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Travel Adventure - Backpacking Latin America's Gringo Trail Backpacking Latin America starting in Cuba, then travelling from East to the west coast of Mexico before making our through Central and finishing in South America.

La Paz and Death Road

BOLIVIA | Thursday, 3 September 2015 | Views [391]

We arrived in La Paz at night time and I didn't realise it was such a big city. I was imagining it to be similar to the more humble, lovely city of Cusco. We were dropped to our hostel - Wild Rover - Bridget was staying here too and said it wasn't as rowdy as the one in Cusco and it had really good hot showers which were apparently hard to find in most of the hostels and something you need in La Paz coz it's so cold. La Paz is the highest city in the world (I think around 4600?) The driver was really nice and gave Matt the number of his doctor in case his ankle got any worse tomorrow. After we checked in, we were pretty tired from the long day so jumped straight in to bed. The bed was so comfy with a big, comfy blanket and pillow. 
In the morning we showered (Bridget was right, the shower was the hottest shower I've had yet!) had our free breakfast then set off to join the Free City Walking Tour. We stopped at the pharmacy to get something for matts ankle as it was still swollen and a bit tender. La Paz is a very brown, dirty looking city with multiple power-lines in a shambles hanging twisted above. It is also quite hilly which makes breathing a bit hard walking up the hills combined with the altitude. Although it was sunny today and a lot less cold than I thought it would be, especially since we were walking around all day it actually got quite hot.  
Our tour started in San Pedro plaza which directly behind it was San Pedro prison - the prison written about in Marching Powder and South Americas strangest gaol. It was pretty random, I wasn't expecting to see it right in the middle of the city and just looking like a normal building with a couple of guards standing in front of the entrance. I read the book about 10 years ago now so it was good for the tour guide to go over the strange stories that happen behind the walls. It's like a mini town and inmates need to pay entry in to the prison then pay for their room inside. Inmates run restaurants and businesses inside the prison and if some inmates can't afford their rooms etc they have to work for the other inmates businesses. Families also live inside the prison and are allowed to come and go whenever they want. And the main supply of cocaine comes from within San Pedro prison. It's either then smuggled outside the prison or sold to inmates within the prison. In the book there was a cat called Crack Cat who was also addicted to cocaine. One of the inmates which Marching Powder is about used to give tours to backpackers inside the prison. Word spread and it was even featured in the Lonely Planet guide. It started to become too dangerous with passports being lost and people having to pay the guards to get back out, women getting raped etc so these tours do not run anymore (apparently). 
We were then taken through a huge outdoor food market and were told about the cholitas (the women selling food in their traditional dress). After, we went to the witches markets where they sell handicrafts, handmade fleeces, magic potions, charms and even llama foetuses!? We were told about the superstitions and beliefs in La Paz/Bolivia and how they hang llama foetuses in new homes etc as a sign of fertility and good omens. There is also an urban legend about when they build new buildings they perform an offering to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) with coca leaves, flowers, stones, potions etc and also a human body. They find a homeless or drunk person, someone nobody is going to miss much and offer them a drink that debilitates them, take them to the offering still half alive and the offering is now ready for good luck for the new building then the cement foundations are laid on top. Of course this is a crime in Bolivia and an urban legend. If you ask a builder/worker if this has ever happened they would say no... then they would add but I know a friend of a friend... There are apparently human remains under some buildings that have been knocked down and there was also a book someone wrote about escaping this offering! Pretty crazy/interesting stories! 
We then went to a plaza which had the government buildings around it. 
The guides told us that they have had the most amount of leaders in the shortest period of time, the corruption of their government and bizzare stories of past and current presidents. In 2002 I think it was there was also a civil war and 60 people died in the plaza we were sitting in. One president who actually did good work for the country (but the rich people didn't like him) was hung from the light post we were sitting in front of. Hmmm maybe we should be scared of visiting Bolivia! They then took us to a new part which was supposed to be indoor markets etc but didn't really work so now there's a bit of a monstrosity of a building not being utilised. The locals didn't like it. Inside were a couple of flower and food stalls. We tried stuffed potatoes from one stall which were pretty good. We finished the tour at a bar with a free shot some Bolivian alcohol. So many interesting stories, this was probably my favourite walking tour so far. 
Afterwards we researched and booked our Death Road tour - mountain biking down the deadliest road in the world. We heard Gravity was the best tour company to go with. Professional, good bikes etc. we had also heard about another company called Barracuda. It had really good reviews on TripAdvisor and was $40AUS cheaper. It was a bit of a risk as most people say it's worth it to pay more money for things such as these but we later found out that Barracuda is Gravity's budget company. It's owned by the same guy from New Zealand, the guides are ex Gravity guides and they just use Gravity's older bikes etc. but still just as good! 
We were told about some amazing empanadas near our hostel so we asked at reception where to go. She said there is one around the corner but only opened at breakfast time/morning. So told us about another one. They were so good. I had a cheese one and a queso con picante which was cheese, spinach, onion and a slightly chilli sauce. Matt had one of the ones with the pulled meat inside.  
We then met Bridget and a couple of girls she had met back at the bar at Wild Rover. She was leaving the next morning so it was our last night we'd see her, which was a little sad. We had dinner, a few drinks and chatted. We were all waking up early the next morning so didn't have a big one. It's been good having someone to catch up with throughout our travels and it feels like we have been friends since home. We will miss her. Hopefully we catch up again either in Perth or Sydney back in Oz. 

Death Road

We walked to the meeting point which was an English Pub for breakfast at 6:30am. After brekky we jumped in to the van with bikes on top with the rest of the group. Our guide gave a briefing of the day as we travelled an hour to the starting point and explained why this road was named the deadliest in the world. The road used to be the main road for cars to get to La Paz. It's sheer drop offs, narrow road, loose terrain, fog and mixture of weather such as heavy rain etc. made it very dangerous and caused many accidents and deaths every year. In recent years a new road was built for cars to travel by although our guide also mentioned problems with this road such as landslide etc. They closed 'Death Road' when the new road was built and bike riding tours began to open up, although deaths still occur each year from tourists cyclists. They have also opened the road back up for some cars to pass through. If a car came past we were to ride cliff side. Matt was really excited and I was slightly nervous... We jumped off the van and it was freezing at the start of the track, there were glaziers surrounding us. We got in to our gear of jacket, pants, helmet and gloves and were assigned our bikes. We had a little test run just around the top before our guide explained how to use the bikes and safety rules along Death Road. We then did a little ritual to Pacha Mamma with a bottle of 98% alcohol  to wish us luck and safety on our ride. We spilt a little on the ground, a little on our front tyre then had to take a little swig. My god that was potent.. and I only had the tiniest sip.

We were then ready to start our ride. The first part was on the new road and along smooth asphalt. We were going pretty dam fast down the hill and since it was the new road there was a fair bit of traffic. The scenery was breathtaking though, riding surrounded by snow capped mountains. We stopped for a photo of the view. As we had to concentrate on the road though it was hard to really appreciate the amazing scenery. One girl came off her bike already on this first part. I think she put her brakes on suddenly and went over the handle bars. We spoke to a girl the day before who had also come off over her handle bars. She thinks she was going around a corner and hit a rock and came off. She was really bruised down one side and she was lucky she was wearing a full faced helmet because she said she landed on her face.
We were given a snack of a banana and chocolate bar and driven an uphill section to begin on Death Road.  I opted for the full face helmet for this part because I didn't want to lose my teeth if I came off and my other helmet felt too small anyway. Although I knew it wouldn't save me if i fell off the edge. This section was a LOT more bumpy than the asphalt because it was a dirt road. I hung at the back and was the last to come down at each meeting point. Matt was the first. I wasn't really scared, I was too focused on the road in front of me to noticed if there was a 400m drop beside me. I guess it was my first time mountain biking and I didn't want to go too fast (coz people die on this road) so was breaking the whole way down and I was also trying to avoid every single rock coz I think the girl who had come off the day before had freaked me out about rocks. After I built up a bit of confidence I realised that I couldn't avoid every single rock because that's what the road was made of and I just had to avoid the ones they called baby's heads, which were the larger, loose rocks along the road. I started going a bit faster but I was still at the back of the group. We stopped along the way for snacks, water and photos. As we continued down it got hotter and hotter and we had to delayer at each stopped. The scenery was amazing and changed as we went down. It started off as mountainous glaziers, then in to rainforest climate with greenery and we rode through waterfalls then at the end it became a bit more arid and then we passed through villages with chickens chasing our wheels and rode through stoney creeks until we got to the end. It was about a 4-5hour ride and I was happy to finish. Again not coz I was scared but I don't think I was riding properly so wasn't going very fast, not much adrenaline and my arms hurt from braking all the way and I found it a little boring. It was a really cool road and I'm glad I did it but I figured out mountain bike riding isn't really my thing. On the other hand Matt loved it and it was another one of his highlights, which I'm glad he did. And also glad that we did both survived the deadliest road in the world!  
There was a restaurant and river at the finish line so we had a dip in the river which was so refreshing and my favourite part of the ride haha and then had pasta and salad for lunch at the restaurant. We were given a survivors shirt by our guide and he told us stories that we probably didn't want to hear before we started the ride. He had seen many accidents, broken jaws etc and had witness one death where she fell from the side. There were no signs of braking so they weren't sure whether it was too foggy and she couldn't see or she was trying to adjust her goggles or take them off and she lost sight of the road. It's pretty crazy!
It was then a 4 hour drive back up the new road (which I was just as nervous as travelling on than Death Road) and dropped back to our hostels. We were pretty knackered so had showers then went to bed.
The next day it took us all morning to sort stuff out. We had to pack up and check out and also book our overnight bus to Uyuni and tour to the Salt Flats. We had heard Red Planet was the best company to go through. Even though you paid a little bit extra, they had English speaking guides, good drivers, the cars were safe, you were looked after and they also knew how to set up your photos for you. We had heard to pay a bit extra because some tour companies cars break down or their driver gets drunk so you have to drive the car for them :-/ I wrote emails to Red Planet that morning but they never responded so we went to the travel agent across the road who called them for us and said they didn't have any room for tomorrow's tour. We could either wait until the next day or go with another company they recommended, it would be cheaper but it would be with a Spanish speaking guide. We decided to take the risk after reading a couple of good reviews about this tour company Tunupa on TripAdvisor as we were on the move and didn't want to wait around in La Paz another day, plus it would be cheaper on our budget. Let's hope the reviews are right! We then had lunch at a recommended vegan restaurant which was kind of like the same concept as Green Point. Really cheap set menus and delicious food. We had a green salad, a soup, a main of pasta/chickpeas and a chocolate/chai tea. It was really good and I was really full after! We then went to the witches markets to buy a few things as everyone said to wait to La Paz as its all the same handicrafts and fleeces etc. but a lot cheaper. We ended up having to rush dinner at our hostel a little bit because it took longer than expected and we had to get a taxi to the bus station for our overnight bus to Uyuni. It was a double decker bus and the first full reclining seats for an overnight bus we'd had yet. We were told that the buses throughout South America were a lot better than Central. It made for a much more comfortable sleep. 

Tags: city, cycling, death road, high altitude, la paz, marching powder, mountain biking, wild rover, witches markets

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