La Paz is the highest administrative capital in the world, though it doesn’t really matter which direction you enter from as you’ll likely be descending from somewhere higher. Speaking of course of the altitude and not the multitude of substances that Bolivia, and particularly La Paz, is famed for.
One month off the bike was more than enough time to finish the bottle of rum I’d been dragging around in my bottle cages and sample some of Bolivia’s best economical bottles of wine, explore, and along the way catch up with some old and older friend’s as well as making some new one’s.
I quickly established myself in the cities famed (in cycling circles) Casa de Ciclista’s and headed straight out into the night with some French company and an exceptionally large bottle of beer. Night one was a leisurely stroll around what became known as ‘gringo-ville’ (the cities tourist district) and ended watching a new French friend mock breakdancing as some local’s tried their luck at impressing us with their local freestyle rap. At this point I could tell I was in for an interesting few weeks.
As the house’s population rotated, I was joined by Argentine’s, Polska’s and more French again, and the soundtrack to the place became ‘Copacabana’, in reference to the nearby border town, completely different to the theme of Barry Manilow’s classic.
To escape the music I took a day off to ride down the nearby, much touristed, Death Road. Here I had my first experience bribing the police.
Myself and one other cyclist woke early and caught a minibus to the pass 1000m higher than La Paz, here we could quickly descend from the cold on a good paved road until the start of the unpaved ‘Death Road’, which descended many more kilometres before the need to negotiate a lift back and over the pass to La Paz.
I’m not really sure that the track was any more dangerous than the entirety of the route through the Yungas to La Paz in the first instance, I’m inclined to believe it was a hell of a lot safer since there were no real cars on the road other than the occasional local heading between villages. Most dangerous were probably the local’s who had made road blocks every few kilometres to try and fleece some cash out of you. I had a threefold approach to this, firstly tell them I was a local, secondly argue for as long as I had energy, and finally just ride off since the descent was steep and they had shot themselves in the foot by putting a rope across the road (making it difficult to chase me).
I’m sure the views were spectacular, but this is what I was dealing with. Either way a good day out of the city.
As we approached the bottom of the road at dusk I neglected to see a rope across the road at a police checkpoint and barrelled straight through it, ripping the cord from it’s tether on the other side of the road in the checkpoints office. Cue berating from unhappy policeman who was convinced I had caused a small crack in his glass window.
I’m aware that I’m a bit tongue in cheek with a lot of people – mainly I think it’s because I can’t stand people who point out or isolate problems in the past without offering any solution or acknowledging that the best thing in that moment would be to find a solution rather than needlessly getting worked up. Anyhow, after he had dragged me into his office and made me sit down for 10 minutes, I explained to him that I hadn’t seen the cord in the bad light and that I’m not accustomed to looking for road checkpoints on highway’s in my country. He told me I needed to replace the window and I explained that I wanted to help him, but as he could see I was not carrying a large pane of glass with me on my bicycle. Not the best approach with foreign police, but I succeeded in focusing him on the predicament.
I asked him what the cost of a pane of glass was (not wanting to offend him with a low ball and not wanting to stretch myself more than I needed to), we agreed on 70 Boliviano’s, I gave him 60 instead, and he game me 10 back. So in the end I came out 50 Bol’s down (about 10 AUD) and quickly packed my thing’s and rode into the night. I’m sure I had nothing to do with the broken glass but at least I came off lightly.
Every day in La Paz there was something dramatic happening – usually in the form of a strike or protest stopping all traffic on the street. Part way through my stay there was a very welcome civic disruption. Gran Poder.
A large part of the city closed down as a huge parade snaked it’s way through town for almost 24 hours, music, dancing and horrendously drunk locals shared the street’s together.
Back to School
I stayed in La Paz for a few reasons, primarily to rest (laughably impossible) after a gruelling 8 weeks riding in Bolivia, and also because I intended to take intensive Spanish classes for a few weeks to try and shake any bad habits I had made with the language.
I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher in Franz, and spent every morning talking about the intricacies of the Spanish language, and generally about bikes otherwise.
Casa de Ciclista’s
It was great to be in a city like La Paz and have the facility of the Casa on my side. I experienced the other side of the city (it’s backpacker lifestyle), and visited a number of its famed party hostel’s, and I’m convinced I couldn’t sustain that style for the full 5 weeks – every night was raucous with dancing on the bars and free shots/body paint.
In contrast the Casa de Ciclista’s generally had a rotating crowd of touring riders more interested in saving money for another part of their adventure. I spent the month crossing thing’s off my ‘to-do’ list, and was happy in the final week to be able to finally tick off my last endeavour, ‘eat well’.
The last week was spent in good company with French, Dutch and Argentine’s, cooking up an absurd amount of food and drinking an absurd amount of red wine.
Perhaps the relaxation wasn’t needed after so many weeks off in La Paz, but it’s hard to cross the border to Perú without first heading out to Isla del Sol to drink a beer and watch the sunset. The ride out of La Paz was a particularly brisk one, with everything icing over in the night, but it didn’t detract from the tropical atmosphere around Lake Titicaca and the Island. I was able to cross over with a friend from Patagonia to explore the beginning of Perú together.