Bolivia 2: La Paz

The bus journey from Copacabana to La Paz is unlike most others as you have to cross Lake Titicaca to get to it. This means having to get off the bus at Tiquina and paying 2 bolivianos to be taken across the lake on a speedboat whilst the buses are shipped across on something resembling a giant raft. At the other side, after a 10 minute journey, you then have to wait for your bus to make it across and collect you; with so many passengers and so many buses, most of which won’t wait around, it’s important to know exactly which bus you were on and keep nearby to fellow passengers. We waited quite a while for our bus – at least half an hour – before re-boarding and continuing our journey into La Paz. The roads were bumpy, unfinished and narrow but it was one if my favourite journeys into a place, passing by the low cable cars of modern-day La Paz before seeing the city within a valley from up above, winding down the roads that weaved from the mountains into the valley. I was completely entranced.

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We were dropped nearby Plaza San Francisco at 5:40pm where I then walked 20 minutes to my hostel (The Adventure Brew Hostel) where I passed by an Easter celebration at Plaza San Francisco; thousands of local Bolivians dressed in white, dancing and cheering at the activities on the stage, with hoards of street vendors selling choripans (hot sausage sandwiches), pastels and hot morado.

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After checking in and dumping my stuff at the hostel I went back out to the Plaza for some food, picking up meat on a stick with potato and nut sauce for 9 bolivianos (£1.10) before sitting down to devour a hot pastry sprinkled with icing sugar and maple syrup accompanied with hot blanco (the white version of Morado) for 10 bolivianos.

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Back at the hostel I was greeted by Charlie (my Colca Canyon/Machu Picchu friend) and after having our free beer at the hostel it wasn’t long before we were drinking more beer, heading to Loki hostel for bad music and rum & pineapple, making our way back to our hostel for a bottle of red wine before getting roped into drinking games with some apple flavoured alcohol and covering each others’ faces with paint. Unsurprisingly – having consumed wine, beer, rum and vodka – I spent a good hour vomiting in the hostel bathrooms with Charlie rubbing my back in between my toilet sessions, eventually putting me to bed at 3am.

I felt pretty rough the next morning and Charlie had some admin to do so we didn’t make it out of the hostel until 12:30pm, having attempted to soak up the hungover with the hostel breakfast of pancakes and bread. Our first stop was the red teleferico; the 4 cable car lines in La Paz were recently installed over the last couple of years and are a great way to get up from the valley into the higher parts of the city as well as have great views of the city itself.

The red line passes over the cemetery – a large, grid-like stretch of land that looks oddly like a primary school with the boxed layers of coffins with coloured flowers in each square – and takes you up to Mercado 16 de Julio at the top of the valley; at 5km long it is the biggest market and it houses everything you might ever need from garden rakes to parts of a blender. The ride up, at only 3 bob (40p), was so interesting as you are really close to the houses and land below, and the market insane with good views of the valley below. We also had lunch at the market, tucking into Trucha with pasta and yucca for 18 bolivianos (£2.20).

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Once back down (after queuing for some time; the red line is really popular on Sundays and Thursdays due to the market) we made our way towards the Witches Market where copious stalls sell local remedies and llama foetuses, which are traditional buried at the site where a new house is being built as part of warding off bad spirits. On our way to the market we passed one of many DVD stands and spotted the entire collection of Mr Bean, a programme we had enthusiastically been reminiscing about the night before over rum. At 10 bolivianos it was an absolute bargain so we naturally bought it and made crazy plans for that evening.

We then went hunting for tour agencies, booking our Death Road cycle for the next day with No Fear Adventure for 380 bolivianos (£47.50), both of us opting for the middle bike with hydro breaks but not paying 480 for the ones with better suspension (my arse later regretted this). Both feeling in the need of a pick-me-up we crossed the street to Cafe del Mundo, as recommended by the tour agency, where we had a disappointingly Luke warm coffee at the same price as our large trout lunch, 18 bolivianos, in a quirky cafe where Charlie couldn’t stand without bending is head to the side and crouching slightly.

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We then made our way down to Plaza San Francisco, reeling in the temptation to shop for hours at the artesenal market, to hop on a minivan bus heading to Plaza Espana, costing 2 BOB (25p) each. It was on this really cool ride through the city with music playing from the radio that my stomach suddenly felt pretty dodge followed by shooting pains in my bowels. It was clear I desperately needed to get to a toilet as something serious was brewing, but stuck in the minivan with no idea of where we were I had no choice but to clinch my butt cheeks and prey it would stay in.

We jumped out the minivan and ran into the Mercado (although I was doubled over from the pain in my bowel that I more crawled up the steps) and raced to the back of the shop to find the bathroom occupied by a woman changing, with all her things sprawled around the bathroom. She knew I was there and needed to go but she made me wait, practically in a ball of agony on the floor. I finally got in and could relieve my bowels, then return to Charlie and make the 5 minute walk up to the yellow cable car entrance where we got in line to purchase our tickets.

Suddenly I desperately needed to go the toilet again, with shooting pains running through my stomach, so I left Charlie in the line while I dashed to the nearby public bathroom where I paid 1 boliviano to sit for 5 minutes in the hope everything would pass through in this time. Charlie had the tickets for the yellow lines, all line costing 3 bob (40p) each way regardless of which point in the line you join on. We spent the next hour going across the yellow and green lines, passing over an army base and seeing the wealth change in the houses, churches, buildings and surroundings as we went, the most upscale areas having churches and gardens. 

 

It was also amazing to have different views of La Paz and see the mountainous valleys up close, bits of marble and land still jutting upwards or down in a pit. On our way back on the same lines the sun was setting and we witness the scattered lights come on across the city and eventually the vast blackness around us. It was really interesting and incredible, plus we would sometimes have a whole cable car to ourselves and when we didn’t we would share it with people (mainly young Bolivian women) whom wanted to talk with us and make suggestions for our time in La Paz.

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Back where we started in Plaza Espana we got on a minivan to Plaza San Franciso for 2 BOB (25p) where we quickly went to find some food as I desperately needed another bathroom trip. It’s looking less like a hangover poo and more like food poising or, given the fact that Charlie and I ate exactly the same and he was fine, something I touched that was dirty and I hadn’t washed my hands after. Anyway, we found somewhere offering soup followed by a main for 8 BOB (or BS, which I couldn’t help but nickname bullshit) I had to head to the toilet straight away, and whilst the fideo and mani soup was good I don’t think the Carne Revuelto (scrambled meat, mixed with scrambled egg and potato) was doing any favours for my stomach. Probably not the best choice. The rest of the evening we spend curled up on the sofa of our sister hostel, The Adventure Brew B&B, watching episodes of Mr Bean and laughing like kids. Back at our hostel we were greeted by Jen, Dan and Pete whom had arrived that day, but we didn’t speak for long as Charlie and I had to get up early for our Death Road cycle.

Yungus Road, dubbed ‘El Camino de la Muerte’ (The Death Road) by locals, begins at 15,400 feet and used to be the only road from La Paz to Coroico but due to the number of accidents and deaths per year (200-300) a new road was built.  The original narrow road winding round the rolling hills of the Amazon rainforest is now predominantly used by locals living there and cyclists wanting to tackle Death Road. Plus the tour vans transport the Death Road cyclists’ luggage behind them for the various pit stops, for at the end when the cycling has finished, and also for if anyone becomes too nervous on the bike and wants to hop in the van instead (although I personally felt more safe on the bike than in the van, with the bikes taking up less of the narrow road space and you feel in control).

Anyway, we were picked up from our hostel at 8am and taken to the booking office to pick up our helmets and the rest of the group (there were 10 of us in total) before driving the hour or so to the start point of the cycle, which was high up in the mountains and was therefore both freezing and high in altitude. We hit got all our gear on – knee pads, elbow pads, waterproof jacket and trousers, gloves and helmet – before hoping on our bike and taking it for a small spin. We then started our first part of the downhill ascent, which was on a “normal” road winding round the mountains and I imagine was a way for us to get used to the bikes and the way of navigating any oncoming vehicles. 

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The hardest part of this cycle was how cold it still was at this height, our fingers literally freezing and going numb and the sudden pelting of rain pouring down our faces. We were unlucky with the weather for the first part of the day as there was a lot of rain and a lot of thick white mist so we could barely see anything, let alone the apparently spectacular landscape. After this short cycle we were thrown back into the minivan and given snacks of a fried egg roll, banana and chocolate bar along with a can of coke. Shortly after we arrived at the beginning of death road where we were re-briefed on it not being a competition but to also try to not go too slow or let the nerves dictate; most deaths and accidents occur by those trying to show off and go super fast and careering of the edge, or people being so slow and anxious that they struggle to control the bike over the rocky terrain.

For me the hardest part of death road was controlling the bike as it careered and skidded over the extremely rocky pathway, the back wheel jutting out and away whenever it caught in a big stone at the wrong angle. This meant were hands were cramped round the handlebars and my arms took the force of the vibration as I tried to steady the bike over the repetitive bumps, so the injuries I sustained were mainly from the impact of the terrain through the bike onto my arms and my butt cheeks.

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And this is also probably what made it scary – skidding over rocks on a narrow path with a ridiculously deep and steep drop, you can see how possible it is for something unfortunate to happen, especially at the narrowest stretch of only 3 metres wide. Plus the fact that for the first part we were mainly surrounded by white mist and rain we couldn’t even really see the edge let alone what was over it, adding to the mystery as well as to our personal sense of achievement if we did manage to successful completely it without dying in such difficult weather conditions. I couldn’t see properly because of the rain in my eyes and the rain caused an extra layer or risk for the cycling itself, but aside from these factors and the potential of death, it wasn’t actually as terrifying as I expected. Especially as we stopped every half hour or so to regroup and take photos at every opportunity, either at a particularly stark cliff edge or a beautiful waterfall moment for individual shots. 

Additionally, as the road is a steep decline, it doesn’t require much of you in the way of pedalling; it is more about controlling the bike then cycling it, so you don’t feel the physical joy or benefits of classic cycling. However, about half way through, the rain did stop and the mist cleared up so we had much better views of the mountains and the valley below, plus the road flattened out for a bit and then there was even an incline for a while, meaning we could actually use our legs and cycle. Some parts of the road were also easier to cycle on. It was at this point, going uphill, hat I caught up with a girl on our tour and as I went to pass her I said “passing left”, as we were told to do, so she would know where I was. As soon as I said it she decided to swerve left straight into me, where I had no choice but to swerve away and break suddenly, making my right leg impact with my handle bar. Not long after a truck suddenly approached from around the jungle so I had to break suddenly and found myself skidding along the rocks and almost falling flat on my face. Fortunately, however, we all made it to the end of the Death Valley ride – our spot for lunch – still alive. Then buffet lunch was needed and the cervezas well deserved, but afterwards we all felt completely wiped out. Our clothes wet from the “waterproof clothes” not protecting us from the pouring rain one iota, the bus ride back to La Paz through the cold, high mountains was certainly a chilly and uncomfortable one. 

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Back at the tour office around 7pm we picked up our “I Survived Death Road” t-shirts and our DVDs with the photos and videos from the day before heading back to our hostel for some food and drinks. I was pleased to have completed it and it was hard work navigating the bike and the terrain, but for someone whom loves to cycle it wasn’t my favourite and if you are after an adrenaline hit I’m not sure this would do that for you; it was fun and the landscape was beautiful, the tour company efficient and safe and communicative, and it did feel good to survive death road, but whether or not it is miss-able I am unsure of. After some celebratory drinks and games of President, the long day caught up with me and I hit the sack around midnight.

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Plaza Murillo

The following day for me was a chance to explore, on foot, more of La Paz, starting by going to Plaza Murillo and passing the market street on my way, and then up to Mirador Killi Killi; although not the hugest climb you do feel the shortness-of-breath from the altitude, but it does offer decent pan views of La Paz Valley from the top. Back down I wandered into Mercado Camacho to see what food Rudy had on offer – almuerzos from 8 bolivianos up – but as I wasn’t hungry I continued my DIY walking tour to Plaza San Pedro.

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Mirador Killi Killi

At 2pm there is a free city walking tour that starts from here but I had also heard about “prison tours” from Crazy Dave, so I decided to wander around and sit in Plaza San Pedro for a while from around 12:30pm, and it was then that Crazy Dave approached me with 3 English people whom also wanted to do his tour. By 3pm there were about 10 of us sat in the square as Dave began his “tour”, but we ended with about double that as more and more people joined throughout, plus locals would watch and stare in mild amusement. Crazy Dave came out of a San Pedro prison 2 years ago, serving 14 of his 16 year sentence for attempting to smuggle cocaine out of Bolivia back to the US. His time inside crossed over for 3 months with Thomas McFadden – the Brit thrown into San Pedro prison for attempting to traffic drugs back to the UK, whose stories on the corrupt prison system, the payment and mortgaging of prison “cells” and the cocaine produced in the prisons that he would often use on his tour guides of the prison when tourists heard about him and wanting to visit him in prism, make up the famous book Marching Powder, which I recommend you read.

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Crazy Dave (plus amused locals) in Plaza San Pedro 

Crazy Dave really was crazy, telling the story of his life but acting out all people involved and coming up close to us and using us as the other person in his story. It was hard to keep up at times as he did digress so I was really glad I had read the book to help me follow his thread, but he let us ask him any questions and he answered them honestly, sometimes digressing completely! He wore no shoes but had an AMP and a microphone with him so he could sing and perform to us, and afterwards he let us take photos with him and took a group to a place where he bought one gram of coke for 50 bolivianos (£6) for those whom had asked him for it – he didn’t offer or bring it up but was willing to help if asked. It was a crazy but fun and interesting way to spend 1.5 hours as you are sat right outside the prison in question. 

The rest of the afternoon I spent wandering around the neighbourhood of Sopocachi, walking up to Mirador Monticulo for lovely up-close views of the yellow cable cars travelling through the valley. I then headed back towards San Francisco Plaza but went through the artsenal markets instead, spending a couple of hours perusing the myriad of shops selling socks, hats, gloves, scarves and bags before settling on a pair of alpaca socks and not buying any rings despite trying on about 15.

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up-close with the yellow cable cars

I then went for a set dinner or arroz and vegetable soup followed by something resembling spaghetti with meatballs before making my way back to my hostel. Joining with Dan, Charlie, Pete and Jessie (from our death road tour) we drank until 1am whilst debating the origins of sexual desire and the need to say the words of other languages in their accent even when talking to people in the same language as you (something I didn’t agree with – not only does it sound pretentious but if you are saying the words correctly, even if in your own accent, I think this is fine when talking amongst friends). 

My last day in La Paz was first spent booking my night bus to Sucre for that evening; apparently it is cheaper if you book the day of travel and I paid 80 bolivianos (£10) for a semi cama seat all to myself by the window, in the downstairs section where there are less people. I then caught a minivan on Llampu street near Gonzalez going in the direction of Mallasa as I wanted to go to Valle de la Luna. It was approximately a 45 minute journey that cost 2.60 BOB (35p) to get to the entrance where you then pay 15 BS (you may note I interchange between BS and BOB; BS is what the Bolivians write after the amount and BOB is the currency acronym, both of which I like due to the typical Brit terminology of both BOB and Bullshit). Anyway, 15 bolivianos is approximately £1.85 and there are two “trails” you can do around these crazy spikes and juts of land in the deep valley, but neither took me as long to complete as they advised they would (15 minutes and 45 minutes) even with stopping to enjoy the views. It was really cool to see another part of the valley and be away from the crazy city for a while, but if you are only in La Paz for a couple of days then I would perhaps miss this one out.

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Valle de la Luna

Back at San Pedro Plaza at around 2:30pm I stumbled across Charlie on a road nearby after he had taken Crazy Dave’s tour that afternoon. So Charlie, Tessa (a woman from our hostel) and James (a guy they met on the tour) and I went for lunch, with me this time having Aji de Fideo (a soup with spaghetti, potatoes, chicken and beef on the bone) for 15 bolivianos (£1.85).

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Aji de Fideo

Afterwards, totally full, I went for a wander round the markets trying to find my 6th watch since travelling but also not being sure of the point with only 10 days to go, before heading back to my hostel to charge my devices and change into my comfy clothes in prep for my night bus to Sucre. After saying goodbyes – for the third time – to Charlie, Dan, Jen and Pete, I consumed far too many bread rolls and pancakes in my anxious sad state before walking to the bus terminal at 7:15pm in time for my 8pm bus to Sucre. I really really liked La Paz, way more than Lima in Peru, but I was ready for a couple of days just to relax and maybe – maybe – not drink any more beer.

LS.

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