Posted by: robinson2000 | March 27, 2011

La Paz and the Death Road

22nd – 26th March

We left the sleepy town of Copacabana to head to the capital city of Bolivia, La Paz. At an altitude of 3636 m, La Paz is the highest capital in the world and is ringed by snow-peaked mountains & glaciers that are slowly melting, threatening the city’s water supply. We caught a shabby Bolivian bus for 15 Bs each ($2) that took us to the outskirts of La Paz. The route wove around the edges of Lake Titicaca, at one point stopping to ferry the bus over a small stretch of water before crawling through the dense traffic of the suburbs of La Paz. A taxi ride took us to the Wild Rover Hostel, described as a “party-style hostel” in the city centre. The hostel certainly lived up to its reputation as we shared a 10 man dormitory with a bunch of guys who spoke about nothing other than drugs, would interrupt your nights sleep by crashing in at all hours of the night, and apologise beforehand about the possibility of puking over your bed if it was a rough night! The worst part about it was that it made us feel like three grumpy old men. The highlight of one such conversation between the morons ended with the resident coke dealer saying he would buy some cocaine with his two other mates and split the cost 50\50 which left the three of us biting our pillows to stifle the laughter.

After we´d dumped our bags on our bunks and locked up our valuables, (the hostel also had a reputation for theft) we spent the afternoon browsing the streets and soaking up the atmosphere. La Paz is no ordinary place, it boasts an impressive selection of museums & plazas along with the Witches´ Market, where you can buy llama foetuses. Other bizarre sights around the city included lollypop ladies dressed as zebras controlling the traffic along with menacing balaclava wearing shoe shiners.

Over the following days the plazas were filled with an intimidating number of riot police who were out in force, geared up with shotguns and tear gas to control a number of demonstrations taking place around the city. To add the lively atmosphere the demonstrators were making themselves heard using flare guns, so the city’s streets were filled with the noise of gun fire. On our travels we got collared by a toothless, crazy-eyed South African man named Steve, carrying a baby on his shoulders. The first line he said to us was “don´t be scared guys, how could you be scared of a man with a baby on his back”. He then told us that he had been released from San Pedro Prison 5 weeks ago, after a 6 year stretch, and offered cocaine and a guided tour around the prison. San Pedro prison is like no other in the world. It houses 1500 inmates, 25% convicted & 75% awaiting trial, who often live with their families inside the prison, have jobs inside the prison, and have to rent their accommodation. Up until recently, tourists could pay for a tour of the prison by an inmate except it was stopped because most tourists visited to buy cocaine. We passed the prison later that day and got handed a note by a guard from an inmate offering a tour for 400 Bs ($60) which we kindly declined. After our terrifying conversation with crazy eyes, we wandered over to the coca museum, which documented the history of the coca leaf.

The Death Road

The highlight of La Paz was the mountain-bike ride down Death Road, which runs out of from the North of the city towards Coroico. The road, now called the Old Death Road, was closed in 2006 due to the high number of fatalities occurring between vehicles travelling the route.  Some of the accidents happened due to drunk Bolivian truck drivers, others to reckless driving, but to be honest the road is unbelievably dangerous! The Old Death Road is no longer used by road traffic as the Government built a New Death Road that is much safer.

We got picked up at a social hour of 8am after another broken nights sleep, made especially unbearable by the human fog horn that bellowed away for most of the night. We were driven an hour outside of La Paz to La Cumbre, 4700 m, where the two guides fixed  us up with a hard-tail mountain bike, elbow pads, knee pads and a full face crash helmet. The first 20km were an absolute joy, totally downhill along a smooth paved road surrounded by breath-taking scenery. Once that was finished, we passed through a narcotics checkpoint, where one of our group owned up to be in possession of cocaine. Our guides reassured him it would be okay and we passed through uneventfully, leaving the main road for the gravelly Old Death Road. From then on it was a white knuckle ride as the road dropped 3.5km over the next 43 km. What made the narrow road so dangerous was the blind bends and the sheer vertical drops at every corner. One corner had an 800 m sheer drop and had claimed the lives of many over the years. Over the next 2-3 hours we plunged down the road, skidding round corners, pedalling under waterfalls, and cycling through rivers. It was awesome!

By 1.30pm we had finished the ride and was celebrating our survival with a cool beer. We were served lunch in the Jungle Restaurant, where I experienced a horrible reaction (possibly nut) to the soup and promptly spilled my guts up in the toilets. To add to my misery and general feeling of god-awfulness, my legs and feet were munched alive by small midges whilst we were shown around the fruit plantation owned by the restaurant. By 3pm we were back in the mini-bus and heading back up the Death Road towards La Paz. On the way we came across a fallen tree  trunk that we had cycled beneath earlier in the day. To the side of it was a lorry that had tried to squeeze around the tree and the cliff edge, except the earth had given way and we was now precariously balanced on the edge & completely blocking the road. Luckily for the embarrassed driver, several bikers from New Zealand were also blocked and helped the driver by cutting through the tree trunk with a chainsaw, jacking up the truck to clear away the logs wedged underneath, and finally, towing the lorry to safety using their 4×4. A cheer went up for the Kiwis and we were able to continue up Death Road but by this time it was getting dark and the mist had rolled in from the valley. For the next hour everyone was quiet and silently praying as the mini-bus, rally drove up the narrow pass. This part of the trip was far more terrifying than the cycle down. We finally arrived back in La Paz just before 9pm, totally exhausted and ready for a quiet evening except it was friday night and the party hostel was in full flow. Unfortunately for Rice, his bed was taken so he had to change dorms. That night he barely slept as there was a full cocaine party taking place in his room, playing music at 3am and generally causing havoc!

Next stop is a 20 hour bus ride to Rurrenabaque, where we will hopefully see the Amazon rainforest.

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  1. Funny, I read the book ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young, a former inmate at San Pedro Prison! Bizarre place.
    We love your blogs, keep ’em coming and take care. C x

  2. Ben. Sounds if you had an exciting time coming down the “Death Road” (call that a Death Road”? You should see Childsbridge Lane with the school buses and the mums’ 4X4 grand prix!!!!!!). Vicki wonders if Chris has some physical disability whereby his thumbs automatically assume a vertical position when someone takes his picture. Hope to see some photos of Amazonian piranahs, anacondas, big hairy spiders, monkeys, poisonous snakes etc. from your jungle adventure. Love – Mum and Dad. PS: Give the soups a miss next time – they don’t seem to agree with you!!!

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