…shout the Bolivian woman at the bus stations.
La Paz really is a sight to behold. The homes of its 800,000 plus inhabitants cling to the sides of the hills and mountains that surround it on all sides. The higher they go the more impossibly steep they seem. Given its altitude of 3,600 metres or so the simple act of walking up some of the streets left us gasping for air.
We arrived in the morning and because of the interrupted sleep we had on the bus (bumpy roads and many stops) we immediately checked into our hotel and went to sleep. When we awoke early afternoon we were hungry so we took a short walk to an English pub, Oliver’s Travels. Run by a Brit this little segment of England abroad was quite an experience. For starters we didn’t realise it was St Georges Day so the pub was full of young Brits well on their way to unconsciousness courtesy of free vodka. We only wanted to eat and the homely food was welcome. I had Shephard’s Pie and Claire had an all day brekkie.
Later that evening after lounging around and struggling up some hills we went in search of an Indian Restaurant that had been recommened to us. Sadly the curry was only average and the naan breads looked suspiciously like tortillas.
(the view from our hostal room at night)
The next day we slowly set about exploring some of the street markets near our hotel. In amongst the endless hats, jumpers and blankets we noticed Llama Feutes for sale. After some research we discovered that these are buried under new homes as an offering to Pachamama, the Earth God.
Then we visited the offices of Vertigo Bikes to discuss mountain biking down the “world’s most dangerous road”. I had been agonising over riding this famous road for the past few days.
This road was once the only road linking La Paz with the northern El Beni region. The road was built by prisoners many years ago and its almost unbelievable construction in the side of almost vertical mountain faces with 600m drops on one side beggars belief. An average of 26 vehicles plunged over the side every year when the road was the only option and in 1983 a flatbed lorry toppled over the edge killing the 100 people on board.
In recent years the same bank that gave the road its unofficial name financed the building of a new safer road and now the old road is almost exclusively for the use of cyclists. That said around 16 cyclists have died doing the ride, one as recently as last year.
This goes some way to explaining why a cyclist with my recent record of injury would be agonising over risking it. Eventually though we both decided to give it a crack.
The next morning we climbed on the bus and were driven up to 5,100 metres above sea level in amongst snowy peaks where we donned a large amount of safety gear but no parachute. We then set off on the first part of the ride; relatively speaking a very safe 40mph descent down a tarmac potholed road.
After that we stopped for some food before driving up a climb (I like riding uphill but not at this altitude!) before reaching the start of the dangerous road. It averages around 4 metres wide and it’s rocky and loose. At first the mist and light rain meant that all we could see over the edge was whiteness but after 20 minutes or so of tentative riding the air cleared and the drop just 3 metres away was breathtaking.
As we descended the air temperature rose and we found ourself riding under waterfalls and past crosses to mark where accidents had occurred. We stopped for a breather at a memorial to an Isreali girl who had falled whilst riding some years earlier.
The Vertigo guides were very good if a little too at ease with the road. I barely saw the lead guide who was clearly an accomplished rider but an Irish guy who tried to keep up with him informed me that the speeds they were riding were frightening.
We eventually reached the bottom to a welcome cold drink in the steaming jungle. The total descent was 3,600 metres.
Ironically the drive back along the “safer” road to get to La Paz was more frightening. It was dark and fog reduced visibility to a few metres. Our minivan driver had a carpet on his dashboard which rendered the heaters redundant. So his assistant wiped the windows with a cloth whilst the driver chewed coca leaves. I sat perched ready to lunge forward and grab the wheel. Suffice to say we made it back safely after a nervewracking day.
After collecting our commerative tshirts we celebrated with a mexican and an early night. The next day we were leaving for Lake Titicaca.