Friday 24th October: welcome to La Paz!
After breakfast, we set off to explore the city of La Paz - it is one mentally CRAZY place! There's high, concrete buildings as far as the eye can see and the skyline is similar to that of the towering farvelas in Rio. There's food stalls on every street corner, and a market spread over 3 blocks selling everything from electronics to RAW meat and the roads are crammed with traffic - welcome to La Paz! Being at such a high altitude the air is thin, the streets are ridiculously steep and the pollution is terrible. It was similar to Cusco, but much uglier, dirtier and smellier and a real eye opener to visit.
We found the witches market, which sells all sorts of things, including dead llama foetuses (you're supposed to bury them under your house for good luck), lotions and potions, herbs and handmade charms, as well as lots of alpaca woolen goods of course. Being quite superstitious I found it all very interesting, but didn't fancy carrying a dead llama around in my rucksack for another 7 months and none of the herbs and lotions had English translations so I wasn't quite sure what they were for.
We then went for some lunch to a place recommended by the Lonely Planet, which we have aptly renamed the Lonely Liar as it's not always that accurate. Trying to be healthy, we had soup and salad but it was gross! We were served this huge plate of bland tasting, soggy salad and a soup which looked like dirty dish water. We later realised this was a big mistake, as you should avoid salad in Bolivia because it's washed in local water and you can't even brush your teeth with the water there. Similarly, you're told not to eat any of the food of the street stalls as many travellers get parasites from it, from the women who sell the food going for a poo and not washing their hands - YUK!!!
After lunch, we went to the coca museum, which was really interesting showing how the coca leave grown in South America has been used for centuries in a non harmful way. It was first discovered by the Incas who chewed it to combat fatigue and suppress their appetite when they had to work long labourous hours, and also used by miners to be more productive. However, the white man then came along and used the coca leaves to produce cocaine which is why there is so much controversy surrounding the plant. Cocaine is produced from large quantities of the leaves which America is the largest consumer of and it's believed to be the main cause of poverty in Peru and Bolivia.
Coca leaves are sold extensively in South America - we chewed them during the Inca Trail to help prevent altitude sickness and provide energy, and are used to make coca tea which is served in every hostel you stay at, but it's illegal to take ANY coca leaves or product (even the tea bags!) out of the country. It was also interesting to learn that Sigmind Freud was the first user of cocaine and died of nasal cancer as a result, and the coca leave was used in the first recipe to produce Coca Cola (hence the name!) and is apparently still used in Coca Cola in South America today. There was a cafe at the museum which sold coca cake, so we tried a slice of coca leave and chocolate cake, which I didn't like as it had a strong bitter aftertaste of coca - Sara Lee's is much better!
Saturday 25th October: the San Pedro prison tour.
Bizzarely located in the town centre of La Paz is San Pedro prison which you can take a tour of, as described in the book 'Marching Powder' by Rusty Young which is a true story (and a great read!). The prisons in Bolivia operate VERY differently to those in the UK. The prisoners have to buy their own cell and if they can't afford one, they sleep on the ground. Wives and children of the prisoners are allowed to live with them and are free to come in and go out the prison as they please. There are shops and 'restaurants' in there and the central courtyard is sponsored by Coca Cola with it's huge logo on the wall and some bright red plastic chairs and tables with Coca Cola umbrellas. This means Coca Cola has a monopoly and no other soft drinks company can sell their products in the prison - indeed the world has gone mad!
The prison is divided into 3 parts - high security, the 'poor' part and the 'rich' part. You can't go in the poor part or the high security section, but are given a 'tour' of the rich part. I imagined plasma televisions, sound systems, etc, being the rich part of the prison, but I was very wrong. The rich part was small, extremely rundown and rickety - it didn't look at all well built like I thought a prison should be. There were women, some pregnant, children and relatives all about, playing cards, pool, etc. with the prisoners, and it was very disturbing to see children being subject to such an environment (85% of those in the rich part are on drug-related crimes. One is an ex-prison officier who was carrying a television into the prison, tripped and fell and it was filled with cocaine - oops!). If this was the conditions of the 'rich' part, the poor side must have been appalling. Like the farvelas in Rio, it was quite sickening to see and upsetting to view the suffering the drugs trade causes in South America.
That night, we went to 'The Star of India' which is the world's highest curry house. Luckily, it was run by two English men, so we hoped the food would be ok as you have to be so careful where you eat in Bolivia, most people choose to just eat western food in the hostel. The local speciality is llama steak which is tasteless and very tough apparently, so we weren't tempted to try any of the traditional food in La Paz. My jalfrezi was excellent and Ellie's tikka was more of a korma, but anything was an improvement on yesterday's soggy salad. We then headed back to the hostel as we had a 6am start as we had booked to go on a mountain bike trip to the World's Most Dangerous Road (only in La Paz!) and were strictly told not to turn up with hangovers.
Sunday 26th October: we went down the World's Most Dangerous Road - twice!
We were up early and made it to the café where the tour was meeting and waited for the guide to arrive. He turned up, took our names and rudely told Ellie and myself we weren't on his list and should have been there yesterday. We were stunned and really angry as we'd already paid and definitely booked to go on Sunday! "Sorry girls, I've no bikes for you, you'll have to do it tomorrow if there's been a mix up". The guide was being really rude and totally unhelpful. We couldn't do it tomorrow, as I had a bus to Arequipa booked at 2pm and Ellie was leaving for Uyuni.
I asked if there were any spare bikes or if anyone hadn't turned up, he told us there was one spare bike and one guy yet to turn up, but sarcastically remarked 'I doubt one of you is 6ft tall?!' (the equipment and clothing is specifically ordered for your height). 'Ellie is!' I replied, as she stood up which immediately shut him up. Then right on cue, the 'missing' guy turned up, obviously still drunk in his jeans and shoes like he'd not even been to bed. The guide told him there was absolutely no way he could do it - the information pack states that it really is the world's most dangerous road (just take a look at the photos!) you must not turn up with a hangover or in the incorrect clothing. Bad news for the p*ss head, but great news for us!
So we all boarded the minibus and set off for the starting point of the world's most dangerous road… and indeed it was. It's a 64km road and so called because of the number of accidents and fatalities that have occurred on it. However, a much safer road has been built now, so the road isn't used that much anymore. The road was very narrow in parts, with very tight bends wrapping around the cliff with NO barriers whatsoever - just a sheer 600m drop off the side! The road surface was also really gravelly with big rocks, which is why you have to use specialist bikes to ride down it. There were numerous crosses along the side of the road and a number of lorries at the bottom of the cliff which convinced us how dangerous it really was.
Before we set off, we were given specific instructions on how to ride, whilst the guide assured us this really was the world's most dangerous road so it was very important that we rode safely and if any of us had hangovers we should get straight back on the bus. He then informed us about the terrifying statistics regarding the deaths and accidents that happen if you don't take care (note they only tell you this once you are there and have booked the tour!).
One story was about a French girl, who stepped off her bike on the wrong side when there was an oncoming car and fell off the edge of the cliff! A british boy who got over-confident, came off his bike and inserted the handlebar into his inner groin. As well as another guy who came off his bike and ripped himself a second bum-hole - eugh!! And other countless stories about broken collarbones and legs so travellers had to go home as they could no longer carry their rucksack. Not only that, there was no mobile phone reception on the mountain and if you did need an ambulance, you had to turn up at the hospital (which was 3 hours away) with 500 Bolivianos before they would send one. Some things in the UK do operate much better than other places in the world!
By the time the guide had rolled off the statistics and the probability of an accident I was extremely nervous and wondering whether taking that spare bike was a good idea afterall?! Maybe it was a blessing in disguise we were marked on the wrong day - eek! We put our protective clothing, googles and helmets on (we looked liked the crazy frogs!) and set off, after passing a bottle of alcohol around the group which each person had to take a sip off (I thought we weren't supposed to drink beforehand?!) and then poured some on the ground for Mother Earth - a Peruvian tradition that is supposed to bring good luck and I wanted all the luck I could get to get down this road in one piece.
There was a group of 10 people and 2 guides, and we were instructed to go down in single file, keeping a safe distance apart (so you didn't run into the back of someone and ping them off the cliff!) with frequent stops to re-group and have our bikes checked. It was very difficult to breathe at 4,100m high and at one point the fog got so thick we couldn't see far at all in front of us, which was really scary with the tight bends. But as we headed further down, the weather improved and everyone rode really sensibly. Once the fear and the fog had faded, it was really good fun and we were lucky very few vehicles passed us along the way. We arrived at the bottom about 3pm without a single accident in the group and had dinner at an animal sanctuary there, which was the last thing I'd expected to find at the end.
There were monkeys running freely as we were presented with our 'I survived the world's most dangerous road' t-shirts. Then dinner was served in a separate room away from the rooming monkeys. However, they cheekily managed to push the door open, jumped on the table and grabbed bread, spaghetti and whatever else they could get their hands on off people's plates. The keepers tried to get them out, but they were so naughty they kept creeping their way back in and eventually we had to sit with a chair against the door to keep them out. Then to add to the commotion, a racoon-type animal that bites was on the loose and we were all told to stay in the dining room as it had attacked a girl the previous week and caused stitches to her head. A man armed in huge gloves managed to eventually catch it by it's tall, holding it upside down and we were all free to get back on the minibus.
We may have survived the road on the way down, but we now had to go all the way back along it on the minibus, as it was the only way back - poor driver! The road was really tight, bumpy and steep, and I wasn't sure what was scarier - being on the bike or the bus?! The road went so narrow at points, when I looked out of the window all I could see was the sheer drop and the many unfortunate lorries below. But it gave us chance to take in the stunning scenery, as we were so high up we were in a microclimate rainforest with waterfalls running down the cliff side onto the road and lush cloud forest all around.
On the way back, the guide and his friend then got on the beers and let slip that on the guide's first ride he misjudged a corner and went straight over the cliff edge! But, luckily he'd got caught in some trees, rather than plunging 600m down -I'm glad they only told us that on the way back.
Monday 27th October: off to Arequipa.
I was going back to Arequipa as I had decided to miss Fiji (well I'd been before) and go to work at an orphanage for a few weeks, whilst Ellie headed south to Uyuni and onto Fiji. This was our first time apart on our travels until we met up again in Auckland, New Zealand in a few weeks time. I was up early worried sick about my bus, as for the past week there had been road blockades in Peru from the farmer's strikes and all buses had been cancelled. A group of Irish guys in the hostel had had to fly and told me a girl had to get off the bus in the middle of nowehere and walk for 8 hours with her rucksack because of the blockades - that would be IMPOSSIBLE with my rucksack. I was also travelling on my own at night and crossing the ´dodgy´ Bolivian border, where the Lonely Planet advises you to hide all your money, as it's often consficated as a scam for being 'fake' . So was rather nervous as I waved goodbye to my travelling buddy and caught a cab to the bus station alone.
It was another 12 hour journey, the double decker bus was literally empty this time, but yet again I was the only gringo on board. I went through border control no problem (with my money well hidden) and got back on the bus hoping they'd be no road blockades now we were into Peru. By 8pm it was pitch black, the rain was hammering against the window and I was soooo cold I put my jacket on the wrong way round with my hood over my face trying desperately to keep warm. Just gone 1am the bus pulled into Arequipa bus station, I'd fallen asleep but luckily the stewardess came upstairs to wake me, before the bus went on to Nazca.