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Thursday, October 20, 2005

53. La Paz (La Paz, Bolivia)

map of bolivia
Map stolen from

Sometimes when you're on the road you arrive in a place with expectations and a to-do list. Other times you just turn up and wait for things to happen. La Paz I was excited about because it's the biggest city in Bolivia (pop. 1.5 mil), the highest capital in the world (at about 3600m, although the debate's still out whether it's the capital or Sucre is), and it's built in a canyon.

La Paz - 11 - City view
Unfinished buildings line the canyon walls

However my first 12 hours were enough to make me want to get the hell out. First the taxi driver overcharged me (no surprise there, they always do), then I couldn't find the hostel I'd been recommended so ended up staying in some dump. Well the dump didn't look too bad until a young hooker turned up with a 70 year old client with no bottom jaw... I kept getting lost and winded walking the narrow steep streets, the noise and pollution... I couldn't even find a bar to have a beer. I ended up walking ages until a guy about my age asked me for a light, and I asked him where a bar was. We then went on a Bolivian bar crawl but the only places we could find open on the Tuesday night were jam-packed with tables, spilt beer, broken glasses and drunk or sleeping Bolivian men. We stopped in a couple but the atmosphere wasn't that good, just drunken. When Bolivians drink they clink glasses for every mouthful, so they drink fast. If I took a sip, we'd all clink glasses and everyone sips. So they plough through the beer. Although it was cool to hang out with local guys, I still didn't like La Paz.

La Paz - 15 - Drunk
Midday drunk, La Paz

The next day I got lost yet again and couldn't even find a cafe to have breakfast... argh I had to get out. But I finally found a decent breakfast, and with that under my belt I decided to give La Paz one more chance. The hostel I changed to didn't have any single rooms so I had to sleep in a dorm for the first time since about February. There I met an Irish bloke named Barry and that night he showed me where the gringo bars were (English-run Oliver's Travels, Dutch-run Sol & Luna)... and there I bumped into the same group of ten Irish I'd been hanging out with in Potosi, so all of a sudden La Paz was a lot more comfortable.

In all I spent 5 days in La Paz, I don't think I ever liked it but I became more used to it. I took a tour of the city in an open-roofed double-decker bus which was more like an intimate look at La Paz's low hanging power and phone lines, as they scrapped the windows. They warned us not to stand up during the tour with good reason. We stopped in Valle de La Luna (Moon Valley) which was an area of strange grey moonish rock formations supposedly once visited by Neil Armstrong himself. Valle de La Luna overlooks part of the world's highest golf course, where the ball supposedly flies further due to the thin air.

La Paz - 09 - Valle de La Luna
Moon Valley, with a fairway in the background

Our tour bus also passed the wealthy part of the city, at only 3000m altitude it's 10 degrees warmer than El Alto, the highest part of the city at 4000m. So that's where the Bolivian elite and also the Germans live - like many places in South America La Paz has a German community, as well as The German School, supposedly one of the best schools in South America, where they teach the German curriculum (in Spanish, German and English).

Another afternoon Barry and I wandered around the downtown area on foot (and got lost). He'd been in La Paz nearly a week but had yet to see any of the city due to his constant partying. We checked out the Witches Market where you can buy ceramic trinkets for your friends as well as dried llama foetuses for your evil stepmother to caste a spell.

La Paz - 24 - Llama foetuses
Dried llama foetuses

The ubiquitous shoeshine boys that are in every South American city hide behind ski-masks in La Paz, because of the shame of being a shoeshiner (or to protect them from toxic shoe-shine?). The only place in South America I've seen them do that.

La Paz - 28 - Shoe shiner
Shoeshiner in action

My final day in La Paz was a long one. I'd signed up to do a downhill mountain bike ride down "The World's Most Dangerous Road", so dubbed by the Inter-American Development Bank in 1995. The road is 64km from La Paz to Coroico, descends 3600m, and is so named for its number of steep cliffs, blind corners and drunk bus drivers. I'd wanted to sign up with one of the agencies from my hotel for US$36 for the day but my Irish friends had already signed up to do it with Gravity Assisted (owned by a Kiwi) for US$50. An expensive day by Bolivian standards, considering the average wage here is US$70 a month. But they'd kit us out with decent Kona downhill bikes with disk brakes, as well as helmet and gloves (but no knee pads).
I'd kind of thought the World's Most Dangerous tag was a bit overrated as I'd met plenty of backpackers along the way who'd done the ride themselves. But then I met an Australian guy who told me the day he did the ride one guy in his group broke a collarbone, another a wrist, and another needed stiches in his knee, so suddenly I wasn't so confident. Especially since I know I have a stupid male competitive streak when it comes to speed (cars, motorbikes). After I'd signed the disclaimer the Gravity guy told me 7 people had died doing the ride in the four years they'd been doing it (with other companies, none with Gravity). So I resigned myself to taking it easy, nice and slow.

7:30am we met at a cafe, before driving an hour or so to La Cumbre, where we were given our bikes and optional rain jackets (for hire). After enough stuffing around adjusting bikes and seats our group of 21 riders was off - with me leading the way (behind the guide). That damn competitive streak. The first third or so of the ride was tarmac so we flew down, passing the odd truck or bus.

World's Most Dangerous Road - 01 - View
Viewpoint from tarmac section

Soon enough we were stopping to wait for everyone else to catch up, before setting off again. But everyone kept a pretty quick pace through the tarmac section.

World's Most Dangerous Road - 05 - Fog
Low cloud

We passed through two military checkpoints which were searching buses for cocaine or chemicals used to create it. Then the tarmac fun stopped as we descended through the clouds with visibility of only about 10 metres, so we had to slow right down. And then the tarmac finished and we were on the unpaved section called the world's most dangerous.
In Bolivia, as in the rest of Latin America, the cars drive on the right hand side. But that changes for the World's Most Dangerous Road, now we (and all the other downhill traffic) changed to driving on the left hand side. That's the cliff hand side, to be sure.
Unfortunately, the cloud cover stayed with us for about the first hour, and turned to rain cover for a while. Well, some said it was fortunate, as it meant we couldn't see the sheer 1000m cliffs we were riding so perilously close to.

World's Most Dangerous Road - 11 -
Hairpin past a stream

As we got lower the weather got clearer and warmer. Now me and a couple of the boys were in full competitive mode, passing when we could. It was actually easier to go faster, as braking made the bike unstable, although I think I was the only one in our group actually doing jumps off the bumps (apart from our guides). That was why I hated following - cos you'd have to brake when the guy in front did, and it felt easier to coast over the ruts rather than brake over them.

World's Most Dangerous Road - 13 -
Mist rising from the forest in front of the road

By the very end the road was dry and it was pretty dusty. Our guide Ian warned us that this was when 80% of the accidents happen, because by the end everyone's feeling confident. That didn't stop us in front from pushing it, but we all made it to the end without falling off (or dying).

World's Most Dangerous Road - 18 - View from Hotel
View of the valley from the hotel

With the ride over we celebrated with a beer and then they took us to a hotel/resort in Coroico for lunch and a shower. Some of the group stayed in Coroico, which seemed like a nice village to chill out in, while the rest of us had a 3 hour bus ride back to La Paz. That night I went out partying til 5am so it was a long day! And no muscle aches the next day either, surprisingly. Although I did miss my bus so had to stay in La Paz one more day, albeit most of it in bed.


  • Onya mattsnuts!

    That's pretty sweet! I bet it happened ages ago...

    By Anonymous reginald, at 4:07 PM  

    This had to be the WORST place I have ever been to, and I have travelled all over the world.
    "Oliver", the dodgy pub owner was a rude, insulting drunk. We were a group of 20 people. We all ordered 2 course meals, and drinks but after we had paid he came and told us we had given him a sh!t tip, and he asked for more (in his own words)! This was after waiting for over an hour for our meals, having the desert come out before the main course. Getting 4 of our meals wrong! He is a religious and racist bigot - just take a look at his flyers! He asked out tour leader if we were Mormons because he said we were not drinking enough alcohol, he also stated if we were Jehovah's Witnesses, we would be thrown out immediately as he couldn't stand them!
    The service was atrocious, and the food mediocre. DO NOT GO HERE!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:01 AM  

  • Sorry but reading your blog I couldn't stop thinking whether you anglos are either morons or just expect the world to be like the USA or your God forgotten New Zeland. I click on your blog to try and read about La Paz and all I got was another Nz complaining when people are not Irish, or Australians or behave and think like you guys do. You come across as narrow minded, you should stay home next time if you expect the world to be like your hometown.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:30 AM  

  • Just went to Oliver's Travels and had the best meal I've eaten in La Paz. The owner is a real joker and not a racist. The guy who wrote this blog is clearly a dick. La Paz is amazing.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:42 AM  

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