Death Rode to La Paz

Thursday, May 20, 2010

La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, is also the highest capital city on Earth, weighing in at 3.6 km above the sea. 1.5 million people live here and, as luck would have it, all of them were on the road in front of us as we entered the city limits. Traffic congestion, we would soon discover, does not thin with the air. Eventually, we got to a place that was being called ‘the terminal’ even though it was just a well-lit street near the terminal. La Paz has a reputation for one more thing and that is crime; taxis where ‘police’ jump in and ask for your identification (at gunpoint as needed) and eventually have you surrender everything are one problem. Or taxis that drive into an alley where the doors are opened and in jump several armed people to take your money, wallet, passport, and anything else that could be of value. The key to avoiding this (though not foolproof) is to never go with a taxi driver that is eagerly waving you in – approach them. Also, it’s important to go with taxis that are clearly part of a company with signage and all. Lastly, like anything, you have to go with your gut when it comes to deciding if your taxista looks honest or like a decent person. We managed to get a pretty nice cabby to take us to a hostel that had been recommended to us, the Wild Rover.

The hostel was pretty decently located on Calle Comercio, about 5 blocks up from the Prado. After a pretty restless sleep thanks to loud English guys coming into the room at 1, 2, and 5 AM loudly with lights on and screamed conversations, I got up in the morning, had the included breakfast (bread, jam, tea) and took off to run some errands. My objective for the morning was to get my Brazilian Visa application submitted to the embassy which was only about a 20 minute walk. I arrived and got the information I needed then went about doing everything. I stopped by a photo shop to get some passport photos made then went hunting for an internet cafe with a printer to print the last three months of statements on my American Express card and to print out the forms from a website they gave me. Then I hunted for a hostel in Rio to put as my address in Brazil, filled in the forms, and returned triumphant to the embassy at 11:40. Unfortunately, the site I was given had forms for English citizens if you didn’t enter https and so I was sent away and also to a bank to direct deposit the $65 US fee. I ran up to the bank and made the despoit, filled in the CORRECT forms online, and made a photocopy of my yellow-fever immunization card but was just a bit too late to make it back before the embassy closed. I met up with Ty and we took a half-relax day, starting with a matinee showing of the pretty poor Clash of the Titants.

Then, it was off to the Witches’ Market to see what that was all about. I was expecting something a little more out there than what we found, however: Boxes of potions and powders packaged like 1970s X-ray glasses for creating love, hate, success, failure, wealth, fame, and pretty much anything any human has ever felt, wanted, or wished for. Nowhere were haggard old women sitting behind cauldrons of bubbling water sprinkled in coca leaves divining the future. On no corner did we encounter frogs wearing crowns and croaking desperately, mandrake root plucked from a cemetery at midnight, or even a single boy wandering around with a lightning-shaped scar on his brow. The creepy exception however were llama foetuses, which were everywhere and as gross as you might expect: locals buy them to put in the foundation of a new home of business for good luck which probably is a result of the fact that Bolivia’s population is more indigenous than Spanish. We caught a nice sunset and views of the 6300m Illumani standing over La Paz like a worried parent, although these days La Pazians are more the ones worried as they watch their water supply slowly melt away forever. The second night at the hostel was better as our rude roommates had left and their replacements had a bit more courtesy and the sense to whisper. I was back at the Brazilian embassy the next morning to hand in my completed paperwork and wandered a bit before going back to meet Ty. I had to take the long way because of a teachers’ protest which has been interrupting city life for over a week by now. A local told me they had a contract for a 5% raise but wanted 12%. Some things don’t have borders.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot to do in La Paz although there are many things around it. We went back to the market to find some wooly things to replace all our warm-weather accoutrements but wound up buying nothing, and then we went to the Coca museum to learn a bit about the history of the plant that has so coloured Bolivia’s history. It grows better here than anywhere else on earth. You can’t travel South America and not know that it has been chewed for generations and used in Inca and other indigenous rituals, reduces hunger, pain, increases oxygenation of the blood (and thus combats altitude sickness) and so on. Many hikers come here and drink coca tea for many of these reasons above (note that coca leavss have to be processed to make cocaine so it is not remotely the same thing) but we saw charts that showed how much of the potent alkaloids were absorbed into the blood by chewing coca, snorting cocaine, injecting it, and having it in tea and my theory that coca leaves are a placebo seems to have been borne out: absorption is practically 0. However, chewing the leaves does have a noticeable effect, though again nothing like the amount in your blood (all at once) from cocaine or injection. The main effect was numbing of the tongue, and it was this that led to the world’s first anaesthetic. Even today, anasthetics are based on the cocaine alkaloid, which is why they have names like “nova-caine”. In addition to some one-sided USA bashing, it was alleged that Coca Cola still includes coca leaves to this day for flavour. Possible? Well, apparently Coca Cola does own the USA’s only legal manufacturer of cocaine (for medicinal purposes) and thus imports a lot of coca leaves but I have some fact checking to do. It was also said that there are many countires whose governments produce cocaine for similar reasons, Canada and Greece both among them, and I suppose I believe it though I’m not sure that changes anything. All in all, it was an interesting visit to the museum. Oh, and incidentally, although Coca-Cola gets its name from the Coca leaf and the Cola nut which were the two principal medicinal ingredients combined in its creation, coca is also short for cocaine and cola, in Spanish, also means line. Interesting even if this was before the cocaine was ever created.

I ran into Dylan from the Secret Garden Cotopaxi at the museum and we made plans to meet up later that we eventually would not keep due to early evening fatigue. We also booked a mountain bike trip with Barra biking down the Death Road for the next morning (350 Bolivianos with some serious negotiating and a makeshift large group) and then, to our later dismay, decided to have drinks at our hostel. It was the first time since Cocktail Alley in Montanita in Ecuador that I really had much and it didn’t take a lot. The next morning I was okay but tired and Ty was, well, not. But we got up and waited for our shuttle to bike down the Death Road anyway, so called because more people have died on this precarious, narrow, and once two-way (?!?!) stretch of road than anywhere else. It’s a bit misleading because most of those deaths have been busses going over the side rather than bikes, and happened when vehicles were passing each other and the road was still two ways. The government finally made it a one-way road after a particularly nasty incident where a nun going uphill (and thus with the right of way) met a bus going downhill. Despite the size difference, she stood her ground and the bus was obliged to backup to somewhere wide enough (the road is generally about 3m wide) for her to pass. Finally it pulled off to a bulge in the road and as she started to move she watched in horror as the ground under the bus gave way and the passengers fell 500m to their deaths. At least, that’s the story we were told.

As far as mountain-bikers going over the edge, there have certainly been a few - one Israeli girl lost control and plummeted over the side just a month ago – but my overall impression is that as long as you don’t bike recklessly and have a moderate amount of skill and balance you’d be hard-pressed or unlucky to go over the edge. That said, the edges are there, far closer than you’d generally feel comfortable, and far higher than you’d generally consider calculable. You start on a highway which is good as a warm up and can reach speeds (if you pass your guide) of 70 km/h. From there you move onto the actual death road which is gravel, windy, narrow, and has no guard rails to be seen. One guy in our group that was prone to excessive speeds hit a loose patch of gravel and did indeed go over an edge, but luckily not in a steep place. Another girl who perhaps knew her limits better went slowly and on the inside of the road and hit the upward side of the cliff more than a few times. But we made it down – from 4700m to 1100m – alive and only somewhat wet in a little over three hours. It was definitely memorable, beautiful in spite of the cloud, and well worth the cost of admission. Especially because afterwards we went to nearby Coiroco for an excellent lunch and swim in the pool which was a welcome break from cold La Paz nights.

Thursday morning, Ty accompanied me to the Brazilian embassy where I picked up my passport complete with Brazilian Visa on the second last page. That gives me exactly two pages left for the stamps I’ll need to leave Bolivia, enter Argentina twice (if I get to Chile), enter Chile, and enter Brazil. I should JUST have enough if the border guards are careful. The next phase of the trip called for a trip to Bolivia’s Amazon basin and specifically the town of Rurrenbaque. It turned out there was one flight with space on it at 2 PM and nothing for the next two days after and so we booked that hurriedly, collected our photo CDs for Death Road, went back and collected our stuff, checked out, and caught a taxi through the striking crowds to make it to the airport just as the airline’s booth was about to officially close. Whew. We were officially off to the Amazon in a small 19-seat plane with Amazonas Airlines. The flight was 45 minutes and replaced a 19-hour bumping and plodding bus ride along gravel roads and more plunging cliffs/ At La Paz’s altitude there wasn’t much of a climb to do and the take-off roll took forever but the flight was incredible. We literally had mountaintops right outside our window at eye-level and cruised along a valley down and down to Rurrenbaque which is only at 150m above sea-level. The landing was a hot and fast 200 km/h touchdown on a dirt strip and before we knew it we were standing in the warm, humid air of the Amazon.

La Paz and Death Road Photos

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