Published: December 1st 2008November 25th 2008
La Paz is mental. Quite simply mental, but brilliant mental! It sits very proudly in an almost crater, surrounded by vast snow capped mountains and is full of crazy people. The traffic is unbelievable and how we survived the cars I will never know. They sell lama foetuses for good luck, send you down roads with the highest death rate in the world, round prisons full of murderers, rapists and narcotrafficers with a handful of tiny bodyguards after you have paid off the police of course and we did it all! When we arrived in our hostel, Muzz found one of those lucky lama foetus under his pillow and it was rank, it stank and it was definately real. He subsequently had all his sheets changed, but when you go down death roads and round crazy corrupt prisons I would have thought you definately wanted luck on your side! Our first day we found the biggest market I have ever seen in my life. No word of a lie, it must have been over 10 miles long and that was just the main drag. They sold everthing you could possibly imagine, except for trainers over size UK 9 which is the
main reason I went there, but I did manage to find toy dinosaurs and yodas and cars, but you will discover why in my Salt Flats blog!
Even back in England we had heard about the death road or The Most Dangerous Road In The World as it is more commonly known. Infact I had read a report about a load of British students who were killed going down. On our arrival in Argentina over 4 months before, we had seen t-shirts on gringos who had dared to go down and heard horror stories. The general concensus between Louise and I was that maybe we should give this one a miss, but since then we had been into Brazilian favelas (and alone;vnot on organised tours into them!), we had been down the complete length of the Amazon River and the main fact; we were Northerners and more importantly Lancastrians and we weren´t having Muzz and Ston; 2 soft Southern fairies going down and us not, so we decided it was a must. I wasn´t going to tell my Mum though, infact I wasn´t even going to tell her I was in Bolivia. What she does not know, does not
hurt! I have to admit, I was pretty scared that morning, but the adrenaline was on full steam and I was incredibly excited too. The bikes we were on were top of the range and most importantly the brakes worked. Our guide knew what he was doing, but we were under no illusions; people did and still do die in large numbers going down this road. It wasn´t called the death road for a laugh. You descend 3500 meters over 64 km. I had been off road mountain biking before, but there weren´t hundreds of meters of near vertical drops when I had done it earlier, plus I was probably 14 and I´m now 25. After a shot of some incredibly powerful spirit we were on our way. The first stretch was down a proper paved road and not daunting, but magnificent. The clouds rolled down the valley and the view down was breathtaking. Soon though, we left the security of the paved road (we soon discovered that paved roads are a rare treat in Bolivia; everywhere) and we were on the dirt track covered in rocks that would easily give way and send you veering off down some precipitous
cliff face! Crosses, marking spots where people have died, litter the place and one of our first views was a clearing about 100 feet below us where a car and its owner had met a fast end!
Unfortunately the top was drenched in thick cloud and the view was completely ruined, but this trip was more about adrenaline than feasts for the eyes and it did not fail. We were flying down an incredibly deep, steep valley on an gravel covered, narrow, still in use (somehow!) track. The drop below us was near vertical and if you had made one wrong move the curtians were closed! You were subjected to this danger for miles and miles and I loved it! One thing our guide told us was not to get cocky because when you get cocky you die, but it was so hard not to. Once I had learned how to fly round corners without losing control I went mad. Though not as mad as Ston, an absolute speed demon! When we arrived at the bottom, I was ready to do it all again! We got back on the old, rickety bus and our guide jokingly asked us if we
wanted to go back up the way we came. We jokingly replied, yes. Only he wasn't joking. Going down on a little bike was scary. Going up in the massive, clumsy bus; horrific!
As though we hadn't been subjected to enough danger, we decided to put ourselves in much, much more. San Pedro prison is one of the most dangerous prisons in the world. It is full of a lot of very dangerous, murdering, raping, drug smuggling men. There are 2 sides. The less dangerous western side, where westerners who have broken the law in Bolivia end up and there is the Bolivian side, which is, funnily enough, full of Bolivians. This side is much more dangerous. Muzz, Ston and I decided that we wanted to visit these nice gentlemen and the nice Bolivian gentlemen in particular. We left the relative safety of our hostel and wandered a few blocks where we were met by a very friendly gentleman who took us to the gates (I really do think I should be careful what I write here, because it is illegal and dangerous and although authorities turn a blind eye towards it I don't want to get anyone in
trouble). After paying off the security guards we were met by an inmate and about 6 bodyguards. San Pedro prison is really a small town enclosed within a very high wall. It has gyms, shops, saunas, schools, football pitches, workhouses etc. It's a bizarre and unbelievably corrupt place, but absolutley fascinating. There are no guards inside and there is a complete hierachy system. The more money you have, the nicer your cell. The poor live in squaller, the rich in penthouse suites! We had to ask to take photos and we took cigs in for the prisoners. The prisoners can also have visits from their families (for a small cost) and there are kids running around and mothers running stalls selling fruit juices and everything else you get in a corner shop. This was pretty scary, but we soon relaxed and our bodyguards looked after us well. They have a swimming pool where people get 'punished' for stepping out of line and an isolation chamber, but these are run by the inmates, not the guards. That's the bizarre thing about this place, the guards have little to with the place and the day to day runnings. Perhaps the most bizarre
thing that is there is what happens at the end of the trip. You go into one of the prisoners cells where the highest quality, purest cocaine in the world is made and sold and you are assured that it is completely safe to do and take out, past the guards and I believed them. They make a fortune from letting gringos in and if they busted one gringo doing cocaine no-one would risk going and it would put a huge whole in the pockets of the guys who organise this trip and that includes the guards. Obviously, being the conscientious type, I would not recommend buying any at all, but if you are partial to a bit of the old marching powder then there is no better place to try the best in the world! MUM AND DAD, I DID NOT DO ANY COKE IN SAN PEDRO PRISON, I SWEAR TO GOD!
We spent a few days in La Paz, an ugly city, but very unique and it's own special character. It really is a crazy place, but one of my favourite cities in South America. One word of warning; don't go a football game. There are two
teams in La Paz - The Strongest (seriously, that is their name) and Bolivar and we went to the derby. It was the worst game I have ever seen in my life! British Sunday league football has never been more enticing! One other thing, La Paz is so god damn high that the oxygen is very thin and I got tired going up the kerb. That was why our next destination was Sucre, 2750 meters above sea level, so lots more oxygen and a nearly year round perfect climate!
There are more photos below