A Game of Chicken with Gravity – La Paz, Bolivia, South America
Initially, the train journey to Oruro was quite exciting as we carved our route through Los Andes. Every stop along the way brought a fresh stream of street hawkers, enthusiastically peddling everything from ice lollies to Bolivian hand woven luggage for the rich Gringos sitting on the other side of the glass – suffering depression from the constant stream of Quechuan folk music being channelled through the carriage PA system.
During the journey, we met a couple of young Irish women, Mary and Janice. As fate would have it, they were headed in our direction. We arranged to meet later in the dinner carriage, which sounds romantic, but was not. (I´m not sure if one dry burger, four severely oven baked chips, three carrotts and a spoonful of rice even constitute a meal). Regardless, the girls turned out to be good company – they possessed that dry Irish sense of humour capable of slicing through any ego like a hot knife through butter.
Returning from the dinner carriage, we watched yet another subtitled film before settling down for an evening's sleep. The geographers amongst you will know this fact, but for the laymen, let me explain how climates fluctuate in high altitude locations.
day = very hot and very dry
night = bloody freezing!
As we sat watching the lightning storms on the horizon, reminiscent of the night time Iraq television images we are subjected to at home, we could see frost beginning to form on the inside of the windows. After eight hours of excrutiating cold, the sun eventually crept over the horizon, subsequently followed in quick succession by a deep sigh of relief, eminating from the occupants of our carriage. The feeling in my toes was only fully returned four hours later!
Our arrival in Oruro, in the early hours of the morning, was short lived. Once we´d collected our bags, we were bundled into a taxi, then out and into a bus. Away we went.
The bus heading for La Paz was our first taste of the local bus system that we had previously heard so many horror stories about. I have to say it was more amusing than horrifying – all the same, not that comfortable. We headed towards the back of the bus, where our tickets had directed us to be seated. Upon reaching our seats, a plump Bolivian witch confronted us and sat in one of our places. She explained that she was carrying too much baggage to sit in her designtated seat at the front. Not wanting to be the subject of a Quechuan hex, and being a gentleman, I allowed Cath to take the remaining seat. I moved to the front of the bus. As the law of sod would dictate, I ended up sitting next to a character from a Bret Easton Ellis book – an unnerving demeanor for the remainder of the journey.
On entering La Paz, we had a remarkable view of the urban sprawl below. Located within a valley, completely surrounded by Los Andes, the unforseen growth of the city had forced its residents to build properties literally clinging to the almost verticle sides of the surrounding valley walls. Quite a view. The city itself is located 3,660 meters above sea level. It is dwarfed by the 6,402 meter triple peaks of Illimani, which dominates the backdrop.
Our chosen destination was the Adventure Brewery Hostel. (They have a good reputation for organising excursions around the city). Unfortunately, they were booked, so we headed to the family-run hostel, Arthy´s. We reserved a double room for the following evening and booked ourselves on the "Death Road" downhill mountain bike ride for the 17th October.
A tourist can spend countless hours wandering the almost vertical alleys and markets of La Paz. The witches' markets are the main attraction, providing anything from shampoo to mummified Llama fetuses, something you should be very grateful for! After quite a chilled out night, due to the sub zero temperatures and lack of heat, we departed Arthy´s and headed back to the Adventure Brewery.
We checked in, then wandered round to see the facilities – clean room, good; hot shower, good; friendly company, good; on site micro brewery and one free beer a night, flipping brilliant! That evening a group of us from the hostel went to Mongo´s restaurant for food and serious strong lager, before embarking on our perilous bike ride the following morning.
Waking early, we headed down to the meeting point for breakfast. Today was the day we decided to throw caution and sense to the wind, and ourselves down a mountain aptly named, "The World´s Most Dangerous Road" – a title recognising the one vehicle per month rate of tragic accidents. In retrospect, we should have paid more attention to the opening statement of the advertisiing blurb which said,
"First and foremost, all survivors of the ride get a free beer at the bottom." Those of you who know us well will understand which part of the above statement our focus was drawn to.
Without going into too much detail, this is essentially what happens. At 4,200 meters, you are presented with your $2,500 Kona dual suspension, disk braking mountain bike – specially modified for downhill speed – great! After being subjected to a very responsible health and safety training session by our Worzel Gummidge look alike Kiwi guide, we had to take a mouthful of a 95% proof alocoholic substance, as an offering to Mother Earth. At this stage I was thinking I will be able to give it to her in person very shortly.
What lies ahead – sixty-four kilometers of sheer adrenaline, as you hurtle down tarmac roads, eventually reaching the 3.2 meter Death Road. The views are breathtaking, apparently. I couldn´t possibly comment. My eyes were firmly fixed on the gravel track that I was flying down with absolutely no concern for the 400-meter drop less than one meter away to my left. Not only do you have to contend with the always present danger of death, loose gravel and complete lack of personal responsibility during this four-hour insanity, but you also have to keep an eye out for lorries coming back up the hill.
Our guide had told us a story about a local man whose wife and child had gone over the edge in a car and died. The man had taken it upon himself to stand on the respective blind corner with a green and red flag, indicating to any oncoming traffic that the path ahead was clear. Many souls have since taken up this task, unpaid. They sit on their respective corner all day ensuring the safe passage of both vehicles and bikes. Our instructor had informed us that it is polite to nod at them in thanks as you pass. (obviously taking your hand off the handle bar to wave is not advised). I lost count of the number of these chaps I nearly sent careering over the edge as I flew past them, with no concern for the flag's colour.
Upon reaching our destination of Coroico, very sweaty and full of testosterone, we were treated to showers and lunch on a wildlife sancturary, surrounded by ex-pickpocket monkeys and depressed donkeys.
The following morning we picked up our CD from the bike tour group and headed off to catch our next chicken bus destined for Copacabana on the Bolivian shores of Lake Titicaca.