Thursday, September 1, 2011

La Paz - Bolivia

The city of La Paz is the ‘de facto’ capital of Bolivia, it is at least considered as the most important city in Bolivia by most travellers.  The awe inspiring views helped to distract from the sweltering heat and dodgy Bolivian movie that was playing on the bus’ built in televisions.  Buildings looked like they had been scattered down the mountains with most settling on the bottom but many still hugging the hills as though they had been caught on the way down.  It something really different to any of the major cities we had been to so far, geographically unique.  Less unique for a major city, it became clear during the ride through town to the bus station that there were a large amount of poor here even for Bolivia.  We opted for the pleasantly located Hostel Valle on a bustling market street with Gaëlle, the three of us getting a nice big triple room with amazing views overlooking the street for less than a fiver per night per head.      

Stunning views on arrival in La Paz

Unfortunately the stunning views were met with the reality of the poverty

Secured a room with a view

Settled in, we braved it out onto the busy streets of the town centre.  All the roads are very steep and often very crowded.  There are loads of masked shoe shiners dotted around the streets either hawking for your business or already working on buffing somebody’s shoes, no excuse for scruffy zapatos in this city.  Another fact of note is that the city’s ‘transport system’ consists of hundreds of privately owned minibuses and somebody with a vested interest yelling the destination whilst leaning out of the sliding door trying to get you on board.  There are more of these minibuses than anything else on the roads and they serve as a kind of upside down subway system, people are forever hopping on and off amongst traffic.  After ten minutes of the city jungle we were due a break and ducked into a coffee shop along the main road.  The best thing we had noticed so far was the range of restaurants and cafes on offer of seemingly good quality in addition to the usual street food that we love but can get a bit monotonous after a while.  The coffee we received in the very French style coffee shop was great. 
Later that evening we visited an Austrian restaurant that had been recommended to us called ‘Vienna’.  The restaurant seemed upmarket, posh and camply decorated and surprisingly contrary to almost everywhere else we had been in Bolivia there was also excellent service.  It was great having alternatives to steak and chicken on the menu and Kate had calf’s liver, I had lambs kidneys and Gaëlle had a traditional Austrian pasta in a Roquefort sauce.  Whilst the food was slightly overcooked (as standard in South America), the meal was pleasant, inexpensive and we could all leave with smiles on our faces.        

In Vienna restaurant

The view from our room by night
La Paz is famous for having the ‘Yungas’ road which is known as the World’s Deadliest.  Over thirty cars per year are reported to veer over the edge of the narrow road and plummet down the sheer drop onto the forest floor below, perhaps in reality there are more.  Every now and again a bus will disappear into the abyss which hikes up the death toll.  This road also happens to be a major tourist attraction where paying customers can experience it for themselves yet be partially in control of their destiny on a mountain bike.  I would be lying if I said that we didn’t have our reservations, but we had spoken to a few people who had ridden it and loved it, along with hearing a few horror stories but we still decided that we too would like to find out a little bit more for ourselves. 

We visited the office of a recommended company, ‘Vertigo Biking’ where we talked to the lady working there and found out about the equipment, gear, schedule of events and costs associated with mountain biking the death road.  The format is that you are taken with your bike to the top of a road where you have time to get accustomed to your bike in reasonably safe circumstances (you are still sharing the road with Bolivian drivers) before heading to the main event.  There would be one guide per five people and it would be possible to split into slower and faster groups if need be.  Satisfied, we decided that we would give it a go although we would wait until Sunday, the day after tomorrow as we had bumped into Yannis (a friend from Paraguay) at the launderette of all places and had decided to go out for a few drinks tonight, plus nothing is ever open here on a Sunday so we thought it would be a good day to get on the bike! 

In Vertigo’s office is a kind of memorial to the death of an Englishman, Theodore Dreyfus who lost his life on the death road two years prior whilst riding with Vertigo.  It included a framed letter from his father who explicitly didn’t blame the company for his son’s death and paid homage to his uninhibited life which ending at twenty two years old never had to endure compromise or monotony.  It is believed that Theadore passed out owing to the altitude and went over the edge with his bike consequently suffering serious injuries.  He later died at a checkpoint at the end of the road with a punctured lung and nothing in the way of medical assistance available. 
Below the letter from the father was a framed full-page newspaper article showing the ambulance and equipment that had since been funded by Theadore’s family and friends following his death.  They had raised a staggering one hundred thousand dollars in order to provide this permanent emergency service along the death road that will undoubtedly save lives which would otherwise be lost.  Coincidentally we bumped into and spoke to the owner of the company, Pablo, later that night whilst we were out and he gave us his heartfelt account on how he had planned on shutting down the company afterwards and only didn’t because Theadore’s dad told him not to, it must have been invaluable to have such support amidst a tragedy that would have otherwise eaten further into his conscience.   

Pablo from Vertigo and Gaelle

The streets around the Vertigo Biking office were dedicated to a ‘witches market’.  This market is dedicated to selling macabre products in the most part dedicated to the occult, for instance there were countless llama foetuses of various conditions that are meant to bring luck to your home if buried under your porch.  There were also miniature shrines and offerings to Pachamama as well as small idols of the Goddess of the land herself for sale.   It was all a little bit weird and needless to say we didn’t make any purchases here! 
A little further down the street were music shops selling amongst other things the charango, an extremely popular guitar like instrument that is traditionally played in Bolivia.  In addition there were La Paz made guitars and acid trip induced styles of guitar case all for very cheap.  We had only just posted an 8kg package back to the UK from La Paz with various items for around sixty five pound for a service meant to take fifteen to twenty days, time will tell, otherwise I may well have been persuaded to buy more stuff to send back!  That evening things really came to life in the street below as people set up their stalls selling all sorts from sweets and batteries to pirated DVD’s (2 and a half men goes down a treat here for some reason) and food.  We had arranged to meet Yannis and his friends at a hostel so made our way out on the town as we had done with him previously in the British pub in Asunción.  This was to also to serve as a kind of belated part two to Gaëlle’s initial birthday night out celebrations which had been a bit subdued first time around.
Llama foetuses available for purchase

Various other offerings that you could buy

The hostel bar was full of English speaking partygoers and there wasn’t a Bolivian in sight as the night got going and with the help of members of staff pouring spirits down your necks from atop of the bar we soon got into the swing of things.  Gaëlle received a Bolivian flag of coloured shots in honour of her ‘Birthday’ and was soon having a water fight with a midget (little person?).  Yannis’ mates were all great to chat to and we had a lot of fun meeting new people and hearing about their travel experiences.  It was here that we heard great things about jungle treks in the East of Bolivia where it would be possible to see lots of wildlife well off the beaten track in the Pampas Amazon jungle area of Rurrenabaque which is either a flight or twenty hour bus ride away from La Paz.  Aside from the distance, it sounded amazing and various people’s accounts made it hard to resist considering over the next few days.  At the end of the night we stopped at a little burger van on the way home (sometimes there really does seem to be little difference between cultures) and got chatting to a group of auditors who were stopping for a snack but then going back to work until four in the morning, talk about antisocial working hours. 

Gaelle enjoying some birthday drinks with us looking on in the background!

Gaelle and Kate with the Auditors

We spent the next few days exploring La Paz and finding out what it had to offer.  We were obviously a bit fragile after our night out but we took the upside down subway system (collectivo minibuses) to the other side of town where we ate at a bakery café and did some shopping in the first Bolivian supermarket we had encountered which happened to stock an amazing supply of cheeses that we couldn’t ignore so we bought a load along with some cold meats for dinner that night.  The cheeses were made in Sucre but tasted amazingly authentic and we enjoyed Reblochon and Roquefort to name but a couple.

Frenchy with her wine and cheese

On Sunday the 14th we were due on the North Yungas road or the ‘Death Road’.  As described earlier, the Death Road was so named in 1995 by the Inter-American Development Bank due to the amount of treacherous accidents that have taken place on it since it was constructed by Paraguayan prisoners of war in the 1930’s.  There were stories of the prisoners being forced to walk off sheer drops of at least six hundred meters where they plummeted to their deaths.  To this day, there are still plenty of accidents including those ending in fatalities.  The appeal is that the views along this road are amazing and the experience was recommended to us time and time again by other travellers along with a horror story or two about accidents happening to tourists.  We decided to go with a company called ‘Vertigo’ and we walked to their office for eight in the morning to receive our equipment and get the minivan up to the road. 
The equipment we were given was excellent and in the office we introduced ourselves to the other bikers of which there were eight of us in total.  Soon we were in the minivan with bikes atop, soaking up the excellent views as we climbed up the steep cliff side roads of La Paz.  After an hour driving we reached the top of a road that we would use in order to get used to the bikes prior to venturing onto the death road.  There were still a lot of cars on this road, including a few buses and trucks so we often had to fight the urge to be boisterous and ensure that we stayed to the side and didn’t go too quickly too soon.  However the roads were steep and well made so we soon began opening up the distance between bikers and established a couple of groups, a fast and slow each with a guide.
The views from the minivan up to the Death Road

All geared up and ready to go

An American girl fell off her bike at some point early on, but it wasn’t serious and to her credit she continued without much in the way of a complaint.  Soon we rode into some awful weather in the form of thick fog, rain and hail.  It started to feel dangerous and we kept our speed down as it was hard to make out how sharp corners were and whether there were cars close by or even overtaking.  Soon we reached the point where we would stop for a bit of a snack and get back on the minibus to get to the Death Road.  At the top of the road which was a lot more gravelly and unsealed than the practice road we had one more safety talk about the dangers and had an opportunity to ask any questions.  Then we were off, the gravel grinding below the wheels as we got to grips with the loose unsealed road. 

Setting off along the sealed road
The Death Road

The views were spectacular and I was soon a lot more comfortable than I thought I would be considering that a quick cursory glance to the left revealed a ridiculous drop down a canyon about three feet away from the tread on the tires.  There were amazing views of mountains above and valleys below but to be honest I spent the most part focusing on the road in front of me.  We stopped at various places to let others catch up and I personally was trying my best to keep up with a couple of daredevil Kiwis.  We finally regrouped at a notoriously dangerous corner which also provided a good photo op as the girls caught up followed by the rest of the group.  Later on the trail Kate had a little accident but nothing serious.  Whilst trying to wave to us as she came in in she accidently hit the front brake a little hard and went over the bike onto the gravel but the gear took the brunt of it and she only came out a bit sore!  We finished the day with a great buffet lunch at a hotel complex, swimming pool and all where we were able to get a shower and relax until we began the three hour return journey to central La Paz. 

The gang stopping for a photo

The three of us at one of the more dangerous corners

The Vertigo minibus

On the 15th we had a relaxed day, the main attraction being the museum of Bolivian musical instruments which showcased an array of instruments from the traditional to the completely whacky.  It was all good fun and you could try your hand at a few of them display which was a nice touch.  We also decided to make a decision on the tour to the Pampas rainforest near Rurrenabaque, ultimately going with Fluvial tours.  Return flights were around seventy five pound and the tour itself was about sixty pounds for two nights and three days.  We would be leaving on the Friday (19th August) and in the meantime wanted to head to Copacabana and the Isla del Sol on lake Titicaca before heading back to La Paz for our flights.  This was all well and good, yet in true South American style there was a protest going on, this time blocking the major roads out of La Paz.  Even twice getting up at five in the morning to try to beat the protestors didn’t work and again we were in limbo in a South American capital city for two days, checking back into the hostel, bags and all to warm up after hanging around the chilly bus stop.  We had a lazy couple of days and a shoe shine and a pizza later we were ready to board our flight to the Bolivian jungle with TAM, a military company, for the forty minute flight from La Paz.      

The musical instrument museum, with armadillo charangos in the foreground

The bizarre five necked charango

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