After making the easy decision to take a 30 minute flight from Sucre to La Paz instead of the 19hour bus ride along the road in Bolivia that is responsible for even more deaths than the notorious “Worlds Most Dangerous Road”, we landed in La Paz rather under-dressed and unprepared for the altitude. La Paz, being the worlds highest capital city at 3660m above sea level, is situated in a massive valley with stunning views of the monstrous Illimani volcano peeking out above the rim of the valley. The city itself seems as if it clinging to the steep sides of the valley which is continuously trying to shrug off the buildings and wash everything down the river that runs through the city. In short, it’s in a terrible location considering there is a massive, open, perfectly flat area, El Alto(where the airport is situated), just above the valley which is way more conducive to easy living. And walking along flat ground at that altitude is a hell of a lot better than having to hike up, what feels like the side of a mountain, one or two blocks to get anywhere in La Paz.
I’m sure by now you’ve already got an idea of how much I enjoyed La Paz… So out the plane we sumbled and caught a collectivo down into the hole, I mean valley, of La Paz and straight into the crazy boiling pot of trucks and buses, tourists and touters, witches and lama foetuses. Catching a collectivo into town from the airport is around 4 Bolivianos ($0.50) as opposed to 60 Bolivianos ($8.50) for a taxi (which we saw most other tourists doing for not knowing any alternative). Fortunately in our minibus there was a smiley girl heading to work in one of the touristy markets near the plaza San Francisco where we were meant to get off. Upon arrival at Plaza, the driver promptly stops in the middle lane of the 3 lane main road heading through the city and barks something along the lines of “out tourist now!” so we bundle out of the vehicle and into the rush hour traffic which seems to carry on from dawn till midnight.
With our basic map and rudimentary directions from our smiley friend we head of in the direction of our hostel, which was 2 blocks away from the city’s main Plaza Murillo and up the mountain side. With a huff and a puff we make it to the plaza but cant help but notice the heavy police presence blocking the roads all around the plaza all kitted out in full riot gear. Another check on the map and, surprise, surprise, the hostel is 2 blocks UP the mountainside from the plaza… so we catch our breath (which is in very short supply at that altitude!) and take in the lovely view of the Cathedral of La Paz, the Presidential Palace and the National Congress of Bolivia before carrying on up towards the hostel. One block up the road we run into these guys …
“What’s going on?” we later asked the guy at the hostel. “Oh I don’t know, another protest. I guess cos its Friday and someone is unhappy about something. It happens all the time. But don’t worry, it’s not serious”.
The riot police quite happily opened their barricade to let us pass and simply walk through the protesters who didn’t seem to notice us dragging our bags through their crowd while they kept chanting, banging drums and shooting off fireworks that sounded like gunshots.
So we dropped off our bags at the hostel and headed back towards the Plaza San Francisco where we were dropped off to go find the Mercado de Brujas or Witches Market and arrange a tour or two. After a bit of wandering and we took a turn into Linares street off Sagarnaga and were greeted by the sight of dried llama foetuses and frogs. Not cool. Apparently they bring good luck to households and you can find a llama foetus under the foundations of most Bolivian homes in the region. They seem to come in all stages of growth from barely developed to already having fur. The witches maintain all the foetuses come from natural miscarriages and still born calves but I’m not so sure when it comes to the supply of tourist items for sale.
We consulted one of the witches and were recommended a few natural remedies and daily herbal supplements which, so far, have had a positive effect. After grabbing a bite to eat and booking and paying for a tour to Tiwanaku for the following day we headed back to the hostel to get some rest. Tiwanaku is the site of the capital city of the largest and most advanced Pre Incan civilization in South America and we were really looking forward to seeing the well preserved ruins.
But the muddy hole in the ground that is La Paz thought that we shouldn’t go visit the ruins the next day but rather we spend the night and following day hugging a toilet bowl! The Tiwanaku tour guide arrived at our hostel at 8:45am sharp the next morning and we had to turn him away as neither Peryal nor I could manage to walk more than 15 meters (the distance from our room to the bathroom) without almost feinting. We later changed our room to include a private ensuite bathroom in order to shorten our run to the toilet. That day we didn’t eat and survived on rehydrate solutions in water.
The next day we were feeling a little better and both agreed that we needed to get out of the La Hole asap. We read that Corioco was a relaxed little town where the people of La Paz go to get some warm sunshine and lovely scenery so we made our way to the “bus station” in the Villa Fatima district which is actually just a regular street where lots of collectivos hang out until they fill up their minivans and head out to wherever their destination is. So in we jumped and off our driver sped up the hill and out of the valley (Yay!) until we reached the city limit where the driver stopped to pick up a few more passengers and let some of the ladies out to buy some straw mattresses and sweets. Not strange at all…
What we didn’t know at the time is that the old road between La Paz and Corioco is notoriously known as the “Worlds Most Dangerous Road” (WMDR)… oh crap! Fortunately they built a new paved road in 2006 along a slightly different route but that doesn’t mean its not a white knuckled ride! The new highway is a 2 lane paved road which winds along a similar mountain route as the WMDR and you can see the old cliff side road along parts of the journey. I think now that the Dakar Rally has moved to South America every taxi driver has a Dakar sticker on their windscreen and drives as if they are hoping to be spotted by a rally talent scout. They cut corners, overtake on blind rises/corners and just generally floor it every chance they get! There are practically no straight points along the road with often 100 metre near vertical drops just on the other side of the barriers (at least when there are barriers…) That was the first time I’d been slightly uncomfortable (absolutely crapping myself) on a bus journey in South America.
The road starts off climbing out of the valley away from La Hole and up over La Cumbre pass – 4650m asl then snakes its way down a snowy mountain side and eventually into the Yungas (Bolivian mountain jungles) and past the entrance to the WMDR. The windy winding road carries on slithering along the high peaks until it hit the you come across a DESVIO (detour) sign another “oh crap” moment… Because part of the road is still under construction or repair we had to head down an even thinner windier dirt road for the last part of the harrowing journey towards the bottom of the valley. Some of the switchback corners are so narrow and sharp that we had to do a 3 point turn just to get around. Thank heavens we were in a minibus as I’d hate to see how the buses had to do it. Once down near the river we stopped in Yolosi for a couple minutes to get out, stretch and feel the lovely solid ground under our feet. Also at this point we had to take off most of our layers as the change in temperature from the bitter cold of high La Paz and the warm jungle tropic of Corioco at 1200m asl is quite intense. And also wonderful feeling that warm humidity again. From Yolosi its another 20 minute ride up the hill to Corioco and bliss.