Dicing with death

Trip Start Feb 06, 2011
Trip End Jul 24, 2011

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, March 21, 2011

In true unpredictable Bolivian style our trip to La Paz wasn't the easiest journey we’ve had. Torrential rain in Potosi and an absence of taxis led to a mad dash through ankle deep water in the streets to make it to the bus station in time, and when we arrived in La Paz it was a whole 3 hours earlier than we had expected, at 4:30am. However this must be a regular occurrence as the guy at the hostel happily let us into our room so we could get a few more hours sleep before exploring the city.

La Paz is the capital of Bolivia and the highest in the world at 3660m but after Potosi this wasn’t a problem. The city is set in a wide canyon, with the business district and richer suburbs at the lower levels, and the poorer districts clinging to the sides higher up. We were based in a great location in the old town so were close to most of the sights, albeit via lots of steep winding streets. For the whole time we were there La Paz seemed to be in the grip of protests, with the traffic occasionally brought to a halt by thousands of people, chanting and letting off fireworks. Initially disturbing, we quickly realised the demonstrations weren’t going to turn ugly and they became another part of the vibrant city atmosphere.

We started on the tourist mecca of Sagárnaga Street and checked out the Witches’ market that stocks everything needed for traditional shaman medicine, the highlight of which was dried llama foetuses. We also had a look at the main square, full of the government buildings all in a colonial style, also housing the cathedral. Anna and I also made a visit to San Pedro square to see the notorious prison made famous by the book 'Marching Powder’ (a highly recommended read, although you can wait for the rumoured film, starring Brad Pitt). The prison is highly unconventional, where due to the lack of guards inside it has its own society, where inmateshave to buy their cells, run shops and restaurants for income, enforce their own rules, and reputedly manufacture the highest quality cocaine in the world. Some even used to run unofficial tours, bribing the guards to let in tourists, but because of some high profile inmates a crackdown has meant they aren’t possible now. Probably for the best as although we were fascinated by the book we most likely wouldn’t have been brave enough to venture inside!

The day after we summoned our courage to experience one of La Paz’s premiere attractions – cycling down the Yungas road, aka the world’s most dangerous road. It winds its way perilously through the Andes and in the past hundreds vehicles have gone over the edge leading to thousands of deaths, but in all honesty since traffic now travels on a newly built bypass it maybe doesn’t deserve the title anymore! That said a narrow gravel pathway next to a precipitous 400m drop without any sort of barrier certainly got the adrenaline pumping, especially as Anna hadn’t ever done any mountain biking before. We started at an altitude of 4600m up in the cloud, and had the luxury of a tarmac road for the first 30km before hitting the main part of the road. Our concentration was focussed on staying on the path, in parts less than 2m wide (I was amazed the support minibus got down), and I stayed as close to the mountain side as humanly possible despite the offer from the guide to get nearer to the edge. By the bottom we had dropped more than 3000m in height and our bodies were thoroughly aching, especially hands and wrists from so much braking. Just as we were remarking to the other riders that we didn’t get to appreciate the incredible views the guide had one last surprise – our journey back to La Paz was to be back up the road. I had no fingernails left at the end…

James’ observations on Bolivia

All Bolivian bus drivers are presumably insomniacs, as no buses arrive to their destinations at a reasonable time. For example an 8 hour journey won’t leave at 2pm, it will depart at 9pm and arrive 5am.

Bolivia has lots of police, guarding banks with pump action shotguns, checking your tickets in museums, or just hanging about looking bored in city squares. Approximately 1 in 3 Bolivians is in the police.

Bolivians haven’t quite grasped doing things differently to their competitors to capture that niche in the market. For example a line of roadside stalls will all have exactly the same menu,or of the 8+ buses to depart from Potosi to La Paz every day (8hr journey) they all leave between 8pm and 9pm.

Bolivia has an incredible number of photocopying shops, most with state of the art equipment. I can only presume Bolivian bureaucracy requires a ridiculous number of copies of important documents. Approximately 1 in 3 Bolivians owns a photocopying shop.

Bolivia is overrun with packs of dogs. I don’t know if they are wild or pets that get bored of sitting around inside but they are everywhere. At least they seem to understand the danger of roads and check for traffic before crossing. Approximately 1 in 3 Bolivians is a member of a dog pack…
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