Altitude madness

Trip Start May 10, 2010
Trip End Apr 20, 2011

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Where I stayed
The Point La Paz

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

La Paz, Bolivia's bustling, administrative capital and home to the world's highest commercial airport (at 4,058 m), blends big-city living with a generous dose of indigenous culture. Everywhere you look you see people in traditional dress of bowler hats and layered skirts. The sight of the city, lying at the bottom of a steep canyon ringed by snow-peaked mountains, takes your breath away - literally.

There is so much to see and to do in La Paz that we end up staying for two weeks, only occasionally escaping the city's pleasant bustle.

Death road

67 km of mostly downhill terrain while clutching a bike and peddling inches away from 600 m cliffs, over loose rocks and under cold waterfalls... we're on the Death Road! In just a few hours time we'll be decending 3.5 km in altitude, the first 22 km on asphalt, the rest over a snake-coiling jungle track of cracked mud and dirt.

With a death toll of 150 lives every year, a UN report named this the world's most dangerous road and soon after the first extreme biking companies emerged. Today, a new highway has diverted the traffic, making the road infinitely safer and robbing it of its World's Most Dangerous Road title. The current tourist death toll is now at 11 which are pretty good odds given that 120 people ride it every day.

And with the beautiful scenery and the wind swirling over our helmets, there's no faulting the hype, this is one of the must-do's in Bolivia.

Huayna Potosí

When I stumbled down from volcano Cotopaxi in Ecuador, I swore never to climb a mountain again. But despite my commitment, a second attempt has always been on my mind and after more than a month of acclimatization at fairly high altitude it's time to cash in. 25 km north of La Paz lies Huayna Potosí, a 6,088 m mountain.

This time the conditions are optimal. The days before the climb I take a lot of rest and load up on carbs as much as possible. The gear that I get from the agency is first-class. When we arrive at the refuge (at 5,130 m) in the afternoon, we have dinner, drink as much coca tea as we can, prepare our backpacks and go to sleep around 6 pm. When we get up 12 pm I feeling excellent. No headache, good appetite, feeling energetic and I even caught some sleep. Also the weather conditions are near perfect, almost completely wind still. I'm ready to hit the mountain!

One single factor remains beyond anyones control and that is the other climbers. I surprise myself with the easiness that I'm shooting up the mountain, but while I'm fantasizing about the pictures that I'm going to take on the top, my climbing partner on the other end of the rope starts to get sick and once halfway has to cease the ascent. At that point there are 14 climbers behind us, most of whom are Israelis who just finished three year of military training. To my surprise - and utter disappointment - none of them had any ambition left to tag along and go for the summit. Disheartened, I make an involuntary retreat to the refuge.

Once back I start looking for a guide to take me up the next day, but my search remains in vain and to me frustration I have to go back to La Paz with another failure on my account. But aid will come from an unexpected source. Upon returning, our cook, a cheerful chola, whispers conspiratorially into my ear that she is going up the mountain next Sunday and secretly slips me her phone number when the guides aren't looking. Very tempting, but a huge cold sore and the lack of motivation to start the meticulous preparation all over again, make me turn down the offer. I'll keep her number for next time.

San Pedro prison

One of the books that accompanied me on the cargo boat between Ecuador and Peru was Marching Powder. It tells the story of a British drug trafficker who spent nearly five years inside Bolivia's notorious San Pedro prison. It costs 400 bolivianos (around 55 dollars) to bribe your way into the prison, plus some extras to buy protection and a guide once inside. It's a lot of money - especially in Bolivia - but it comes recommended by all tourists that went inside. At the end, it is rather the thought of injecting money directly into the corrupt system that sets me off and we let the opportunity pass - for now.

On our last day in La Paz, I found out that it is possible to ride the death road till a subtropical valley town called Coroico from where you can connect to a three day boat ride to Rurrenabaque, the main jumping off point for tours in the Bolivian Amazon and pampas. It would have been awesome to make this combination, but next Tuesday David Guetta will be playing in Santa Cruz and my travel friends have counted me in when buying tickets. As a result I won't be going to Bolivia's Northern lowlands next, but I'll be heading for Santa Cruz - I'm sure I'll find a worthy alternative for a jungle trip anyway (and alternatives usually proof to be not in the least less interesting).
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