Monday, 21 February 2011

Facing death in Bolivia

Ater an amazing time in huge and very beautiful and interesting Peru, it was time for us to hitch the next bus south for a short stay in Bolivia.

From Puno we booked a 'direct' bus to La Paz, but after taking us through border control, the bus stopped in Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and we were told we had an hour and a half before the continuing bus left for La Paz.

Having heard from some fellow travellers that Copacabana was a dirty and horrible place, we were very pleasantly surprised to find that this town was just like any other South American town, full of merchands lining the streets and selling anything you could ever dream of, and an improvement to many other places it had a whole street lined with nice-looking restaurants.


And it wasn't dirtier than most of the other places we have visited, although in difference with Puno, the harbour - called 'the beach' - smelled really quite bad.

We spent the time doing a quick sightseeing and looking for a pair of alpaca gloves for Nuno, before boarding the new bus for La Paz. And here started the bus difference between Peru and Bolivia.

Giant inflated corn seeds.

Having started to gotten used and spoiled by the Peruvian buses that keep a class a part with comfortable, reclining seats, televisions, quite good leg room and seat belts, we felt slightly claustrophobic in the new bus as we were squeezed into a small space with very little leg-room, where all our personal space more or less disappeared as the person in front reclined their seats. In comparison to the buses of northern Central America, like Guatemala and Nicaragua, this bus was a clear improvement. It is, however, very easy to get used to comfort and the feeling of safety, hence the swap of countries were a bit of a cultural bus choc for me.

Arriving in La Paz after 9h of travelling (they forgot to count the 2h stop in Copacabana when they told us the trip would take 7h), we were sent away from our chosen hostel as it was fully booked. As luck would have it, we found a really nice room with private bathroom in the Republican hostel across the street.

A good turn of events, I would say as it was very calm rather than the often party hostels that we had been staying in during most of the time in Peru. The hostel also sported a travel agency with really good service, and because of our late arrival to the city we decided to book our biking tour for the next day through them. (Usually we would have talked to a few different companies rather than going through an agency, but this time we did not have the time). And this turned out to be a good choice, as we ended up with what seemed to be one of the absolute best companies going down that track, with better equipment than most of the others.

Having taken care of the day after, we attacked the city by night and ventured over to the central part of town, checking out the San Fransisco church, and making it to the 'witches' street almost by accident. We first wondered why the street was named such a thing, but a few steps down the street made the reason very clear to us. The usual merchands stands were here exchanged for stands with any kind of ingredient that one could possibly think of in order to make potions and protection of the former.


From all sorts of different herbs, to ceramic amulets representing different sacred symbols. From dried toads, to dried baby lamas and lama fetuses. The street was highly fascinating, highly disgusting and a bit scary, due to its mysterious feel. Having seen a restaurant sign for lama steak earlier and originally having been interested in trying this supposedly very rich meat, we quickly changed our mind and ended up having vegetarian sushi and chicken murka in an Asian restaurant. The first sushi that I had dared since leaving Geneva almost 5 months before, it was succulent. So good in fact that we returned to the same restaurant for our last lunch before leaving La Paz.

On our second day in this high altitude city, we had an early start as usual. Having had some problems with my maestro card, I took the opportunity of calling the bank before lunch-time in Geneva, to get the bad news that someone had copied my maestro card during my travels and had retrieved more than 2'000 USD in Domincan Republic with it (more about this in a seperate blog entry).

So I started the day in what you can imagine was not the best of moods and spend the one hour bus-ride to the take-off place being happily quiet as Nuno chatted away in Portuguese with the Brazilian couple that made up the rest of our little group of 4 (the day before the same company had had the standard 15 participants, so we were really lucky). I think I even sat up on my bike in a fairly crappy mood, although putting on our crazy outfits - knee and elbow pads, jacket and trousers, gloves, and a full facial helmet - did start to make me feel a bit happier.


However, after a couple of minutes on my bike, going down the first 25k made up of an asphalt road, managing to staying right after the guide all the time and holding a really good speed (I guess the training of having done approx. 35k in pooring down rain in Peru a week before made this ride on a mostly dry paved road a walk in the sunshine - although there was not much sunshine and as we started up at 4'700m at 8.30 am, it was freezing cold). By the first stop after perhaps 10 minutes, a big smile was plastered on my face and then stayed on for most of the rest of the downhill trip.


It was beautiful, with amazing scenery around us, starting with snow-covered mountains, followed by a crazily steep canyon that we encircled, and finishing in the deep green of real jungle. After the 25km were done and after a short time back in the minibus for the uphill the real fun could begin as we attacked the road (in)famously known as the 'Death Road' or the 'Most dangerous road in the world'.

For some security reason none of the companies allow you to bike the part uphill, possibly the security reason they mean is health as we were still very high up and many tourists have problems with altitude sickness and hence uphill biking could mean too much strain on the hearts.This was not the case for us though as coming from such high lying places as Cusco, Puno and lake Tititcaca, we had gotten well acclimatised to the altitude before arriving in La Paz and hardly felt anything going up steep hills, in stark comparison to when we arrived in Quito and thought we would die the first day .


This road used to be one of the main roads up to La Paz with heavy traffic going in both directions on a thin slice of dirt road which at many places looked to narrow for even one vehicle! Hence the road earned it's 'lovely' name as approx. one vehicle per week went off the road for a few hundred meters free fall. It was indeed at this time the deadliest road in the world. After 15 years of work though, the new road was opened up 5 years ago, and the old dirt path is now mostly used by bikers, with only a few, local vehicles still going up or down the road. (It should be noted, however, that the biking on this road actually started 10 years ago, hence a full 5 years before the road was closed to most traffic).

By bike, the road can still be dangerous as the curves are often sharp, narrow and with no protection against falling off into a base jump with no parachute. It is especially dangerous when the mist is filling the valley as the curves are more difficult to distinguish and measure. Since if you come with to high speed into one of these curves it will most probably mean death.

In 10 years of biking tourism on this road, about 35 participants have actually died. A better account than when the road was heavily trafficked, but still enough to scare the shit out of some more sensitive people - like me. Our excellent guide, Luis’, pendant for telling us some of the gory stories didn't make my hold on the brakes any less hard, as he told us about the Italian curve (named after an Italian guy who on a misty day went into that curve in too high speed, and met his death flying) or the French girl curve (named after a French girl who, having gone off her bike to let a truck pass, took a step backwards on the side of the road without looking behind herself, and walked right out onto nothing). We also stopped next to a nicely carved stone of an Israeli girl who met her fate at the high age of 25 years.

All this information probably influenced me to be more careful. And it for sure influenced the Brazilian girl to be very careful as she did not feel too comfortable doing this downhill to start with and went down on a very slow speed indeed. I doubt, however that the information influenced in any way the speed of Nuno and the other guy as they speeded on behind the guide, having loads of fun.

But the road by bike on a clear day like the one we luckily had with quite a lot of sunshine even, did not actually feel that dangerous, (the day before it had poored down with rain the full 4h of the downhill path, much like the weather we had on the way to Machu Picchu). The path is very narrow for a car, not to speak about a bus or truck, but for a bike it is really quite large. As long as you control your speed, and are not super unlucky like the French girl was, it actually feels safer than many other roads in the region due to the lack of traffic. We never actually met any traffic during the 3 hours we spent going down on the dirt road. Only a couple of vehicles went past us while we were having breaks, but none while we were biking.

Instead, we enjoyed ourselves watching the great scenery, going under 2 waterfalls that actually falls onto the road, mastering the rocks that makes up much of the road and which means that both hands are usually needed on the steering wheel, and crossing 2 rivers that flows over the road (which were nothing like the 9 quite deep rivers that we had to cross in Peru).

It was a fun, great day and it was really cool to be in such a small group as although the boys usually had to wait a minute or so for me, and we then had to wait an additional 5 minutes or so for the other girl, it was still fine. Only once did I get a bit irritated with the slowness of the girl as I got stuck behind her going through the last river and therefore had to put both my feet into the river as I did not come with enough speed due to her blocking the way.

The day finished with lunch and a dip in the swiming pool at the end of the road in Coroico, before we all fell asleep in the minibus going back to La Paz on the new road. Well, new and new. This road is a lot better than the 'Death Road', but it is far from a good standard road as the asphalt is often gone, one track quite often closed and the road filled with rocks etc, but it does have 2 lanes and is not built leaning over the side of a deep canyon.

Our last day in La Paz was spent taking it easy with a nice sleep-in until 9am, and taking care of important things, before hitting the city for a last couple of hours of sightseeing, the sushi lunch already mentioned, and a view of the change of the presidential guards before picking up our laundry, re-packing, and jumping on a taxi to the bus station for a lovely 11-12h bus ride to Uyuni.




This bus, where I am actually writing this post as most people have fallen asleep already, has more space than our first Bolivian experience, but so far we have stopped twice on the side of the highway for the bus-team to work on something... At the moment, this road keeps a nice smooth surface though, and I only hope that we will make it to Uyuni in time for our tour to the salk lake, and that we will make it safe and sound

[comment written after arriving : we did make it safe and sound, although 2h late as we had to stop at around 6am as the dirt road that we had by then been travelling on for a couple of hours had broken down as a new river created by the downpoor had decided to cross it, and a truck had gone into it and was stuck. However, instead of just waiting for assistance – which would probably have been the case in Europe - men from the trucks and buses wanting to cross therefore spent about an hour and a half creating a temporary bridge out of rocks. After a first truck tried its way across this nice craftmanship, only moving a few rocks away that had to be replaced – the rest of the trucks and buses managed to cross and we made it to Uyuni in time for our departure.]

I must admit that we have not been the best tourists in La Paz as we only spent a couple of days and did not visit that many places. So besides the witches street, the excellent sushi, the funnily dressed women and the excellent bike ride, my main memory will be seeing a poor man being pushed to the ground by 2 policemen and then half-carried, half-dragged into a courtyard out of reach for the curious and worried eyes of the bystanders. I feel bad that I did not interact. I try to blame it on not knowing if that man had indeed done something wrong. But really that argument does not work on me, as for me police brutality is wrong no matter the circumstances. Justified violence to protect the policemen and any bystanders is another thing, but brutality can never be excused. And although there were loads of locals around and none of them intervened (but who knows what would have happened to them if they did), I still feel like a real chicken. It is indeed difficult to act in these circumstances.

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