It was perhaps appropriate that our arrival in La Paz, a city of dramatic geography, caught us out with its crazy topology. We arrived on November 21 2015 from the south, having driven for a few days up across the flat “altiplano” (high plain) that sits at around 3,800m, pausing on route to look for the recently disappeared Lake Poopo. We based ourselves on the outskirts of the city, coming and going from trips out to see the beautiful volcano Sajama on one side of the altiplano to the west and, to the east, the steep, lush Yungas mountains.
Our drive up to La Paz followed the beautiful and dramatic altiplano plain south to north, between the mountain ranges to the east and to the west. At one time, this area was a sea bed, before it was lifted up to 3,800m by the rise of the Andes mountain range. Today, what remains of the sea is a series of beautiful lakes and salars (salt flats, formed by the drying out of a lake) fed by water draining from the high peaks that surround it, of which the Salar de Uyuni is one of the largest in the south. We visited the Salar back during our first journey through Bolivia in August 2015.
We detoured off the road a little bit to take a small track towards Lago Poopo, which is marked as a very large lake on google maps.
Many of the lakes up the altiplano are pretty shallow – the Salar de Uyuni floods to a depth of a few inches each year, then dries out completely in the summer to leave the amazing salt flat. But Lago Poopo has been retreating year on year and, a few weeks later, we read that it has completely dried up and, this year, with the help of the El Niño, it has been declared disappeared. It was a lovely detour none-the-less, with some special bird sightings (as usual, click on a picture to open and scroll through the gallery):
The dramatic city of La Paz
We approached La Paz on the main road from the south and, as we hit the edge of El Alto (the sprawling and spreading second city that sits adjacent to La Paz up on the plain above), the map showed the road we wanted to take in order to skirt around the southern edge was to the right, in just a few moments, and that it started with a long series of switchbacks – but where was the hill? All we could see, except mountains in the far distance, was more flat plain… We took the right turn and suddenly the road fell away beneath us leaving us looking down at a huge valley that we simply couldn’t see from the road.
Those switchbacks gave us our first taste of driving in La Paz – steep hills, at altitude, frequently with our hearts in our mouths that a) the Yellow Van would make it up (down wasn’t a problem!), and b) that, in the process, the heavy flow of city traffic wouldn’t come to a stop halfway up, because getting going again on that steep a hill at that altitude is a whole another thing altogether!!
Our first mission, with some urgency, in La Paz, was to get our personal visas, then the van’s temporary import permit (TIP) extended, as we had only been given 30 days at the border when we entered from Brazil. It was a quick and easy process for us, at the Migraciones office in the city centre, where it was a standard process. The van process required an exciting drive up through La Paz’ chaotic streets to the main customs office next to the airport, but, once there, that process also surprised us with how straightforward it was. Feeling rather proud of ourselves for navigating what we feared would be a bureaucratic challenge, we then made a bad call for our return trip and ended up trying to drive through the middle of La Paz’ main market during the evening rush hour!
Driving in Bolivia generally was a interesting experience for us – maybe there theoretically are road rules, but practically, on the ground, there are no rules. There are virtually no road markings and very little signage. This was the first country we drove through that was like this (there will be more to come…) But yet, people get around, people push through, sorting themselves out at junctions (with the aid of hand-waving traffic police at the worst junctions, which sometimes people take notice of, sometimes ignore), the traffic keeps moving, with surprisingly few accidents all things considered. It actually left us questioning why we need quite so many rules and quite so many instructions on signs in Europe and whether it really is a good thing? We remembered the time in Oxford when the traffic lights by the railway station went down and the permanent queue into the city on Botley Road disappeared as the traffic organised itself and flowed much better. Perhaps drivers in more places could and should be trusted to make their own decisions sometimes?
Despite hitting the rush hour traffic, we did manage to find the workshop of the long anticipated VW specialist mechanic who has become a popular “mid-way” stop for many panamerican overlanders, in VWs or not. Ernesto couldn’t fit us in until the following Monday, so we took our first trip back out of town, to the magical Sajama National Park.
Parque Nacional Volan Sajama
We wanted a final dose of the beautiful, desolate, dry altiplano and, to the east, close to the Chilean border, the area around Volcano Sajama was recommended to us and provided a magical few days, including our best hot springs experience yet:
Back to La Paz
We then had a week in La Paz while the van visited it’s health farm (care of Ernesto and his team of mechanics in their impeccable workshop). They started work on Monday by pretty much taking the entire underside of the van apart, stripping, cleaning and examining everything. The afternoon was filled with much sucking of teeth and mutterings of “we’ll never get that part in Bolivia”… Despite this, by the end of the following Thursday, they had located near fits for all the essential parts, had them adapted as needed. The van immediately felt and sounded much, much better.
Meanwhile, we filled our days:
Visiting the city centre, where the Coca Museum was a highlight – we learnt all about the long history of the coca crop in the Andes and it’s importance to Bolivian culture (to read more about this, see the note at the bottom of this blog);
- Setting out for a walk up to the “Devil’s Molar” rock formation at the top of the hill opposite our campsite, but aborting smartly when Bruce was bitten on the back of his leg by a crazy suburban dog and spending the rest of the afternoon in the US clinic getting the bite wound cleaned, closed and the necessary just-in-case rabies vaccinations;
- Riding the city’s cable car public transport system to enjoy floating above the city and taking in the views in relative tranquility;
- Taking a wonderful long lazy lunch at Gustu, a world-class restaurant showcasing traditional Bolivian ingredients and food – La Paz’ answer to the world leading cuisine in neighbouring Peru’s Lima.
As well as a good mechanic, La Paz also provided, thanks to a small, but perfectly formed Apple shop, a new sound card for the computer (needed after disaster had struck in Sucre, probably when we had the computer plugged into the power in our hostal during one of the many night-time lightening storms) and a new battery for my ageing iPhone, around which my life revolves on the road.
Our next trip out of La Paz took us in the opposite direction, to the mountains in the east. From the top of the pass just above La Paz, at 4,700m, the steep mountainsides fall away dramatically all around you. The eastern edge of the Andes is extremely lush, getting rain from the damp winds blowing across the jungle from the Atlantic, which is in stark contrast to the desertified western edge that only gets dry winds from the Pacific. After they didn’t survive well in the mines of Potosi, African slaves were brought here by the Spanish colonialists to work on coffee and coca plantations. The ground is clearly very rich, but it was hard to believe people could work on such steep hillsides, even when we saw them. We drove down to Coroico and, after an exciting drive up from the valley bottom through the town and on up a steep narrow lane beyond, we settled into a beautiful hostal and campsite for the weekend.
Near Coroico is the Sende Verde animal sanctuary. Like many places of this nature, this started unintentionally when an ecolodge owner took in just one rescued animal, then became the recipient of the another one, and then the next, and so on, until, after not too long, the ecolodge had become an animal sanctuary staffed by a constant stream of young volunteers. It provided an opportunity to get a little closer to some of the animals of the hills and plains, including a Spider Monkey that decided to give Becca a lovely cuddle. We probably shouldn’t have let it (guests shouldn’t touch the animals), but she was doing a lot of cuddling apparently, as a way to get over a trauma, and she just came right over and climbed on! Irresistible!
We also met one of a pair of Andean Spectacled bears. The male bear we saw had recently been introduced to a female and, when we were taken to meet him, he got extremely agitated when we tried to move on, passed his compound, to visit her. The meeting had obviously gone well and he was already feeling rather protective of her!
Here are a few more pictures of the beautiful grounds of the hostel, the surrounding countryside and of the animals in the reserve:
The so called “Death Road”
Back in 1995, a report by the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed the road down into the Yungas from La Paz the “world’s most dangerous road” due to the high number of annual fatalities. You could see why when watching the Top Gear special in Bolivia (you can see the extract here).
In 2006 a new modern road was built, leaving just a little local traffic on the old, narrow “dangerous” road – plus, these days, large numbers of mountain bikers. A really rather impressively large industry has sprung up, solely based on the somewhat misleading these days “world’s most dangerous world” tag, taking backpackers and tourists on a day trip out of La Paz to ride down the road on hired mountain bikes. It seems to be one of the obligatory “must-do” things in Bolivia. On the positive side, it keeps a few mountain bike guiding businesses viable allowing them to also offer the less popular, but more specialist, tours to other areas around La Paz.
Bruce, a much keener cyclist than me, was already pretty set on doing the ride, not because of it’s supposed dangerous label, but because it was an opportunity to do an epic downhill ride, starting right at the top of the pass at 4,700m and descending over 3,600m with around 60km of continuous downhill riding. How often would we get to take on such a descent?
True… But I was much more interested in driving it…
So, after some conversations with folk in Coroico about it (was it too steep for our little van? No, not steep, just long, but set out in the afternoon after the cyclists have been down), we decided we would drive up it back to La Paz and I would decide, after that, whether I wanted to do the downhill ride, as a day trip out of La Paz, with him.
Driving up, rather than down, offered some advantages: on this road, because it is so narrow, you drive on the left rather than the right, so that when two vehicles have to pass, the drivers are on the outside and able to watch the edges (so as not to fall off the edge) when they pass. That meant that going up, we would be on the inside of the road when passing another vehicle, not creeping along outside edge next to the drop. Plus, it was also the way we were heading – back up to La Paz!
In the event, we saw hardly any other traffic and only needed to pass other vehicles once or twice, which we could do quite safely at passing places. But it was a spectacular drive!
A few days later, we were back in La Paz and booking two people (Becca decided it was unmissable too!) onto one of the daily rides made by Gravity Bolivia. We put the icing on the cake at the end of a fun day by also doing a series of three zip-lines across the bottom of the valley – first time on a zip-line for both of us and great fun! Here are some of Gravity Bolivia’s photographs of the day (plus our pictures of the zip-lining):
After a shower and late lunch at the bottom of the valley, the minibus drove us back up the old road and out of the Yungas one last time:
A final few days in La Paz
During our final stay in La Paz, we left the van at the campsite and splashed out on a few nights in a cheap hotel in the city centre. This gave us the opportunity to find the (self-declared) highest wine bar in the world to enjoy, once again, some of the rather good wines beginning to emerge from a few interesting vineyards Bolivia.
It also meant we could go to the weekly concert given on Saturday nights at the delightful Museo de Instrumentos Musicales by the owner, famous charango player Ernesto Gavour, with some of his friends. When we first arrived in La Paz, I had made an impulse purchase of a quena, an Andean flute. I chose one based on the shop assistant’s demonstration of a few, because I couldn’t get a note out of it in the shop. In fact, it took 4 days of persistence to play a single note and several weeks / months to play a simple tune. It is NOT like one of our recorders! So, I was absolutely beside myself when Rolando Encinas, a famous quena player, took the stage that Saturday night to show me how it is meant to be done! There is some footage of the trio we saw playing together here – it may be sometime before my quena playing sounds like that!
Although La Paz had taken a little getting used to, we had grown very fond of the city and by the time we left on 16 December and drove off northwards again, through El Alto back onto the Altiplano, it was with some sadness. But we were aiming at Cusco for Christmas, with the delights of Lake Titicaca to see on the way…
Additional note: A little bit of what we have learnt about coca
It was interesting to finally learn something about coca and the complex politics surrounding this traditional crop. Ever since we had first entered Bolivia a few months earlier, we had seen people with cheeks full of coca leaves and carrying their bags of coca leaves around. It helps the miners in Potosi get through the day, helps workers in the mountains cope with the altitude and has had a traditional place in all the cultures of the high Andes for many thousands of years. Then the Europeans arrived… At first the church banned it, then reinstated it when they realised how much more productive slave workers were when they chewed the leaves. Then somewhere along the line, westerners worked out a way to process it, concentrate it and create cocaine – and so to abuse it.
The reaction, driven from the US, was to try to ban it altogether – except, of course, for use in western pharmaceuticals. To our eyes, this was a bit like telling us keen coffee drinkers in Europe that, because some people in another part of the globe were now producing a highly concentrated and highly addictive form of caffeine and were now abusing it, coffee was going to be banned altogether across the globe! Doesn’t seem fair really…
This image sums up western societies’, particularly the US’, conflicting relationship with the coca plant – the Coca Cola company was forced to start processing the raw coca (of which, it is still a major importer) to remove the caffeine-like active ingredient, but leave the flavour, a key ingredient of the drink. Whilst Coca Cola maybe a symbol of the US, the US has also waged war against coca growers and the countries for whom it has been a part of the culture for many a millennia.
Under pressure from the US, many South American nations theoretically went along with the ban, at least until recently. Interestingly, the current President of Bolivia, the first indigenous president, came into politics as a coca growers union representative. Bolivia has rejected the international outlawing of coca and has ambitions to get it legalised internationally, as well as nationally. They have thrown the US Drug Enforcement Agency out of the country and put in place their own systems of regulation and control of coca growth, with mixed success. Despite these efforts, and those of the DEA before, a large proportion of coca grown in Bolivia still goes “missing” and disappears into the illegal drug trade.