start acting really touristy while you were at the market. If you had made yourselves seem like more of a target, things might have ended badly.

So far I have to say that everywhere we have been in Asia has felt very safe and not once have I felt in danger. That’s not to say that sometimes I haven’t felt as though my presence was unwanted or unwelcome, as we certainly have visited places that we just didn’t feel like people wanted us there, but that is very different from feeling unsafe! Glad everything turned out ok (without those spoilers, I might never have made it to the end of the post! 😉 ).

Tony March 19, 2013 at 10:31 am

Steph –

From other people’s stories and our own experience, Asia definitely did not feel as dangerous. Theft was still a possibility, but armed robbery and aggressive confrontation seemed less likely.

Yeah. We felt uneasy the entire time there, but didn’t feel in danger until we went back to the hostel and read reviews online. My bad for not researching better!!!

Glad we were able to see it though. Ultimately, it was a unique experience which is one reason why we travel!

alex December 3, 2016 at 7:56 pm

Seriously this is what happens when you trust people when you travel and they completely fuck up to the point were you could have been seriously injured or killed. As a very experienced traveller having been to ten countries and numerous cities in the Canada, whoops, really is fucking stupid.

This is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and this moron put his partner in potentially extreme danger by being completley stupid, and a fly by night dreamer tourist type. Seriously I hope Meg, replaced this iditot, and got herself a boyfriend who values her safety. Whoops yeah okay dude you really need to be smarter and stop being the tourist.

Idiot, seriously people like you get people injured, killed, or put on locked up abroad episodes. Be smarter okay man,

Atty January 21, 2017 at 7:33 am

Hey Alex, lighten up dude – all they did was go to a local market.Being the “seasoned” traveller that you are (wow 10 countries and even went to Canada!) you should know that any country could be considered inherently dangerous. For example, Thailand has 26 million visitors per year and in 2015, 83 foreign travellers died. 83 out of 26 million. To put this in perspective 105 000 people were killed in the USA IN GUN RELATED VIOLENCE in 2010 alone (source: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/18319/priorities-for-research-to-reduce-the-threat-of-firearm-related-violence). Do the math and in either case the chances of dying are very slim. BTW, you’ll notice that Tony is trying to work out how to make money without actually working and putting controversial stuff on social media and getting noticed is a good way to start attempting to monetise your website, blog, podcast etc. it might have been a bit “dangerous” to go the market in El Alto, but I’m damn sure beats sitting on the couch watching the Travel Channel and living vicariously. Seriously man – get a life!

JR March 24, 2013 at 12:22 pm

It is amazing what you saw and lived through. When you here “open air market” I don’t think of seeing “used syringes”. You have to wonder how a place like that survives. What is the local population gaining from the market. There must be some value provided otherwise it would not be able to survive. Amazing and glad you made it out :)

Tony March 24, 2013 at 12:28 pm

There was definitely value provided by the market, but it also had no restrictions. So anyone could sell TRY to sell anything. A lot of it definitely didn’t sell, but the people were so poor that they were just doing what they could.

I mean… it also had iphones for sale. When I say the market had everything… it really did!

Florian April 16, 2013 at 11:34 pm

La Paz dangerous? Seriously? It must be one of the least dangerous capitals in all of Latin America together with Santiago. And by least dangerous I mean as dangerous as one of those puppy dog in dog clothes, you see at every corner of La Paz.

El Alto is a different story. Still, I visited the Feria 8 times without anything happening, happily shooting photos. The 9th time, I got my backpack slashed and my sweater stolen. I didn’t even notice it happening. This was ofc very annoying, but was it dangerous? At the Feria, you are always surrounded by hundreds of people, who will publicly lynch thieves, not shit.

The 10th time I just didn’t bring a backpack…

Tony April 17, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Could have been just the neighborhood where we stayed in La Paz… but it definitely was not the safest.

The danger of El Alto was more in the going to and leaving part of it. There had been some reports of tourists being kidnapped by fake mini-buses and being held for money.

Glad you never had any problems!

Harry July 3, 2013 at 4:06 am

This is a completely over-exaggerated account. I too live in La Paz, which is a very safe city. Petty theft is a problem but violent crime is incredibly rare, especially for a large South American city.

El Alto market has reputation for picket pockets and bag slashers as above. If one is aware of these problems it is completely safe to visit as a tourist. I would recommend it to anyone. The cases of express kidnappings in minivans are from many years ago, and not exclusive to El Alto. These days they are very rare, and much more likely in taxis.

Worth mentioning that Sunday is actually the biggest day for this market.

Tony July 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Thanks for your different perspective, Harry.

Whenever we tell stories about our travels, they are always from our own perspective. We did actually feel more unsafe in La Paz than any other South American city we traveled to and we really did read about the dangers of El Alto. But we are also aware of how one experience/perspective is not always representative of the entire experience a city can offer.

Thanks for sharing the other side of the story and I’m glad you feel so safe in La Paz!


jay July 3, 2013 at 11:32 am

I have to add my two cents here also.. The danger is way over exagerated in La Paz.. I think people hear stories and get fearful simply because parts of the city are run down and people are poor and for some westerners who are not used to seeing this equate it to danger.. But its quite the opposite.. When i walk about la paz at night i see families and children playing, taking photos and having fun.. People of all ages enjoying the city.. Sure if your a tourist then your more of a target but jut walk around confidently and smile.. If you walk around fearful and worried then your energy attracts unwanted attention, its the law of attraction plain and simple. People will try and sell you fake iphones on the street and so on but just say “no gracias” and walk on. Honestly ive felt far less safe in some places in newzealand (auckland and whanganui) than in south america.. Sure pick pockets are common so just use your common sense and dont jump in a van (collectivo) if its almost empty, if other locals are trying to get onboard then you know its safe. Ive met tourists who are afraid to walk from their hostel and always order taxis.. This way you miss out on the authentic experience.. I guess it comes doen to comfort zones.. Ive met tourists selling jewelery on the street at night with their backpacks and no place to stay or concerns and they are more relaxed and in the moment than your average tourist. The best experiences ive had have been when ive had no plans and just set out on a walk and discovered places and people just going with the flow.. What you focus on you attract so if you focus on danger then you attract it!
Westerners have forgotten how to be spontaneous and child like and have to have every day planned or they feel lost.. Remember your joy! Joy isnt planned it just happens! Be always open to new doors and opportunities! Im in La Paz now and my brother lived here for 6 years and he is a tall white guy and he never had any problems so why a tourist visiting for 1 week needs to feel scared i dont know? Your way more likely to be mugged in new york or london than here to be honest!

Tony July 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Love hearing your perspective, Jay!

We rode in mainly collectivos while in La Paz and met a ton of nice people. While we definitely didn’t feel the safest while visiting El Alto, it was only upon doing research after that we got really nervous. A lot of stories about tourists being robbed on collectivos while the locals all got off.

We also were staying in a more touristy area, which as we learned in our travels, can be a target for crime. Pickpockets love working where tourists are just strolling around, so i’m sure this led to some of our negative experience.

Violence happens anywhere and you always need to be careful about what neighborhoods you are walking into. I wouldn’t walk around blind in NYC or SF!

Our story was just one moment in time while we were in La Paz. I’m sure there are other places we traveled to and loved that other travelers hated and felt unsafe. Everyone experiences a new city differently and this was just our one experience with La Paz.

Thanks again for sharing, Jay!


Kurt April 30, 2014 at 11:38 am

I love Bolivia and especially La Paz. The city is extremely unique and mystifying…largely untouched by American commercialism and full of Aymara, Quechua and Criollos in the wealthier areas. While El Alto is mostly Aymara Campesinos from the countryside…they have made their home in El Alto to have easy access to La Paz to sell their wares and agricultural products.

Like any city in the world that has large amounts of disparity, there will be some people that will try to take advantage of this. I would never focus on this aspect of any city though. Speak the language of the people, Spanish, get involved and talk to locals. I found the people in La Paz and El Alto to be very friendly and when asking them about their traditions and food they get very animated and want to discuss with travelers.

Travel is about connecting with locals and trying to relate/empathize with them; I found no better place to do this than in La Paz. Don’t be a fearful American and break out of your shell, connect with locals and the rest will fall into place.

Greg May 3, 2014 at 2:06 am

Yes, you got it right, Kurt! I love travelling in Latin America. I love being crammed into colectivos just like the locals, exploring markets, wandering. All the while using common sense about safety. I’m not naive about that. To experience a country you have to get out and explore! So many people stay in the touristy parts of cities and eat in polished boutique-y places that are totally inauthentic. How can they stand it? Of course, they don’t speak Spanish and they’re afraid of getting sick. I’m so happy to be a Spanish-speaking gringo. I’m willing to take a chance ofpicking up microbes eating at mercados like the locals.

I plan to go to Bolivia in September. I think it will be fascinating to check out El Alto. With common sense precaution I will be fine.

Tony June 25, 2014 at 1:20 am

We don’t speak Spanish, so that definitely limits are ability to get immersed in a culture! Although we have definitely found that sharing food with locals in any culture is one of the quickest ways to make friends :)

Getting sick from food when traveling is never our concern… in fact, the only time we ever got food poisoning was from the “western” restaurants we visited on travel days when our options were limited. Street food has yet to make us sick!

Enjoy Bolivia (Lake Titicaca is incredible) and El Alto!

Tony June 25, 2014 at 1:18 am

Thanks, Kurt! La Paz was definitely one of the most untouched by american cities we’ve been and that was a great experience.

We can only share our own experiences about travel and while we have traveled to other latin american countries and even other parts of Bolivia, it was only in La Paz that we ever truly felt unsafe. I would agree that feeling unsafe and actually being unsafe can be two different things, but how a place makes you feel is an important part of what shapes our experiences.

Glad you loved La Paz and El Alto!

Jen August 2, 2014 at 10:19 am

I feel you shed a really unfair light on La Paz. Seems you guys are easily frightened. And as for the armed guards at banks.. thats not solo to La Paz. If you go anywhere in Central America and often places in South America you will encounter that. Rather then it make you feel scared it should make you feel safer I know it made me feel safer when withdrawing money.

Tony August 3, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Seems like that’s the common consensus! But we can only report the experiences we had. You should share your own experiences if you think differently about La Paz :)

Marianna March 16, 2015 at 10:34 pm

I will be traveling from Puno to La Paz alone via bus. The bus doesn’t arrive until 10PM, so I was wondering what your thoughts were on getting there so late. I am eventually going to visit the Salar de Uyuni and Potosí and I see there isn’t really a direct way of getting there. What do you think of night buses? Are they relatively safe? This will be my first time in South America so I am trying to make wise decisions. Any insights would be much appreciated!

Tony March 17, 2015 at 9:20 am

Hi Marianna –

We did the opposite trip – coming up through Salar de Uyuni and Potosi and then going to La Paz and on to Puno. It’s beautiful!

We took a night bus from La Paz to the salt flats (if I remember correctly) and it was fine… the buses in Boliva weren’t as first class as the buses in Chile and Argentina (which were like first class airplane seats) but they were fine. More like greyhound buses but a little rougher.

Do you know where you are getting in specifically in La Paz? You definitely want to have a plan and know what hostel/hotel you’re staying at when you arrive. You also might want to book something really close to your arrival point.

You could also go from Puno to Copacabana and stay there for a day. We found it to be beautiful and had an amazing meal at a restaurant up on the hill above town. Then the bus from there is only 4 hours to La Paz so you can arrive in the day. Just a thought!

Michael May 13, 2015 at 4:06 pm

I hope your kidding about La Paz or El Alto bein g dangerous. I have traveled m,any places Bolivia and the El Alto area for the last 8 years. I alpinest who has guided clkimbs all over the world sonce 1981. The countries I go to sometimes are dangerous places and La Paz Bolivia would probaly be least. The United States where I was born and raised would be quite highere in danger. Just one experience I dropped several coins on the ground once probaly equally 100 USD and people in downtown La Paz poor most likely and really needing money started picking it up and handing it to me, I got everything I dropped. La Paz is one of the safest cities I have stayed im I stay with friends many times in El Alto and have never been subject to any crime. The only thing I can believe is you travel like a tourist as I say expensive clothing and expensive things hanging out. Taking pictures and not making to many friends with ther locals. You show a banana to a hungry ape yes he is going to take it, sounds like you just did something to aggrivate a problem most likely.

Tony May 13, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Hey Michael – Thanks for chiming in. Everyone has different experiences when they travel and it sounds like you have traveled a lot. Awesome!

This was just our experience in La Paz and something repeated to us by others as well. There had also been recent kidnappings and robberies coming from the el alto market in the months before we visited. I’m sure if you listed a few of the places where you felt the most danger in your travels, someone else might feel differently as we all have had wide experiences. Didn’t mean to offend! Just sharing our own personal experience.

Thanks again for commenting and sharing your own perspective.

John June 13, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Tony, I have to agree with you. The El Alto market was one of the few places I’ve been that felt truly dangerous for tourists. We were the only non-locals there, and someone did the crumbs-in-my-face pickpocket trick to me (although I instinctively shoved my hands in my pockets as soon as they did this). A moment later, someone came up to me and in broken english said- “you should leave, you can get robbed here”. Of course I was aware of the pickpocketing and possible robbery before I went, but it felt much more dangerous than I had anticipated.

All in all, it was like a huge junk sale and not particularly enjoyable. It was super crowded, so I doubt any sort of violent crime would go down amidst all those people.

My other stops in El Alto were much more pleasant. The shop owners were more than pleased to do business with this gringo and very pleasant and chatty. So not making a blanket judgement about El Alto.

As far as La Paz being dangerous, I’ve never had an issue or seen anyone have an issue. Never felt unsafe, but then again I’m pretty careful and observant, and also live in a really dangerous city in the U.S.

Thanks for your comments on this, and hopefully this will warn off anyone who is thinking about going to the market just to “check it out”.

Tony June 14, 2015 at 10:38 am

Really appreciate your thoughts, John! As you can see from the comment thread, people have had a lot of different experiences in La Paz & El Alto.

So much of how you see a city comes down to a few memorable experiences and for whatever reason, La Paz never felt comfortable to us. El Alto was quite the experience but definitely not something I would ever recommend. A junk sale is right!

Alexander Forselius August 17, 2015 at 11:43 am

Maybe the lower air pressure and lack of oxygen cause more crimes among individuals since the health effects of lower pressure is lack of sleep, fatigue caused by lower oxygen supply to the brain makes more individuals more prone to commit offences

Bcrawford October 19, 2015 at 3:09 am

I have never felt as unsafe anywhere as I did in la Paz/el alto. We visited relatives there and they were concerned for our safety and suggested we speak as little English as possible in public. They have lived in la Paz all their lives and had safety reservations. While we were there, our cousin took her kids to soccer practice. She came out 2 hours later and the engine and battery were missing out of her car, along with every thing in side the car. The police never came. For such an operation, they had to be casing her. Every house in the city is behind locked gates and barb wire. Obviously there’s a reason for it. If the locals don’t feel safe, I think it’s ignorant for tourists to assume they’re safe. My relatives say the alto is very dangerous and I believe them. They also say that la Paz is very anti American and that Americans need to be very careful. They have no reason to lie. I constantly felt watched while I was there. We were followed more than once and I was glad to get out of there. I loved Cochabamba and sucre but I will never leave the la Paz airport again.

Tony October 19, 2015 at 11:49 am

Thanks for sharing your experience!

If you’ve read the previous comments, a lot of people have called me crazy for my view of La Paz… So I’m glad to hear we weren’t that only ones that didn’t love it.

We had the same experience as you and we traveled for 3 months in South America with La Paz being the only place we had these feelings.

Really appreciate you chiming in!

For 91 Days In Bolivia January 5, 2016 at 7:18 pm

Thank you for linking to our El Alto Market post. It’s true we neither felt the safest while visiting the market but we never felt unsafe walking around La Paz or Sucre in general. There are some horror stories, indeed but in our 3 month in Bolivia we haven’t experienced anything bad.

Tony May 13, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Glad you had a good experience in Bolivia! We loved northern Bolivia and have some amazing memories of Lake Titicaca. La Paz was just not for us though… But everyone has there own experiences, right :)

Daniel April 18, 2016 at 9:17 pm

What a nonsense review – nothing about what you said sounds ‘aggressively unsafe’. Armed guards outside an arm, precautionary! Not aggressive. And ‘rumours’ of robberies stc. By definition a rumour is not aggressive at all.

Tony May 13, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Would love to hear about your time in La Paz, Daniel! How long were there for and where did you stay? We’re always looking to share helpful tips about what people should do and see in La Paz as told by people that enjoyed it.

Mike May 13, 2016 at 1:01 am

Hi Tony!

I just came back from El Alto market. I must say that your blog post made me almost not go. And even now I almost did not bring my camera for fear of losing it.

This seems to be a whole theme in La Paz / El Alto. People tell you about horrible stories they have heard. Guide books (like the big LP) jump in and warn people about the city. Almost every description of every neighborhood contains some cautious tales.

Then when you are actually here (and talk to locals about the stories), you realize that everybody is just repeating the worst stories that happened some undefined time ago. If you really think about it: why did you feel unsafe at all? Is it because there were actual signs or even threats? Or is is – like it was with me – because of the perception shaped by negative expectations?

The main reason I am commenting is that this page ranks 2nd in a Google search for “El Alto market”, and I don’t think it does the place any justice.


Tony May 13, 2016 at 1:25 pm

Hey Mike –

Thanks for the measured response!

We saw a few attempted robberies when we were at the market, nothing violent, but still set the mood as something to be extra cautious over. And then when we got home and did research, we saw reports of tourists getting robbed 6 months earlier at gunpoint on the minibuses that took us to the market. Also, locals on the minibuses we took gave us fair warning…

It was just our own personal experience though. We’ve been to lots of places people have written about as dangerous and had nothing but lovely times. We were in San Telmo in Buenos Aires when a National Geographic photographer was stabbed to death for his camera, and all of the locals were aggressively warning us to put away cameras while we were there, but we felt perfectly safe.

Sometimes a place you visit just isn’t a great fit. We can only report our own experience, which is why we appreciate the comments pointing out the other side.

Thanks for sharing!

Stephan May 22, 2016 at 4:28 pm

We just came back from La Paz. Yes El Alto looks much like parts of Manila. And I would expect some crime, up to and including robbery. However when I think of really unsafe places I think this doesn’t even come close to Johannesburg, where a robbery often starts with you getting shot first.
Even so, Johannesburg is survivable if you understand the dynamics and take sensible precautions. The biggest risk to tourists is being ignorant of that.

Eli July 17, 2016 at 7:25 pm

I was at the feria on Av. 16 de julio today for the Sunday market. I felt totally safe and enjoyed the time walking around eating food and looking for deals. I have traveled to many places, and I believe La Paz and El Alto are as safe as any other “developing” nation’s cities, if not more so than some other latin american cities.

The most dangerous thing is rumors that might stop you from exploring. My typical rule for safety is to observe the people around you. If there is women, children, and smiles then you are probably safe. No one likes a thief, including the locals, so don’t assume that everyone is out to get you.

I would recommend the market for anyone who likes a cultural experience or just needs to buy something. I picked up a hat for 10 bvs. (2 $ cnd.) which seemed like a fair deal to me. There is a ton of stuff there and there seems to be certain areas that have a concentration of the same stuff so comparative shopping is easy.

Just to join the conversation about “dangerous rumors”, there seems to be a tendency in La Paz and El Alto to describe places as dangerous, which unfortunately perpetuates a culture of fear, particularly among tourists, but among locals as well. One thought to keep in mind is that just because someone is local, does not mean they are not prejudice against the impoverished.

People are People. We are all in it together.


Tamara November 19, 2016 at 4:22 am

I’m from La Paz, south side. Very nice area.
You guys were just INSANE to go to that market , I won’t even do it. Secondly, I been there and I think you are making up the used syringes part as syringes and needles are cheap and can you can get that over the counter no problem.

Mark December 25, 2016 at 12:17 am

What a spoilt dumb wanker this Tony is!! You are lucky to have got out of there alive. You are also risking your partners life by trying to prove you are a man. You deserve everything you get when the inevitable happens on one your ‘warrior’ trips! Juts don’t put meg in danger with you!

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