La Paz & The World’s Most Dangerous Road

December 15th, 2009 by David & Bec Leave a reply »

Once again we’ve been caught by local strikes, but this worked out pretty well.  While finding out about continuing our bus trips through Peru towards Bolivia, it turned out more protests were blocking roads from Cusco. We could get reasonable prices to fly straight to La Paz though, and it didn’t take us long to decide that sounded better than 18 hours on the bus.

Flying into the world’s highest city the last thing we expected was coming in to land over miles of very flat fields. After only 5 minutes in the taxi we came around a corner and felt like we dropped out of the sky and into the real La Paz. It’s a huge city nestled in a bowl that ranges from 4100 meters to 3100 meters in altitude. In an example of fine planning, while staying at an altitude where you should take it easy (3600m), we managed to pick a hostel with a room on the fourth floor and no lift! To give a sense of what it means .. a friend of someone staying there flew straight into La Paz from Auckland, ended up with bubbles in her lungs, had to spend her whole 2 weeks in hospital (and still wasn’t stable enough to fly home), and will never be allowed at altitude again.  We definitely felt the altitude, but also did great from preparing for it in previous weeks and really just had to take it a bit easy.

People we had talked to either loved it or hated La Paz. As a city it is big, dirty, smelly, and it doesn’t have the best reputation in the world. But we found the people to be friendly, the mountains peeking though in the distance were very beautiful and the streets were jam-packed with a vast array of interesting and odd things for sale. If New Zealand didn’t have such strict quarantine laws there would be a pair of fluffy alpaca slippers heading back home to Bec’s Mum.

We’ve mentioned some of the fantastic food on our trip.  Although Dumbo’s was hardly a culinary highlight, it was definitely Emelia’s favourite so far with the kids’ playground inside. The only thing that gave her a bigger smile was being given a balloon animal. It made us realise how much we need to make sure she gets to play with other kids regularly.

Emelia has started to laugh at random things she sees on the streets. This is fine except that most of the men in La Paz think that every wall is a urinal and Emelia finds this hilarious. We also thought it was pretty funny seeing a boy of about 4 with his pants down around his ankles standing on the kerbside peeing into traffic.

We split up for a day and David mountain biked The World’s Most Dangerous Road (or ‘WMDR’ to its friends), while Bec and Emelia went on a city tour.

David – although over 100 people a year (300 one year) used to die on the World’s Most Dangerous Road due to the narrow winding gravel with enormous unfenced cliffs , a new separate road means this one now has minimal traffic – other than plenty of mountain bikers.  The ride starts an hour out of La Paz, and for 64km is virtually all downhill, with the first third or so down a good road, and the rest on the (in)famous gravel track. The start point is 4750m, and you drop the equivalent height of Mt Cook, yet still end up at 1100m.

At the top it wasn’t far from snowing and so cold I could barely brake or talk to the guy beside me, yet at the bottom it was jungle and toasting in shorts and t-shirt. Although the trip felt totally safe, there were a few occasions where I’d take a turn and was very conscious of just how big the drop beside me was, or ride through a waterfall on the road and be thankful the slip beside it was from another day. The ride ends at an animal refuge at the bottom, where we’d barely sat down before a cold beer was put in our hand, followed by a big buffet lunch. After some time there, everyone jumps on the bus and is driven back up the same road (with a round of applause for the driver when we made it safely). One very cool day.

Bec – our day was not nearly as exciting as David’s but it was really interesting. Emelia and I played it safe and crossed with the zebra at the intersection. It was only when we were ushered across the road by the friendly zebra that I realized what it was – a zebra crossing! It was then on the bus to the Valley of the Moon.

As we drove out of the city, past buildings that looked like they were stuck together with not much more than mud and straw, we heard about the history of Bolivia. It is South America’s poorest country where the average wage is $4500 per year. With a population of 10 million it means that there are a lot of very poor people here trying to earn a living in any way they can. Traditionally one of this region’s major income sources has been coca. It was and is still used by the locals as a stimulant to reduce hunger, fatigue, cold, pain and altitude sickness. It is not cocaine and is not addictive. Unfortunately it is what they make cocaine out of which is where the slippery slope begins. The US in its war against drugs has implemented mass spraying of coca plants which not only kills the coca plants but makes it very difficult to grow other crops in its place. The arguments for and against are many, but for the average Bolivian what trickles down to them is the fact that $500 million has been taken out of the economy since the eradication began.

From poor to rich, the Valley of the Moon is beautiful in a now very familiar desert kind of way. It is made of sand stone which has eroded over time to form this very lunar looking landscape. The wealthy La Pazzers decided it was nice down in the valley so they built big homes and a golf course right on top of this amazing geographical feature. It is not all bad though as apparently because this is the highest golf course in the world the ball goes further when you hit it.

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