Bolivia Take 2: Flying high and Defying Gravity in La Paz

Our packs disappeared in a cloud of dust as they were hurled to the pavement from our bus in La Paz.  The ride had apparently been a dirty one. A thick layer of filth had coated their exterior as our bus rattled over seemingly bolder-like cobblestone during the 12-hour ride from Uyuni.  It was the worst bus sleep yet.  We still haven’t figured out whether it’s actually necessary to buy tickets for buses in Bolivia.  That is, if you don’t mind standing room only for an overnight.  We had scored seats near the front of the bus by purchasing early – that didn’t meant they were good ones.   We were situated on the second level, directly in front of the door, which meant we got a little wake up call by new passengers every time the driver stopped to pick someone up on the side of the road.   After rubbing the dust from our eyes, literally, I looked at my watch.  We had arrived two hours early.  It wasn’t quite 4 am.

Luckily, our hostel was open and allowed us to check straight into our room where we washed 5 day old film and the previous nights layer of dirt down the drain with a much deserved hot water shower.  The air was still cold.  There was no indoor heat in La Paz either.  Luckily, we were able to rent a portable heater long enough to melt the icicles that had accumulated under our skin during our time in the desert.   That first day, we slept.  We were back up to 3700m above sea level, and leaving the comfort of our hotel room meant huffing and puffing up and down two flights of stairs.   Food was a good reason to make the strenuous venture out.  We decided to treat ourselves at the highly recommended “Star of India” restaurant.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t the reward we were hoping for.  We would have been better off having plain rice and potatoes than eating there. We had previously been warned about the food in Bolivia, but thought we would escape the bad rice and mushy vegetables by paying a little more for it.  Not the case.  Dale was really excited to see Vindaloo Chicken on the menu, and the descriptive warning intrigued us both:  “This is VERY HOT.  If you eat it all, you win a FREE T-SHIRT.”  It had been months since we’d eaten anything spicy, so Dale decided to risk it.  We ordered it and two other dishes labeled “spicy”.  It was all terrible.  The spicy curry and saag paneer were almost too sweet to eat, the naan was stale pita bread put in the microwave, and although it was indeed hot, the Vindaloo was repulsive.  I tasted a tiny bit of the sauce on the end of my fork and felt an uncontrollable urge to wretch.  It wasn’t Vindaloo at all – it was just mushy Rocoto pepper – nothing else.  We left the full bowl and needless to say, only walked away with an over budget bill and no t-shirt.  After trying a Thai place the next night, we decided it was probably a better idea to stay away from any type of place that claimed to be traditional food from the other side of the world.

We liked La Paz.  The cityscape is unlike any we have seen or are likely to see anywhere else in the world.  Nestled in an Andean canyon carved by the nearly built-over Choqueyapu River, looking down on this city, you can marvel at what seems to be an architectural feat.  It’s as though tiny orange square houses have been carved out of every slope, clinging upon each other and carefully connected by narrow paved zig-zag pathways teaming with crazy motorists.  Looking out into the night, the amazing stars of the desert had been replaced with an endless sea of tiny lights peaking out of the windows of the those small clay boxes, illuminating the inclines like a Christmas tree.  It wasn’t stars, but it was still beautiful.  During the daytime, the streets are lined with women selling everything from fresh orange juice to homemade mystery meat fat sandwiches or alpaca sweaters and Tupperware.  The textiles and wools erupted colour from the stalls that lined the narrow alleys and nooks between store fronts, lending a sense of celebration within the repetitious mix of clay and cement. There is no need to set foot inside a store, you can find everything you need on the curb.  The women appear to work harder than the men, with their daily stock of goods and wares slung across their back, neighboured by a child. Even at 4 am, the morning we arrived, we noticed them setting up their curbside mobile kitchens, prepping to serve breakfast to the early risers and those who had not yet found their bed for the night.  Nobody has much, but the vibrance of the world’s highest capital city is enough to bring breath to anyone gasping from the altitude.

Downtown La Paz

Note the baby carrying technique, the norm in Bolivia

The cool city kept us occupied for a few days while we organized one of our much anticipated excursions in Bolivia – Las Pampas (aka, the Amazon wetlands).  During our time in Brazil, we opted out of taking any Amazon tours as they were crowded and expensive.  On the recommendation of another traveller, we waited for Bolivia.  Rather than spend an ugly 28 hours on a rickety bus ride on the worlds worst roads, out of the Andes and down to sea level, we opted to fly.  It didn’t take long for this to become one of the highlights of our entire South American experience; it started with our taxi ride from the centre of La Paz, up another 1000m to the airport in El Alto.  It helped that we had a stellar taxi driver who, instead of allowing me to strain to take a photograph out the window, in between speeding over-packed cars, he insisted on stopping for a viewpoint.  He even ensured that he crossed the four-lane highway with us, providing the illusion of safety.   It was an impressive wide screen view of the entire valley.  The millions of tiny clay roofs lay over makeshift brick houses that plastered the hills, exposing only the odd tree.  The city has climbed the hills to accommodate its growth and ultimately bows to the towering snow peak of the magnificent 6450m high Illimani mountain as its backdrop. We felt small…. Very small.

La Paz – 3800m, this photo is taken from 4200m near the airport. The clay city built into the Andes

We knew that if a Bolivian airline was making 5-7 trips per day to Rurrenabaque and back, we would be on a small plane for the 50 minute flight.  And we were.   I’ve been on smaller planes, but none of which took off at 4100m and flew directly through the Andes. I was casually admiring the peak to my right, which appeared a couple hundred meters away, and I turned to Dale to point it out.  He had already decided to close his eyes to rest, but to his immediate left was something worth seeing.  We had only been off of the ground for 10 minutes, and our left wing was inches away from a summit peak.  Well, it seemed like inches, it was more likely 20m.  It was scary but exciting at the same time.  There was no need for our pilot to gain more elevation, as we continued northeast, the mountains fell out from under us and we were 7000 m above the ground.  Very cool experience.  An hour later, we landed in the middle of the jungle.  The airport runway was closed due to mud, so our pilot was using an adjacent field to land the planes that day.

Our plane to Rurrenabaque, no need to climb very much, that mountain is at 6600m

Rurrenabaque and its 8000 inhabitants are situated in Northern Bolivia, on the edge of the Beni River, acting as the eastern gateway to the Maddi National Park (Bolivian Amazon Jungle) and the western access point to Las Pampas (the Bolivian Amazon wetlands).  We pre-booked the pampas tour in La Paz as prices were supposed to be standardized (don’t believe everything you read!).   After stocking up on insect repellant and enjoying a solid sleep at sea level, we met up with our group for the next 4 days.

Ten of us piled into a brilliantly almost broken down 4×4 to tackle the muddy road for a few hours to get to the boat launch entry point.  Before we reached half way, it started to rain, actually it poured.  Normally, all that would mean is put your windshield wipers on and take some extra precautions with your speed.  Not in Bolivia.  The roads are made of mud, not gravel, no pavement, but sticky mud.  Rain means flooded roads, which means stuck vehicles that dig large holes in the ground trying to get out, which means more stuck vehicles.  We had to exit our truck twice and walk through to let our driver tackle it without tourists to look after.  At one point, there were cars stuck so deep, their tires weren’t visible.  Along with a bus full of tourists, a few transport trucks, and one over-turned fruit truck.  Walking alongside it all was much easier in bare feet than wearing shoes, as the mud for sure would have claimed them.  Our beat up old truck, with the hot-wired steering column did us proud.  We made it through.

Our ride out to the wetlands

The road in the wet season just outside Rurrenabaque

At the boat launch point, our guide, Antonio led us to our boat in the river.  It was still raining.  We were all drowned rats.  It was a two-hour ride weaving through narrow marshlands and rivers to get to our lodge.  Of course we were cold, but at least we had saved dry clothes, but there was no way we were having cold showers.

The next three days we spent either eating or sleeping in bug nets at our lodge, or meandering the narrow wetlands in our little boat.  The weather wasn’t great, but we didn’t care.  We spotted a plethora of wildlife of which the highlights were, sloth, a toucan, macaws, a falcon, an eagle, red and blonde howler monkeys and cappuccino monkeys and numerous different aquatic birds.  We fished for piranhas.  We night cruised to witness our flashlights reflecting from the shiny eyes of the spectacle caimans (like an alligator).  We swam with pink dolphins; in the same waters we spotted 2-3m long black caiman.  The ravaging, man-eating mosquitoes devoured us, while we hunted thigh deep in marsh mud and water for Anaconda.  Unfortunately, the snakes didn’t come out to play.  The squirrel monkey did, however – by the hundreds.  They lived in the trees behind our lodge, and snacked on the compost, allowing us to get within a few inches!  Our last day, the sun finally decided to come out and it was hot.  Our ride back to the launch sight was incredible.  The shift in weather was evident.  All of the wildlife was out and active.  Turtle families baked in the rays on logs, and almost everywhere we looked, caimans were on shore sunning them selves.  This is when we really got to see their size.  When they’re swimming you can only see their head.  They were huge.  I was glad that was after we went swimming.

Squirrel monkey… my favorite

3 toed sloth, so cool and lucky to see

These things are all over… I can’t remember their names

Sunrise in the Amazon

It was a long 4-hour drive back to Rurrenabaque.  We enjoyed pizza out with our group after mediocre food in the jungle.  The next morning we boarded an early-morning flight back to La Paz.

Our last day in La Paz, we spent defying gravity on the Death Road (real name “Yungus Road).  There was a lot of hype about mountain biking down the world’s most dangerous road, so it was a must-do.  We started in La Cumbre at an icy 4900m, and road downhill for 64km, covering a descent of 3000m to the subtropical village of Coroico at a balmy 1200m.    There are many stories as to why this road is nicknamed “death road”, but it is estimated that a minimum of 80 vehicles went soaring over the edge of the rail-less road, on an annual basis, prior to the reconstruction of the south side of the road leading back to La Paz.  The road has a consistent sheer drop of at least 600m, and in most sections the cliff exceeds 1km. Hairpin turns, rocky parts, single-lane width of less than 3.2m wide and belligerent drunken Bolivian drivers all contributed to the 100+ annual death toll while this was a main route from the valley to La Paz.  Now, very few cars use this road, allowing cyclists to pretty much have free-reign.  And although 80 cyclists have died on the road since tourism invaded it in the mid 90s, you would have to be really stupid to allow it to take your life.  Or – a brake failure.

The company we went with was the cheapest one.  We went against the recommendations of paying for a more reputable company.  We were sorry we did.  Not because we felt we were in danger on the bikes, but because the ride back on the “safe” part of the road was one of the scariest experiences of my life.  It was apparent from his demeanor and need to stop once to buy stimulating coco leaves and three times to “pee pee” on the way back to La Paz, that our driver had a few too many at lunch.  He was totally carless in his handling the van.  Eight tourists inside and he didn’t give it a second thought.  I was sitting on nails the whole time, watching him veer towards the edge, or speed pass a transport on a corner.  At one point, he veered into the opposite lane, with another car coming head on. There was nowhere to go, except off the edge.  Dale and I at the same time yelled at him, as he turned his head to the road (he was busy talking to the guide in the passenger seat, face on) and whipped the truck back to our side of the road.  His apology didn’t mean anything, when less than 10 minutes later he would have driven us straight over the edge at a corner had we not said something.  To make matters worse, he joked about it and proceed to swerve the car back and forth over the middle line, laughing.  What an ass.

One of the many hairpin corners on the Death Road

I finally let out a sigh of relief when we got back to La Paz.  Immediately, I went in to complain about the driver in the office at El Solario.  They assured me they would do something about it.  Something tells me it’s a slap on the wrist until he kills someone.

The next day, we were ready to say good-bye to La Paz as we travelled northwest to Lake Titicaca.

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