Dangerous roads in La Paz

La Paz is Bolivia’s administrative capital city. Don’t overlook the word “administrative”, as this country is one of the few one’s being able to finance two capitals (the other being Sucre). There is one major road leading into the center of town, which is located at the bottom of a crater-shaped canyon. Winding steadily down from the suburb of El Alto (at 4150 meters altitude) to the heart of the city (at 3660 meters altitude), the bus ride features an almost 360 degree panoramic view during a half hour descent.

Whether people love or hate La Paz, they all agree that this town features one of the wackiest city layouts worldwide. From tiny little brick houses to big business towers, everything seems to be “glued” to the crater walls. Staring too much at the hundreds of thousands of squares at the horizon probably can create hallucinations. Some travelers even argue that the interlocked squares of residential houses look very familiar – like a full “Tetris” game screen.

The world's most dangerous roadAnother particular feature in this town are the shoe-shine boys. They usually wear full-face ski masks to hide their faces. This looks pretty scary and probably would be a perfect setup to prepare some people for a bank robbery. But these boys do shine the shoes only. They do mask their identity, because some of them are students who try – by this – to earn money for their studies. The other part of the shoe-shine boys – the elder ones – are drug addicts and alcoholics, who hide this way their state of intoxication.

Traffic in La Paz is intense. Subjectively, I found this to be the most polluted city I visited on my entire trip. The buses and trucks seem to be exhausting extra-fumes which really made me cough. And I watched other people, including locals, who struggled sometimes for the same reasons, when crossing the streets.

Nevertheless, since the city is located at a high altitude, the prevailing thin air might alter my overall perception in this matter. My hostel was located smack down in the tourist center, at the Calle Linares. There, the various markets are abundant and it is fun to watch how people and cars manage to squeeze through the steep, narrow and cobble-stoned streets. It’s a constant mix of people hurrying by, while others stop to shop or to chat, while taxis and lorries are in a honking concert.

Rarely, I have actually seen such a segregated market organisation, where stalls in one road sell light bulbs only – while in another road toilet seats are on sale in a dozen shops or so. The most famous part of these markets is the “witches market” (Mercado de Hechiceria), where dried lama fetuses and other odd things on display are supposed to help people to recover from illnesses. One of the “witches” explained to me in Spanish the usefulness of a particular magical potion she eagerly wanted to sell to me. Since my Spanish language skills don’t yet include various body parts, she resulted to the term “Viagra”. Obviously, then I understood and I might come back one day – when I’m older.

Suburbs along the rim of the hills around La Paz

Although I didn’t feel too dizzy anymore because of the high altitude, I struggled after having walked to get to most attractions in town. In fact, going anywhere in La Paz involves going either up or down. There seems to be absolutely not the tiniest little bit of flat stretch of street in this city. During the second day, the weather was perfect. But I wasn’t keen anymore in walking uphill to a panoramic lookout, since I still felt exhausted from the walks of the day before. Luckily, there was a one and a half hour city tour bus waiting for lazy people like me – which included a stop at the lookout as part of its itinerary.

Therefore, I bought the relatively cheap ticket for this double-decker bus. The second floor actually had no roof – perfect for picture taking. But once on the tour bus, I spotted plenty of warning signs that mandated tourists to remain seated. The reason for this became quickly obvious to me: Since the bus was four meters high, the wires for telephones, electricity and other random stuff were criss-crossing streets at a little over that same altitude. At several instances, I had cables dangling down and touching my head. Scary tour.

Already in the mood for couch potato travelling, I did book another tour to the town of Tiahuanaco on the third day. I didn’t fancy sitting crammed with twenty other people in a Toyota minibus for one hour. Since the tourist tour did cost one US dollar more than the public transport, my decision was quickly made to go the comfy way. Visiting Tiahuanaco means visiting Bolivia┬┤s most significant archaeological place. The civilization of the Tiwanaku left a number of monoliths and temples in the area.

Tiahuanaco

Being my first visit to a truly archaeological site on South American soil (the Nazca lines don’t count, since they are of alien origin – remember?), I was disappointingly underwhelmed. The Spanish used stones from one of the ancient temples to build the nearby church in the 17th century. Obviously, what’s left on the historical sites, is often really not much. One small open-air temple looked pretty neat, but the only original part was a four-step staircase. All of the rest was a – not too authentic – reconstruction, in an effort to please and draw in tourists. To be blunt: After Central and Southeast Asia, I am not impressed at all by the South American archaeological sites. Hopefully, Peru will alter a bit my disappointment in that respect.

On the last day of my stay, I went by mountain bike to drive down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (aka: “Death Road”, or “North Yungas Road”). Descending from the suburban town of La Cumbre – at around 4700 meters – down to the village of Coroico – at a mere 1500 meters – this 60 kilometer long road descends for 85% of its distance. Including some parts of ascending road, the total downhill altitude adds up to more than 3700 meters. Obviously, this is a physically effortless trip. But I found the challenge to be more on a technical and mental side: There are steep drop-offs, most more than 600 meters. Also, most of the road is not wider than three meters, without any guard rails or other safety installations. The surface is sometimes muddy, sometimes loose gravel – assorted with fallen rocks from the hillsides above. It is estimated that around 200 – 300 people were killed every year along this road. On one particular tragic incident, a fully loaded local bus went downhill in a curve, killing all of its over 100 passengers.

At the witches market

Although the weather started very bad early in the morning, featuring wet snow and rain, the skies cleared quickly. At around nine o’clock, we (me and five other travelers) rode the deadly track in beautiful sunshine. And the further we did descend, the hotter and more tropical the weather became. All in all, this was an absolutely fabulous and fun day. The company, which provided us with great guides and good equipment is called “B-Side“. Highly recommended. It’s one of the very few companies doing rides with small groups only. The big ones (mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook and the Wikipedia) run the tours with over 15, 20 people. Due to their advertising exposure, these “big guys” tend to be more expensive as well, although I saw them using the same quality of equipment as we had.

Since 2006, there is a replacement road in use, which absorbs most of the local traffic. These days, mountain bikers are the most common sight on the “old death road”. Nevertheless, more than a dozen adventure bikers have lost their lives here in the past ten years alone.

But then again, riding through La Paz in the official open-air double-decker bus is much more dangerous: Because it’s easy to get strangled by the omnipresent overhead cable chaos in the streets.