La Paz and Death Road

It was July 16th, Independence day in La Paz, the streets were packed with throngs of people watching the parade go by. Marching bands and fireworks competed for attention and shouts filled the squares where a open air concert was getting underway.

There was no way I was getting a taxi.

Accepting defeat I shouldered my backpack laden with supplies from the grocery shop and made my way the few km across town to where the bus station lay. I was heading to Uyuni, a little town that I had never heard of until a year ago. A town on the outskirts of the world’s largest salt desert, Salar de Uyuni. I had stumbled across a video on youtube the previous year where I saw a man driving a jeep across what looked like a massive ice covered ocean. Instantly I knew I had to see it, and so I incorporated Bolivia into my journey for this express purpose. But Bolivia stole my heart in many ways before I even reached my final destination. From the minute I had taken a crowded bus to the peruvian border with Bolivia, I knew this place was different. Stamping out of Peru and walking into the little border town I realised that I had no idea how to legally enter the country, I finally found a little office where I managed to get someone to stamp my passport, but I could have just as easily kept on walking. At the border I stopped for coffee and got the first shy requests for a photo with me, a trend that would continue with hilarious frequency throughout my entire stay in Bolivia.

No other South American country on my travels would have the sweet innocence that I found in Bolivia, and no other country would elevate me to celebrity status like this little gem surrounded by its more affluent cousins. It is the poorest country in South America and it shows, and yet it had a spirit that was both resilient and hopeful.

Back to La Paz, the highest administrative capital in the world, it sits in a bowl surrounded by towering mountains, cold yet beautiful in July. With bright sunlight and winding streets covered with street stalls, there are no official shopping markets in Bolivia so finding food is a trip to the  baker, vegetable man and dairy stand. This system keeps the surrounding villages just on the brink of survival as they come in every day to sell their produce. The women sit on the street selling cheese or vegetables wearing their traditional outfits, a many coloured dress with  layered petticoats and bowlers hats, a outfit curiously enough adopted from the victorian age. The hats in particular are important as depending on its position on their heads it reveals their marital status.

I spent a few days in La Paz, I was recovering from the physically exhausting exploits in Peru. The Inca trail and rainbow mountain hike had been a dream come true but I was tired and La Paz with its bustling markets and ridiculously cheap prices was a great excuse to relax, ride the famous teleferico and eat local delicacies like fried cheese and purple corn.

Bolivia is a country that is in the throes of change. After centuries of its indigenous people being discriminated against, it finally elected  its first indigenousness president Evo Morales. A strong symbol of how this country is trying to recreate with its identity and open its mind, is the clock on the outside of the Bolivian congress in La Paz. Its striking because the numbers are on the opposite sides. It is a mirror image of a traditional clock and symbolises the change the country is desperate to make. Yet you can still find shops selling love potions and dried llama fetuses to use in pagan ceremonies, so the past is still a very important part of its culture. Another unique feature in La Paz is the San Pedro prison. Its is a prison that was taken over by the inmates and to this day is run as a self governed society within the city.  Inmates have to rent their own prison cells and often live with their families who are free to enter and leave. The only government guards are stationed on the outside, but they no longer have any representative or power on what happens on the inside. Yet it seems to run itself in an efficient if not always fair manor.

One thing I had to do while in La Paz  was ride death road. Again something I had never heard of before, but it was one of  the nuggets of gold that I picked up from other travelers while backpacking. Death Road was named as such because it was deemed one of the most dangerous roads in the world, with up to 300 deaths a year. Now I am sure there are many dangerous roads, but what made this one unique was that it was one of the main roads connecting La Paz to the surrounding cities. This means that it was travelled by buses and trucks edging their way along the side of a mountain, with barely room for one and yet somehow it was a two lane road. It really has to be seen to be believed. There is now a highway that has replaced this road but it is still used by locals and a plethora of cycling companies that challenge tourists to risk their lives for a shot of adrenaline.

I was of course one of those tourists happy to sign the waiver and get my gear strapped on. I went with Bolivian company Ride On which I highly recommend, we left early in the morning and drove up the motorway through mountain passes covered with frost. Freezing cold we got into our gear and set off down  a stunning stretch of asphalted road before reaching the dirt turnoff for “death road”. What follows is over 60 km of amazing views with up to 15000 feet drops.

We set off in the cold and rode down into the clouds, mist enveloping us, yet at the final leg we were in tropical forests and had stripped down to our underclothes. We were so hot we went for a dip in a pool at the hotel where we got to shower the dust off our bodies and get a cold beer. It is an experience I highly recommend to anyone visiting La Paz.

But there is only so much of cities I can take, the chaotic traffic, confusing streets and noisy hostels with beer pong and music until the early hours of the morning needs to be partaken in small doses. I was ready now to set off toward Uyuni.

Before arriving in South America I had thought about booking a tour online, but decided to wait as I wanted to have a flexible schedule. Together with Marion a spunky New Zealander that I had reunited with in Cusco we decided to get a night bus arriving in Uyuni in the early hours of the morning and just jump on the cheapest jeep we could find heading into the salt flats. We had heard that they departed daily with local operators trying to outbid each other for the chance to bring people out into the desert.

And so on the day of Independence we set out, but that is a adventure best told another time.

La Paz, Bolivia
Arriving to La Paz by land is quite an experience. La Paz is in a valley, and it overflowed the valley into the altiplano. In South America, the outskirts of the big cities are very poor. The peasants coming from the countryside looking for jobs settle there. So, your first contact with La Paz is quite shocking, as you see the extreme poverty of the people who live there. The bus then winds down the road into the very crowded La Paz. The streets are narrow and lined with little stores that sell everything, the traffic and pollution are horrible, and there are lots of people. It is picturesque but unsettling. 

Image by Pedro

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