in[La Paz]ible

We drove along Lake Titicaca for a few hours, crossed a narrow bit of it on a boat, and then drove east away from it a short ways to get to La Paz, the economic capital of Bolivia and the highest elevation capital in the world. Despite being so high, it is still surrounded by mountain peaks and ridges, which create the bowl that the bulk of the city sits in. The surrounding development seems to go up the mountains and almost to the peaks in all directions, regardless of the grade. Sort of a crazy place to put such a giant city.

Not long after arriving in La Paz, we found out that it hardly lives up to its name (Spanish for ‘the Peace’). We had to walk past several groups of riot police decked out in riot gear (including fully automatic rifles and shotguns) to get to our hostel . While we were there, all throughout the city we could hear “bombs” (usually not harmful, just a way to make a lot of scary noise) going off in protest of labor laws and wage rates. At one point, the protests came right down the street of our hostel, with one of the protest bombs going off in the street and breaking a window. When it got too hairy, the riot police threw tear gas and with the door to the hostel open, a group of us had to run crying and coughing to our rooms and eventually the back patio. Pretty intense stuff, but to be honest I don’t think we really felt we were in any real danger.

The hostel we stayed at was what the common traveler refers to as a ‘party hostel’. It’s the type of place that seems to bridge the gap between hostel and Irish pub. It’s actually pretty genius: give a bunch of young, thirsty, traveling people a place to get really drunk and then have their bed just down the hall. Needless to say we had a few late nights in La Paz. With our latest travel buddy Gina and some Aussie friends (all of whom we met months earlier in Argentina) to party with, we managed to hit the town pretty hard.

I believe I’ve already mentioned how cheap Bolivia is, but let me explain again. Since the length of our trip depends on how long our savings accounts can hold out, lunch deals in La Paz were crucial. We found a food market with lunch deals every day just a couple blocks from our hostel. Every day we could get a giant bowl of soup followed by a plate with a choice of meat next to a heap of potatoes and rice and a salad. Every day it was the same price: 6 Bolivianos. Each US dollar buys 7 Bolivianos, so just about every day we had lunch for $0.85US. With our beds at the hostel costing us just under $6US per night (that’s in the 16 person dorm, which is a LOT of people), including breakfast (that sounds better than it was- basically just bread and jam), we couldn’t have been spending more than $10US per day. That’s cheaper than Davis and a whole lot cheaper than San Diego. That’s how we travel cheap.

The “gringo trail’ seemed to be more established in Bolivia than anywhere we’ve been so far. Everyone we met seemed to be going to all the same spots and nowhere else. Within La Paz, there were a few popular things to do. The Witches Market was a big artisan market where you won’t find any locals except the vendors selling Bolivian instruments and loads of clothing made from alpaca wool. We walked around it a bit, but quickly tired due to every shop selling the same stuff. Then, every Sunday, there is “Cholita Wrestling”, which is basically super-low-budget Bolivian WWF-style wrestling- we had to check it out. It’s totally fake yet totally hilarious, especially when the short, stout Bolivian women in traditional dress get involved in the fighting. It seemed like the locals were there just to get a chance to throw popcorn and peanuts at the referee. Pretty funny stuff.

The biggest deal in La Paz that all the tourists are raving about is the bike ride down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (NOT self proclaimed even- look it up, it’s also called Yungus Road) . Recently replaced by an only slightly less dangerous road, really the only traffic the road sees these days is tourists on mountain bikes and the vans that follow them. Having done a bit of mountain biking in the states and with the full pads, full-faced helmets, and gear they gave us, we felt fearless. That is, until we got onto the actually dangerous part of the road (the first bit is paved and you basically just zoom down it faster than the speed limit due to the incline).

The ride was about 5 hours, downhill just about the entire way and with stunning views of the Yungus region of Bolivia the whole way. On one side of the road is a sheer wall going straight up (sometimes with waterfalls crashing down as you ride) and on the other side is a sheer cliff going straight down. Far down. Like, if-you-fall-you-die-for-sure far down. It was mind boggling that it was actually a road for two way traffic (often giant trucks and buses) at any time, but especially so recently. It was no wonder that it had the highest number of traveler deaths in the world. Anyway, the bike ride was absolutely amazing.

By the time we got to the end of the ride we had lost thousands of meters in altitude. We basically rode from the extreme highlands down into the rainforest. Where we ended was warm and humid and surrounded by forest land (although bugs finally became an issue). From there, after lunch and a swim, the bike tour offers a ride back to La Paz, but instead the three of us opted to spend some time checking out Coroico, the town nearest to where the ride ended. This was the closest we got to leaving the gringo trail as there weren’t many tourists in Coroico. While we were there we went on an awesome hike to a few sets of waterfalls along a road with beautiful views of the valley. It was nice to finally be in tropical weather, seeing as we’ve been in the tropics for a while now.

After a few days of relaxing in Coroico, we got a bus back to La Paz, ran a few errands in town (getting pictures from our bike tour), and left that night on an overnight bus to Uyuni (the next main tourist hot spot). We’ve had some rough bus rides this trip, but I think that ride might have been the worst. It was overnight, off road washboard most of the way (forget about sleeping), and absolutely freezing cold the entire way. We started in La Paz which is really cold to begin with, but it just got colder and colder and colder as we went. We were completely unprepared when we arrived in Uyuni at 5:30am the next morning, all in sandals and with no place to stay.

As we stood around freezing we tried to figure out what to do. Then we saw a guy selling coffee and fried bready things on the street, so we sat with him and his treats and tried to warm up- very happy that he was there. Then we just started walking around the town of Uyuni. We found it bigger than we thought it would be because we were under the impression that the town only existed to serve tourists looking to do the Salar de Uyuni tour. Still, it wasn’t very big and it didn’t take us long to find a nice cheap place to stay. Luckily they had beds available right then, so we napped well into the afternoon.

We spent about a day and a half researching and choosing who to go with for the Salar de Uyuni tour. We’d heard horror stories from people who’d had terrible guides, drunk behind the wheel of their 4X4. We were also trying to meet up with a friend we’d met in La Paz who we’d hoped to get in our tour group but there was no luck on that front. Anyway, we finally chose a company (really the same quality tour for like $15US cheaper than the most expensive company- thanks TripAdvisor) and spent some time getting ready to tour the southwest region of Bolivia.

More to come soon.

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