My original plan was to travel from Buenos Aires by train up to Salta and Tucuman, and then on through the Atacama up to Cusco by bus, but the train was slow and only ran every so often, and the schedule wasn’t going to work out. Flights from Buenos Aires to Cusco were expensive. As it turned out, my best route was to fly to Bolivia, and take a bus from La Paz to Cusco.
The good news is I’m not so short on time that I can’t check out La Paz and its surroundings . The bad news is that I don’t have enough time to hit up the Salar de Uyuni salt flats, although it’s the wrong time of year anyway, at least if I want to see the mirror effect of the water on the flats.
My flight from Buenos Aires connects in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I am the only American on the flight, and I know this because Americans have to get a visa on arrival, and I’m the only one still waiting at this tiny customs desk after everybody else has moved on. Eventually the customs agent in charge of such things shows up. You could mistake him for a peanut salesman at a baseball game. There is no cash register – just a colorful vest that he wears, which serves as both the till and the only outward insignia that he is in any way an official person at all. I give him $140 cash and he dutifully pulls $5 in change from one vest pocket, produces a sticker from another vest pocket, stamps it into my passport, and I’m on my way to get my connection.
In La Paz, I need to do some shopping that I put off in BA because I was short on cash and didn’t want to get hosed on the exchange rates. First I need some cheap sneakers to switch out of when I’m doing my trek in Peru. It turns out there is not a lot of demand for shoes over size 11 in Bolivia, by which I mean literally no such shoes are available from local merchants or even most of the South American chains. Finally, in what passes for an “upscale” mall in La Paz, I manage to find a pair of green and yellow Adidas sambas in my size. They are not necessarily my style, and at $40, twice what I had hoped to pay, but I figure they will fit in nicely once I get to Brazil, and I don’t have many other options.
My other big shopping discovery is that there is a whole street devoted to knockoff soccer jerseys of varying quality, and I procure as many as I can fit into my backpack for the guys I am going to meet up with at the World Cup.
La Paz has no shortage of gritty parts but there are definitely plenty of worthwhile sights. The Plaza Murillo, lined with many of the chief government buildings, isn’t nearly as vast as some civic plazas, but the colorful buildings surrounding it are as captivating as the Casa Rosada or Santiago’s La Moneda. There’s a cathedral with an outdoor chapel holding the tomb of a former president that seems sealed off by toy soldiers with lances — but if you go up to them, they’ll clank the lances and allow you to pass.
The city is of course the highest altitude capital in the world, but it’s also jammed into a steep valley. I hoof it up to the overlook at Mirador Killi Killi. There are fantastic views of seemingly unending cascade of small houses that line the hillsides, and a SimCity like overview of the skyscrapers that rise from the valley floor. I can’t think of any city that I’ve seen like it. Medellin would be the closest but La Paz is way more unique, visually. Unfortunately almost all those photos were on a SD card that I lost.
The party scene in my hostel is way too aggressive. As usual, the old guys find each other. The best moment is when I’m seated at a bar next to a guy who looks kind of like Lenin, who is Austrian and speaks German and English but no Spanish, and a Swiss guy who speaks French, Italian, Spanish, but not German or really English for that matter. So the conversation was mostly me translating or saying the same thing in two languages, which was actually pretty useful as a practice mechanism.
Eventually the party moves to a bar with a sort of post-apocalyptic vibe to it. There’s live music and cheap drinks and I end up out way later than I expected. But I’ve got to be up early to do something ridiculous on a bicycle.
One has to pause when their ex-girlfriend suggests that something called the “death road” is a “must” tourist destination, but as it turns out she was on to something.
The way it works is they take you up out of the city by van and you cross the Altiplano until you get to the top of this cliffside road. There you hop on some pretty awesome mountain bikes, and cruise downhill, hopefully avoiding tumbling over the unguarded cliffs edges or crushed by a speeding car. At the bottom, the van picks up you or your remains and drives them back up the cliffside road, and back to La Paz.
Our crew consists of a few couples, three traveling lady doctors from Australia, and a German scientist named Reinhard.
The first part of the road is great, because it’s downhill and paved. There’s almost no danger here whatsoever – just a matter of how fast you’re comfortable with going. A few miles down, we near a tunnel that we are going around, not through — for the first patch of off road travel. I am feeling very confident and idiotically launch myself down onto this rocky path at far too high a speed, hit some rocks, and nearly panic and throw myself off the bike. I wouldn’t have flown off a cliff or anything, but I would have banged myself up nicely, and possibly busted a wrist. Fortunately I heeded our guide’s advice from our orientation, to trust the bikes – the shocks took the impact very well, and I was able to ride out the rocky incline and get onto the dirt bypass, and back to the asphalt on the other side of the tunnel.
What I did yesterday: biked “the World’s Most Dangerous Road” although that title refers mainly to trucks and buses going over the edge. Very little traffic now that a new road has been built, and a lot of mountain biking at the cliffs edge. Fantastic views and a 11000 ft descent with only about 4k of the 60 uphill. #bolivia #travel #deathroad
There was an optional uphill stretch of the road – it’s only four miles, and it’s not incredibly steep, but it’s still consistently uphill and you’re at 12,000 feet, so oxygen is thin. About half of us stuck it out, while the rest took the bus. Not terrible but I wouldn’t have wanted to do much more than that.
At the end of the uphill, it was just dirt road and cliffs. A new road has been build that takes most of the traffic off the Yungas, but there are still occasional cars, and for that reason you bike on the far side of the road, close to the edge, with no rails anywhere (this gives cars a better chance to see you coming). This also means for safety you should dismount your bike to the right side, which is not the way most people do it.
We started at 15,200 feet and we are going to drop more than 11,000 feet in 40 miles, going from the cool dry air of the Altiplano down into muggy rainforest in the valleys below. My hands started to get tired from the constant braking. I go from wearing the thick jumpsuit that the company issues you to stripping down to my shorts by the bottom.
Every so often we stop to take photos and make sure to keep the group together, and let the van catch up with us. At one of the last stops, Reinhard realizes he left his backpack with camera at the previous stop, and there’s no way you can bike back up there, so he has to take the van back up the road, and we’re all sitting having beers while he’s still on this recovery mission. This inspires, what I feel, is hands down my best joke of the trip, and I relay it to the rest of my team.
Q: What do you call a German scientist who forgets his camera by the side of the road?[silence]
A: Reinhard.[more silence, except from Pete, who is cackling]
I think it went over their heads, to be honest.
Right near the bottom of the death road was a zipline you could do for a couple extra bucks. I’d never done a zipline before and it seemed as nice a place as any to try it.
I say zipline but it was really three different ziplines, each spanning a different length of valley, until it dropped you right at the town that we were all meeting at. My first leg went great: first the entertainment value of the nervous girls who went in front of me, followed by an amazing view as I glided across the first valley and into the station on the other side. Another guy jokingly asked what would happen if you theoretically got stuck in the middle of the line. “I guess you’d just have to reel yourself in the rest of the way,” I offered.
On the next leg I got stuck in the middle of the line.
When I took off from the station everything seemed to be going fine, but I was wobbling a little side to side, and suddenly about a third of the way through, one of the two wheels that connected my harness to the cable derailed. I didn’t really panic — not so much because there was still one wheel and my safety mechanism attached, since once one thing like that goes wrong, you sort of lose faith in the integrity of the whole system — but more so because there wasn’t a whole lot to do about it. I remember just thinking “Well, this is happening now.” I did try to concentrate on keeping the remaining wheel as straight as possible, but regardless, the friction from the derailed wheel slows me down a couple hundred feet short of the other side. In fulfillment of my own prophecy, I am forced to pull my way along the rope and up into the station. I tell the operator — who was probably about 19 years old — about my issue. He basically said “huh” and hustled me along to zipline number three, which ended up going fine.
The final attraction down at the end of the Death Road is a monkey sanctuary. I don’t have a lot to say about it, but this is one of the few things that I actually have photos of, so here you go. Bolivian monkeys.
Back at the hostel, the party is back on, as always. Some people want to go check out Route 36, the semi-legendary cocaine bar. This sounds like a fascinating cultural experience but I’ve already had my rush for the day, and pass. Tomorrow I have a long bus ride past Lake Titicaca, on the way to Cusco, Peru.