Approximately 90% of the road from Uyuni to La Paz is unpaved making for one heck of a bumpy ride. After some time, however, we did adjust to the jolting and jarring and all of us caught a decent night’s sleep - assisted by the valium.
La Paz has an altitude of 3,660m which makes temperatures very chilly. The city is situated within a large basin where brick buildings literally cling to every possible surface. The centre is dominated by skinny one way streets and markets on every curb-side making for an interesting experience to simply manoeuvre from one place to the next. Old trucks and vans overflowing with both goods and people clatter down the streets - tooting at every moment possible to indicate their presence meanwhile spurting giant clouds of exhaust fumes. La Paz is intense. But after some adjustment it is difficult not to become very fond of this quirky place.
We arrived into a chaotic La Paz early Monday morning to meet Duncan, our friend from NZ also travelling around South America. Once checked in we were able to freshen up and scope out the well known Witches Market for alpaca tops and socks, leather goods and jewellery. The goods are all reasonably priced but the quality is questionable so we managed to show some constraint with our purchases. Our crew of 6 Kiwis had reunited and were we staying together in the infamous Loki Hostal.
That evening we were able to have a few drinks with Duncan and catch up on the past few months of travels. Good times. The hang-over the next day, however, was horrific. All of us battled through the day but soon realised that it was the altitude as well as the effects of a few drinks. The following day also was spent close to the bed/toilet as we all had very upset tummys. Apparently this happens often and is a part of the adjustment to travel in Bolivia.
Wednesday we got ourselves together and hit Death Road. Nothing like a spot of adrenalin and a rush of fresh air to get the health back on track. We drove one hour from La Paz to begin the ride at La Caumbre. La Cambre is located at 4600m so it is not unusual for riders to face snow and icey conditions. We had picked a good day - although chilly the skies were clear.
After our detailed safety brief we headed off - downhill. Riding (not cycling - as no was peddling required) for a speedy 30 minutes on asphalt, we soon reached the official beginning of Death Road. With tight corners, loose gravel and 600 m drops our group of 14 was ready to take on the challenge.
Death Road is officially the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road’. It earnt its’ name due to an average of 26 vehicles per year plunging over the precipice. However, over the past few years a new and safer road has been built for vehicles travelling to and from La Paz. Today Death Road is only used for cyclists, support vehicles and the odd tourist bus. There is still an average of 2 deaths per year so the name still remains.
It was very fun and a little scary in places but perhaps not as frightening given its’ name. We had a couple of nasty crashes in our group caused generally by people riding above their abilities. A highlight of the ride was seeing the change in ecosystems during our decent from 4700m to 1200m. When we reached the bottom it was around 35 degrees and 100% humidity, just incredible. We relaxed poolside for a couple hours before returning to chilly La Paz that evening. A great day and we all made it in one piece which was even better!
The remainder of our time in La Paz was spent checking out the various markets in the city. It appears that supermarkets do not exist here but instead vendors on delegated streets sell different products. We passed through streets selling meat, cleaning products, shoes, vegetables, herbs and basically any item that you would buy in a large supermarket or department store. A chance for everyone to specialise and try to make a living.
We also visited the Coca museum which was very interesting, although from one perspective. It told of the importance of the coca leaf in traditional society, its’ use in pharmaceuticals and Coca-Cola, as well as the controversial cocaine industry and its’ importance to the Bolivian economy.
La Paz really felt like the real deal. It was not a show for tourists, but just the local people going about their lives. The women appear to work incredibly hard, lugging large loads on their backs up steep streets all while wearing the traditional costume.
We loved our time here despite that at any one time our group of six had at least two suffering from stomach bugs. We felt confined to eating from the hostel bar to minimise the risk of food poisoning. After almost a week this became very draining and we were all well ready to escape this chaotic city.
Early Sunday morning we head to the airport to catch our flight to the Amazon!