Tuesday, December 13, 2011

(1) Hey let's go to La Paz.

I recently (as of like two days ago) returned from Bolivia to the good ol' US of A...and I have to say that it's great to be home.  But I do miss those silpanchos.  We wrapped up this season of the Titi Monkey Project at the end of November, and then I headed off for ten days of Bolivian fun.  And of course, I have written a blog detailing each day.  It's lengthy.  So I have decided to break it down into four, more manageable sections.  This is the first section.  Prepare yourself for the following three.  

Thursday, Dec. 1st and Friday, Dec. 2nd

Vacation task #1: buy bus tickets form Santa Cruz to La Paz.  Bus tickets in Bolivia are not a “reserve in advance” type of thing….so, going into Thursday (with our plan to leave Thursday night) we had no idea what bus we were taking or what time it was leaving or how much it was going to cost us.  We find the bus station, find a reputable bus company, and purchase three direct tickets to La Paz.  This was not only a good test of our Spanish skills, but also a good test of that poor bus man’s patience.  Our bus was set to leave at 3:30 pm….only three hours earlier than we had anticipated….THREE HOURS EARLIER?!  There was still so much to do!  A rushed morning turned into a rushed early afternoon, but all our Santa Cruz tasks were wrapped up in time.  Our favorite taxi driver, Pepe/Tio Taxi, who had been driving us to and from monkey work each day, was there at the house to pick us (and all of our bags) up and take us to the bus station.  So glad we got to see him one more time!  Such a sweet thing.  It was kind of sad leaving the Quinta Totaices; it was my home for three months.  But new adventures were on the horizon, so I reluctantly turned in my key and hugged Yuvinka and Mirian goodbye. 

Our bus departed the station right on time, but not before we stocked up on snacks.  See, this little road trip from Santa Cruz to La Paz is only about 900 km, but given the current state of the Bolivian road system, it can take up to 24 hours to get there.  24 hours on a bus??  Yeah.  24 hours on a bus.  Good thing I had an iPod full of great music (thanks to Zac and Anna) and a backpack full of snacky foods to help the journey go by quickly. 

Bolivian road trip foods: cuñape and achachairu

I would say overall the bus journey went relatively smoothly.  Nothing broke down, nothing tipped over.  The only issue I had was the clearly inappropriate movie choices they decided to play for the first 4 hours of the trip….lots of fighting, lots of bones breaking, lots of screaming, lots of guns, lots of murder, lots of dead people.  There were children on that bus!  The worst part was the volume at which these movies were played. I could hear the screaming through my headphones.  That’s a little ridiculous.  Oh well, if that’s my only complaint, I guess it’s alright. 

Lucky for us, our bus arrived in the city of La Paz around 7:30 am, only 16 hours after departure!  We fell asleep to palm trees, and woke up to snow covered mountain peaks…accompanied by a 40-degree temperature drop.  Finally some beautiful weather! 

The mountains of La Paz!

We collected our luggage, which, praise the Lord, arrived in the city with us, and then headed off to find our hotel.  Clearly we were checking in a little early, but our very accommodating hotel fixed up our room and had it ready a few minutes later.  And woah, our hotel was amazing.  We definitely made the right choice in our decision to splurge just a little for a nice hotel.  I thought we deserved it.  Also keep in mind that “splurging” in Bolivian standards is a whole different ball game when compared to “splurging” in the States.  Things tend to be a little more on the inexpensive side…which is great news for us and our bank accounts!

An early check in left us the entire day to explore the city.  Also to acclimate to this new altitude.  Santa Cruz sits at 416 m (1,365 ft), while La Paz rests at about 3,640 m (11,942 ft).  That is a big difference.  Altitude sickness is no joke, but I had been in super-hydration mode since Monday, so it was not a problem.  Even so, walking up and down all these hills, when you’re not used to hills OR a clear lack of oxygen, it’ll get your heart pumping.  So, we wandered the city at a cautiously slow pace, enjoying lunch at this hole-in-the-wall off one of the plazas and even getting to do a little souvenir/alpaca shopping.  La Paz is the perfect place to pick up some great alpaca gear for some even greater prices. Full advantage was taken. 

Iglesia de San Francisco

Everything was perfect, we were all falling in love with the city, from its climate, to its architecture, until we had our first encounter with a pick-pocketer.  Chantelle and I are walking in front, and all of a sudden we hear Shannon getting into it with a La Pazian.  Somewhere, somehow, this little thief had managed to unzip the INSIDE pocket of Chantelle’s bag and take out her camera.  Good thing we had Shannon there to wrestle her down and pry the camera out of her sticky little fingers.  We’d heard stories about the thieves in La Paz, and it only took us a few hours to experience them.

A little more shopping, a little more eating, and then we crashed.  An overnight bus journey makes a stationary hotel bed VERY inviting.  We all slept, and we all slept well.

Saturday, Dec. 3rd

So what do you do when you’ve got a few days to kill in La Paz?  Bike down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” obviously.  The North Yungas Road (also known as the Road to Coroico, El Camino de la Muerte, or the Death Road) is a 64 km (40 mile) road leading from La Paz to Coroico.  It's basically known for being really really dangerous - extreme drop-offs, narrow road (only about 3 m), a lack of guard rails - and in 1995 it was christened as the "World's Most Dangerous Road."  It is still a usable road, but since the construction of a newer/safer route in 2006, fewer vehicles choose to travel this particular path.

We met up with our fellow cyclists early in the morning, and then loaded up a bus to make the ascent to our adventure’s starting point.  Finally, at 4,650 m (15,260 ft), we layered up  - it gets pretty chilly up there, got a safety brief, and then hit the road.  The first part of the ride was paved, giving us plenty of time to get accustomed to our new mode of transportation.  Now, I know how to ride a bike…but, I have not actually ridden a bike in about 4 or 5 years.  It all came back pretty quick.  It had to…seeing as we were flying down paved descents at speeds I personally have never reached on two wheels.  Seriously I’ve never gone that fast on a bike.  Oh, and did I mention all the cars and trucks that were also on this paved road?!  We hadn’t even made it to the actually Death Road yet!

A few more paved kilometers and it was back in the bus to make our way through the uphill bit of the journey.  Several minutes and a sandwich later, it was back to the bikes.  This time on a gravel road…a gravel Death Road.  Because we were headed in the downhill direction, we had to ride on the cliff side of the road.  Note the absence of barricades.  Yeah that’s a legitimate cliff.  64 kilometers of cliff-side mountain biking, and 3,450 km (10,350 ft) loss in elevation, but we all made it out unscathed. 

First glimpse of the Death Road!

Narrowest part of the road...site of the largest ever
single-vehicle accident (102 casualties)

Bonus for Chantelle and myself – three awesome ziplines above the forest canopy when we reached our destination. 

Overall, I would have to say that biking down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” was not as terrifying as I had anticipated.  The scary part?  Driving back UP the road in a bus.  At one point, we stopped, opened the door, and the cliff’s edge rested about 4 inches from bus’ wheels.  When you open a bus door and that’s what you see, all you can really do is laugh and take a picture. 

Death Road mountain biking - definitely ranks in the top five coolest things I’ve ever done.  

FUN SCIENCE FACT #24: At over 2000 kilometers long, The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth.  

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