La Paz and Mountain Biking to Coroico

La Paz Travel Blog

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Construction in La Paz and one side of the valley

La Paz is a very interesting city, sort of a meeting ground of two cultures, that of the indigenous Aymara indians that have inhabited the altiplano region for hundreds of years and that of new and modern Bolivia. It is probably the only place in the world where you´ll see people dressed in traditional indigenous clothing eating at Burger King or a witches market selling dried llama fetuses next to a Hard Rock Cafe. The city itself sprawls out inside of a long deep valley with red and white brick houses rising precariously up the hillsides, seemingly stacked on top of each other on the steeper slopes. The streets are narrowly and the cobbled stones have been worn smooth over years and years of inhabitation. These narrow streets are poorly equipped to handle the overflow of mini-vans, taxis, and mini-buses that ferry the multitudes of people to their daily tasks.

An old narrow street and houses rising up the valley
The winding streets are rarely labeled and when they are the names often change without notice making navigation, even with a map, quite a chore. And it being the capital of Bolivia there is seemingly some protest or another happening every day, usually anounced by the cheap fireworks sold everywhere in the main marketplace.

There are a few good musuems in La Paz, with a very good musuem containing the best of the artifacts found at the nearby Tihuanuco archaeological site and an extensive musical instrument musuem with every sort of imaginable instrument on display, with some bizarre guitars crafted from turtle and armadillo shells. To the south of the center is the more modern section of the city with a markedly different, and much more affluent, character.

Illimani mountain and the south side of La Paz
The people are dressed differently and the many modern schools and colleges in the area give a sharp contrast to the traditional way of life. Other than wandering around La Paz there really weren´t too many sites and attractions other than the famous San Pedro prison, which was written about in the book called Marching Powder by Rusty Young.

From some other travelers that I had met I had the phone of one of the prisoners so that I could call and arrange a visit to the prison. They had recently resumed allowing foreigners to visit the prison after a dispute over this with other prisoners and guards. The prison is unique in that your place in the jail is determined by how much money you have. If you can afford it, you pay the money and you can stay in a section of the prison where you essentially have your own apartment.

Artifact from the ruins at Tihuanuco
If you can´t afford it then you are forced to stay in the general population section which is really rough and provides little if any luxuries. The families of the prisoners actually live inside the prison with them and they are free to come and go as they please from 8am to 8pm or so. Inside the jail the prisoners mostly do as they wish, including operating a small cocaine factory to supply the needs of the jail. For some time part of these quasi-legal prison tours for tourists included the chance to buy and use the dirt cheap homemade cocaine from the prison. This wasn´t the case at the time, and our guide actually apologized to everyone about this fact; I have a feeling that this was one of the issues that was involved in the dispute with the prison authorities about letting tourists visit the prison.
Exotic guitars

The tour was given by a prisoner from South Africa who´s nickname was Greed who had been in prison for almost four years after being caught trying to smuggle cocaine from Bolivia to Switzerland. He swallowed 85 12 gram capsules of cocaine and tried to get on a plane, only to be caught by the police at the airport. While in prison he has a job working for a security company on the outside, a wife, and a girlfriend. He is free to go in a month but is actually going to stay in jail for another few months waiting for his wife to return from vacation, showing how rough it is for those privileged few with money in the prison. Staying next to him in the prison is a high ranking Colombian drug lord who is important enough to have his own bodyguard staying with him in the prison.

The road descending from La Paz to Coroico
The whole experience was very surreal because you never felt like you were in a prison, at least not in this rich part of the prison. The prisoners have all sorts of contraband, their cells are searched but they know when the searches happen so its all a rather pointless exercise just for show. And of course almost everything has its price, even the punishment of other prisoners, which you could pay off the guards to arrange. But for the most part these elite prisoners live like normal people in their own separate society. The other side would be a different story with all the accounts of stabbings and violence, even the prison guards are reluctant to go there. Supposedly according to our guide Brad Pitt has bought the movie rights to the book and perhaps in a few years a movie will be made about the prison.
On the World´s Most Dangerous Road

From La Paz, the popular tourist route is to do the downhill mountain biking on the so-called Death Road, a now obsolete section of dirt road that used to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world due to its sheer cliffs and narrow winding road. Various agencies offer the trip from La Paz to Coroico on mountain bikes, starting at the mountain pass at 4600 meters and descending down to coroico at about 1200 meters. The scenery for the ride is just gorgeous beginning with the freezing cold and bleak altiplano and descending steeply into lushly green forested mountains and hills, crossing a river or two and riding underneath small waterfalls sprinkling off the cliff facades. The ride is pretty rough and in the past several tourists have died from falling off the edge of the cliffs.

A bus trying to get through the muddy road from La Paz to Rurrenabaque
Our guides were very good and we all survived the Death Road without incident. The ride ends near Coroico where I stayed the night in a nice little hotel rather than heading back to La Paz the same day. The following day I caught a bus up to Rurrenabaque, a long 22 hour ride that was delayed about 6 hours because we reached a nearly impassable section of muddy road at 2am and had to wait until daylight to cross it. The buses got up some speed and tried to cross the muddy path but ended up slipping and sliding sideways as they shimied up the muddy slope. They all got stuck at the deepest part and we had to get out and push to get the bus up the hill. But from there the road was fine all the way until Rurrenabaque. The bus was better than waiting for flights from La Paz which had been grounded for four days due to rain in Rurrenabaque leading to an unusable soggy grass runway. Either way you take your chances with the delays.

 

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Construction in La Paz and one sid…
Construction in La Paz and one si…
An old narrow street and houses ri…
An old narrow street and houses r…
Illimani mountain and the south si…
Illimani mountain and the south s…
Artifact from the ruins at Tihuanu…
Artifact from the ruins at Tihuan…
Exotic guitars
Exotic guitars
The road descending from La Paz to…
The road descending from La Paz t…
On the World´s Most Dangerous Road
On the World´s Most Dangerous Road
A bus trying to get through the m…
Random parade in La Paz
Random parade in La Paz
A decorative mask
A decorative mask
Drug country in Bolivia
Drug country in Bolivia
The road winding through the mount…
The road winding through the moun…
La Paz
photo by: wilfredoc2009