Death Road, San Pedro Prison & The Brilliant Bolivian Spirit In La Paz
At first impression, the Bolivian capital of La Paz reminds me of Medellin, in Colombia. It’s a massive, sprawling city embedded into a valley of mountains, full to the brim of houses and flats that continue way up onto hilltop ledges. Getting off of our bus from Copacabana, Dave and I have only a short walk in the late afternoon heat to reach our hostel, but as with all of Bolivia, high altitude makes even short hikes challenging. On top of the altitude, it quickly becomes apparent that La Paz is highly polluted, as buses rumble past us on the main road spewing toxic black smoke behind them. As an asthmatic, it’s not an ideal environment to be in.
Exhausted from finding the place, we check in to Adventure Brew B&B, which is a very basic but clean hostel with exceptionally poor WiFi connection (even by Bolivian standards) and miserable staff. Dave is very keen to do Death Road while we’re here, which is La Paz’s most famous attraction. If you’ve not heard of it, Death Road is pretty much what it says on the tin; a road that has witnessed the deaths of numerous people over the years, due to treacherous winding curves and narrow gaps barely large enough for a car. A tour to Death Road means ascending to 4,700 meters, then cycling down by mountain bike at speeds of sixty miles per hour, or more!
Now, I am probably one of the least sportiest people you will ever meet. Don’t get me wrong, I love a challenge, and if you’ve been reading other posts of mine you’ll see I’ve been caving, canyoning, bike-riding and all-sorts since we’ve been travelling. However, partly for my own safety and partly because I don’t want Dave to have to worry about me instead of letting loose and enjoying himself, I decide that Death Road just doesn’t appeal to me and, as it’s a fairly expensive tour, we’d be better off saving the money it would cost for me to endure it. So, Dave signs up to take the tour alone the following day and I will be left to my own devices while I await his safe return.
That night we head to our hostel bar for some cheap dinner and drinks, before getting an early night, as Dave is up and out before 7am in the morning. Once he’s out of the door the following day, I treat myself to a lay in, then claim my free pancakes on the hostel rooftop, chatting with a girl from Slovenia while I tuck in. My plan is to go on a free city walking tour, then book our trip to Salar de Uyuni to see the salt flats. My plans are quickly quashed when I leave for the morning walking tour and end up completely lost in the streets of La Paz. I traipse up and down steep hilled streets, receiving wolf-whistles and regular, “Hola!” comments from groups of local men, before shamefully retreating back to the hostel, having missed the tour start time.
Undefeated, I decide to take the afternoon walking tour instead and in the meantime, book a day tour of the Bolivian salt flats with the company I’ve spent hours researching about, Red Planet. This time, as I go to leave for the meeting point, I bump into the Slovenian girl I was chatting with at breakfast and we team up to find our way together. It still requires us asking a policeman for directions along the way, but eventually we make it to the walking tour start point; a small square that hosts a fountain and some greenery, in the middle of the hectic terraced streets.
With time to spare for a quick lunch, I grab some crisps at a small convenience stand on the corner of the park and, as I do so, a homeless man approaches me and starts to speak in Spanish. I quickly realise the rugged-looking gentleman is assertively telling me to give him money, but I’ve just spent my change on the crisps and only have a large note for the remainder of the day, not to mention that our tour is about to begin, so I have no time to hunt down change. I politely tell him, “Lo siento, no tengo”, and start to walk away, but as I do so the guy literally shoves my arm in anger! It’s incredible the difference in the way you’re treated as a female alone, compared to when a man is with you.
Anyway, the walking tour of La Paz turns out to be the best free walking tour I have ever been on. Our guide, Daniella, is funny, passionate and hugely knowledgeable about her country, and it’s history and customs. I learn a huge amount about the notorious San Pedro Prison, which is actually our starting point for the tour. For example, every prisoner in San Pedro has to pay rent for their cell. Those that are rich have penthouses with jacuzzis, while the poor inmates share small, dank cells at a low cost. As well as this, San Pedro is known as home to the best cocaine producers in the South America and just one of the ways the drugs have supposedly been smuggled out, is by the inmates wrapping the packages in babies nappies and throwing them into the street below. So if you’re ever in La Paz and see a nappy on the floor, don’t pick it up! You could land yourself in serious trouble.
Back in the early 000’s, you could actually take a tour of San Pedro with an inmate as a guide. I’m serious, it was published as a ‘thing to do’ in Lonely Planet! However, some unfortunate incidents involving tourists have occurred and the tours are now considered highly illegal, frankly you’d be a fool to take one these days. There is a book though, called Marching Powder, that can tell you all about the prison and I highly recommend reading it.
Overall, La Paz itself is an average city that’s crowded, polluted and not particularly beautiful. The people however, are magnificent. In all the countries we’ve visited so far, I’ve not seen as obvious an indigenous population. The streets and markets are filled with women in bowler hats and skirts covering their thighs (the sexiest part of a Bolivian female according to their culture), and Danielle explains to us that maintaining the country’s indigenous heritage is hugely important as a value to many of the people, including the current President. I can’t help but love their spirit and determination to keep hold of their national identity in the face of global corporations, financial investors and technological advances. Fun fact for you, Bolivia is one of the only countries in the world to have bankrupt the McDonalds franchise!
Once the tour finishes, I enjoy a beer with the group and make my way back to the hostel with a couple of the girls I’ve befriended. Famished, we head straight to the bar for dinner and I anxiously await Dave’s return. It turns out, Dave has actually arrived back before me, but as the WiFi connection is so awful, I’m not aware and it’s an hour before he hunts me down, worried about where I am, ironically. He’s completely unharmed and tells me what a great day he’s had, nobody died in his group, which is always a bonus, however one girl did come off her bike and hurt her arm so I definitely think I made the right choice in missing out!
The next morning, we’ll be flying to Sucre, titled as Bolivia’s ‘most beautiful city’, where we’ll spend a few days admiring the architecture and preparing for our tour to Salar de Uyuni; the country’s most unique and popular attraction. Read my next post for all the details!
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