Coming into El Alto Airport at 4,000m, we looked out the window at a dry barren landscape, dotted with small plaster houses and further out the urban mass of La Paz, descending from the ridge.
We had been taking diamox for a few days to ready ourselves for the change from sea level to high altitudes. Entering into the airport still shaken from our experience of Santiago, we encountered the customs officials, flanked by armed soldiers either side of the booth. Tamson made it through her side relatively easily, but Mitch had a bit more trouble. The customs official had never seen a New Zealand passport and spent his time fingering through the pages of the elaborately illustrated pages, looking for some clues. At this stage Mitch’s passport had relatively no stamps and he must have thought this was some kind of trick. Mitch also at this stage understood no Spanish, so the direct questions made no sense. The only thing Mitch knew to say was “Yo no hablo español”. This in itself was contradictory and managed to infuriate the little Bolivian Napoleon even futher.
Once past customs we found a relaxed little room and some patient taxi drivers. Finding an American couple to share the cab, we made our way to the backpackers. La Paz is a stratified city, with the richest classes occupying the lower limits, with stable climates and relative high rises, while at the upper levels of El Alto, the slums of La Paz perched on the steep cliffs and upper terrace peered down on the city below. Eucalyptus trees, introduced recently to the high altitudes thrived and gave the area an “Outback” feel.
Arriving at the backpackers, we carried our luggage up three flights of stairs. In the thin air it felt like we had done ten. Stepping outside for a bit of an adventure, we stepped outside into a large protest of women marching down the main highway from the upper levels, down to the city. Joining the walk we made our way to the infamous Witches Market. Here, potions and powders for every ailment was on offer. Dried llama fetuses were displayed out front – more for tourist curiosity. To bury one underneath the construction of new house is good luck. If you were slightly better off, you would do one under each corner. If you were even more wealthy, an entire llama will be sacrificed to lay good foundations. Bolivian buildings were a bit comical. Most didn’t have the top level, only support irons and bricks sticking out. The story (pun) goes that once a building was completed, a building levy was imposed, thus the easiest way around this was for the building to be left unfinished. Our dinner was on recommendation of a Lonely Planet book we read in the hostel (no TripAdvisor that we knew of then), it was a small cantina with oily food and bottles of coke. We went for the local Lomo Saltado, strips of beef cooked in tomato and layered on chips and rice. We were the only tourists in the place, although we saw a lot walking past in their newly bought hippie pants and “maybe alpaca” woolen jerseys. Maybe Alpaca is deceiving enough to sound like the luxury “Baby Alpaca”, but is actually acrylic and sheeps wool.
The following day, we decided to take the time to explore the town surrounds. Walking down into the main city, past the little hunched women “cholita’s” with large bowler hats, woven sacks on their backs and weathered smiles. Shoe shine boys wore balaclavas in the heat to hide their shame. They offered to clean all of our shoes – even shine our jandals! Venturing further we found the guarded home of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s indigenous, socialist and cocalero President (serving since 2006). He had forced out much U.S influence in the Bolivia, particularly in their policies of eradicating cash crop coca plantations. Coca is a large part of the Bolivian identity. Of divine origin since the Incas. Many chew the leaves to stave altitude sickness, increase alertness and increase tolerance for hunger. The alkaloid content of coca is better known as cocaine, hence the US Drug Administration interest in destroying these crops. Many taxi’s in La Paz were reported to double as dealers – you would see large vans, full of people boarding and disembarking on almost every corner. The taxis moved like clockwork in the Highest City in the World.
Passing the infamous San Pedro of Marching Powder lore, we contemplated trying to bribe a tour of the prison. In here you could allegedly buy a tour of the prison, where families lived, you bought prison real estate and cats were addicted to crack. At this stage, the prison was more famous and most corruption was being stamped out. We also were too innocent and green to chance it.
Taking a taxi van up the steep streets to El Alto, we were going to a Lucha libre wrestling match. Like Mexico, La Paz has adopted wrestling with their own twist – Cholita Wrestling. We were treated to a show of theatrics. Wrestlers included sequins, wolf costumes, spandex and the referees themselves. In one act, two American tourists were pulled on stage and eventually turned out to be a part of the act.
Returning to the backpackers, we had a quick feed of empanadas; pastries stuffed with carne (beef) or pollo (chicken). This one turned out to be stuffed with tripe. We had no idea of knowing until we took a bite.
We booked a five day excursion to the salt flats of Uyuni before returning back to La Paz (more on that story soon). Arriving back we had a couple days in our own relatively nicer hotel room before joining our tour group. A chance to get the washing done and check out the markets. Tam was buying a few oranges while a couple pickpockets were busy inspecting her backpack. Unknown two them, Mitch was a couple metres behind, towering over their skinny frames. After sizing up the situation and seeing them delicately inspect the zips, he asked them if he could help. They quickly scuttled, tail between their legs and pulling tattered balaclavas over their faces! After the close brush we tried another local bar. The general rule in this part of the country is to ask for drinks “no hielo”, meaning no ice, as most ice is made with the tap water. Mitch’s jug of sangria looked a little suspect as the fruit gave way to the melting ice below.
Death Road, also known as the North Yungas Road, is popular among tourists as an exhilarating 64km continuous downhill mountain bike, hugging the cliffs as sheer cliffs drop straight into jungle below. Internet searches showed pictures with space wide enough for only one truck. Some other pictures showed some vehicles that had crashed through the canopy…
We shopped around for which tour operator to use. Options ranged from the US$80 Gravity Assisted, to the US$35 Hotel Solaro. Which one do you think we went for? Arriving in Hotel Solaro, we were invited to breakfast, where a page contract was awaiting us. The wording was ridiculous and was horribly written. More holes than Swiss cheese, but we signed it anyway. On inspection of the bikes, Mitch turned two away with poor brakes. No bother, the next two tourists were given them. Mitch spent the next ten minutes fiddling with the gears – these bikes had seen much better days.
The ascent by van took us East and out of La Paz, past packs of dogs, eventually making way for jungle and the start of our bike. The guides had better equipment and wasted no time in leading us down the new highway built more recently for obvious safety reasons, as an alternative to the Death Road. Eventually the road forked and we began on the unsealed track. It looked scary in the pictures, it was even scarier in reality. Tam, the more experienced mountain biker hugged the cliff face, while Mitch took off racing a Uruguayan, an Argentinian and four Japanese to the bottom. At one checkpoint, we waited. Five minutes went by and no sign of Tam or the tailing guide. Mitch started pedaling furiously back up the track, scared out of his wits – in the back of his mind imagining what Tamsons’ father had said…”You look after my little girl”…
After several hundred metres he eventually met up with Tam. Her rear tyre blew out! She was now riding the guides bike as he fixed hers – these bikes were dodgy, it wasn’t too long before she had a puncture on the guides bike too… Luckily we were only several kilometres from the hotel, shown on the brochure with a buffet lunch and a large swimming pool!
Rounding the corner and climbing a short hill to the hotel, we came across a run down building, tens of years past its glory. The lawn overgrown, the hammocks a little torn and the pool only a quarter full and coloured green. Large mosquito larvae did laps of the pool lanes and eventually broke free to come search for blood. They found it. The Japanese boys quickly had large welts the size of ping pong balls all over their backs. We gave them our DEET, making sure to cover every inch of our body first. They sat, loudly eating watermelon sprinkled with salt, furiously scratching their arms. We weren’t sure how much longer we were going to be at this place, there wasn’t much else around and they had left us all here, for three hours!
Eventually they came back to us. We had all though we were abandoned! We were given the option as to which road we would like to return. For some reason we chose to go back up the Death Road in the van – a harrowing experience, particularly when you had to pass another truck coming the other way.
Meeting up with the rest of our small tour: Brandy from Las Vegas, Rob and Lenka from Manchester and our Peruvian guide Luiz, we quickly made friends and showed them the now familiar streets of La Paz. Mitch was starting to feel a bit queasy – the sangria was catching up with him…
The following morning, Mitch was out to it. In bed with a horrible gut, but still able to watch the All Blacks play Argentina in the Rugby World Cup on ESPN South America. Tam and the others visited the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku, built with elaborate carved stone gateways to the Moon and Sun. One particular stone is said to hold a large amount of spiritual energy and you can feel it to the touch. Mitch meanwhile was back in the hotel room releasing his own spiritual energy.
Leaving La Paz we felt a lot more battle hardened in South American travel. Some great experiences and more awaiting us in Peru.