Week eight: altitude and adrenaline

A mere three flights (and countless plane meals) from Galápagos, I was far from the sweaty sea-level island life as I landed in La Paz.

La Paz buzzes with activity. Whilst the streets are permanently gridlocked and everything looks a little run down, there’s a hive of busyness to soak in. That is if you can bare the breathless uphill walk in every direction!

Saying that, I buggered off out of the city, on a day trip to cycle Death Road.

We began our journey at 4700m altitude, with a ceremony to ask Pachamama (Mother Earth) to keep us safe. A sip of 96% alcohol for her and a sip for each of us; it must have worked, because the first hour or so of our journey was in total whiteout, rain soaked through all my layers, but I survived to tell the tale!

Luckily, as the terrain became more treacherous, the clouds began to lift and the view over the valley was pretty breathtaking. (Not that we were allowed to look at the view, for fear that our handlebars would follow our eyeline and we might plummet over the picturesque cliff that lay to our left!)

The further you wind down Death Road, the more invincible you feel you become; I had several near misses with some potholes and one unintentional dunk in a river. We certainly experienced the ‘extreme’ tour, as there were three route-altering avalanches caused by the rain that had blinded me earlier in the day. But as long as you stood up over the particularly rocky sections, then the saddle couldn’t cause too much irreparable damage!

To end our adrenaline-fuelled day trip, I flew head first across some ziplines (for a better view of where we’d been) and then our mini-bus back to La Paz became something of a party bus; six of us sat up front, encroaching on the driver’s personal space, fighting for DJ rights and chugging ready-mixed bottles of Cuba Libre. Not a bad day at all.

Other than that, I spent much of my time in La Paz wandering around markets. The witches market, for love potions and llama foetuses; the artisanal market, because you can never have too many trendy traveller jumpers; the food markets, don’t really need to justify those; and finally, the sprawling flea market at El Alto.

A satellite city of La Paz, easily accessed by cable car, with a spectacular view of the city and the not so distant snow capped mountains, El Alto played host to the biggest market I’ve ever come across. Whatever street you turned down, there was no escaping the piles of used car parts, military fatigues and inexplicable abundance of shoelaces, amongst other useful items and far more useless and bizarre ones.

El Alto isn’t just about the markets though, it also proudly presents the Wrestling Cholitas. Clearly a kitsch tourist trap, as we struggled to get directions from any locals, but well worth checking out (if you happen to find yourself in El Alto on a Thursday or Sunday evening.)

The warm up show was provided by some lycra-clad men, more akin to traditional Mexican wrestling, who seriously needed to work on their timings; one should not fall over and writhe in agony up to ten seconds after being “hit”. However, this totally forced, clearly under-rehearsed farce made it all the more surreal and entertaining.

The main event was somewhat more skilfully executed, all whilst dressed in traditional Cholita clothing- i.e. twenty-odd petticoats, a preppy cardigan and an ill-fitting bowler hat. These buxom Bolivian women made aggressive use of their overt sexuality, as they hurled the smaller, more gymnastic girls across the ring and smothered them under their petticoats. It was one of the most bizarre spectacles I’ve had the pleasure to witness, and I don’t think I stopped laughing with disbelief throughout.

Sadly I was too battered and bruised from Death Road (and ultimately too lazy) thus I had to skip the chance to rappel down a 70m building dressed as Spider-Man (a big attraction in La Paz, because, why not?!) However, other than that, I had pretty much enjoyed all the weird wonders on offer, thus headed off in the direction of Copacabana- Bolivia, not Rio just yet.

A tiny town on the edge of Lake Titicaca, the main sight is the incredibly gaudy church. Geometric patterns, in primary colours, adorn the ceiling, totally at odds with the overload of gold surrounding the alter and the rooms full of creepy giant dolls that lie behind.

On weekends, the square outside this giant, unexpectedly Turkish looking church is lined with cars seeking blessings from the Virgin. Each car is covered in flowers, garlands and sometimes even little hats; it could easily be mistaken for a wedding procession were it not for the stench of pure ethanol and the dangerous abundance of exploding firecrackers! Whole families line up for photos with their newly blessed cars, ready to tackle the Bolivian roads (they need all the luck they can get!)

Just offshore from this sleepy fisherman’s town is the sacred Isla del Sol. In accordance with its name (Island of the Sun- where the Inca’s believed the sun was created) it’s the perfect place to lounge on the beach or hike up the hill for a spectacular sunset in some Incan ruins.

Due to the sprawling oceanic size of Lake Titicaca, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a land locked country at incredibly high altitude. That is until you see the clouds floating particularly low around you, your lips are permanently chapped and the sun burns you much more easily (n.b. bring Vaseline and Aftersun!) However, being closer than usual to the night sky lights up evenings spent on the beach with a blanket of twinkles. Team that with a lot of juggling, guitar-playing hippies, a stomach full of trucha (trout) fresh from the lake and nothing but shacks selling cold beers, and you’ve got yourself a pretty wonderful weekend break.

A boat, a bus, a boat and two more buses away from Isla del Sol lies Sucre, Bolivia’s capital (who knew?!) where I’ve just arrived. I was surprised to witness such sweeping flat plains as I traversed such a mountainous country; I was even more surprised and delighted that the further south you head, the better the roads become. Now it’s time to see what this white-washed city has to offer…


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