Published: July 19th 2012June 22nd 2012
La Paz was a real mixed bag for us. Being one of the highest capital cities in the world it brings lots of surprises. We arrived in darkness to see the never ending sight of beauty with lights filling all the mountains and valleys. It truly was spectacular and one of the coolest sights on entering a city I have seen. Here the hills are even more prominent than elsewhere in Bolivia and they also bring a story to the way of life. If you are poorer here then you live atop these mountains and to take party in city life then you must clamber down from the highest points of the city to doing your trading. You can clamber down and up by foot which would be extremely difficult or squeeze into the many minivans or buses that are literally chock a block. Those with money live in the low/valley of the city and the word is that many people work to keep getting lower to live within these limits. Quite sad, but I suppose it is just another property market perspective. Of course I would love to live in Killiney but I’m just not gonna get there any time
soon!!It’s different I know, I’ll never have to struggle when I’m in my 80s to hike up to about 4000m above sea level after a hard day’s work to have some shelter for the night but the gap is that wide in this day and age.
La Paz did bring a buzzing nightlife to us because we stayed in the Loki party hostel. Loki is a chain of hostels in Bolivia and Peru that we had heard a few things about so we decided to stay! And party we had with an Irish couple who I had met in Sucre the night I was salsa dancing and a gang of people for all over the globe. It was a fun night with some people dancing on the bar, John and I on rums and the whole hostel clearing out to occupy another space at the Hard Rock Café at about 2am. I think we may have stumbled home at about 5am or so. Each night the Loki had similar parties with music blaring into the wee hours but it wasn’t too disruptive and we had a good stay there.
The highlight of La Paz wasn’t even the city
itself but the infamous Worlds Most Dangerous Road. Some people may have heard of this from Top Gear, the Bolivia special or from news on the many many deaths that have occurred here over the years. The road used to be the main connecting route between La Paz and a town called Coroico. With the width about 3metres and two way traffic and poor judgement or alcohol on the part of many drivers it was given this name. Locally its just known as the Death Road. Up to 300 people a year were lost on the road when it was the main thoroughfare. It took the government 20 years to build a new road so now there is little or no traffic apart from all the crazy tourists who decide to mountain bike down the 64km stretch everyday.
We signed up for the downhill biking with the oldest company and the first to start this route for mental cyclists, Gravity Assisted Biking or just Gravity. This is the most expensive company by a long shot but they happened to be sitting in a bar and it was handy so we booked it. The morning arrived and I hadn’t had
much sleep cos I really was nervous. I was stupid enough to do my usual research the night before and saw some terrible photos and read some terrible horror stories of cyclists who have died on the road (19) to date. We met our group and guide at a small café just down from the hostel. We were in a group of about 15 with two guides, one male and one female. I was fairly nervous already but it soon became clear that the day we had booked for was going to be one of the more manic days on the road. There were protests all over Bolivia these days which we have been lucky to avoid so far. Some for the miners, others for union workers but today on the death road was a protest of 1200 people who were opposed to building a road from Brazil through Bolivia to reach Peru and the Pacific Ocean. It is the 9th
time they have protested to this and they have been walking since April (imagine that!). So we were told that it would be hectic and there may be delays returning back in the evening. (I was just hoping I
would be retuning back in the evening).
We stopped to receive our bikes, have the briefing, get geared up, doing a similar ritual to what we did in the mines (dropping alcohol on the ground and taking a sip, yip that 96% pure stuff – its like hand sanitizer). After getting all the directions we were off! The first 20km or so was a tar road that really helped us all get used to our bikes and practice what we had been told by our guide Lynn. You could really pick up speed on this road and John was loving it! I was taking my time but not last either. It was clear from the start that most roads here are dangerous as I whizzed past crosses and memorials to people who had lost their lives on this “good” road alone. Then we stopped to make sure everyone was getting on ok. The view was stunning out across a valley ahead. Then Lynn showed us a bus that had landed on the valley below. It looked tiny. Im pretty sure no one survived. We weren’t even on the real death road yet, damn it.
The tar part of
the cycle whizzed by and I didn’t feel too bad. We had to pass a drug checkpoint and some small restaurants. We avoided a tunnel and used a gravel road instead and I realised that the gravel, rock stone death road was going to be tough cos the little bit of gravel here was even hard to cycle on! There was an uphill part that some chose to cycle, some didn’t (me included) and next we were at the real death road. Lynn gave us our briefing. Everything changes here. Usually in Bolivia you drive on the right side of the road, not on the death road. Here the person who is going downhill must always be on the left handside. Why you ask? Well for one it stops excess speeding by the person coming down but also the extremely steep drops are on the left the whole way down. If you have to do a manoeuvre (reversing to let a car or truck by for example) then being on the left means that you will be able to see how close you are to the edge so you don’t go over. Great, so Im afraid of heights and I
have to cycle next to the height the whole way down!!! Some of these drops are hundreds of metres below and you would have little or no hope of survival or without serious incident.
So we were off. Basically I was creeping along. The uneven ground with the drops to the left of me had seriously freaked me out and I was taking no chances. I asked John to stick with me for the first little while but I could see from the start his daredevil nature was in full steam and he was dying to go fast. I really couldn’t believe how risky the route was right from the beginning. Hairpin corners with sheer drops that I crawled around, really avoiding the scary drop next to me. I really cant imagine how anyone could drive in a vehicle on here (all vehicles used to buses, hgvs etc, crazy). I have to say though our guides were excellent and at the start we had regular stops to see that we were all ok and that we were happy with the bikes. The bikes themselves were pretty cool and had amazing suspension. I was delighted we paid a bit extra
for the trip.
This delight was for more than one reason though. Our guides were very clear on what we had to do and how we were to cycle at all times. We had to always go in single file, stay on the left and inform others if we were passing by telling them out loud. The other groups obviously did not get any briefing of this kind and there were so many times on that road that I felt in danger because they were passing in multiple files, not telling you that they were passing, going too close to the right going around blind corners and their equipment often looked rickety and pretty poorly maintained. They definitely added another dimension to the whole experience!
John was very quickly comfortable with the road and was speeding along early on, almost always behind the guide and another crazy Swiss guy who was flying! So I spent most of my time following others who were a bit more cautious but we were never last. Middle of the road so to speak! As we progressed down the road and I was starting to develop a claw in both hands from the
amount of braking we started to meet cars coming the other way fairly frequently. Lynn mentioned that this didn’t usually happen and most days you might meet only 1 or 2 cars. These were cars from the protests. Next word was that the other Gravity group who were behind us had to wait until the protest passed so we were off quickly to avoid that instruction. Then we met the protestors, one after the other, all very friendly (some over friendly with whistles as us girls passed). There was a never ending stream of them and I got caught up for a bit when a large group blocked my way. But in fact it was a good experience to see them fighting for their cause and in the end they didn’t cause too much trouble for our group of cyclists (one of their cars did nearly crash into me, it wasn’t too close but for me it felt so dangerous) but the other group did get held up for 2 hours waiting for them to pass!
Towards the end of the road I was far more confident, John was like a pro and we were flying down towards our
final destination. The whole experience was truly FUN. And although I almost developed contractures in both hands from braking when we got to the bottom the sense of achievement was immense (for me anyway). In fact a good few of us just wanted to go do it again.
After the adventure of the cycle we had a visit to an animal sanctuary for rescued animals and birds from all over Bolivia. Lots of tourists were volunteering here for a minimum of 2 weeks. After visiting it would have been a really cool volunteering experience. We had a tour of the monkey section and I made a little friend instantly with a spider monkey hopping on my head and giving me the once over for lice! There were lots of different types of monkeys and they were so happy even if there were a few fights here and there for food. It was nice being up close to them but we were told that all contact was to be on their terms so it’s good that they don’t just let all the tourists hassle the animals! There were lots of parrots hanging around too and little anteater type creatures like
the ones we saw in the Iguacu Falls. When I chatted to one of the volunteers he was explaining that during the volunteer time they are each responsible for a certain type of animal and buddy up to look after them so here and there you would see a gringo with a couple of monkeys on their shoulder or a parrot clinging onto their arms.
We had some lunch and headed back towards La Paz. We were due to drive back up the death road in the bus but the drivers decided that due to the protestors we would be best to go back the new road. To be honest this road, although wider and with a better surface it was still scary cos it was really high and windy. The sides of the road are already falling apart in places because of the way it was finished so hopefully the locals won’t have to resort to the death road in the future due to the road collapsing etc.
On our last day in the La Paz we wanted to explore the city more but we were limited. The police here were striking for more pay (the get
paid 185 US Dollars a month) and the protests were city wide but in the main areas so the hostel advised us not to veer there. There was tear gas being let off (you could hear the commotion when walking around). Protests and strikes are common here in Bolivia and this is just the way of life it seems. If the citizens are unhappy they regularly take to the streets or set up roadblocks stopping traffic. As our plan to see the main areas was faltered, we took a trek to the witches market to see all sorts of bits and pieces for the witches and locals. There were incense holders, small wooden statues and strange things but the weirdest is the llama foetuses on show everywhere. These are used by the locals to protect their homes from evil spirits. I think it blessed by the witch and hung at the door of the home. An interesting take on things, eh?
The only other thing I haven’t mentioned about Bolivia is how stylish the women are here. There is a very specific dress code with pleated skirts, waistcoats and lots of layers (many skirts worn on top of each
other, usually thick tights or socks and long sleeve tops). But the most striking thing of all is the bowler hats that all the ladies wear. They are usually too small for the ladies and sit on a tilt on top of their head. The bowler hats more than likely came from Europe many years ago but it has now become entrenched in the way of life of the women here (known as cholitas).
So off we go from Bolivia, I think my favourite country in South America so far. We have definitely had so many good times here!
There are more photos below