¡Hola a todos!
Wow, what a week I have enjoyed since last I blogged! I am writing this entry from a computer in a wonderfully relaxed café on a bustling street in the middle of Arequipa, Peru’s second city, located in the south-west of the country and the wealthiest centre in all of Peru: it is certainly an interesting contrast to Bolivia! Speaking of which…
As many of you might have perceived from my previous post, Bolivia was not my finest of experiences: arriving in La Paz early one morning, after the mad dash out of Uyuni and a subsequent ten-hour bus journey entirely without the opportunity to sleep, was not perhaps the greatest of introductions to the country. Couple with this a severe and lasting bout of altitude sickness that proved to be quite debilitating and the situation was rather hopeless. Never again shall I dismiss such travails so readily: the sickness persisted for the entire duration of my three-day stay in the city and, bar one manic day of activity, confined me to a lack-lustre state of lethargy, one which involved copious amounts of sleep and harsh bouts of intense cold, accompanied by a complete lack of hunger and regular, queezy episodes. Really, I felt quite hopeless, and helpless, during this time. As a male, I am well-acquainted with the derision directed my way by the hardier sex, as well as with the situations from which such derision is derived but, this was surely my lowest point while travelling thus-far. Simply being unable to enjoy the delights that an entire city had to offer was disheartening, and this after being denied the opportunities boasted of by Potosi in the south thanks to the transport strike. Altitude sickness, of course, is completely indiscriminate in its preference of victims but, as a healthy, oftentimes vibrant young buck, I was nevertheless non-plussed and somewhat embarrassed by my ailment. Furthermore, none of my three travel-companions from the south seemed to suffer nearly as much and this compounded my frustration. So it was that my time in La Paz served as little more than time within which to become well-acquainted with the finer details of this hounding condition: I am slightly ashamed to admit that I left the city after only three days, sick of my state – both physical and, resultingly, mental – and eager to seek out pastures new, regardless of their altitude! There was, however, as mentioned above time enough to devote one day to enjoying the scenery around La Paz.
The morning of my second full day in La Paz dawned to find me already dressed and out of bed, sat on a cold minibus beside a wind-swept lake, the remnants of sleep crusting my eyes, a bleary greyness rinsing the scene. Outside, there rested a multitude of impressive-looking mountain-bikes; all Konas, all with full suspension and all significantly more valuable than any transportation I had recently had the pleasure to use. Encouraged by my friends and by my own eager sense of adventure, coupled with a love of biking, I thus found myself sat at 4,800m, a health thousand meters higher than the city of La Paz, stretched out below, about to take on Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’ as it is so affectionately named. Setting out from the aforementioned lake at 4,800m above sea-level, the road sweeps down through some simply stunning rural scenery, via a plethora of hairpin bends, gliding curves and freakishly fast straights before ending at the town of Coroico, sitting at 1,300m – a three-hour(ish) descent of some 3,500m along some of Bolivia’s finest transportation routes (no, I did not tell Mum of this endeavour in advance). The company my chums and I had plumbed for came recommended by just about everyone with previous experience of our plight and, thank heavens, it transpired that the group – Gravity – was indeed a worthy choice and so very much better than our previous Bolivian experience upon the salt flats: within five minutes of listening to the sound, considered and incredibly helpful advice offered up to us by our guide Steve, I was wholly convinced not only of my safety during the ride but, of that of all our group upon the road, to such an extent that I was able to competely relax (well, within reason) and enjoy the obvious adrenalin-inducing, exhilaration-pumping attractions of the road itself.
The route was at times easy and at times punishing – it was never outside the abilities of even a relative amateur cyclist and yet could prove quite a challenge to anyone seeking slightly more from the exchange of rubber on tarmac (and, at other times, gravel). The descent began upon some of Bolivia’s finest tarmac, a smooth, confidence-building experience and one offering the chance of reaching the quickest speeds available on the ride: at times I found myself travelling at 60-70 kilometers per hour and quite happy to do so. This was, by far, the quickest I have ever moved on a bike and a brilliant feeling of near-weightless speed, with the wind rushing through my airated helmet, whipping my clothing, almost shouting to me across the void. Leaning into the corners, distributing my weight to yield the maximum movement from my bike without dispensing of too much speed, I allowed myself flightful fancies of a budding Valentino Rossi or the like, while keeping a close eye on events around me, occuring so much faster at this heightened speed than to which I am normally accustomed. Our group was a lot of fun, full of adventurous though considerate individuals and led by Steve and the charming, ridiculously skilled Juby, the man with the quickest timed descent of the road on a bike and not unknown to sometimes cycle back up the same road when feeling the need for an extra challenge (bonkers but, an incredibly nice chap). Juby doubled as our camera-man and also offered sympathetic, gentle encouragement to any who required it throughout the ride: between the two of them, he and Steve contributed to one of my favourite experiences on my trip thus-far and, easily, my favourite single event while in Bolivia.
After the speedy tarmac section, we dropped onto a slippier, more skittish gravel concoction for the remainder of the ride and, almost simultaneously, entered into the low cloud covering this section of the route like a damp, sight-obscuring blanket, a misty veil across my vision, discolouring my surroundings and imbuing the scene with a dream-like quality. Rushing downhill, sweeping and at times rattling around bends, hands clinging, vice-like to the handle-bars, my entire body shivering from the sudden chill and continuing exhilaration, I found myself in my element, grinning insanely while trying to maintain a residue of visibility through my increasingly mucky, condensated glasses. We stopped often at the end of pre-designated sections of the trail to re-group, to share stories of challenges and of heart-quailing near-misses – fortunately, I experienced only one such hairy moment, approaching an off-camber corner with my speed a touch excessive and skidding perilously close to the edge of the road, the cloud – fortuitously? – shrouding the inevitable drop to the valley far below. One such pit-stop brought with it a light lunch and the opportunity for a prolonged rest, while we listened intently to Steve’s assurances that (disappointingly) the best, worst, was over and that the remainder of the route would be a little more forgiving and largely devoid of the cloud, so capable of muffling sights and sounds. Steve was also a veritable treasure-trove of stories and anecdotes surrounding the most disastrous of expeditions along the road, starring an array of particularly woe-beset individuals, at times inconceivably dim-witted and devoid of rational, even to one such as I, to whom the goddess of common-sense seems to have been especially meagre. My favourite story was also the most incredulous, surrounding a young gent who had tackled the road while still high on cocaine after a lengthy evening stint at the infamous ‘Ruta 36’ coke-den in La Paz. Half-way down the road, this genious – somehow – missed a bridge as wide as the road it linked to and plummeted ten meters to a rocky, dried river-bed. He broke both collar-bones and had to be winched out by Steve and others but, fortuitously, he survived to enjoy a painful, jarring journey back up the hill to La Paz and a lengthy recovery.
Our adventure, all to quickly, terminated in a small village sat in the shadow below Coroico, at a charming animal sanctuary, home to residents including playful, hugely cute howler monkeys, hilarious parrots and inquisitive, roaming characters including hens, a creature reminiscent of an aardvark and further species of monkey. Here we enjoyed refreshing warm showers and a hearty lunch of pasta and salad. We also breifly toured the sanctuary and one girl even opted to remain for the night and take the next day’s Gravity minibus back to La Paz. For myself, the adventure was at an end and the return to La Paz and altitudes hitherto unattested before Bolivia brought with it a return of sickness and a hardened resolve to quit the city quickly in search of adventure and experience anew. This change of scene, two days later, brought me to Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca, a quaint, homely-seeming town and the partial subject of my next, ever-lengthy blog.
¡Saludos a todos!