Monday, July 1, 2013

Nice try, Death Road. Nice try.

      Another cold night bus later, we reached La Paz. I had not heard that much about La Paz from other travelers. Nothing particularly good or bad, so I didn't really know what to expect. Driving into La Paz that morning reminded me of Cusco. Like Cusco, the city of La Paz sits in a bowl up high in the Andes mountains. As our bus circled further down into the center of the bowl, I realized that unlike Cusco, La Paz is not only higher in elevation, but also huge. The urban sprawl reaches up high into the hills above the bowl. A friend once told me that at the rate Cusco's population is growing, it will look like La Paz with houses way up in the hills in 20 years. Also unlike Cusco, La Paz is surprisingly clean and has a very commercial-looking city center with high rise buildings. It was very nostalgic to see the familiar sight of native-dressed women walking around the city in their big, colorful dresses in La Paz, just as they did in Cusco. Since Evo Morales's presidency, the native people have taken back their place in La Paz and you see colorfully dressed natives walking alongside people in business suits. 

       That afternoon we caught the 3pm walking tour through La Paz Free Tours at the Plaza de San Francisco. At the plaza there is a very interesting mural. The shoe-shine boys in La Paz wear ski masks to cover their faces. At first I thought it was to protect themselves from the car pollution and the smell of the shoe polish. Our guides clarified that they cover their faces because they are ashamed of their jobs because it is considered low-class. It may sound ironic, but they painted their mural to show their pride and their sense community.

       La Paz is a juxtaposition of Spanish, Bolivian, and modern commercial infrastructure. Part of the city is built in a grid by the Spanish, while other parts of the city have winding roads and are not in a grid (built by the Bolivians), and the commercial center has modern high rise buildings. La Paz was the first city in South America to win its independence from Spain, even before the rest of Bolivia. Why? the Bolivianos used the war tactic of blockading the top of the bowl where the city sits to cut the city off and starve the Spaniards until they surrendered. It was a very effective strategy. They still use this strategy when there is a big revolt and it still works. 

Presidential palace

      At the Plaza de Armas next to the Presidential Palace we saw soldiers guarding a memorial for Los Disparacidos (the people who "disappeared" during the military dictatorship of the late 1970s-1980s). To this day, the Ministry of Justice will not release information about Los Disparacidos, so there is not even an estimate of how many people "disappeared." 


       The most interesting building we saw, right in the center of downtown in front of the beautiful Plaza de San Pedro, was San Pedro Prison. It was the most unique prison I have ever seen or heard of, and it is no ordinary prison. In fact, you can't really tell it is a prison. It looks like any other official building with police guards. San Pedro is famous because it is run like a micro-city with its own micro-economy. Bolivia is a very poor country so there are no state funds to provide for the inmates. Inmates have to pay an entrance fee and have to buy their own cells. Within the walls, prisoners own shops, restaurants, etc. and even work for each other in order to make money to buy their own food and pay for their homes. These "cells" range from tiny cramped spaces shared by five people if you are very poor to penthouse apartments with jacuzzi's and big screen televisions. Basically, if you're rich and come into San Pedro Prison with money, you're set and can live in luxury inside. Many prisoners' families live with them inside the prison! A few years ago, San Pedro Prison was a very popular tourist destination. You could do a tour, and if you paid enough you could even spend the night! These tours were started by an English inmate named Thomas MacFadden. He was arrested for cocaine trafficking. Now he is one of the wealthiest prisoners in San Pedro. The book, Marching Powder is about his story. You can't do tours anymore, supposedly. San Pedro Prison is also infamous for the production and trafficking of the best cocaine in Bolivia (Yes, the inmates produce and sell cocaine within the prison walls) and for corruption of the police force. 

San Pedro Prison. 
(Doesn't look like a prison, right?!)

      Another interesting spot we saw was the mercado de brujas, or Witches Market, where you can buy your standard llama fetus and Incan trinkets for luck and blessings. Although Bolivia is a very Catholic society, most Bolivianos still practice pagan Incan traditions and rituals. The most common one is the worship of Pachamama (mother earth), which is not too far off from the worship of the Virgin Mary in Latin American culture. For example, construction workers today still will not build a building unless the proper offerings (llama fetus, blood, coca leaves, etc.) have been made to Pachamama and buried in the foundation. 

Witches Market. 
Come get your llama fetus!

      We ended the walking tour on top of a hill with a 360 degree panoramic view of La Paz. In the distance you can see the snow-capped Volcan Illimani, a dormant volcano. I forgot the name of this hill, but the locals refer to it as the "love nest" because many couples canoodle up there. 

View of Volcan Illimani from the "love nest"

       The following day we woke up early to face another adventure. The one adventure in South America that I had been nervously anticipating: mountain biking down the World's Most Dangerous Road, also fondly known as Death Road. We booked the trip through Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, the first company that started this trip, and the most legitimate (also the most expensive). From downtown La Paz we had a 1 hour bus ride to the top of Death Road at just above 4,000 m in elevation and with snowy mountains all around us. 

Our first stop at the very beginning of the road

       The very beginning of the 4-5 hour downhill bike ride was on nice, paved two-way highway that lazily wound through these snowy mountains with plenty of room for cars to drive around us. Once we reached the gravel, things got a little more interesting. We really only had a few simple rules to follow: ride in single file with plenty of space in between each rider, go slow, easy on the brakes, you need a little momentum to ride over the gravel, and above all DO NOT DO ANYTHING STUPID. This would guarantee our survival.  Apparently I was not nervous enough that day and should have displayed a little more caution. I was having fun riding on the gravel, but I took a particularly gravelly turn too fast (I should have slowed down sooner) and got too close to Mallory who was riding in front of me. I didn't want to maneuver around her cliffside, so I went mountainside and ran into bigger gravel and rocks. I tried to ride it out but I couldn't get control, so I hit the brakes and flew over my handlebars as my bike crashed into the mountain face. I landed on my chest and forearms face-down, but perfectly fine. Talk about a lucky fall! I got away with just a bump on the head and some scrapes and bruises, not even any active bleeding. Nice try, Death Road. Nice try. I picked up my bike to find that the handlebars twisted and got stuck behind my seat. With a hard pull, it was back to normal and I had our tail-end guide check my bike for me. It was fine. I was fine...with the exception that I was now scared as shit. I was at the front group of riders, but after that spill I stayed back nice and slow through the rest of the ride. It was muy tranquilo and quite enjoyable. The further we descended, the hotter the weather was, and before we knew it we were surrounded by jungle. We started above 4,000 m and ended at the bottom of the south Yungi Valley at 1,500 m. At the tiny jungle town at the end of the road, we had celebratory beers (much needed beers) and toasted to our survival. 

Getting ready to ride through the gravel and a cloud

Pulling over to let a truck pass

The section of the road called "the Devil's Tail"

On the edge

From snow-capped mountains to jungle


The adventure wasn't over yet. We drove to a beautiful animal refuge park called La Senda Verde. It was started by a Bolivian couple who retired and originally just wanted to live in the jungle self-sustainably. They adopted a monkey that was being mistreated as a pet. There is a big problem in the Bolivian jungle with people taking in animals as pets
without taking good care of them. Before they knew it, one thing led to another, and the couple had rescued a bunch of different animals.
To help fund and support the refuge, La Senda Verde is an eco-lodge where tourists can stay the night or visit and eat at its restaurant, and has a volunteer program. It's a really impressive organization. If you have any interest in volunteering to help rehabilitate these animals or want more information, click here La Senda Verde.

      For some reason, I didn't really think about how we would get back to La Paz after biking. Turns out we hadn't survived Death Road quite yet. We still had to board the bus and drive back up Death Road to get back to La Paz... in the dark. Scariest bus ride ever. But we had a great driver and we made it back to La Paz in one piece. What a day!

Travel tips:
Hostel in La Paz: Pirwa hostel 44 bolivianos per night in big dorm
Gravity Assisted Biking tours: US $110 from 7:30am to 9:00pm
La Paz Free Tours meets Monday-Saturday at 11am and 3pm in front of Iglesia de San Francisco
La Senda Verde ecolodge, volunteer organization, and animal refuge: La Senda Verde

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