La Paz: There, Downhill and Back

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, May 16, 2005

Following our stay on Lake Titicaca, we headed to La Paz, the highest capital city in the world. What can we stay? We absolutely loved this city... First, the setting is pretty spectacular - the city was built in a sort of crater/canyon, and you can see the city climb up the canyon walls in all directions. It also manages a good balance of being a "real" functioning Latin American city, while still having all sorts of attractions and comforts that make an international traveler want to stay for awhile (by contrast, for example, Cusco, Peru, is beautiful, but seems to function almost exclusively as a tourist hotspot). We planned on staying 3 or 4 nights, but ended up staying a total of 9 (more on that later), making it the bulk of our stay in Bolivia.

The first 6 days we didn't do much of interest to all of you reading - hung out in good cafes, sat in the main square, did a lot of shopping (lots of beautiful sweaters, weavings, etc., and reasonable international shipping rates), stayed in a hotel located in the midst of a witchcraft market and went to a couple of museums... We also managed to become another La Paz traveler statistic... All through our travels we have come across people who have said things like, "Oh, La Paz is great, you'll love it! Well, except that (fill in name of one of the travelers) got sick and we were stuck in our hotel for a few days." So, yup, the typically iron-stomached Allison got overconfidant and had two raw salads with meals in one day, and then spent a few days barely able to get out of bed. Bound to happen eventually...

La Paz is also a prime backpacker destination because of a famous bike ride from the high mountains above La Paz to a warm, sunny tourist town several hours below (Coroico). Not to frighten our loved-ones, but the route follows what has become known as "The World's Most Dangerous Road." However, this label applies much more to the road when traveled by vehicle, as opposed to bike. It is narrow, winding dirt road cut out of the mountain side with lots of blind corners, no guardrails (hah! this is Bolivia!), and a few spots where waterfalls come spilling out onto the road... The bike ride is 64 km and takes about half a day. We were a little intimidated when we first read about it, before we even left the U.S., but after meeting dozens of people neither as atheletic or sane as us who had survived without incident, we decided we couldn't miss one of the major highlights of South American travel.

We checked out a few agencies in La Paz who offer the ride and pretty easily decided to go with the company that started it all 7 years ago, has the best bikes and a great safety record - Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. We left on a Saturday morning and were driven up to the top (4,700 m/15,100 ft). After handing out helmets, safety vests, checking brakes, gears and getting some instruction, we tore off down the hill. The first part is a long stretch of asphalt and was incredibly fast and fun. The road isn't busy at all and the mountain scenery was great. After the asphalt ended, "The World's Most Dangerous Road" technically began. It was pretty incredible - the lower we went, the more jungly it got and the views were fantastic (although it is hard to appreciate them when you are concentrating on the road in front of you). Lots of turns and all downhill... Kind of bumpy, but we decided to upgrade to full-suspension bikes worth a couple grand each and it was completely worth it - really comfortable for such a long ride and it made it easy to go as fast is you felt like. Gravity had us stop whenever vehicles approached (which was very slowly - not too many maniacs on this road...) and it was just good fun, not really very scary. By the bottom it got incredibly hot and dusty and we were pretty dirty when we finally finished. We were rewarded with a beer at the bottom of the ride and then got in the vans to head to a nice hotel where we had a big lunch.

Although some people headed back to La Paz after the ride, we stayed in Coroico a couple of days. We didn't do much, as Allison was still recovering and the bike ride set her back a bit, but it was a nice place to rest. Warm, jungly and peaceful...

A big group of us did the ride to Coroico with Gravity, and during lunch after the ride we got to a know a German family in our group who lives in La Paz, teaching at an international high school (Joe, Helga and their daughter Karin). We had a really nice time chatting with them and they invited us to stay with them if we had anymore time to spend in La Paz. We needed to pass through La Paz to get to other portions of the country, so we were happy to take them up on their offer to stay for a night or so. It was a great treat for us - they have a beautiful house and fed us wonderful food (how were we so lucky to find a vegetarian family??). And while we had only planned to stay a night, right after we got back to La Paz, a bunch of strikes popped up all over the country, effectively forcing us to stay in La Paz until the roads reopened (Bolivia is in a sort of constant state of political turmoil and things have started to bubble over again as a result of a push to nationalize the petroleum industry, not to mention a multitude of other social issues - it isn't dangerous for tourists (or most Bolivians), but disrupts the normal flow through the country...) We ended up staying with the Tradts for three days until things settled down, and will be eternally grateful for their generous hospitality. (Thanks again Helga, Joe and Karin!!)

On a final strange note, the day the roads opened up and we headed further south, we were told that some sort of physical fight broke out in the Parliament building among the certain congressman, while 800 striking miners with dynamite were outside threatening to storm the building... But somehow by nightfall the strikes died down.
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