Nuestra Senora de la Paz (Our Lady of Peace)
As our bus climbed the hills outside Copacabana, we passed a collection of vehicles spread-eagled along the verge and down into a ditch. Somewhat inevitably, one of the cars was bedecked in garlands from a recent blessing.
The journey was, as usual, picturesque. However, just as we were settling down to enjoy the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real rising from the altiplano, our bus pulled up in the town of Tiquina for the lake crossing. No-one had mentioned anything about getting off the bus, battling the crowds to get a ticket for one of the many tiny boats ferrying passengers across the lake, or the bus itself precariously bobbing and sinking its way across the Straits of Tiquina on a plank of wood being furiously baled by boys with buckets! There is no system here. Everyone gets off all the buses that have turned up at the same time (because they all left Copacabana at the same time) and then it's every man for himself to get to the other side, on a predictably decaying launch, where somehow, miraculously, you locate your bus and get shoved onto it by the conductor as it pulls away. We left Lake Titicaca with the pronouncement of a sign at the jetty: Bolivia demands before the world a right of passage to the sea.
The highest capital city in the world is situated in a stunning position, spilling down the walls of a huge canyon. Women in traditional dress wear floaty, brightly coloured a-lines, fringed shawls and tall brown bowler hats. In the market, shoe-shine boys in black balaclavas line up to offer their services and the air is filled with the cries of callers on colectivos shouting their destinations as they pass. In the Witches Market, amid the tourist paraphernalia, the dried out foetuses of llamas are for sale, their shrivelled heads like baby birds.
We took a look around the Coca Museum - very interesting perspective on the history of the coca trade - and the Gallery of Modern Art, housed in a fabulously ornate building, guarded on one side by a metal sculpture of a crucified miner created to mourn the closure of the mines.
Our last day in La Paz, we were up early again to meet our group for the cycle ride from La Paz to Coroica. 64km of rough stuff and over 3600m of descent from the high Andes down to the lush, sub-tropical Yungas region. This was the 'World's Most Dangerous Road'. It got its name from the high numbers of victims (over 300 a year at one point) snatched from the narrow, rocky strip by the sheer drop - falling to 600m in places, the remnants of previous accidents still visible below. Next to one such section stands a monument to the 'Martyrs of Democracy'. 5 opposition leaders took an involuntary dive when the military realised they were about to lose the newly instituted elections.
Because of the danger in travelling the road, drivers take the left hand side, rather than the normal Bolivian right. The theory is that this at least gives uphill motorists the inside bend if their conky car conks out and starts to roll backwards. Not that there is much difference between inside and outside on this road but of course, this means that downhill cyclists take the outside edge. If a truck comes the other way, warned Dan our guide, you have 3 pretty s***ty options:
Take on the wall, and risk a broken collarbone,
Take on the truck, or
Before getting under way, however, Dan provided us with confidence-boosting hints and tips and reassured us that no-one on his trip had ever gone home in a body bag. We'd be OK as long as we didn't start dickheading around with TEA (testosterone exceeding ability). And just for good measure, we offered a little something to Pachamama - 90% alcohol dribbled on the earth, the bikes and of course, a wee nip for ourselves.
The first section, from the windswept chills of Le Cumbre, was a long swooperoo on beautiful tarmac, reaching tear streaming speeds in stunning scenery. We zipped past herds of llama, low flying eagles and stray dogs, the souls, locals believe, of the road's victims.
Just after we paid our tourist tax at the drug checkpoint (anyone carrying any cocaine-processing equipment - sulphuric acid, ether...toilet roll?) we hit the grit - don't look down! Trying to keep up momentum to allow the bike to do the work over the ruts, rocks and rubble, we careered round diving corners, through waterfalls and across rivers. Yee-ha!
The temperature rose as we descended until the waterproofs were melting off us. Stripped down to short sleeves we were all too conscious of the potential to lose our elbows in a scrape. The low-flying eagles were supplanted by enormous, brightly coloured butterflies as we cruised into Coroica (Dan recommended we follow them with our eyes but not our handlebars). In the end, it was a technically-straightforward ride, if a little psychologically challenging, in a superb setting.
As the adrenalin subsided, we were greeted by a cold beer and a pasta buffet at La Senda Verde, an animal refuge, home to blue parrots, a couple of snakes and capuchin monkeys, some of which were secured on long, elasticated leashes. It soon became apparent why. Many of them had been rescued from the clutches of Fagan and a career on the streets as pickpockets. Very deft they were too. One delinquent was swift to plunge an arm into D's trouser leg pocket, which she had thought empty, and made off to his perch with a packet of painkillers, shredding them all over his bib. R's efforts to retrieve them brought howls of protest (and laughter from the bystanders) until one of the volunteers came to appease the felon.
Back in La Paz, the 3-lane main road through the city was blocked by a crowd gathered to watch the football on TV in a shop window. Such is life in Bolivia.