The worlds highest capital city lies at 3650m above sea level. As a major transport hub, with an international airport, La Paz is full of gringos suffering from altitude sickness. By the time our group finally reached the Bolivian capital we’d all been at altitude for over a month and were happily running up and down the steep streets. Ok so we weren’t running but we were at least able to make it around without collapsing. The local old women were still easily outpacing us…
We arrived on an overnight bus from Sucre early in the morning and compared to Sucre’s white buildings and colonial charm La Paz is, well, pretty rough. But if you are coming from Sucre then make sure you’re awake for the arrival into La Paz as it’s spectacular. The city is located in a bowl like depression with 6000m mountains in the background. As the bus came in sight of the city the rising sun illuminated these snow capped peaks giving amazing views. If you arrive by plane there’s a good chance you’ll be looking up at the mountains on the way in to land.
The front of main bus terminal is lovely, take a good look as the rest of the city is a bit ugly. Accommodation options in La Paz, consisted of a number of “Party Hostels” as no one was that keen we opted for a cheap hotel.
We decided to go on the “Red Cap” walking tour. We’d thoroughly recommend this excursion to anyone visiting the city as you get a thorough breakdown of the sites as well as the history of the city. It’s free with tips given at the end.
The tour starts outside La Paz prison. This is a fascinating structure though i’m not sure it would work in European nations. The prisoners run the prison, completely, all the guards are stationed outside the walls. If a prisoner has a lot of money then they get a very comfortable stay with jacuzzi, flat screen TV’s and an apartment. If they don’t have money then they get to share a mattress with 8 other people.
Inside, there are shops, barbers and a small cocaine factory, they even steal the WiFi from the hotel over the road. Tours used to be arranged so people could see inside and even stay the night. This is no longer the case, if you go in, you don’t come back out.
The tour continues through the local markets, witches market, (chance to buy a llama foetus) modern market (probably the worlds ugliest) and finishes up at the top of a hotel. Here there’s a chance to abseil down the side dressed up as any superhero you can imagine, or as a slice of bacon.
Another popular activity is the Cholita wrestling on Sundays (which we sadly missed) Cholitas are the local women who still dress in the “traditional” skirts and bowler hats. The wrestling is actually a way for them to show off as the stronger women are considered more attractive.
Anyone heading to La Paz is probably at least considering “The Worlds Most Dangerous Road.” The Death road or Yungas road to give it its real name (you might have seen it on Top Gear) is now mostly closed to traffic after the construction of a new highway. For the last 10 years mountain biking expeditions have hurtled down this road every day for the amusement of thrill seekers.
We chose to go with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. This company is the most expensive but is the oldest, has the best bikes and an excellent safety record.
Whilst it’s called the Death Road and over 20 tourists have died on it, one a couple of days before us, it is certainly not a dangerous excursion. Around 300 cyclists go down the road every day and in 10 years only 20 tourists have died. If you’re an experienced cyclist then you’re going to find it a great day with amazing views. If you’re not an experienced cyclist you’ll probably find it a bit more intimidating but still perfectly safe and lots of fun. Two of our group haven’t touched bikes since they were children and they both survived until the bottom.
Gravity break the day into about 30 sections, the first half (distance) is on wide paved highways which you can charge down and get used to the bikes. After this you head to the off road section which takes around 3 hours to traverse.
Our instructors explained the layout of the next section of track during each break, so we always knew to look out for any particularly tight corners or rocky sections.
They didn’t warn us when we were going to be heading through a waterfall or river, but this was more for their own amusement watching us get soaked.
As you’d expect with vertigo, Lauren stayed away from the edges and enjoyed the view, whilst I concentrated on getting my adrenaline fix.
The very last section is actually where the most accidents happen. As you head into town it’s not very steep and there are no vertical drops. However chickens come charging out of houses to attack your wheels. If you hit it you buy it.
At the end of the tour, Gravity take you to a monkey sanctuary for some food and a chance to get clambered on by monkeys. There are around 5 species of monkey present as well as macaws and parrots. What you might find quite odd is that the whole complex is under a cage with the animals peering in at you.
As long as you follow the instructors advice then Death Road is a great day out with amazing views and a free beer and T-shirt at the end. Go on give it a go!