La Paz Rocks, Bolivian Style!!!

Trip Start Oct 06, 2008
Trip End Apr 03, 2009

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El Solario

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Wanted to put in 4 things here - well 5 - but first a little about the trip down from Lake Titicaca - well actually across Lake Titicaca. We did it on a barge type thing which was a bit hair raising in true South American style. We just about fit on the barge which was ok but there was not supposed to be any people on the bus  - unfortunately all the poor tourists with dodgy spanish didnīt get off the bus and we seemed to be a little overweight. The barge began to sway and some girls on the bus began to panic a bit (was at night too and with little light it did feel like we mightnīt make it at one stage) but we did pull through. Quite a funny moment but some people on the bus were not amused. If you are travelling here though, you got to take these incidents with a pinch of salt I think.

1 - The City
 Defo the most ītranquiloīcity Iīve seen so far. Pretty cool weather wise (warm but it did get rainy on occasion) and so much safer than the other cities Iīve passed through. Means you can walk around and take snaps and not feel like somebody could be lurking behind you ready to pounce. Not too many impressive sights but it is all about the markets here and people watching. You can buy just about anything in one of the markets or other and its fascinating to walk around for a day and see what the locals do (city is nice and manageable walking wise too but some hills are nasty and the altitude can hurt you).  

2 - Ruta de la Muerte
"The Road of Death" - a famous road descends from La Cumbre outside of La Paz to Coroico - about 4,000 metres in 80kmīs. A gravel/dirt/rocky track with cliff face like falls along the roadside. Called theīRoad of Death because it has the worlds highest death count, not sure what that is though. Now you can rent a bike and fly down it in a tour. Itīs a great ride - no cars or trucks allowed anymore so to be honest it doesnīt feel that deadly but it is super fun to fly down and the views are certainly impressive along the way. Gotta be careful with your tour organiser though as they will shove an awful piece of crap bike on you. Major bummer when you are flying down and you realise your brakes donīt function or your gears donīt work properly and there is a thousand metre drop off at the side of the road. Mine was ok, brakes were a bit too spongey at times and the chain kept falling off but some others werenīt as lucky.
         You start off cautious but as the time passes and the adrenaline leves rise, you become much more adventurous and as you do, you build up some speed and then comes the inevitable hairy moment. It slows you down temporarily but you soon forget and get lost in the rush again and then the cycle repeats itself with the only diff being the lenght of time between the hairy moments decreasing. It is good fun though but the name of the road is probably an exaggeration now with no traffic (canīt imagine what it would have been like with traffic to be honest, the surface is so bad and it is so narrow in places wth loads of blind spots). The gravestones and wreaths at the side of the road should act as a reminder of caution but if you like the speed and wow that is a spectacular view or oh look at that waterfall, be careful it might be the last one you see.

3 - The Coca Museum
Located in the centre of town, this is a fascinating place and one of the best museums Iīve ever been in. Goes through the whole history of the Coca plant. Interesting how it dates back through all the cultures of the Andes who used it for 2 purposes (i) For health and work reasons - if you chew it in your mouth for about 40 mins, it releases certain vitamins which help sustain you as well as releasing a small quantity of the drug which enables the locals to work harder for longer; (ii) the Andes people also think of the plant as something sacred, a gift from the gods and involve it all their major life ceremonies like marriage and death.
    When the Spaniards came here though, the Church banned it because they felt it interferred with their plans to move the Andean people from their beliefs to Catholicism. Changed their mind though when they found out the locals worked like billyo in the mines when chewing the stuff.
     Slowly word permeated to the rest of the worņd and it began to be used in drinks for taste ( a wine in France which John Pemberton recreated in the US and called Coca Cola). Soon after pharmaceutical companies began developing the drug when it was found that it could be used as an Anaesthetic and cocaine was born. Some very famous people then expounded its virtues, including none other than Sigmund Freud who actually died from nasal cancer. This transfromed the market where Coca leaves are grown from small local indigenous farmers in the Andes to bigger drug operations (both exist now, particularly in Bolivia but much is still grown by local small farmers). The US, predominatly, then made moves to ban the drug and reluctantly the South American countries agreed accepting interest free loans to help eradicate some of the farms where the stuff is grown illegally.
     Not all coca is illegal though and you can buy bags of the leaves in any marketplace in Ecuador/Peru/Bolivia and there are millions of by-products of the stuff here including tea/sweets/chocolates/jams everything imaginable. Really helps with altitude sickness as it helps your lungs retain more oxygen. But its the quantity that matters. You can chew about 1 gram of coca for that effect - Cocaine is about 100 times stronger after they mix it with sulphuric acid amongst other things.
    It is a really interesting museum - really does the link well between Western cultures abuse of the drug and the celebrated, almost mystical, status it has in the areas where it is grown. Fascinating to see that it is used in so many things both here and at home (never knew the link to Coca Cola  - no longer has Cocaine per say but does use Coca leaves in its magic formula). Talks a little as well about how to treat addiction to the drug and what western society is doing wrong and recommends chewing coca leaves as a method (like methodone) of weaning people off the drug. If you are in La Paz, I think this is a must see.

4 - El Choro
This is a three day trek following somewhat the area of the Ruta de la Muerte but you have the chance here to really take in a region of Bolivia known as the Yungas. This is a cloud forest type area between the mountains and the jungle proper. You start the trek around 4,700 metres up and descend to about 1,000 metres. Supposed to be 3 of us on the trek but the other two cried off sick from food poisioning on the morning of the trek. That left only me and the guide (Santos). It is an awesome 3 days trekking though - you start in the snow capped Cordillera Real and wander your way through magnificent views to get to the end. End of Day 2 and the start of Day 3 are stunning and as good as anything Iīve seen here. Need to be prepared weather-wise though because it rains a hell of a lot (Ann, pass on my thanks to Kev for the weather proof pants - came in very handy here). Santos is a top man but has no english which makes for some Faulty Towers moments but generally we work out pretty well. Some amazing sights along the way but what stood out for me was the little hamlet we camped in on the second night - called Sandillani, it is referred to as Japonese because it was built around an inhabitant who set up a camping ground there 30 years ago. Amazing character, he looks like death and is not the most hygenic but when he looks for where you are from and brings out postcards he has received from people who have stayed there over the years, you soon forget about that. You need to see his collection - itīs bloody enormous - amazing. He had a huge amount from Ireland alone and there isnīt that many from home traveling here. One of those weird moments when you are traveling that hits a spot. I have his address and will send a card when I get back home. You would too if you saw the views from his garden.

5 - San Pedro Prison
The second īculturalīouting while I was in La Paz was a trip to the prison there. Itīs still a fully functioning prison which sounds like a strange place to visit and believe you me it is a seriously strange place, run almost exclusively by the inmates. Each rents a cell or īapartment` where they live. (From visiting here its obvious some make more money inside the prison than they ever did outside). It has its own societal system whereby the richer inmates pay for the best cells and it works then on a sliding scale down. This rent goes to the government and on the upkeep of the prison.
    The way the tours work is that you hang around the square outside the prison and are approached and asked if you want to take a look inside (pretty dodgy looking types approach you I must say). The guards leave you in (after you pay what for Bolivia is a fairly hefty sum which is pooled together for all the inmates). The best English speaking prisioner will then give you a tour around for about 2 hours with 2 or 3 bodyguards as protection for the tourists (just other prisoners). Sounds a bit scary but there was about 12 in my group. Our prisoner guide is Luis Felipe from Portugal who is in for trying to smuggle 14 kgīs of Cocaine out of Bolivia in a suitcase - not very smart if you ask me. Seems like a pretty nice chap though and in fairness he gives us a great tour around; from cooking facilities and restaurants - they pay for much of the food - to the gym, recreational areas, the cells etc.
       The place is packed when Iīm there - it is a sunday and families are visiting - many wives and children live with their husbands in the prison and come and go as they wish - yes it is that strange. Conditions are pretty primitive especially for those that can afford to only share a cell but they are not that bad either. All pretty much have TVīs - you can pay extra for cable - and many seem to have better conditions than they prob have outside (Supposedly for this reason many Bolivian prisoners prefer this prison to living outside where their circumstances may be very poverty stricken). Where I have a problem though is that there is no hint of rehabilitation in this environment. Drugs are sold openly to the tourists on the tours with the guards under strict orders not to search you on your way out. Many of the inmates are happier inside or appear to be happier inside. There is no-one learning the errors of their ways here with Luis freely admitting his mistake was not to get someone else to run the drugs for him. It is certainly worth a look while you are here though just to experience it. If nothing else it will get you thinking (book on the prison written by an English guy called Bolivian Marching Powder - its like the travellers bible in Bolivia - havenīt read it yet though).
    The overwhelming impression I get from the place is that Bolivia is impossible to help. There is a startling amount of corruption here (Luis is currently saving up $6k USD to pay off the judge for his upcoming trial - that is the requested fee from the judge). Apparently murder is about the only crime you canīt buy your way out of and I wonder about that too. The tour itself is kind-of interesting but what you see isnīt that remarkable - it is only cells and kitchens and stuff after all. Its what the jail represents that is interesting - Tourists do only get to see part of it; there is another part for the rapists/murderers/sodomites etc and its not all roses where the tourists go either. There was a guy killed there in a fight about a week before I did the tour. Read the book or even better visit to make up your own mind.

And that was La Paz. Throw in an interesting night at a locals bar where the waitress chews coca leaves and spits like Clint Eastwood and drinks more beer than you. Defo the most interesting city so far. Next its off to the mountains for a little bit of serious climbing.

Iīm off to finish the last of my stash from the prison. Couldnīt pass up an opportunity like that. Have some Coca sweets too for double the buzz - awesome. Kinda like smoking with nicotine patches on. Class. See you in Huayna Potosi.
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