Posts tagged ‘La Paz’

As easy as riding a bike. The world’s most dangerous road, La Paz, Bolivia

“If you go over the edge you have no hope of surviving. You fall for around 600m before you even reach anything you can grab onto.”

“At points the road only stretches across for 3m before ending in a sheer cliff face and a drop of around 1,000m.”

“Sometimes trucks and buses just come out of nowhere and you have to swerve towards the edge of the cliff to avoid them. And it’s really hard to stop that suddenly on gravel.”

“Two tourists die on Death Road every year!”

“Only a few weeks ago a woman died there. She pulled her front brakes instead of her back ones and just flipped herself over her handlebars and off the edge of the cliff. She never stood a chance.”

“I heard about two guys, best friends who were messing around. One gave the other a playful shove, not really thinking, and his friend stumbled and fell over the edge.”

Like most travellers visiting Bolivia we heard a lot about The World’s Most Dangerous Road before we got there. Probably the country’s most hyped attraction, Death Road (as it is also known) just outside of La Paz is a constant topic of conversation among backpackers who feel they have earned bragging rights. After hearing a few horror stories and talking to some people who had been to the front line and returned with broken ankles, ribs and egos, we had pretty much decided against the idea. It wasn’t that we were afraid for our own lives you see, it was more that we were worried about each other. What if Gary went off the edge? How would I ever forgive myself for letting him go in the first place or vice versa? No, if we were alone we would just leap at the chance to risk our lives needlessly but we had to be selfless, we had to consider the other person first….

It came as a bit of a surprise then to find ourselves kitted out in knee and elbowpads, protective trousers, high visibility vests and full face helmets waiting for our tour guide to lead us down Death Road. I thought there was no way we were going to do this? I thought we were too fond of each other to allow such a suicidal act? Obviously not. All of a sudden we were sailing down the side of a mountain in single file, leaning into hairpin turns and getting up to speeds of 65km/hr on the straights. Our guide had told us that we should only go as fast as we were comfortable with but with such a stretch of beautiful smooth road, with the wind whistling through our helmets and with such spectacular scenery all around us fear had somehow slipped pretty far down the ranks on our list of current emotions. In the van on the way up the mountain (one of the best things about Death Road is that the 60km cycle is all downhill) I had been toying with the idea of just walking the whole way yet for some reason I was now pedalling furiously, trying to overtake two cars and a bus on a corner. Adrenaline does strange things to a person.

All too soon the first section of our trip was over so we bid adieu to the lovely tarmac road, loaded our bikes back onto the roof of the van and tried not to think too much about what was to come. After a few minutes we rounded a corner and absolute silence broke out in the van. In front of us was a huge valley of emerald green mountains cut by a sandy ribbon of road. The narrow road passed under waterfalls and plummeted down mountainsides, always staying closer to the top of the mountains than the bottom. Were we really going to cycle that? The only alternative was staying in the van and considering the width of the van, the width of the road and the width of our top-of-the-range bikes, the bikes somehow looked like the safest option.

Lunch next and a bit of nervous banter over our stale bread and yogurts before we mounted the bikes and started down the hill. We moved slowly at first, getting used to the gravel roads, the constant twists and turns and the ever-present fear of death. The first fall happened within a few minutes – a girl somehow went over her handlebars but, wrapped in cotton wool as she was, she was up and back on the bike within seconds. So far so good. Actually, it wasn’t even that bad. The roads were pretty easy to handle once you remembered not to use the front brake and slowed before you got to a corner rather than during it and we were so busy concentrating on watching out for potholes and cars that we totally forgot that we were on a narrow road 600m above the canopy. By the time we took our first break (for most of the trip we stopped every 15 mins in case anyone had any issues) we were actually, God forbid, starting to enjoy ourselves. World’s Most Dangerous Road? Pah, this was easy. Give us a real challenge!

As the day went on we started to move faster and faster, becoming more comfortable with the bikes and taking the time to check out the awe-inspiring scenery around us. Everywhere we looked there were mountains covered in thick vegetation and shrouded in mist. Every now and then a condor swooped overhead, showing off no doubt and the silence was broken by a crashing waterfall. Dangerous or not, it wasn’t hard to see why people chose to drive this route to Coroico or La Paz.

Of course there were a few hairy moments too. A few corners where back wheels slid under the shock of brakes or where we met locals in cars (or in one case a truck), powering up the mountain. Death Road has been closed to traffic for four years, replaced by a better, lower, newer road, but many locals still use it to get from A to B for some reason – suicidal tendancies no doubt. It was always nerve-wracking having to siddle out to the edge of the cliff so they could pass, praying that a gust of wind wouldn’t take you away or that, as so often happens in life, you wouldn’t just randomly fall over while standing still.

The scariest but also most fun part of the trip was at the end when we opted to take the foot-wide single track down to the base of the mountain instead of the road. When we saw the track we regretted our decision. It was impossibly steep and narrows with huge sharp rocks jutting out here and there and ridiculously tight corners every metre or so. And just to make it interesting it nose-dived off the edge of the hill onto a road about 20m below. Our guide led the way, making it look simple with little bunny hops here and there, turning his bike on a sixpence piece with ease. Apprehensively we followed suit, two hands tightly clutching the brakes and, after a metre or so, faces flat in the dust. How did he stay on? Every time Gary or I tried to get on our bikes we fell off because we were holding the brakes too hard, because we hit a rock, because there is no way a bike could take that corner and because why bother even try anymore, we might as well just walk down. Eventually we got the hang of it though – the trick was to let go of the brakes and feign confidence – and before we knew it we were at the end, the bikes were back on the van, we were covered in beer and we were heading to a nearby hotel for a swim and some lunch. What a day.

There is no question that Death Road is dangerous. When it was the main road in the area there were 1,500 deaths a year on it alone – cars, trucks, buses and vans falling off the edge with families stuck inside. Since the road opened to tourists around 15 years ago, 31 people have died cycling down it – that’s an average of two per year. Yet those figures are far lower than the amount of tourists that die on the Salt Flats in car crashes and when we were cycling it, I rarely felt threatened. In truth, I was too focused on watching the patch of road in front of me to even notice the cliff’s edge right beside me and I know that Gary felt the same. Accidents do happen but, like muggings and bar fights, they tend to happen to some people more often than others.

I think that The World’s Most Dangerous Road is definitely bigged up by those that have done it and want to make it sound like more of an acomplishment than it is. Our advice would be that if you are considering taking a trip but have been freaked out by the boasts of other backpackers, go talk to one of the travel agents about all of their safety measures and see if you feel any differently afterwards. I would absolutely recommend Vertigo as a tour operator – the bikes, safety equipment, guides and souveniers they provided were really fantastic and, although they are half the price of Gravity, we couldn’t spot a single thing they had scrimped on. If you have the stomach for it, Death Road is absolutely one of the highlights of Bolivia.

There are more photos of The World’s Most Dangerous Road available in the gallery

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August 20, 2010 at 4:54 am 4 comments

Smelly, dirty, lovely La Paz, Bolivia

Although La Paz is more likely to wake you up with a hangover and a chestful of fumes than pancakes with a side of bacon, it is an abolutely intoxicating city. Actually I think insane is the only word to decribe a place that is so simultaneously inviting and intimidating that it has to be seen to be believed. The first shock is of course, its size, only a fraction of which can be seen at a time. We, like all visitors to La Paz, caught our first sight of the city as we rounded the last mountain and started to descend into an entire sea of clay-coloured houses. Clinging to every rise and fall of the surrounding mountains below were houses, businesses, apartment blocks and government buildings somehow filling the impossibly large space, offering up one of South America’s most memorable sights.

But it’s not just on first sight that La Paz shocks, it surprises time and time again. Every time you walk down the street and an alleyway opens up to offer a glimpse of the crammed hill opposite or every time your taxi rounds a mountain to reveal more of city you thought just could not get any bigger, you involuntarily stop dead in your tracks and stare, dizzied by the magnitude of humanity. And with Bolivia, it’s never just run-of-the-mill humanity. Scattered among the shotgun-yeilding security guards and suit-clad office workers are the indigenous women with their tiny bowler hats balanced on their heads, their long pigtail plaits weighed down by huge black beads and their loads strapped to their backs with striped pink, blue and yellow blankets. More than size and more than the shock factor, La Paz has character.

Even in its buildings La Paz is packing an unexpected punch. Hidden within the folds of the city’s many red clay suburbs is its thriving centre. Here skyscrapers sit amiably alongside beautifully restored old colonial buildings which serve as the seat of government, the national gallery and the museum of contemporary art. The real key to the city however, is in the buildings you aren’t looking at. The facades that, although neglected and flaking, watch over La Paz like colourful old dames.

But Bolivia’s capital is a lot more than a strangely beautiful, weathered old face. La Paz is a hive of activity, an endless list of things to do – few of which you will read about in your Lonely Planet. For most travellers it will be remembered as a party zone. A place where you are woken up at 11am by dorm-mates clambouring into the top bunk, where you jump up on a table and sing your National Anthem, where you do something under the influence of alcohol that you swore you would never do. At the epicentre of backpacker’s La Paz are the two party hostels – Loki and Wild Rover – both, unsurprisingly, Irish-run operations that promise to show guests a time they will never remember. We had the good fortune to be put up by Osgar – a fantastic character and a friend of a friend – in a lovely double room (with hot water!) in Loki. After not really meeting any Irish people in 9½ months of travelling Loki came as a bit of a shock – every accent, every tone, every shouted insult was suddenly Irish. On our first night in the hostel we lay in bed listening to Fairytale of New York by the Pogues playing upstairs and as the saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Two days later we had been swallowed whole by a group of 10 hilarious Irish people and 2 fantastic Brits – goodbye peace and quiet, hello Ruta 36.

With enough time and money you can do anything you want in La Paz. Unfortunately we had neither of the above so a day trip to the famed San Pedro Prison, a prison run by the prisoners that welcomes tours of intrepid gringos for a few hours or even a cocaine-filled night, was out of the question. What we did do though, I am slightly ashamed to say, was sign up for a spot of hangover midget wrestling – hilariously non-PC except for that there were no midgets, just women in bowler hats pretending to take a beating from various masked men and referees. Was this what a Bolivian domestic looked like? The whole thing was so badly faked that it was funny for the first half an hour. The second was a little boring. The third was just plain awkward. As we came into our second hour in the arena/cattle shed we decided to stop exploiting the locals and get a taxi home. A disappointing day in all but at least we got some kick-ass wrestling masks out of it!

By night Loki and Irish Rover may reign supreme in La Paz but by day, backpackers flock in their hoardes to the city’s two huge markets – the Black Market and the Witches Market – an absolute haven of hard-core bargaining where for a couple of pennnies you can pick up some household goods, a North Face jacket, runners, an alpaca wool jumper, beautiful handcrafted jewellery, a magic potion or a dead llama foetus to bury under the porch of your new house.

When we arrived in La Paz, tired, sweaty and completely overwhelmed, we didn’t take to it immediately. It was dirty, hectic and in many places extremely smelly. Yet six days later with heads full of cotton wool, prickly hangover tongues, light wallets and heavy backpacks we were devastated to leave. While it may seem a little grubby at first, a little worn around the edges, if you give La Paz the time and attention it deserves it can show you the time of your life.

There are more photos from La Paz available in the
gallery

August 16, 2010 at 3:26 am 1 comment


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