WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN | LA PAZ & YUNGAS ROAD

After few days in Uyuni, it was time to move on (Uyuni is not a place to linger in). Our route was taking us to La Paz, a capital city of Bolivia in all, but name, as the administrative centre is is in Sucre. Also, rumoured to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with anything starting from typical tourist muggings to express kidnappings and, even worse, drug cartel shootings. Safe to say, the afraid rabbit that I am, I was feeling slightly uneasy.

You might remember how bad the road was on the way to Uyuni, so this time we sought some advice from locals and were told that there is a tarmac road from Uyuni to Potosi. It meant a slight detour to the East, but we were prepared to take it after spending 2 days on the corrugated dirt road. It also turned out that an English guy from one of the motorcycle forums Carl is so fond of, was heading that way so a meeting was arranged just to have a dinner and a chat about our experiences.

From Uyuni our road went up as Potosi is one of the highest cities in the world with an altitude of 4067m above the sea level. One of the main problems of traveling high up is the altitude sickness with symptoms such as headache, shortness of breath, and dizziness due to the lower levels of oxygen. Thankfully neither me or Carl experienced any massive problems. At some point I might have had a headache and a tiny amount of blood from my nose. But that did not mean, we would not feel the effects of altitude – once we arrived in Potosi, for a while I did not understand how can I run out of breath climbing the smallest flight of stairs. I genuinely got worried I have lost that small bit of fitness I used to have.

Potosi seemed like a nice town, specially after Uyuni, but we did not manage to walk around much as we arrived late and then it was time to meet our new acquitance Ross who turned out to be a pleasant guy, giving us lots of information as he had travelled South America extensively. Also it was nice just to speak with someone new and have a dinner for three rather than just two of us. Once Ross found out that we are heading to La Paz, he said he will join us for few days, but on the next morning he changed his mind and went the opposite way, to Sucre. It was a shame as I was looking forward to another travel buddy. Oh well.

It took us two days to get to La Paz, with a night in Oruro in between, which was not the most exciting the town. I was not quite sure what to expect from La Paz, but arriving at the outskirts of the city it took my breath away. Hunched in between mountain peaks, La Paz is bursting with hundreds of winding streets, steps and buildings huddled all together on all the different levels of the mountains.

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La Paz in all it’s glory

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Once we got down to the city centre (after maybe an hour or so), it was even more spectacular – streets full with people, traffic, noise, millions of cables overhead, a mixture of old and new, traditional and European, it was just so much to take in. The traffic was the craziest we have seen in South America so far. There was no order to it and it was like a survival of the most daring. Neither cars or people pay any attention to traffic lights and there are no priorities when it comes to crossings – whoever feels entitled to go, goes first, although most of the times everyone goes from all the directions, but noone really minds.

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The everyday rush never seems to stop

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The view from a walking bridge over one of the main avenues

We had originally planned to stay in the famous backpackers hostel Wild Rover, but as we turned up thinking we have made a booking, something had gone wrong and there were no private double rooms available. After checking out a nearby hostel which looked like a grannies house in comparison, we returned to the Wild Rover and took what they had – a twin room with bunk beds and shared bathrooms. To be fair, the room was decent, the beds were really comfortable and the showers clean and hot (which somehow does not seem to be a standard in some other hotels/hostels). As for the rest – the hostel lived up to our expectations – it was full with young people from every possible country, it had it’s own bar which served decent food during the day and guaranteed entertainment during the night, as every night was a party night in the Wild Rover. On one of the nights we certainly had few drinks (and cheeky shots) and I even managed to dance on the bar – thankfully no visual evidence exists.

It all seemed promising, we had lots of plans to visit the city’s various neighbourhoods and see what there is to see, but, firstly, Carl got unwell and then my stomach bug returned. It got so bad that at some point we had to call the doctor. We were advised to go to the clinic to perform various tests (mostly on me as they could not tell why Carl was feeling sick and he got better in few days). This stretched over two days which we absolutely lost and by the time I got my results back, it was time to leave again. None of my tests showed anything, so I was just diagnosed with gastroenteritis and prescribed a course of probiotics.

As we did not experience that much of La Paz as we wished to, I cannot fully comment on the safety, but whenever we were out, we managed to get by without any incidents, but we used common sense and were careful of our belongings, did not take any cash out at nighttime and stuck to well lit central streets.

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La Paz pigeon with some attitude

Once my stomach seemed to be sorted, we set out to our next point of interest just about 40 miles from La Paz – the famous Yungas Road or better known as the Death Road, christened as ‘world’s most dangerous road’ in 1995 by Inter-American Development Bank. In 2006 one estimate claimed that 200 to 300 people are killed on it annualy and there are lots of crosses on the sides of the road testifying to that, however nowadays the road serves as more of a tourist attraction, due to the fact that a modern bypass was built at 2006. Various tourist companies offer mountain biking tours which attract thousands of trill seekers.

The Yungas Road starts at breathtaking altitude of 4650m and winds down to just 1200m at the town of Coroico changing the scenery from that of mountainous terrain of Altiplano to a jungly, humid rainforest.

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Up in the clouds just before descending

Just before the start of the road we were travelling down a road when suddenly we were surrounded by rolls of white cloud and at some point there was even some hail. I could feel the effects of the rising altitude which expressed themselves as a very bloated belly and at some point I managed to loose my hearing as well (kind of like when you go up in the plane – I did not recover from it for few days, much to Carl’s amusement). Soon enough the clouds cleared and we reached the beginning of the road. At first it looked just like an ordinary dirt road to me, but after few minutes it started winding down and we could see what all the fuss is about. In most places it is very narrow – it states 3.5m, but it looked much less to me.

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What made me most uncomfortable was the fact that, as a rule, if you are travelling downhill (as we did), you have to keep to the left, which is the outer side of the road, mostly with no barriers and with sheer, crumbling drops that made me imagine at least one way I could die if at any point we loose the control of our heavy, overloaded bike. Carl kept laughing at me, as I rarely looked over the drops, I preferred to look the other way. We got very lucky as there were only few cars on our way, which we managed to see way ahead so we could stop comfortably enough to let them pass. There were no cyclists on our way.

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I did not like keeping to the left at all

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Can you see why?

Despite my uneasiness, the Yungas Road is incredibly beautiful and as we were descending, the weather kept getting better with the sun coming out of the clouds and the air getting warmer and wamer with every mile we did. We were surrounded by thick greenery and there were some small waterfalls on the way, occasionally flooding the actual road, but not posing any threat (might be different in a rainy season).

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All in all, whilst a scenic ride with few thrills on thw way, the Yungas Road seems to have ceased to be dangerous (or at least very dangerous) as long as common sense is used. All 40 miles of it took us about 3 hours by being reasonably slow and taking breaks for picture taking. We had finally reached the warm and sunny town of Coroico with a plan to spend a few days there, but that for the next post – it seems, I have rambled enough for today.

 

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