La Paz and San Francisco: a completely uncalled for comparison

There’s no real reason that I’m comparing these two unrelated cities, except that we just got back from five days in San Francisco and, being that we flew there and back rather than slowly travelling over a series of days or weeks, the culture shock was pretty strong. We also met up with our old housemate from La Paz, and the conversation naturally turned to comparisons. So, here are some unqualified generalizations.


Cars and driving
Seat belts. They’re in every car. I didn’t even notice when we took a taxi for the first time – I just automatically assumed there wouldn’t be one as I’ve only been in one taxi with a seatbelt in La Paz. Not only are vehicles safer, but drivers are far more respectful of rules and pedestrians. They actually stop at red lights in San Francisco! Crossing the road was a piece of cake once I realized that drivers would actually give way to me instead of speeding up or beeping their horn in some weird intimidation attempt. It was so much more relaxing to walk about San Francisco than La Paz.

The urban density of San Francisco is 6,632.9/km2, whereas La Paz is only 1,861.2/km2, but you would never guess this when walking around. The streets in San Francisco are huge, with multiple lanes of traffic and really wide pavements, giving the illusion of spaciousness. In La Paz, many streets are single lanes and pavements are sometimes non-existent. You’re constantly surrounded by people and traffic and bottlenecks of both vehicles and pedestrians are common. It’s also really hard to get an unrestricted view since the city is built in a valley and everywhere you look there are buildings rising up the hillside around you. I’m actually quite at home in dense urban environments so the spaciousness of San Francisco took some getting used to (in fact the ‘bigness’ of the USA in general always surprises me).


People on the streets
Despite me saying that San Francisco has lots of space, the streets are still busy all the time (though slightly less busy on a Sunday morning). This is pretty similar to La Paz. Both cities have street vendors, but they sell different things. In La Paz, you can buy anything on the street; mobile phones, fruit, stationary, tights, empanadas, magazines…they’re all sold from tiny stalls or mobile carts and can be found on every street corner throughout the day. In San Francisco, most vendors sell food and drinks at peak hours to commuters. There are specialized markets selling organic produce or arts & crafts, but you have to go to a particular place if you want to buy these things, whereas in La Paz you can guarantee to pass a stall selling what you need while on your way to somewhere else.

Buskers, on the other hand, are all over the place in San Francisco. And not just a guy with an acoustic guitar, but whole bands with full drum kits and amps! I also heard live music from different venues as I walked past in the afternoon. This is a city that loves music! Of course, there is live music in La Paz too, but not on the streets. The only people I see playing music outside are campesinos – they come from the countryside to La Paz and sometimes end up making a living from begging – or blind people. In both instances, money is given as charity and the music is a secondary thing.

Which brings me to the third point; homelessness. There are plenty of homeless people in La Paz. Most are women, sometimes with kids, who come to the city looking for something better than the life they left in the countryside. There are also some old people, perhaps unable to work anymore. They beg from passersby, who often give them money or food, and they generally act in a very humble way. Like most big cities, there are also drunks and drug users (almost always men and young boys). I see them mostly passed out or in their own substance-addled world. I never feel threatened by them. But in San Francisco I saw some clearly disturbed people; the kind who have arguments with invisible opponents in the middle of the sidewalk or who ramble incoherently. I had forgotten how many ‘crazies’ there are in cities of America or Europe. I’ve also never been asked for money for ‘hangover beer’ or weed, but that happened in San Francisco.

However, the thing that surprised me the most were the number of homeless people who seemed relatively new to this lifestyle. They were ‘normal’ people. They had once had jobs and a home.They had pet dogs with them. Some had prams and shopping carts full of possessions (more than I probably own right now). Perhaps this is a reflection of the current economic situation. Having not lived in the West for several years, I haven’t been as aware of these things as I maybe should be.


I was told that the weather in San Francisco is a little like La Paz, as in it never gets very cold or very warm. You need to take a jacket when you go out in both cities as the weather can change quite quickly. It’s true, I did need a jacket when the sea breeze blew in, but I was able to wear a t-shirt for most of the day (although apparently the weather was exceptionally nice for this time of the year in San Francisco). On even the warmest day in La Paz, when you feel the sun burning your skin and searing your eyes, if you step into the shade you’ll feel a chill. I actively seek out the sunny spots to walk in because it gets too cold in the shadows. This temperature diversity is what happens at an altitude of thousands of meters. Considering this, I can’t understand how I got sunburned in San Francisco. I suppose it was the reflection off the water and the silver skyscrapers, plus the big open spaces ideal for strolling. These are all lacking in La Paz. Hills, however, are not. Sorry San Francisco, but you’re really not that hilly. I think the reputation is undeserved. There are some steep hills, but most the city seems to be flat or only gently sloping. In La Paz, you’re hard pressed to find somewhere that isn’t on a hill. The Prado, running down the middle of the city, is the only flat street in the centre of town. Everything else slopes up from here (or down, depending on which direction you’re traveling). So not only am I super fit from walking around La Paz for ten months, I also have way more red blood cells than I would if I lived at sea level, which means I’m practically superhuman. I was up Telegraph Hill without even pausing for breath, while others took slow steps. It’s too bad this effect doesn’t last long, but at least I’m able to acclimatize easier now I’m back in La Paz.