24.01.2011 - 01.02.2011 15 °C
La Paz is the capital of Bolivia and is a large city squashed into a small valley, high up in the mountains. With no where else to go, houses cling to the valley walls in the most precarious of positions. It seemed as if a large city had been dropped from the air into a much smaller space and many of the buildings had been forced to land in places totally unsuitable for any kind of construction. It's also set at 3,600 meters above sea level which means that climbing even small hills really knocks you about and many who have not had a chance to acclimatise before arrival come down with mild altitude sickness.
Known as the best place in Bolivia to party there seemed to be little else on offer in the city itself. One mooted attraction that I had been looking forward to was the so-called “witches market”, which was touted as a street emporium of witch doctors and occult produce. Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of dried llama fetuses, it ended up being just like every other market in Bolivia, that is filled with countless knitted and woven products incorporating a variety of llama motifs.
That said, La Paz lives up to its party reputation and there are also plenty of tours agencies that can arrange a multitude of adventure activities outside the city for relatively bargain prices. For example, five of us went quad biking in nearby Valle de Luna for 2 hours for a total of around A$125, which included 5 bikes, protective gear and 2 guides.
We stayed in La Paz for a total of seven nights, but we met others at the hostel who because of the difficulty of packing your bags and arranging buses with a hangover, had been there much longer – try 5 – 6 weeks. In that time we managed to fit in some partying, subsequent recovery from hangover and eventual illness, the aforementioned quad biking and a trip on mountain bikes down the Death Road – probably La Paz's best known attraction.
The Death Road is the old road into La Paz from Santa Cruz and Cochibamba. The road, in some places only a few meters wide, winds through the mountains hugging up against sheer walls of stone hundreds of feet from the valley floor. When cycling down the road it is almost impossible to believe that as recently as 2003 buses, laden with people would be passing each other with only centimetres to spare. This ridiculous situation, coupled no doubt with the South American penchant for overtaking on blind corners resulted in the road having the highest automotive death toll in the world. In the 10 years before the new road was opened, 4400 people died, slightly more than one per day. Most of the good photos are on a CD that I can't access on my laptop so you will mostly have to rely on the eloquence of the prose for the mental image.
With the Death Road now seemingly closed to normal traffic, one can hurtle down without worrying about oncoming buses or minivans driven by a recently escaped mental patient. It's truly exhilarating, where else can you ride for 5 hours letting only gravity do the work, dropping a total of 3,500 vertical meters, from 4,700m to 1,200m. Of course, in many places a careless mistake can result in you careening over the edge of a cliff to an almost certain death, so some care is still required, but at least you only need to focus on keeping your speed under control and the other riders on the road. At least 100 people ride the death road each day and in total our guide told us that 18 riders have lost their lives.
We drove back up to La Paz on the new road, which takes a different route through a neighbouring valley and apparently includes more than 140 bridges. One of the people on our tour made the remark that he didn't know what was more dangerous, riding the death road down or climbing back up to La Paz over 140 Bolivian built bridges.
The night before we left I attended some Bolivian Cholita Wrestling. Imagine, overweight men and middle aged women in leotards and traditional Bolivian dresses pretending to dish out tremendous punishment in an overly dramatic way. It made WWF look like a classy broadway show by comparison.
Our next and last stop after La Paz is Lake Titicaca, one of the highest navigable lakes in the world on the border of Bolivia and Peru and apparently a very scenic and relaxing place.