Bolivia: La Paz

We left the hot jungle of Rurrenabaque and flew past snow covered peaks before diving down into La Paz at 3660m where airplane runways have to be more than 5 miles long in order to compensate for the high altitude.  You literally land in the clouds.  We found ourselves a hostel which was connected to a brewery.  We figured a nightly beer was necessary to replace all the bacteria we lost in our guts as we fought off salmonella.  La Paz was surprisingly awesome…similar to Sucre in many ways: beautiful architecture, lively and full of cholitas (women dressed in indigenous attire living in the city).

Our first mission in La Paz was to see if we could get our camera fixed.  We took it to Rolando at Technologia Fotografica, a famous camera repair man in La Paz.  He was as great as they said he’d be, except our camera was not fixable.  The parts won’t be available until January 2013…so when Canon told us we should get it repaired on the road they OBVIOUSLY didn’t mean until next year.  Rolando suggested we buy a new camera, but the only place to do so in La Paz was on the black market.  He said even the camera stores buy them there—and then mark the price up.

Eloy Salmon was not the black market I had imagined…no one pulled us into an alley to show us a suitcase full of stolen cameras or tried to give us a great deal on something refurbished (which we would have gladly taken).  In reality, we sought out the stores that sold cameras and our jaws dropped to the floor when they told us the prices.  More than double the price in the states for a (may or may not be) used or stolen camera without any of the accessories seemed like a waste.  We tried buying a camera online and shipping it to ourselves in Bolivia.  The USPS had reasonable international delivery, but the 40% import taxes crushed that idea.  In the end, we shipped our broken camera back to the US for the second time without insurance (none provided in Bolivian post).  Who knows if it will make it or if we even want it to…Joshua was more eager to set it on fire and post the video to youtube.  Canon has definitely not made friends with us!

Our second mission in La Paz was to redo Joshua’s terrible jungle birthday.  He was still under the weather, shrinking away on a daily basis.  But, I managed to rally him for the “Death Ride,” a 63km downhill bike ride starting at 4700m and ending at 1200m on the world’s most deadly road.  It claims more lives each year in car accidents than any road in the world (although in 2006 they built a highway to redirect traffic)…the week before our adventure a jeep carrying 5 people flew off the edge and landed in the valley below.  The remains were still there when we rode past.  It has also taken the lives of 26 bike riders since tours started 14 years ago.  The most recent was 1.5 years ago when a Japanese tourist went over the edge and plummeted 400m to her death.  Luckily you don’t know all of this at the start or there is no way I would have gone.  We signed up with a tour group, Barracuda, sister company to Gravity Assisted which is the longest running tour company of the “Death Ride.”  It was cheaper, used the same gear and turned out to be the best decision because we were the only two people on our tour while most had 14+.  This meant Joshua got to ride downhill for 3.5 hours behind the recent Peruvian downhill champion bike rider, Jubert.  And, I got to go at my own pace and freak out without tons of riders flying by.  We started the bike ride on a paved road in the freezing cold, amongst snow-capped peaks outside of La Paz.

Traveling at 45-55kph, we soared downhill for 31km in what felt like a matter of minutes.  There was no pedaling necessary, and Jubert told us not to use our brakes much (of course I did—actually mine should be checked for replacement), so we flew.  Joshua was just inches behind the guide, copying every move.

I was concentrating so hard on the directions he had given us: lift the inside leg up when turning towards the mountain, lean forward so the front wheel has traction, etc.  I realized at one of the stops that I was using every muscle in my body trying not to fall.  By the time we made it to the gravel section of the adventure, my arms and legs were shaking, my hands were cramping, my heart was pounding and I had streams of dried tears covering my face.  I have never been more anxious in my life.

The gravel section of the bike ride runs 32km on the original WMDR.  The road was gravel, sand and large rocks with the occasional river or waterfall crossing.  Basically, I bounced and rattled down the road, swerving around rocks, sliding in the sand, praying that by braking I wouldn’t send myself over the bike and off the edge of the cliff.  You are supposed to ride on the left side of the road (the side closest to the EDGE!) so that the cars using the road can have the inside.  WHAT?!  In many places, the road is only as wide as one car, but famously people pass each other in the narrowest of spaces.  Watch.

As we biked down, I never got used to the out of control feeling that Jubert said was normal.  “Trust your bike,” he told me.  “The slower you go the more dangerous it is.”  Joshua, on the other hand, bombed down the mountain letting his tires skid across rocks and scattered dust off the edge as he took the turns.

I could tell he loved every minute—all-out speed under the tutelage of the best downhill biker around.  The part that made him the most nervous was waiting for me to show up at the checkpoints, praying that I wasn’t laying face down in the road from a fall.  We ended our ride at the edge of the hot jungle after only 3.5 hours of riding (it usually takes 5-6).

In the end, the road was good to us—no falls, no injuries.  That is not to say there weren’t injuries on the day for the many others of bikers on the road.  As part of the rescue team, our guide kept a radio on at all times that was full of “spill” alerts.  Thankfully, our guide saved all the gruesome information for the ride back home when we traveled back up the “Death Road” in our van.  He pointed out all the spots where riders and guides had died, the locations of successful and unsuccessful rescue attempts, car accidents old and new and shared with us the fact that the day before a guy broke a few bones and had to be “rushed” to the hospital which took at least 3 hours.  I woke the next morning with the feeling someone had beaten me, while Joshua was still coming down from his high.

Our third mission in La Paz was to understand the popularity of coca and dead llama fetuses.  EVERYONE chews coca leaves.  You can’t sit on a bus without seeing leaves on the seat or pass a market without someone trying to sell you coca.  We had gotten used to seeing Bolivians with their cud, but didn’t understand the draw.  We spent one afternoon at the Coca Museum to uncover the cultural tradition.  Essentially, coca leaves contributed to the successful enslavement of the indigenous people by way of keeping them content enough without rest or food while in the mines.  Although, we did learn in detail about the 14 chemicals used to produce pure cocaine.  Send us a private email if you’d like to know more.

You can buy a llama fetus to bury under a new house or drink juice with one swimming in the bottom for good luck at almost every corner.

But, some mysteries are best left unsolved.

One thought on “Bolivia: La Paz

  1. Hey guys! It was great to read your post about the Death Road. I really, really wanted to bike it too but Nick wouldn’t go for it and I feel like we missed out. Now, after reading this post, I think maybe we made the right choice 🙂 The booklet at Adventure Brew made it seem like it was no big deal, but it sounds like it was. Congrats guys for conquering the road!

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