La Paz is the capital of Bolivia, and at 3,640m / 11,950ft, it is the highest administrative capital in the world. From a distance it reminded me very much of Quito, sitting as it does sprawled across a valley and encompassed by mountains. However, upon arrival downtown and on closer inspection, I realised the similarities ended there. It seemed to be a much more bustling city with more noise, traffic, dirt and people on the streets. After the last couple of weeks in sparsely-populated towns, it was an assault on the senses and quite welcomed. I met my Instagram buddy, Steven, for coffee and we wandered around the ‘Witches Market’ which is pretty much like most other markets in South America, apart from one rather macabre distinction: they sold llama foetuses, strung up at the entrance of the stalls. Some were large with fur and obviously removed just before birth, while others looked like bird skeletons and removed earlier on in the pregnancy. Steven is fluent in Spanish and we learned from the stallholder that the foetus is offered to the earth mother, Pachamama, when new buildings are erected. I think I’d prefer some champagne personally. It was fun getting to know Steven beyond Instagram pictures and we’ve promised to visit Mallorca and Amsterdam respectively once we’re both back in the real world.
As it was the last night on the trip for many passengers, the hotel laid on a spread for us on the top floor restaurant which, with its neon orange and green colour scheme and formal matching tableware, looked like an Irish/Dutch wedding on speed. All crimes against interior design were soon forgotten once the free wine and food appeared, all of which was delicious. We were also treated to some traditional Bolivian dancing, although three of the four dancers looked like they’d rather be anywhere else than in the room with us, especially when their leader indicated it was time to pull up a gringo from our motley crew and teach them the movements. They were visibly relieved to be, um, relieved of their duties, and we headed into town to discover the city’s nightlife. We didn’t get too far as we were persuaded to visit ‘The English Pub, which was about as English as a native llama. A few too many pisco sours later and the group were either playing beer pong or dancing on the bar, which seems to be de rigeur on this continent.
I called it a night at 0300 as my alarm was set for 0700 in order to join a mountain bike expedition along El Camino De La Muerte. In case your Spanish is as rusty as mine, allow me to translate: Death Road. We met our very sprightly guide, Linda from the Netherlands, and set off to the start of the route which would eventually descend 1,300m. Linda regaled us with stories of her very impressive cycling exploits while doling out protective gear, for which I would later become very thankful! The start of the ride was up in the clouds and bloody freezing, and was actually on the asphalt of the ‘new road’. For 22km we freewheeled down the winding road, taking in some stunning scenery, before reaching a tunnel which we bypassed to try our first ‘off roading’ of the day. We then jumped back on the bus for the short ride to the start of the ‘old road’ a.k.a. Death Road. The road winds itself down through the mountainside and several micro climates and is very narrow in parts, as in the width-of-one-car narrow! It’s incredible to think that it used to handle two-way traffic with various passing spots. Our other guide and photographer, Rodrigo, led the way and we gingerly followed, taking some time to learn to trust the bike over some pretty rocky terrain.
We all made it to the marathon point (42km) in one piece and stopped for snacks, after which we continued down the home stretch. On one of the fast downhill sections, my rear wheel got a puncture and luckily I managed to jump off the bike and land on my feet. Five minutes later, however, when the back wheel of my replacement bike skidded on a rock on a slow and innocuous section of the road, I was not so lucky. For some reason, as the bike fell it took me with it for several metres and we were locked in rather a painful embrace. Unlike at home in the Netherlands, I was wearing a helmet and therefore I folded my arms across my chest to protect my collarbone instead, which is often injured in a bike fall, and that meant Linda had to extricate me from the bike in which I was tangled. She was very calm as she asked me if anything hurt (yes; my leg and lower back), if anything was bleeding (I didn’t think so) and if anything felt broken (no). She asked if I could make it to our bus, which thankfully trailed behind us the whole way, and I thought I could. However, upon sitting up, we both saw the blood which was quickly soaking through the thick protective clothing and I realised (I guess the initial shock had masked this previously) that my right leg was in fact extremely painful. Linda and our driver, Santi, carried me to the bus and gently sat me down, before Linda proceeded to remove my trousers and shorts, giggling “it’s been a long time since I’ve taken off a guy’s pants”, to which I responded “me too love, me too”.
Once removed, we could see that the copious amount of blood (that thankfully was not spurting which Linda took to be a good sign) was coming from a narrow but deep cut in my thigh. We applied a compress and started the three and a half hour drive to hospital. I felt a bit ill and closed my eyes, each bump in the road bringing a louder ‘ouch’ than the one before. I was very impressed by the healthcare received in La Paz: I was met at the roadside by a porter with a wheelchair and was taken immediately to a ward where I waited all of forty seconds to be seen by Dr. Mayra. The medical staff all knew my name and why I was there thanks to the biking company who had obviously called ahead to forewarn them (“another stupid effing gringo who’s fallen off a bike” is how I imagined the conversation went). The whole experience was seamless. Thankfully Dr. Mayra’s first act of treatment was to give me some pain medication before inspecting and cleaning the wound. To be honest, cleaning the grazes was three most painful part of the treatment, more so than when I got my pretty large tattoo. Dr. Mayra was concerned that the depth of the wound may have resulted in a blood clot so I had to go for some tests, but thankfully all was clear, and three stitches, $173, and two hours later, I was in a taxi back to the hotel. A taxi ride which was more frightening than anything I encountered on the death road if I’m honest.
Ian had very kindly accompanied me to the hospital, and paid the bill as I didn’t have my bank card with me. We found a pharmacy near the hotel and went to collect the four sets of tablets prescribed. They wouldn’t take Ian’s card and asked if we could pay cash, in response to which I took out a wad of notes that were stuck together with congealed blood, demonstrating why I was there in the first place. Miraculously, the pharmacist said she would take the cash, albeit with a disgusted look on her face.
On a previous trip, Ian met a girl called Cat, who joined our tour in La Paz and is staying with us for three weeks until Santiago. Cat is lovely and I felt really guilty at monopolising Ian on the first day of their reunion. Thankfully, the opportunity to make it up to them both presented itself the very next day when I took them for lunch at Gustu, La Paz’s only Michelin starred restaurant. We opted for a tasting menu, although the wine pairing was ‘prohibido’ due to the election on the following day. The meal was delicious, as were the soft drink pairings, and I was pleased to hear lots of exclamations of pleasure coming from Cat’s mouth (although I’ve since discovered this happens pretty much any time a plate of food is put in front of her).
The following day another group from our tour decided to tackle the Death Road, this time resulting in one person fracturing their collarbone and requiring a three day stay in hospital to insert a metal plate; and one woman went over the side of the cliff and had to be roped up by the guides. Miraculously she only ended up with a few grazes on her leg. A couple of others also fell off the bikes but thankfully received no injuries. Our tour leader said that he’s never had any fallers before and I’m guessing he wasn’t expecting five in two days! I have to say that the touring company, Dragoman, and the cycling company, Gravity Tours, were both amazing. If this blog post hasn’t put you off, I’d highly recommend both.
Needless to say the next couple of days were spent resting in a drug-induced fug, although I did manage to make it to the restaurant next door for a plate of picque machu, a meat and eggs dish, that I shared with Cat, and which was delicious. I really fancied a beer – for medicinal purposes of course – but unfortunately, the three day alcohol ban was still in force. Or so it seemed until our waitress waved a piece of paper under our noses advising we could have beer, but it will be disguised as a coffee. As you can see from the photo below, the ‘beeracino’ was quite convincing, although the unused tea bag which adorned the saucer kinda gave the game away!!