High Octane and High Altitude Fun in La Paz

Posing on the La Paz sign

It’s been a month since our last post thanks to having very little internet or time while on the road. We have however been writing as we travel so we have loads to publish. We’re currently sitting in Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world while we await our Antarctica trip! We have 7 days so we’ll be using some of that time to publish a couple more posts and get more ready behind the scenes!

Anyway we left the story a month ago on a bus from Copacabana (the original one) in Bolivia to the city of La Paz. After a long but fairly comfortable journey we wound down the mountain towards the centre of the highest de facto capital city in the world!

View from the cable cars, La Paz
View from the cable cars, La Paz

On arrival by bus in La Paz, the biggest city in Bolivia, we walked to our hostel. Luckily it was only 5 minutes away in an area described as less than salubrious. Bus stations and the areas around them can often be a little sketchy and since we were arriving at 10:30pm I had a look at my map before we got off the bus and memorised the route. My efforts paid off as 5 minutes later we rounded a corner and found our hostel. We need not have worried as the area actually seemed to be fairly pleasant! We’d booked the Dutch girls into the main hostel where only dorms were available and ourselves into the hostel’s B&B 30 seconds up the road. Since both places were effectively part of the same hostel we could all use the facilities of both with the exception of breakfast. The hostel was called Adventure Brew and they owned their own microbrewery, one of the perks of the hostel was a free beer every night so, despite the late hour, we headed straight to get our beers from the bar. Within 10 minutes in the bar we’d struck up conversation with an Aussie, a couple of Brits and a rather strange guy from Denmark. All seemed to be travelling nearly indefinitely, and most had spent over a month in La Paz but had not done much more than we were planning to in a few short days. We ended up staying up until the bar closed, chatting and playing table tennis/table football.

The next day we made the most of the included all you can eat pancake breakfast and went for a walk into town. Having not seen La Paz in the daylight we really wanted to explore, however our ultimate destination was the office of Gravity Assisted, the best rated tour company that offers the opportunity to cycle Bolivia’s notorious death road. There are times when we like to save money, but when there is genuine risk involved we’d rather spend the money on the best so we’d selected Gravity Assisted. They use $3500 downhill mountain bikes that have front and rear suspension and disc brakes, and they set them up carefully for your height and weight, and swap the brakes depending on what you are used to (apparently the British have the brakes the other way round to most nationalities). We found the tour office and got the full spiel from the rep, selected all of our sizes for helmets, gloves etc. We managed to get a small discount for being a group of 5 and we paid up fully for the next morning. Esmee and Katinka were keen to catch up with their blogs and we had to retrieve some laundry so we headed back to the hostel. A few hours later Alex, Jacqueline and I were ready to go and explore again but Esmee and Katinka were still busy at an internet café, so the three of us went for a walk. We went down through the town all the way to Plaza San Pedro, home of the famous San Pedro prison where the inmates have to pay for their accommodation and live with their wives and children, taking jobs in the prison to pay their way (Alex has just read a very interesting book on life in this prison called ‘Marching Powder’). We’d arranged to meet Katinka and Esmee at a Moroccan restaurant that we’d found called Marrakech so we wandered back and grabbed a table. The place was nicely decorated and the food was very tasty (considering this is Moroccan food in Bolivia) the best bit however was the owner who was warm, friendly, and at end of the meal was more than happy for us to sit around drinking unlimited (and we later discovered free) mint tea. Afterwards we went back to the hostel, Alex was tired and went straight to bed so I had my free beer and hung out with the girls for a while.

Gravity group shot just off the main road
Gravity group shot just off the main road

The next morning we had to be up early to get to the meeting point at an ‘English Pub’ for the Death Road tour. Alex and I decided to go a little earlier and get breakfast so we met the girls there. Our guide Nathan arrived and looked about 16, however having had really good young guides in the past we didn’t let this put us off.

Pretty soon we were in the bus on the way to the start point. When we arrived equipment was passed out and bikes unloaded from the roof of the bus, we also met our second guide Carlos who is Bolivian. Gravity Assisted has a policy of having two guides on for each group, with the lead guide being a native English speaker. While this seems a little like the Bolivian guides are being discriminated against I guess it does make it a lot easier for tourists for whom English is a second language. We have certainly noticed that because English is our first language we pick up heavily accented English a lot better than the Dutch girls even though their English is excellent.

We found out that Nathan is from California and is actually 19 not 16, he was an excellent and enthusiastic guide. Carlos turned out to be an excellent mechanic, he gave each of us our bike and double checked saddle heights and brakes with everyone. Nathan then gave us our first safety talk, explaining the immediate road ahead of us and the cause of most accidents. Apparently very few people actually fall of the edge of Death Road, but there are around two accidents every day that require hospitalisation. The accidents that do occur are mostly caused by inexperienced riders panicking and hitting their front brake, causing them to flip over the handlebars, this is closely followed by people riding so close together that when the first one falls off it causes a pile up of 3-5 riders. Finally accidents are also caused by riders not slowing down enough before corners and skidding out on loose stones as they turn or smashing into rock walls. This results in a few corners on the route being known as collar bone corner for the sheer number of people who slam into the rocks and break their collar bones!

Chris posing before Death Road
Chris posing before Death Road

With the basic safety explained Nathan told us about the first section of the route, 20km of paved road that we could use to get used to the bikes. This for me was probably the least fun section of the day. This was partly because the tarmac meant we could go fast which was fun until I hit a bump and made me all too aware of what would happen if I fell off at speed. Also the road featured slow moving trucks that we had to overtake and other groups of riders that had started at a similar time to us and were also getting used to the bikes. In particular the guide warned us about riders for another company (known as Power Rangers) who wear full face helmets and received much less safety instruction. Coming down a hill I overtook a whole group of these riders who were bunched together and whose bikes were obviously slower than mine. Shortly after we came to a police drugs checkpoint and I could see our group stopping just short of it. I slowed down well before I had to drop off the paved road to join the group but unfortunately one of the power rangers decided that this would be a great moment to overtake and nipped past me at the last minute. Thanks to the police roadblock he then had to immediately slam on his brakes causing his back wheel to lock up and skid and he very nearly fell off right in front of me.

Gravity group shot on 'Postcard Corner'
Gravity group shot on ‘Postcard Corner’

A short while later we took a detour around a tunnel and were able to experience our first section cycling off the paved road. It was hard work and slow and made me wonder how we would manage 40km of this without falling off. We found out shortly later when we left the paved road for good and headed down Death Road properly. The road was gravelly and was dotted with rocks the size of a baby’s head (their term, not mine) which we were told to avoid if possible.

The Dutch girls are much more experienced road cyclists than us so they sped away in front on the 20km of paved road. I was more than happy to sit in the middle of the group taking my time and getting to know the bike. Alex, having not cycled much for years was nearer the back but doing great.

Once we left the main road the group spread out a lot more and the road was a lot quieter, for many sections all I’d see is the road and the rider ahead. The road was constantly changing and you had to constantly look for big rocks or other obstacles. The dual suspension on the bike did a great job of ironing out the road, so the ride didn’t feel too bad.

Posing on Death Road (there is real fear behind those sunglasses!)
Posing on Death Road (there is real fear behind those sunglasses!)

After a few sections of off road I ended up behind Jacqueline for one section and found that she made an excellent pace setter, going just a little faster than I’d naturally ride which pushed me a little because when I could keep up with her I was able to follow her line.

We continued down Death Road for hours. As we got more experienced the sections grew longer, but the guides always stopped up and explained any particularly dangerous corners or narrow sections. Whenever we stopped we had time to admire the view.

About 2/3 of the way down people started to get tired and drop towards the back of the group. Alex was especially tired because, being a little slower, she got less of a rest than those who finished a section first, so when Nathan announced that we were about to hit the least interesting section with quite a bit of uphill Alex decided to take a break in the van. She came back out for final section though and, slightly refreshed, she finished it well.

After we had finished the ride we stopped for a beer then, once the bikes were loaded onto the van, we headed to the local animal rescue centre for warm showers and a buffet dinner.

We were all pretty tired and quite happy when it was time to get back in the bus for the ride back up. We’d managed to finished early enough that we could take the bus back up Death Road instead of using the new road so, as the sun set we rode in the bus back up to the top. The road really is narrow when you are in a bus and, since we were sitting on the cliff side we could at times see straight down the cliff face. The ride back to La Paz took about 3 hours so by the time we got back we were all pretty tired, we grabbed our free beers and went to bed.

The next day we joined a walking tour of the city centre after breakfast. We saw parts of the city that we hadn’t seen before including the witches market where they sell Llama foetuses, herbs and all kinds of love potions. We stopped at the central market for lunch and after seeing the presidential palace we headed back to the same English pub as the day before for a free shot of the local firewater. The same company also normally run pub crawl tours but when Esmee asked the guide he told her that they weren’t actually running them at the moment, but he could arrange us a private pub crawl. The guide seemed like a nice guy so we arranged to meet him in the central square later that evening.

La Paz has a new system of cable cars that run over the city, connecting the lower areas with the high peaks around the outside. Three lines have been built so far put of a planned total of 14. We’d heard that a trip on the cable car was the best way to see the city, so after finishing the walking tour we walked over to the station. We’d managed to pick up Anna, another Dutch girl, on the walking tour so the four Dutch girls plus Alex and I boarded the cable car and flew over the city. It was quite odd sitting in a mode of transport that I normally associated with skiing while flying over La Paz. After we’d ridden the first two connecting lines we got a taxi to the third and rode it back to our hostel.

That evening a few of us decided to go out to a local Mexican restaurant that we’d seen earlier. Katinka and Esmee decided to check out some local street food but Alex, Jacqueline and I were joined by Ellory, an American girl we’d met earlier in the day and Anna, our latest Dutch friend. After eating we met our tour guide in the central square for our night’s activities.

We started off at the Bolivian drinks museum which is really an expensive bar with some posters to explain a little about the history of alcohol in Bolivia. They did have an interesting selection of beers though so we sampled a few of the local brews including a quinoa beer and a coca beer. Our next stop was a rock themed bar in a suburb where we tried jugs of a local cocktail and played a few drinking games. We ended up staying a while in this bar and by the time we were ready to leave it was getting quite late so we opted to go to a club. Unfortunately it being a Monday night all the guide’s favourite clubs were closed, so we ended up in a fairly seedy looking place. It was populated by middle aged Bolivians dancing lifelessly in the middle of a small dance floor surrounded by tables where the majority of the clientele were sitting around drinking and watching the dancefloor. We had a couple drinks and a dance but were somewhat put off by a drunk local who took offence to the fact that none of the girls wanted to dance with him, and spent the rest of the time we were there sitting by the dance floor giving us a rather unpleasant hand gesture. What was genuinely concerning was that whenever a bouncer would come up to him to say something he would just give the bouncer a beer and they would wander off. The guide said that he was harmless, but seeing his interactions with the bouncer and the fact that he was obviously very drunk I had no confidence that the bouncers would intervene if we had any problems with him. Feeling slightly uncomfortable and also pretty tired by now, we decided to walk back to us hostel. The guide insisted on escorting us home but was a perfect gentleman accepting only money for the transport and a small tip.

View from the roof of the Basilica of San Francisco, La Paz
View from the roof of the Basilica of San Francisco, La Paz

The next day we took it necessarily easy. The girls were due to take an overnight bus that evening so we said goodbye to them at lunch and went for a walk in the afternoon. We eventually stopped in the Iglesia San Francisco on the Plaza named after it and took tour of the church and cloisters that was run by a timid young woman whose English wasn’t brilliant, but with us helping her with a few words we learnt a lot about the church. In the central courtyard of the cloisters there was an orchestra practicing so the tour was punctuated by the music drifting into the rooms that we visited. Once we’d finished our visit we freshened up back at the hostel and headed out for some dinner. We were once again craving a curry and we’d spotted a restaurant called “Star of India” that promised to be a British style curry house. We were hoping for something similar to Korma Sutra in Cusco and it started well with excellent onion bhajis and reasonable pakoras. Unfortunately it all went downhill at the main course with a vegetable curry that was very poorly spiced and a saag paneer where the paneer turned out to be the standard Bolivian cheese that both melted in the dish and left a flavour in the sauce that was rather unpleasant. To add to this the service was rather slow! Oh well, we’d done generally pretty well up to this point with food so we accepted that we’d just have to wait a little longer for our curry kick and headed back for an early night.

Street snacks in La Paz
Street snacks in La Paz

The next morning we had an early flight to Sucre so we took a taxi to the airport and hopped on our plane. Since we were taking off at such high altitude it seemed like an age before the plane actually lifted it’s wheels off the tarmac and 1 hour later when we landed in Sucre we landed at high speed. As the plane turned around to taxi back to the terminal we were able to see the we’d used the entire runway to land, stopping only 50m short of the end but, we’d safely made it to Sucre, a tiny city in comparison to La Paz but still the official capital of Bolivia!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

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