Sunday, 29 June 2014

Zip line (flying fox) In Yolosa, Bolivia

‘The Death Road’ (Camino de la Muerte) & Coroico

By Mark

We left La Paz bound for Coroico, a small village 100kms north of La Paz, via what has become known as ‘The Most Dangerous Road in the World’ or ‘The Death Road’. The road is now less dangerous as the road is only really used for tourists doing mountain bike tours and the odd motorcycle. A new highway was built about 9 years ago that now by basses this road. Before this however this was the only way into the Yungas from La Paz.

The road was built back in the 1930’s by Paraguayan prisoners caught in the war between Bolivia and Paraguay. The width of the road ranges from 2.9m to 3.5m with sheer vertical drops ranging in height from 280m to 800m. It is also the only road in Bolivia where you drive on the left hand side and you have to giveway to traffic heading up the mountain. When the road was open to all traffic before the new highway was built, there were numerous accidents with as many as 200 – 300 people losing their lives each year. Hence why it became known as The Death Road. But as I mentioned, the road now has many guard barriers and is mainly open to descending traffic, however we did just hear that a mountain bike guide was killed just the other day after a head on Collision with a car coming up the mountain.

As we dropped down from La Cumbre at about 4700m we descended into one big cloud filling the valley. It started with just a bit of cloud but the further we descended we became completely engulfed in thick fog to the point that we could not see more than 10m in front of us, it became very cold and quite wet at that point. We made it to the turn off for The Death Road where we ran into at least 3 mountain bike tour companies who were about to descend into the abyss. We quickly took some photos and shot off ahead off them as to not get caught up with them all the way down to the town of Yolosa at 1200m, which marks the end of the road.
As we made our way down the wet and muddy road a feeling of disappointment rushed through me. I had known about this road for years and know how perilous it is and how well known it is for the sheer vertical drops lining the roadside... and all I could see was cloud. A complete whiteout everywhere we looked but as we descended the eeriness of it all took over and I took it for all that it was worth. Along the road we also came along a few waterfalls that actually fall down onto the road, it is in this particular location where many lives have been lost. The road is narrow and with water falling constantly on the edge of the road and the weight of a vehicle passing by on the edge it has been known to collapse and take many lives. All along the road side are crosses and memorials to all the people who have lost their lives. A somber reminder to all that travel this road.

As we slowly descended out of the cloud we were greeted with extensive views of the beautiful lush green valleys of the Yungas. We hoped that we had left the cyclists behind but each time we stopped to take photos they would catch up to us. Well at least we had the engine between our legs to pass them over and over, however it made it harder to get good footage to make another short film. The further down the mountain the temperature started to rise and we were looking forward to hanging out around here for a few days. Towards the bottom of the hill the road became a lot less dangerous and the vertical drops of the road side became smaller and smaller. The road became dusty and we arrived safe and sound at the bottom in the village of Yolosa. To be honest, I was never scared of this road. We have ridden many more dangerous roads in Bolivia and other countries such as Nepal. I was however very happy to have had the chance to ride it anyway. We watched the hordes of tourists load their bikes back onto the roofs of the buses before we took off to our next destination of Coroico. We had heard good things about this place but as we arrived the town looked a  little run down and in need of some TLC. We rode around looking for a place to stay and finally decided on a cheap little place just up from the plaza. What the town lacks in good looks is completely made up for in surrounding beauty. The town sits high overlooking numerous valleys with incredible views back up towards The Death Road and also the new highway and numerous mountains lurking behind in the distance.

We decided to stay a few days after all. It was my birthday while we were here and with not many other large towns around, this would be the best place to celebrate. Our days were spent lazing around town, taking in the scenery and also sadly watching Australia be defeated by the Netherlands in the world cup and in all places we watched the game in a Dutch run bar!
The day of my birthday was kicked off just right with breakfast in bed, then we looked outside and found the entire town engulfed in one big cloud, looked like I had been a bad boy with weather like this. Luckily as the day warmed up, the clouds separated and we were off for some zip lining (flying fox) fun across the valleys. We got a lift in one of the local mini buses for the very rough 20 min drive back to Yolosa where we would take another vehicle up to the start of the the Zip line. There are 3 lines in total measuring a distance of 1555m, at heights up to 250m above the ground and of speeds up to 85km p/h. I Can’t remember the last time I went on one of these but it was definitely not this long, high or fast. The zip line passes over the last bit of the death road before Yolosa and a large river that many locals are trying to find their fortune in as it is meant to be rich in gold in this region. It was great fun but the down side was that it was over way too quickly. Would have loved to have had another go but with our ever diminishing bank account we have to watch what we spend. Time to head back to town for a few beers instead.

While waiting a very long time for a minivan to take us back up the steep and bumby road back to Coroico we got chatting to a local coca farmer. At first we were speaking Spanish to him and then all of a sudden the young guy breaks out speaking to us in perfect English, not something you find everyday in Bolivia especially in small villages. He openly talked about coca production in the area and how much he earned per kilo, he also basically told us that all the coca produced in the area would go on to be turned into cocaine. As far as I am led to believe that for all the coca produced in Bolivia 60% will be used for the manufacture of cocaine.
My birthday ended with more beer and pizza, but nothing too rowdy as we had decided that if the weather was good we should go do The Death Road again. The following day did not disappointing, the sun was shining and there was not too much cloud about. We hit the road early to make sure we would be in front of the mountain bikers. Halfway up the new highway however I managed to get another puncture, again on the front tyre! Again Sanne was not looking in her mirrors and left me behind again to change my tube by myself. Sometime later she realised and came back looking for me fearing the worst, that I had been in an accident, no just the usual flat tyre! In no time we were up and running and sitting at the top of The Death Road, this time with not a tour bus or mountain biker in sight, YES! Also the road and valley was clear of fog and we were off again. The enormity of the depth of the valleys never really became apparent until we were here second time round with clear skies! The riding was easier as it was not so wet and also the filming was more possible as there seemed to be nobody else on the road except for us. We did pass a few nutters on mountain bikes who for some reason were riding UP the death road. That is one tough slog!

We managed to get some really awesome pictures second time round and found we made our way down much quicker also. As a motorcyclist in Bolivia we are exempt from paying road tolls, except on The Death Road where there is a 25bob ($4) charge to use the road which is only paid by tourists to keep the upgrade of the road. With the barriers in place to save lives we found this to be less dangerous than previous roads we have ridden but good fun all the same.

With time still to kill awaiting the arrival of Sanne’s new passport we left the valleys and jungle of the Yungas behind and made our way for Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America.

Looking down the valley towards the Yungas from La Cumbre pass

The sign says it all

Our first time down we were engulfed in a thick cloud

Looking into the abyss, chicken dance style

If the thick fog didn't make it feel eerie enough, the many crosses definitely did

The point of the road where most deaths have occurred

Finally a view of the valley

The town of Coroico

Beautiful and lush and thankfully a little warmer for us

One happy birthday boy, one not so happy worker!

Flying fool

Another happy punter, and a still unhappy worker!

Locals attempting to strike it rich panning for gold in the river

Second time round on the death road and this time we had perfect weather

This time we could actually see what we were riding

There are still the odd few trucks that make it down the old road, but not a lot of space to pass these guys

Sanne being brave and taking in the scenery of the valley

That's me trying to be brave

There is a few waterfalls by the road and this is where most accidents happen

Not an easy place to be building a road in the steep mountain sides

An incredible view from Coroico. Overlooking the new highway in the centre and the death road running up the left valley

Thursday, 26 June 2014

La Paz

By Sanne

We entered La Paz from the north via El Cumbre at 4700m and descended into the steep valley that La Paz sits in at 3660m. It is a city of gothic proportions and it is an impressive sight to see this giant sprawl with the medieval-looking buildings sitting haphazardly on the steep slopes while to the south snow-peaked mountain Illimani (6402m) watches over the city. 
It was a Sunday afternoon and the city was surprisingly quiet. That combined with our new Polish aquaintances’ GPS meant that we found our hotel super easy, but even without GPS it would have been pretty easy. I have definitely ridden in far worse cities before. 

We checked in to Residencial Sucre which is a nice and central hotel located on Plaza San Pedro right across from the San Pedro prison which was made famous in the book Marching Powder. The owner of the hotel, and older man, is super nice and let us park the bikes right in the foyer. With our two bikes caked in dust from our ride and the Polish guys’ bike caked in mud from their ride, I was surprised he let us take them inside, but no problem at all. We met up with the guys later to go out for dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant, Star of India, which we had heard was really good, but it was overpriced and the food was pretty ordinary. I have found that, especially here in Bolivia, whenever I go to more expensive restaurants and restaurants caterering to gringos, the food is usually really ordinary. However, when I go to  a local market or small local restaurant and eat a $2 meal it is super tasty and I walk away from there satisfied. And anyway, I much prefer to eat my food in the company of locals than with gringos. Lunch (almuerzo) is the biggest meal here in Bolivia and even in the smallest towns here, we have been able to get something without meat (although  we have to help them along a bit by suggesting what they can serve for us, if you simply ask for ‘algo sin carne’ = ‘something without meat’ – you’re sure to get a No!)

Monday morning the first thing on our agenda was to go to the Danish Embassy to hand in my application for a new passport. After 3 years of travel I have collected a huge amount of stamps from various countries, non the least from crossing the Chile-Argentina border numerous times, and am now completely out of blank pages. In the email correspondence I had had with the embassy, they told me it would be an approximately 10-12 day turn-around to get a new passport. Then when I was there I was told that it can take up to 3-4 weeks! I told them that I only have limited time left on my Bolivian visa and really would appreciate it if it could be done faster. So they put ‘urgent’ on the application and sent it off. The passport is being printed in Denmark hence the time, but I really hope I won’t have to wait 4 weeks! Fingers crossed I won’t have to. 

That afternoon Mark and I went on a free walking tour of the city which was really well worth it. The tour meets every day at 11am and then at 2pm on Plaza San Pedro and is very popular with travellers. We usually don’t do touristy stuff like tours and the like but we thought ‘heck it’s free, why not?’ Well, it was so enjoyable. The two guides, a young Bolivian gay guy and a young Kiwi girl who now lives in La Paz were so entertaining and really funny as well. We cracked up several times of the guy’s stories of how flirting works in Bolivia (apparently Bolivian men like a nice, brown, juicy calf of a woman) and of how he fancies Prince Harry! They started of telling us about the San Pedro prison, which is unique in the way that it is run almost entirely by the prisoners themselves. Inside the walls, it is its own community with even families living there including children. Each prisoner has to actually pay for their room in the prison and the more money you’ve got, well, the more comfortable digs you can buy; there are prisoners in there who live in appartments with jacuzzis,; on the other end of the scale the have-nots have to share a room with maybe 10-20 other prisoners with only a soddy mattress on the hard floor to sleep on. 
You can also conduct business in there, again if you have money you can rent additional space to open up a restaurant (of which there are several inside the prison) or you can continue doing whatever you were doing on the outside, there are shoemakers, hairdressers, dentists and doctors in there – all prisoners themselves. About 80% of the inmates are there for drug-related crimes, but hey, don’t let prison get in the way of that! So cocaine production is thriving inside the walls. In fact rumour has it that it is the purest cocaine in Bolivia. We were told that whenever a batch is ready, it gets hurled out of the prison roof and right into the arms of their contact on the outside who is waiting on the street. Definitely not your average run-of-the-mill prison! The building which was once a monastery was only built to house 500 people max. At the moment, 2500 souls live in there. It is an incredibly cheap prison for the government to run as the only expense is the wages of the guards on the outside. The inside guards are prisoners and everything else, people have to pay for themselves. 
We were told that the minimum sentence for drug possesion is 8 years, and in Bolivia you’re not ‘innocent until proven guilty’ but the other way around. The judicial system here is also not the fastest, so it might very well be a few years before your case makes it to court, all the while you’re stuck in for example San Pedro prison. Then when you finally get sentenced to say 8 years, the time you have already done, does not get subtracted from that, so you have to do 8 years from that moment on, even though you have already been in prison for 3 years! Not fair? Well, that’s life in many aspects of Bolivian society. 

The nearby Rodrigues markets is a massive market that stretches for 12 or so blocks where you can find everything from apples and onions to lap tops and stolen goods. We managed to find a cheap external harddrive there as someone (not mentioning any names Mark) broke ours in Sucre and hence all our gopro footage from South America is gone. We need a new internal part of the harddrive replaced, a part they don’t have in Bolivia but we’ve been told that it can be done in more developed countried like Australia so here’s hoping! 

Another more interesting market in La Paz is The Witches Markets. There you can find herbal and folk remedies for curing everything from headaches to impotence, powder to put a spell on people, oh and llama fetuses! The fetuses are used as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for when people build a new house. The fetus is burried underneath the foundations of the building. Now, that’s the offering for a small house...if you’re constructing let’s say a multi-story building, well, Pachamama wants something bigger than a small llama fetus, something actual person! Yes, tradition is to find a homeless person, get him stupidly drunk on a drink that is spiked, kidnap him and bring him to the building site after which you bury him under the foundations. Nice, huh? Although no one will ever admit to doing this, everyone usually knows someone who knows someone...

While we were in La Paz we took the new cable car that just opened earlier this year to El Alto. El Alto is a city that sits right above La Paz at 4100m and from there you get a great view over all of La Paz. It is really cold and windy up there and not a particularly nice area as it’s very poor (and a little dangerous apparently). They have a huge market up here on Thursdays and Sundays and as it was a Thursday we wandered around the market where you can buy all sorts of things like parts for cars like diffs, brake calipers, carburettors right next to bananas and shoes. They love markets in Bolivia.

We were incredibly lucky to be in La Paz to experience the annual festival of La Fiesta del Gran Poder. El Gran Poder is one of, if not THE most important festival in Bolivia throughout the year. During this festival, which is a homage to Nuestro SeƱor del Gran Poder (Our Lord of Great Power) tens of thousands of people parade through the streets dancing and playing music. The sight of grown adults dressed in outrageous costumes, drinking and dancing their way through the city could seem like an odd form of religious devotion, but the participants (and spectators) don´t seem to see any contradiction in combining the sincere expression of religious belief with a riotous party – indeed the act of dancing nonstop for several hours at high altitude in a heavy costume can be seen as an exhausting form of devotional sacrifice! It was nothing less than spectacular to watch and a great experience.

The Sunday before we left, we again ventured up to El Alto, this time to watch the spectacle that is: Cholita Wrestling. Yep, Bolivian ladies who wrestle! Oh my god, was it entertaining! Incredibly amateurish but...entertaining. The ladies come into the ring wearing their traditional big skirts and bowler hats and then proceed to “pretend” to kick each others arses. There are male wrestlers as well, one was dressed as a clown and another was acting totally queer and was kissing on all the other male wrestlers, even the referee! How can I best explain this Bolivian wrestling? Imagine American wrestling D-grade and you might get the picture. The locals were getting really into it, heckling the fighters and hurling stuff into the ring like oranges and rubbish. Afterwards we were able to jump into the ring and pose for photos with the cholitas which was fun. Definitely a worthwhile experience to be had while in La Paz, if for nothing else than for the bizarre factor! 

We enjoyed La Paz and felt safe there, despite the fact that it is known as one of the most dangerous cities in South America and we found the people here to be just as friendly as in the rest of Bolivia. As I was still waiting for my new passport to arrive, we decided to leave the city and tour around the Yungas and Lake Titicaca in the meantime, but we would return to the big smoke after that.

Women gathering on Plaza San Pedro, in front of the famous San Pedro prison

Llama foetuses...a bizarre sight

Just like christmas decorations!

Plaza San Francisco and San Francisco Cathedral

At Mercado Lanza, the main food market in La Paz, 
at one of the many hole-in-the-wall almuerzo (lunch) restaurants

A shoe polisher at work - this is considered the lowest profession in Bolivia, hence why you see many of them wearing a mask to cover their faces, so no one will recognise them

Saw this fellow strung up on a lightpole in El Alto - it says: 
´Thief who is caught will be lynched and burned alive´... Consider yourself warned!

Overlooking La Paz from El Alto - mountain Illimani in the background

Selfie time!

The cable car that takes you from La Paz to El Alto

Welcome to the extravaganza that is El Gran Poder!

The outfits were nothing less than spectacular!

Lots of smiles from Cholitas!

And lots of lady legs!

That´s a bit cheeky...

A very traditional Bolivian indigenous outfit

They say you shouldn´t judge someone until you´ve walked a mile in their shoes...
I doubt I would even make it a mile in these ones!

Really lovely photo...but Mark close your fly for christ sake!

And it´s clown versus clown at the Cholita Wrestling!

It was intense!

Wouldn´t want to mess with this Cholita


Then there was a bit of arse-slapping!

And some arse-sniffing

Not even the referee was safe from the fury of the Cholitas

They´re small but strong

It´s a sandwich!

This dude posed like this for about 5 minutes...

Mark´s dream came true - being in a headlock of a Cholita!

My new pals and I