Riding High: La Paz, La Ruta de la Muerte, & Lake Titikaka
La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at 3,640 meters. This creates for some pretty spectacular views when you arrive of houses and buildings sloping down the mountainside towards the center plazas of town. It also makes you realize how precious oxygen is. Just climbing the stairs to enter the Bash ‘n’ Crash hostel, my base of operations during my stay, left me starting to feel a bit winded.
At Bash ‘n’ Crash I reunited with some girls from our sister tour group in Uyuni. Along with the Argentine brothers Leandro and Emilio we toured the town. I took an immediate liking to the super laid back style of Leandro and Emilio who embody the meaning of buenas ondas, good vibes. We sang Spanish reggae songs, dominated games of foosball, danced like maniacs, and sampled the best market food.
Next to the famous cathedral of Saint Francis is a three story market, home to the best food that a dollar or two can buy. Deciding to get back to being vegetarian for a while (I’m sure I still had some argentine asado lingering deep in belly) I scarfed down sandwiches filled with avocado, egg, chilis, and veggies. The damage for each delicious sandwich was 7 bolivianos, one dollar. To drink it was fresh squeezed orange and passionfruit juice. Costing only 10 bolivianos my only complaint could be that the glass was so big that it was a workout to keep it upright.
And for dessert, a fruit salad. Covered with ice cream of course. A healthy helping of tropical fruits including mango, melons, apples, bananas, pineapple, and orange was covered by an unhealthy mountain of ice cream and gelatin, topped with nuts and chocolate sauce. As a small child walked past my fruit salad as it was being completed, I realized it was literally the size of her head. I think it weighed about 8 pounds, and only cost 8 bolivianos. A gringo could really get fat with the market that close by.
A very different type of market, and more famous, is the Mercado de las brujas, the witches market, a few blocks behind the church. All types of weird things are available here. The carcasses of baby llamas, different animal parts, and questionable cures for everything you could possibly managed, questionably organized so that colon cleanser is next to sexual performance enhancers.
Let’s change the tone and something a little more warm and fuzzy: alpacas. Bolivia is famous for their clothing made out of alpaca wool, some of the warmest and softest material out there. I was in desperate need of a new jacket and fell in love with a few of them, so I decided to buy four so that I can give the others to my brothers as gifts. These jackets would cost a small fortune back home but averaged less than $15 each. The jacket is so comfortable that I seriously considered walking around town bare chested without a shirt to feel it directly against my skin, but thought better of it. Don’t want to become some sort of walking sideshow.
Coincidentally, that night there was a sideshow of sorts going on at the bar next to the hostal. A Bolivian friend I shared a couple of drinks with the night before was starting a performance routine at bars and invited us all to stop by. He started off the show by managing to shove his head inside an uninflated balloon. He then inflated the balloon by exhaling through his nose until it finally popped. In the extreme altitude this was actually extremely impressive. This was followed up by the most imprresive juggling display that I’ve ever seen in person.
The juggler started off pretty traditionally by juggling pins with extreme accuracy. He then upped the ante by placing a skateboard deck on top of a piece of tubing, balancing himself while keeping the pins spinning throughout the air. Anyone who has tried to balance for a few seconds on a rolling board like this know that it is like trying to walk a straight line after your 21st birthday, it requires a lot of concentration. And then he upped the ante once again, substituted the pins for large machetes, turning the juggling act into a dance as he spun around and tossed the knives against one another, recreating the sound of a swordfight in midair without missing a juggling beat. And then he did it balanced on top of the board. I was losing my shit clapping by this point, absolutely amazed at his precision in the face of danger.
Earlier on in the week I decided to do something dangerous of my own, biking the Ruta de la Muerte, the world’s most dangerous road. This treacherous roadway has narrow roads carved into the side of cliffs, dropping to the valley floor below and certain death where an average of 96 people die in accidents each year. The government has constructed a newer, and much safer alternative for traffic, leaving the old path available for use and an adrenaline filled mountain biking ride. My friend Jespen and I decided to tour with Downhill Madness after talking to a couple of tour companies, and set out early in the morning on a couple hour drive northeast of La Paz.
The route is predominantly downhill (starting at 4,655m and ending at 3,345m), curving past spectacular views of lush jungle in the valley beneath and vegetation growing along the sides of the mountains overhead. Many different waterfalls line the hillside as you speed past, tapping the back handbrake to maintain control. The guardrails on the side of the cliff are very sparse, so you are constantly in a state of high alert. One member of our group lost control taking a curve to fast, luckily falling into the Cliffside and not the exposed side of the road. For many kilometers you are within a meter of the cliff’s edge, surveying the landscape ahead to appreciate it’s natural beauty and avoid any treacherous holes in the path. It is best to stand a little bit off the seat for a better view, and to protect your nuts form being squashed by the myriad of rocks you ride over.
The weather during our ride was the only thing that made conditions less than ideal. It was very foggy for most of the ride, obscuring our view into the distance. But this fog also created an ambiance that seemed to add to the intrigue and the sense of danger. When the fog cleared out for a few minutes the views were a breathtaking expanse of green, occasionally trimmed in coca and banana plantations. Our group was the first on the trail so we had the views all to ourselves and didn’t have to jostle with other groups for position.
After 64 kilometers of enjoyable riding, we reached the base of the city of Coroico and enjoyed a refreshing beer. From there it was a van ride to a nice hotel where lunch and a warm shower awaited. By this point my face was painted with splashed mud and the shower was sorely needed. Three hours later and I was back in La Paz, enjoying the view of the lights of houses rising up the mountains.
After La Paz it was a couple hour bus ride to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world. The lake splits the border between Bolivia and Peru. The girls and I took a ferry to the Isla del Sol in the Bolivian side of the lake. The island is definitely worth the half day it takes to check out, 1.5 hours each way on the ferry and 3+ hours to walk the length of the island. Snow capped mountains line the edge of the surrounding lake with clear water close to the shores.
Along the northern edge of the island we took about a half hour to stop and meditate upon the view. I took this time to appreciate my very short time in Bolivia, its good natured people, good nature, and good adventure.