After leaving Copacabana, we took a three and a half hour bus to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. As we entered the city from the heights of the district called El Alto, we saw before us a sprawling metropolis, dramatically situated in terraced fashion, across a vast and deep Andean valley. At an altitude of 3,660 meters, La Paz is the highest capital city in South America. This high altitude seems to affect everything from the mentality of the people to the quantity of foam on a freshly poured beer.
La Paz is a city with its own crazy style and an attitude as distinctive as its altitude. Its streets are bustling with street-food vendors, sidewalk-invading storefront markets, and plenty of pedestrian traffic. As with Lake Titicaca, the people here appear a bit more rugged and seem to have a certain rustic nature you can only find in people from mountainous regions.
On our first night we stayed in the ever-popular Loki hostel. Loki is a string of three hostels that were started by a group of four backpackers about five years ago. We have now stayed at all three locations: Lima, Cuzco, and La Paz. All the Loki locations have a party atmosphere and each is the quintessential “backpacker hostel” for their respective cities.
The bar at the La Paz location was very stylish with high ceilings, velvet curtains, and a collection of gilded antique mirrors. Unfortunately, the rooms were pretty abysmal. We were first offered one of the only two doubles in the entire hostel. It was a dank, windowless troll’s den that smelled of mildew and lichen. We ended up opting for a small dorm that was also shabby, but at least didn’t appear to be out of a horror film.
The next morning we awoke early and took a cab to the Brazilian consulate. We had read in our guidebook that the procedures to obtain a Brazilian visa should be straight-forward and that they were often issued on-the-spot. However, having dealt with several embassies and consulates abroad on other trips, I knew that each embassy was its own beast, and my experiences with them have spanned the spectrum from delightful to nightmarish.
As our cab approached the Brazilian consulate, I thought back to my best and worst consulate experiences. My worst experience was visiting the Chinese embassy in Moscow, Russia. This was during my third backpacking trip when my passport was stolen for the first and, thank god, only time. My ex-girlfriend Gina and I had just arrived in Moscow from Saint Petersburg. We had gotten little sleep on the train, and the first thing I had to do was head out into the gigantic metropolis of Moscow, alone, to find the Chinese embassy.
I was under the gun because I had a limited amount of time left before my Russian visa would expire. My plan for the trip was to cross Siberia, then visit Mongolia and China before taking a ferry to Japan and eventually flying out of Tokyo. I knew if I couldn’t get a Chinese visa in Russia, I would have to gamble on getting one in Ulaanbaatar, and perhaps be stranded in Mongolia.
The Chinese embassy in Moscow turned out to be a bleak 200 person queue that was loosely held together by screaming and argumentative embassy employees. After standing in the line for nearly 4 hours, they shut the door in our faces and told us they wouldn’t be open for another 2 weeks. Luckily, the Chinese embassy in Ulaanbaatar turned out to be my best embassy experience, and I ended up getting my much-needed visa in less than a day which enabled me to continue my trip as planned.
Fortunately, the Brazilian consulate of La Paz, Bolivia, only had a few people waiting when we arrived at its opening time of 9:00 a.m. After hearing our number called, we approached the clerk’s window and inquired about the visa. We were then informed that in addition to the requirements we expected– such as the ‘reciprocal’ $100 charge, an application, a passport and passport-sized photo–we also needed to provide bank and credit card info for the past three months, a yellow fever vaccination card, and a ticket out of Brazil.
This certainly stymied us, at least temporarily. The consulate hours were slim, from 9:00 a.m. to 12:45 p.m, so we spent the rest of the day reluctantly performing the tasks required for the visa. We accessed our bank accounts online and printed them out, then proceeded to locate our yellow fever vaccination cards and our electronic airline tickets scheduled out of Santiago, Chile, in October. We weren’t able to get it all done before the consulate closed at 12:45 that day, but we were able to return early the next day and successfully turn in our applications. We were then informed that there would be a 2 day processing period before we received our visas.
On our second day in La Paz, we changed our accommodation to a very beautiful and centrally located hotel called Hotel Fuentes. Tucked away behind the Plaza de San Francisco, Hotel Fuentes was a bright, clean hotel, with an amazing view from our private 4th story room. Its location was in a very charming area of town full of steep, cobbled one-way streets that were lined with stores selling handicrafts, souvenirs, and vibrantly-colored local clothing.
Our hotel was also just down the street from an area called the Mercado de Hechiceria (The Witches’ Market). This so-called “witches’ market” turned out to be an intriguing array of small, mostly outdoor stalls, selling everything from holistic herbs and remedies to the peyote-like, hallucinogenic cactus called San Pedro. I forgot to mention in my last Peru blog post that we were surprised to find that the central market in Cuzco also sold not only San Pedro, but also the very powerful hallucinogenic shaman’s brew known as Ayahuasca. I may write more about these intriguing, legal hallucinogenics in the future.
In addition to exploring the witches’ market, we also visited the Museo de la Coca. It turned out to be a pretty humble exhibit that focused mostly on the history of the coca leaf. The overall tone of the museum was fairly balanced, and they did a good job of showing the positive uses of the coca leaf, while also showing the devastating effects of the chemically produced drug, cocaine. We found the museum interesting because it dealt with a subject that is hotly debated in Bolivia right now: whether or not coca leaves should be legal to grow.
Bolivia’s president Evo Moralez is the first indigenous person to serve in that position and is an avid defender of the coca leaf. He is a one-time coca grower, and his politics are the kind that would have him sitting at the same table as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. He has started a few popular slogans here, such as: la coca es no cocaine (coca is not cocaine), and coca es no drogas (coca is not a drug). “Evo,” as he is affectionately known, is also infamous for holding up a coca leaf at the United Nations and pointing out that its color is green, not white.
On our third day in La Paz, we participated in what was touted as ¨the Greatest Outdoor Sporting Adventure in all of South America: Mountain Biking Down the Most Dangerous Road in the World!!!” What may sound like the tag line for a production by P.T. Barnum, turned out to have nearly as many shenanigans.
Eric and I had both heard plenty about Bolivia’s so-called “Road of Death” before we even began this trip. I had even seen a cable television special devoted exclusively to this dramatic and deadly stretch of mountain road that connects La Paz to the town of Coroico. Numerous surveys have shown it to be the most dangerous road in the world, with over 100 deaths annually.
The circus that was our all-day biking tour started at 7:30 a.m, when we were bused to the beginning of our route. After being outfitted in ridiculous matching outfits that made us look like rejected construction workers, we were sized up for our bikes and given a safety speech. Our guides were an American guy named Zack and an Englishman named Aaron. Both were outgoing guys, but came off as a little dense.
We started our road adventure by plunging down a paved section of what is called the “New Death Road.” The New Death Road is a recently opened alternative route to the Old Death Road which is the most dangerous in the world. After cruising down a stretch of the New Death Road at speeds around 40 mph, we turned off onto the infamous Old Death Road. From here it was a knuckle-jarring scramble down a rocky, dusty narrow road with huge drops and lots of blind corners.
Our group was stopped periodically by the guides to be told grizzly stories about certain gruesome accidents that had occurred at this or that particular turn. Zack and Aaron often ended up contradicting each other and arguing over whether it was two Jewish boys who were racing that went over the cliff, or if it was a 19-year-old French girl trying to pass a truck. Anyhow, there were plenty of crosses and memorials along the route for the bus-loads of people and the 15 mountain bikers that had lost their lives on the road.
Although I enjoyed the location and the mountain biking, the overall feeling of the tour drove me nuts. Everything seemed too planned out and contrived, and being herded together with 20 other people felt oppressive. My feelings were mixed throughout the day, everything from excitement to outright disgust. The whole experience ended up feeling gimmicky, and the tour was far too choreographed. I started to feel like I was with a bunch of jocks that thought it was the coolest thing in the world to conquer the World’s Most Dangerous Road. So there I was, feeling ridiculous, plunging down the Road of Death as fast as I could, showing that I could conquer it as well as the next fat tourist.
To make matters worse, we were forced to spend two hours at some remote hotel after we were finished with the bike ride. From there we were told it was a 3 to 4 hour bus ride back to La Paz. The bus ride turned out to be the most grueling challenge of the day (far worse than the “Road of Death,” ho, ho) and took over 5 hours.
During this excruciatingly long ride, our guide Aaron drank massive amounts of beer and ran his mouth about everything from his disenfranchised youth and ineffectual father to his passion for consuming large amounts of illicit substances. By the end of the ride he had finished his soliloquy about everything that is wrong with the world and went on to ask if anyone wanted to order “something special.” Eric and I exited the bus at 10:30 p.m. after nearly 15 hours at the mercy of these fools. We had visions of beating our tour guides to death and setting fire to their offices.
We spent our last day in La Paz walking around the barrio El Alto and taking in its incredible views of the city. El Alto is a fairly poor neighborhood that has sprung up on the steep, mountainous slopes around La Paz. There aren’t really sidewalks in El Alto, just staircases. Like Casco Viejo in Panama City, it is an area where the poor and working-class still inhabit residences with priceless, world-class views.
After leaving La Paz, we spent one night in the mining town Potosi, and we are now in Sucre. Tomorrow we’ll be taking a night bus to Santa Cruz, then boarding the so-called “Death Train” to the Brazilian border. I know what you’re thinking, “death road, death train, death bus–death, death, death, blah blah blah.” From the border it will be at least another day or two of travel to reach Sao Paulo. Here are some pictures of Potosi and Sucre:
I’ll leave you until next time with some quotes to ponder:
“Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?” – Walt Whitman
“The world has known three great fools: Jesus Christ, Don Quixote, and me.” – Simon Bolivar.