La Paz, Bolivia
We were excited about getting into Bolivia. We had kind of grouped the various countries in South America and put Brazil, Argentina and Chile in one basket for more of their second nearing on first world characteristics and Bolvia, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela in the second basket, a little more raw, third world and of course less expensive. Our first glimpse of LaPaz was from the high El Alto of about 4.5kms above sea level that showcased glimpses of the city below centered in a valley and sprawled up on the dizzying mountainsides. It was approaching 7pm so the sunset over Mount Snowy (as the residence called it), an imposing 6.4km snow caped mountain towering above the city and the little twinkling lights of the the cramped brick houses was an exciting introduction.
As soon as we got off the bus we could tell we had landed at the start (or end) of the gringo trail with backpackers everywhere. The primary route was one that crossed the high Andes from LaPaz to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and over to Cuzco to commence the Machu Picchu trek in Peru. It felt a little more like India or Burma then the rest of South America we had grown accustomed. Narrow cracking streets and buildings, chaotic traffic, women wearing traditional dress, long black plates and bowler hats and that street smell of poorly maintained sewage systems mixed with market fruits.
Our hostel was under a km away but the weight of the packs, the incline up hill and the suppressing altitude made it exhausting to walk. After a few steps you were sucking in the thin air to get more oxygen into your lungs. But we made it to Cruz de Andes hostel where we were greeted with the full “buenos noches” (good evening) formality and then told our room was on the top floor. Argh! Another climb of four floors to get to the top. By the time we reached the room we collapsed on the bed sucking in the air that actually burned my lungs. We thought we might be tripping out but realised that we were not in tuscany, just in a room that was painted as a mural of a Tuscan courtyard and country side setting. Very odd.
Due to it being a fairly long day we thought we would get a bite to eat and crash. We were right in the heart of the old town where all the backpackers congregated for cheap accommodation, tour agencies, restaurants and travel gear. Kind of like a Bolivian Khao San Road, it was a travelers ghetto. Walking past the ‘witches market’ that sported traditional medicines, trinkets and good luck charms such as Llama fetuses (the perfect gift when buying a new home promoting prosperity and good fortune) we arrived at Cafe Luna and chowed down on hamburgers. The area was also a big party place for backpackers waiting a cheap night out, getting drunk on no more than two beers because of the altitude and was also the prime mountain biking tour down the infamous Death Road.
The Death Road was once the key road that linked LaPaz to the lower grounds of Coroico and was also considered the worlds most dangerous road. The road was gravel based, very narrow, experienced constant landslides and winding drops of over 600 meters straight down. Over 200 peopled died on this road every year. But after the government completed and opened a new road some years ago, the death road no longer was the key link for transportation in and out of LaPaz and local entrepreneurs turned it in to a tourist destination. Ride the death road on a mountain bike and drop the 2 kilometers from freezing conditions at the top to tropical heat 2 kilometers below. The agencies sported “I survived the WMDR” t-shirts and it was an opportunity for many that couldn’t be missed even though it was still very dangerous and many foreigners had perished. So again, we chickened out.
We had planed to stay at least three nights in LaPaz to acclimatise to the altitude and take it very easy during the day. Loaded up on Diamox tablets to stop the over production of red blood cells that promoted swelling of the brain, hypoxia and the rest we took it pretty seriously. However looking around there were many westerns running around the streets and downing cocktails and pizza all night long. Maybe we were being overly cautious? But at any stake, the only symptoms we experienced were the slight temple headaches, breathlessness walking up hills and the tingling in our feet and fingers due to the Diamox.
The next few days were spent walking the streets. It was a Saturday and there was a major procession and party along the main road Prado. Sponsored by the local LaPaz beer “Pacena” there seemed to be thousands upon thousands of locals dressed in traditional wear, the females in fairly scantily clad bright and short skirts all glittered up and the men following suit in a brass band behind. Along the precession (that started early in the morning and didn’t finish into very late that night) local street traders set up selling chicken empanadas, BBQs, fruit juice and of course Pacena. So the locals took to the beer all day long and by nightfall trying to make your way through the crowd that was all grogged up was interesting, especially when there was no public toilets and the closest object was a near by car.
I had been reading a book about a famous jail in LaPaz called San Pedro. It was a jail in the middle of the city where anything goes. The officials were corrupt, the production of cocaine was rife, as an inmate you had to buy your own cells and renovate and where back in the 90s tourists could pay to experience spending a night in the jail and buy and take coke on demand (as it was cheaper then the beer). So of course we had to navigate our way down the main thoroughfare to see if it really existed, Turning a corner into a nice plaza with white church on the side, there in front of us was the infamous San Pedro jail . Women and children lined the outside door surrounded by guards to visit their husbands who could have been accused of anything from steeling a loaf of bread to the most hideous crimes. There had been many outbreaks of prisoners before and the book talked about the extreme torture of the the guards on inmates. Basically if you didn’t have money to pay off officials, your wouldn’t survive. Now I don’t know if all of this was true but it did make for a fairly exciting picking spot.
On our third day we seemed less tired and had adjusted to the hustle and bustle of LaPaz. We had read about a small and peaceful village called Coroico and particularly an amazing little hostel called Sol y Luna (moon and sun). You had to pay at an affiliate agency in LaPaz for the accommodation before taking a mini bus down hill to the tropical and warm low lands. A few days chill’n out sounded great after a fairly fast pace so we headed down to the upper class neighborhood of LaPaz to sort out the transaction. Up and down the streets we walked in darkness trying to find the unmarked agency that was actually a Spanish mansion. But we were all booked in for the following day.
Leaving the hostel after breakfast we were told to only take an official looking taxi and take note of the taxi registration as there had been many robberies in the past. We walked up to the first one we saw and tried out our Spanish. Failing dismally the taxi driver turned to us and in the most proper English told us to “take one from the other side of the road have a very pleasant day”. Not what we were expecting. So we grabbed another taxi with a friendly driver who took out to the little road where we waited for our mini bus to fill before take off. And after 40mins wait and an insult or two thrown at us from a competing agency, we were off to blissful Coroico.