Guest Blog by Bryan Lutzke:
After successfully crossing what might as well have been the Magellan Strait of Lake Titicaca on tiny tug boats while our bus crossed on a larger barge, and receiving an unsolicited Lonely Planet lesson from Ole Capt D-Bag of the UK, all worries were behind us and La Paz was in the crosshairs. The views through the glass of the bus were nothing short of breath taking; you honestly couldn’t tell where heavens began and the Andes Mountains ended. Those picturesque, scenic views however were quickly transformed to mass civilization as we finally arrived at what could only be the outskirts of La Paz.
I can only describe the outlying neighborhoods as a dirty, garbage strewn, unpaved Latin American version of West Allis (aka Stally).
For those unfamiliar with what we, “Wisconsinites”, call the Stally, please insert the Trashiest community from your neck of the woods and there you have it. After thirty or so minutes of dodging a heavy stream of never ending traffic, the bus finally came to rest. To our amazement and as if a gift straight from the travel Gods themselves, our hostel was a mere 2 minute walk around the block so it was off to get settled in.
With the rooms quickly situated and the bags emptied, we were back out
to busy streets of La Paz but a man down. El Gaupo, feeling the effects of nonstop travel, decided to retire for that night and left it to the five of us to square up our next few days’ worth of
activities. First on our short list was to poke our heads into KanooTours to learn more about this so-called Canyoning Tour Gina read all about the other day. Unprepared for elements that would follow; we walked straight into the eye of human hurricane. The hurricane, harmless in appearance, stood all of three feet but packed a whale of a punch...he was the owners toddler man-child who had lungs two to
three times stronger then the average child of his size. After sitting in the shop for what felt like eternity and watching the Lady repeatedly fall on her face with the juggling act between our request of information and the little hurricane, we chalked up the effort and
told her we would be back tomorrow. With our blood pressure at the point of boil, there was no other cure but to find the nearest bar.
Like a beacon in the night, Sol Y Luna called our names and became safe haven from the storm outside.
We surveyed the bar and found the corner booth to be sufficient and well placed to provide a view out into the carnage that is La Paz evening rush hour traffic. After several days of hellishly warm Peruvian Pilsner beer, FINALLY, a menu filled with bocks, ambers and ciders...oh my! I can’t even begin to describe to you the taste of my first beer, but I believe I had an out of body experience and I don’t
know if these lips have ever had the pleasure of sampling a tastier or colder beverage in my life but it was exactly what my taste buds were looking for. Refills were ordered without hesitation and before we knew it, we were settled in and getting into a nice little session.
Beer after beer came and went, two orders of Humus quickly were destroyed before dinner was delivered and dessert was served in the form of White Russians. Feeling pretty good about life in general at this time, we had the server bring us our bill. 800 Bolivianos was the damage and in dollar bills that is a whopping $23 bucks each. I could get used to Bolivia!
We woke up the next morning, dusted ourselves off from the evenings
activities and it was out the door to line up the Death Road with Vertigo Biking and wrap up the Canyoning Tour at Kanoo Tours. Vertigo went without a hitch. In seconds we signed our lives away and paid online. Kanoo Tours, not so much. Hurricane Antonio still lingered and must have gained strength the night before because he was worse
than ever. This little needle did not stop crying the entire 90 minutes we were there and by the end, I think we just gave the poor lady our credit cards just so we could get the F-out. We left Kanoo without ever hearing anything from the actual company that would be
hosting us, we had little to no information about the tour itself, and
all we knew was that the Tour Co. was supposed to be picking us up from a Hostel in Coroico that we may or may not be staying at in 3 days. Sounds good to me!
After throwing away perhaps 60 bucks each with Kanoo Tours, we were
forced to demolish delicious sandos from a little coffee shop/deli as
we had to race back to the hostel for the city tour we lined up. This being my first city tour I didn’t know what to expect but to my pleasure, Ben (our amazing guide, slash, soon to be drinking buddy) truly put on a wonderful show which only a local would know.
We toured through the presidential square, got a taste of the local coca
leaf warehouse district, caught an amazing view of the city from Killi
Killi and ventured through downtown to the local and infamous San Pedro Prison; which is closed to the public now, but used to be the host of a pretty crazy tour apparently. When the tour was over we exchanged digits as we were very grateful for the knowledge and the entertainment Ben provided and vowed we would have to return the favor with a night out on the town.
Feeling educated and hungry from the long walking city tour, what else can spell Bolivia and fill the tank like a Long Horn, Texas Style steak dinner? Adrian and I couldn’t decide so we went halfsies on a Llama Steak and a Cheeseburger. Lance pecked at the Cheese lover’s burger for a few awkward minutes. Spud ordered his 25th burger for the trip and G and Selma went to town on the all you can eat salad bar.
There must be something about combining meat and greens as a group, because in ordering like so, we each grew an uncontrollable sweet tooth and the only cure was Sol Y Luna for a round of White Russians as a night cap. This dessert could have lasted all night but was short lived and cut to one round and one round only because there was an early wakeup call waiting for us. Team HEC had a scheduled 15
round boot fight with The Death Road bike ride for the morning and all senses are going to be called upon.
6:30am came way too quick for us all but there was no time for lollygagging, we had to be packed and at Vertigo by 8am. In typical us fashion, we got to Vertigo just as they were finishing packing the vans. We got separated into two different vans because we each came with backpacks in hand and cramming us into one van would have never worked. I don’t know what the other van was like but Lance, Spud and I were stuffed in a German hot box. The only saving grace from the trip
up the mountain, besides being short, was witnessing a herd of Llama and Alpaca being shepherd up it. We arrived at our destination, 16,000 feet above sea level to begin the journey.
Perhaps I need to back track for a moment and describe what we had
signed up for and about to embark on. The Death Road is the World’s Most Dangerous Road (named by the Interamerican Development Bank) and
we were about to fly down it on two wheels. 42 miles of treacherous paved and unpaved road that have cost 18 bikers and a countless number of other unfortunate individuals their lives. You begin at a frigid wasteland at 16,000 feet and end up in a lush tropical rain forest at 4,000 feet, with only waterfalls, cliffs, rocks, rivers, valleys and the Andean Mountains standing in your way.
We strapped into the gear provided which could have been hand me downs
from the local correctional institute. Beautiful orange and black jumpsuits along with elbow and knee pads for extra badassness, and after a quick run through of safety info....off we went.
The first few miles of paved road went off without a hitch as we got the feel for
the bikes and gained confidence ever steadily as the miles ticked past. The pace was a good one...about 20 minutes of riding and then we would stop for a small break to snap photos and catch our breaths. By the second break most of the nerves were gone and even Guapo who claims to not have been on a bike in the past decade and claimed the phrase "It's like riding a bike" does not apply to him was cruising like a pro.
The last section before we stopped featured me, Adrian and Spud weaving amongst each other towards the front of the pack. By the time we finished the paved section, we were all pretty stoked and feeling good...
The dirt section adds a new element entirely. Not only were we now trucking down bumpy, uneven terrain, but the abyss wizzed by us on the left; an ever present reminder not to get to cocky, as a trip off the side would spell disaster. I had one small incident where before I knew it I was off the bike and taking a tumble back to my feet but via
my shoulder...it wasn't a big deal as I had been following our guide Cello's excellent (if a little obvious) advice to stay on the inside of the road...in the end, my pride was bruised more then anything.
Aside from the thrill of the bike ride, it must be said that the ride itself is beautiful. The sheerness of the cliffs and the vastness of the abyss is punctuated by lush green scenery and the occasional waterfall that dropped down onto the side of the road from the steep mountain above. It took several hours to get down the mountain and by
about half way it was clear that our group had several different skill levels; our team of 6 managed to stick together towards the front and aside from a close call when Spud expertly saved himself from being the second crashed team member, we made it to the bottom without further incident.
I should mention that it was HOT by now...we had shed layer after layer as we dropped in altitude, and by the time we got to the bottom we were sweaty and thirsty. The end point where we loaded up into the vans was in front of a little bar where they had a few fridges full of the coldest beer yet experienced in South America for us...the 6 of us
decided later that this was the best beer of the trip. Ice cold after a long hot bike ride, and plus it made for an extra element of happiness that we had managed to avoid being one of the statistics I mentioned earlier in this entry. One beer turned into 2 as we waited for the not as fast members of the group to arrive...we smoked them
down as we sat for an hour before they arrived.
Next came the bizarre portion of the day...we all loaded into the vans and were brought to a strange house where we allegedly had the option to swim in a pool and hang out while having lunch. This part of the trip had been made to sound pretty cool when we heard about it in the shop back in La Paz as we signed up. It wasn't. For starters, the pool looked like something a swamp monster could climb out of at any moment. The showers looked like something out of San Pedro Prison and
the hot tub was a empty, dilapidated hole in the ground. Lunch was served in due course, but it looked more then a little sketchy too. We ate it because we were hungry, but it was a meal that was referenced a few times later in the trip as a potential culprit behind our upset stomachs and bowels.
We were ready to go as soon as we got there, and before long the taxi ride was there to pick us up and bring us to our hotel in Coroico: El Cafetal. The rest of the group apparently hung out for a while longer before piling back in the vans. Thankfully we had made arrangements to stay in the town at the bottom of the hill which saved us a long and no doubt hellish ride back to La Paz that evening. We laughed about
the strangeness of our brief time at the pool/lunch spot as our taxi drove us the bumpy 30 minutes to town and dropped us in front of our accommodation.
Selma had been trying to lock this hotel in for some time, but they would not email her back a confirmation and Adrian had attempted to call them while we were in La Paz, but struck out...so we were all a little skeptical as the place looked abandoned from the road when we pulled up. Selma and Adrian ventured down the hill as we waited in the taxi nervously. At last they came up laughing...apparently the host had no record of our reservation, and basically had to be rousted out of a hammock nap, but as luck would have it they were totally empty. We were stoked as we walked down the stairs and saw a beautifully clean pool with a jungle backdrop and 3 rooms on the balcony awaited us.
We were in the pool quick like and totally pumped to be chilling out in a great spot, watching the jungle wildlife with a cold beer in hand as the sun set. We lounged until the sun was behind the clouds then showered quick and made for the small restaurant that was part of the hotel.
We had heard that it was the best of the restaurants in town, but were unsure since it really looked like not much. Boy, were we wrong...we grubbed down on what would surely be one of the best meals of the trip, including a perfectly executed cheese souffle. We treated ourselves to a big meal and several bottles of wine and then hung out for a few hours after the meal reliving the Death Road ride and one of the most epic days of our trip.
This is what it is all about! Living the dream!