La Paz

From Sucre we were headed towards La Paz, back through Potosi. This time though we were all alone. Ciaran and Anas had wisely decided to fly to La Paz – trading our two day drive for a much more enjoyable 40 minute flight :)

Our route took us back through Potosi and through the Bolivian countryside, as usual, paying tolls and watching the miles tick by…

Now that we had been turned away by more than a few gas stations, we knew we might again have difficulty buying gas, so we started searching pretty early on. By the time we had been turned away by a few different station we knew we’d have to get creative. As always, we were carrying an extra can of gas with us, but our goal was to save that for an emergency. When one more station turned us away we decided to backtrack to the nearest village we’d passed through. One of the tiny storefronts had a hand-painted sign out front that advertised bread, milk, candy, coca-cola, and, strangely, gasoline. Wolf had jumped out to ask as we passed through the first time but the owner had told him he would get a better deal if he kept driving to the next station.

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Now that the next station had told us they wouldn’t sell us gas, I went back to talk to the same lady who, after a bit of back and forth, finally agreed to sell us some gasoline. I couldn’t quite understand her reluctance – why bother stocking and advertising if you don’t actually want to sell it to us? We paid a nice premium and she ducked into the back yard for a few minutes, returning with an old plastic gas can and a hose. After a few puzzled seconds, I walked back to the car hoping that Wolf would know what to do. As usual, Wolf knew exactly what to do – he stuck one end of the hose in the gas can and sucked on the other end to create enough suction so that the gas would start flowing. A little old-school effort and we were on our way with enough gas to get us to the next city.

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The rest of the day’s drive brought us just to the outskirts of Oruro where we encountered a couple of police checkpoints – they seemed to be out in droves, presumably to manage all the people celebrating Carnival. Since it was getting dark and we knew the city of Oruro’s famous Carnival celebration might make it tough to get through the city or find a hotel room, so we started looking for camping spots as we neared the city, eventually settling on a big quarry-type pit with high enough piles of dirt that we were mostly hidden from the road. We set up camp, made dinner, and then listened to the rain all night, wondering if we’d be floating in a pool of mud by morning…

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We woke up the next morning at the edge of a new pond :)

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As we made our way into Oruro we passed the weekend market full of all kind of trucks and stalls lined up on the side of the street. With all we’d read about Oruro’s amazing Carnival celebration, we were surprised to drive through a relatively nondescript and somewhat depressing town.

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We blazed towards La Paz, arriving late in the afternoon to navigate the outskirts of town and the related chaos.

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Thinking we’d figured out a nice main road to get to our campsite, we were surprised when we turned a corner to find yet another unpaved road that suddenly dropped down into a huge valley.

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Double-checking the map, we headed down into the suburbs of La Paz. And while the roads were worse than expected, the views were better. We passed through little neighborhoods, even spotting a cousin of our Westy, slowly rusting away in someone’s front yard.

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The whole way we dodged squirt guns and water balloons and foam sprays from little kids lining the road, preying on unsuspecting motorists with the windows down.

We pulled into the Hotel Oberland and happily gave our little car a rest. Suddenly it felt like we were back in Patagonia, and surrounded by other overlanders on similar trips.

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Our campsite was the hotel’s overflow parking lot, but with showers and bathrooms and wifi and secure parking – everything we needed. We decided to take the afternoon to get organized and clean up a bit, opting to wait until the following morning to head into La Paz, so we spent a few hours repacking, wiping up dust collected from many dirt roads, and re-organizing all our chaos.  By the evening we were ready for a stroll and wandered the nearby streets, popping in to check out the Carnival party that we’d been hearing all day, complete with band and dancing and firecrackers, before cooking dinner and calling it a night.

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First thing in the morning we chatted with the hotel office about whether they might be able to help us fill our propane tank. Our fill in Sucre had gotten us this far but we figured we would run out again soon, so we arranged to give it a shot before leaving La Paz. From there we grabbed a cab and headed downtown to meet Ciaran and Anas and do some sightseeing. The drive in was super interesting, winding through the Valle de la Luna with its craggy landscape, past the gondolas carrying people on a sightseeing tour of the city, and finally into the chaos of the city.

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We jumped out at the witches’ market in La Paz and were excited to meet up with Ciaran and Anas again – we’d missed our travel buddies and were happy they’d scouted out La Paz for us. Together we wandered through the witches market, checking out the potions and remedies lined up alongside llama fetuses of various shapes, sizes and states used for various offerings and other purposes.

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Our next stop was a quick taxi ride up to a viewpoint over the city. I loved seeing La Paz from this vantage point, perched in the center of a huge bowl and spreading down through the neighboring valleys.

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Next stop on our sightseeing agenda was the San Pedro prison. Upon entering Bolivia, our audiobook of choice had been Marching Powder, a story about a prisoner in the San Pedro prison. His depictions of prison life are bizarre and completely fascinating so we were excited to see it in person. And when we arrived, we were greeted with a lovely square full of kids playing and families enjoying the afternoon, and just across the street, a nondescript building turned out to be the prison we’d read so much about.

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A line of people waited their turn to visit prisoners inside; outside we imagined the scenes from the book, with luxury apartments, cable tv, drug labs, and all sorts of things you would never imagine to find in a prison.

From there we headed towards lunch and a restaurant Ciaran and Anas had scouted out ahead of time. A fun place with all sorts of kitschy antiques decorating the walls, we were one of the only patrons inside, but once we sat down we realized we were in good company – the actor Jude Law was eating lunch in the corner with his kids. His bodyguard even stopped us at the door and asked us not to take pictures. It was fun to have a private lunch with a celebrity, but otherwise uneventful.

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After a round of bad irish coffees, we decided to head back to the market to do our La Paz souvenir shopping. Wolf and I had a good time shopping for a few things for our home together. For me, it was incredibly memorable to walk through the La Paz street markets shopping for tablecloths and pillow covers – it was fun to be there together and fun to be choosing a few things that we’d use during our life together.

A few purchases later we were ready to call it a day. We all grabbed a few beers at the local Irish pub and spent the evening chatting and laughing. Before too long we headed back to our campsite, ready for another big day.

The following morning we were out the door bright and early, grabbing a taxi into the center of town. Ciaran and Anas were waiting for us. Over beers the night before Ciaran and Wolf had decided to have a mini-mustache competition, so we all had a good laugh at the sight of the two of them and their new facial hair fashions.

We’d heard a lot about this day trip, which would include a downhill mountain biking adventure through the canyons outside of La Paz, and in particular along roads that had been deemed the world’s most dangerous given their precarious nature – perched on cliffs, with waterfalls that drop straight into the road, and insufficient room for oncoming traffic to pass… we weren’t quite sure what was in store for us but we were excited to find out.

Our tour bus wound its way out of town, stopping when the road became so steep that we all had to pile out of the van so that it could creep slowly up the hill with less weight inside.

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We passed big tour buses decked out with crazy illustrations – Wolf had fond memories of seeing scorpion buses on his last trip to Bolivia so we had to capture a few of the other artistic buses.

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Climbing out of a valley we stopped at the peak of a hill and spent a few minutes getting situation with protective equipment – elbow and knee pads – and rain gear before taking our bikes for a spin.

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After a quick briefing we jumped on the bikes and started downwards. The first stretch of road had some traffic but was nice and wide and well paved so we raced downhill.

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I thought I might find the whole experience stressful or scary, but once I was on the bike I loved it, and found myself crouching as low as possible to pick up more speed. We stopped for photo ops and to take in the views down the valley with its winding river framed by jagged peaks.

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Continuing downward we were all having fun racing the traffic and each other and enjoying a beautiful day for a bike ride.

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At the bottom of a long stretch we stopped for snacks and jumped back in the van to drive a few kilometers down the road where we’d start cycling again.

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After fixing a few flats we were back in the saddle, this time headed downhill along a much more rustic-looking route. P1110039 (1024x768)

The road here was dirt and very narrow with sheer cliffs on one side and a steep drop off on the other, all covered in dense jungle.

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We rode down through fog, in many places riding through waterfalls that spilled directly onto the road, drenching us as we pedaled through. Navigating the road was half the fun but the surrounding scenery was just amazing (so amazing that I managed to get my glove in most of the pictures… whoops!).

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Eventually the fog and dense vegetation gave way to brilliant sun and a smattering of houses and farms.

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In the hot sun we got rid of the rain gear before continuing down to the bottom of the canyon and the end of our ride. Reaching the small town we were greeted by hordes of little kids wielding water guns, water balloons, and containers of foam spray, ready to greet us. After a cute little girl sprayed me down with a hose, I was done with the Carnival festivities. We sat at a café and grabbed a few refreshments still feeling a bit of adrenaline rush from finishing our ride down the Death Road.

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Back in the bus we drove a bit further to a place where we had lunch and took a quick dip in the pool to cool down before starting the trip back to La Paz.

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We were surprised to see fresh snow on the peaks where we had started our cycle ride as we entered back into town and were happy that we’d had great weather all day. We all headed back to our campsite in a taxi and sat in the hotel restaurant for a mediocre dinner before turning in for the night.

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We were all back in the van and once again feeling cozy in our little adventure-mobile.

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