If we thought the altitude in Quito was a shock, La Paz was to be yet another step up – literally. Ranging from 3100m at its extreme lowest to 4058m at the airport, La Paz is widely recognised as the highest capital city in the world. The fact that it’s technically not the capital of Bolivia, doesn’t seem to matter of course! Flying into La Paz is renowned to be an assault on the senses, especially if you come from sea level (from home, or Lima for example), but luckily, we were coming from Lake Titicaca on a bus. We were fully acclimatised, battle hardened, mountain ready … or so we thought.
Stepping off the bus, lifting our packs, realising that our guest house was a fifteen minute walk back up the hill we had just driven down, we set off, in a kind of baby step trudge that saw us arrive exhausted. We were grateful though; the place was lovely and we now had a few days to explore La Paz and sort out our two priority experiences for Bolivia: a tour across the Salar de Uyuni, and a trip down the World’s Most Dangerous Road.
Having been through Bolivia before in 2009, I had already done both of these trips once, but had no reservations about doing them again as they were both huge highlights of the previous trip for me.
But first, time to explore the city. Everything about your experience in La Paz is dominated by the altitude – you never walk anywhere very quickly, you often take breaks in cafés to rejuvenate, you seem to sit for a long time at any given attraction having a constant battle of wills, the voices in your head arguing between themselves: ‘We should probably go,’ vs. ‘Just give me one more second.’
Mixed in with this you have huge volumes of chaotic traffic filling the streets and beeping in a way that is reminiscent of northern Indian cities, the pavements are filled with street vendors selling everything you can imagine, and no matter what time of the day or night it is, the place is always heaving with people going about their business.
One of the most interesting sights is the women: dressed in tens of layers of clothing, often carrying a baby or small child wrapped in a colourful sheet that has been tied over one shoulder, with long black hair that has been centre parted and tied into two plaits, and almost without exception, wearing a small, bowler hat, perched on top of their head. They are an incredible sight and more often than not, they’ll stride past you uphill, carrying a full load while you are struggling to move just yourself and your camera.
So, after a day spent exploring the city, we booked our mountain biking trip with Gravity Mountain Biking. We didn’t shop around on this occasion, despite knowing that Gravity were not the cheapest option out there, for two reasons: 1 – I’d been with them before and they were excellent, and 2 – You probably don’t want to go with ‘Cheapy Mcnasty Rip Roarin’ Death Road Bikin’ tours’ with the strap line ‘Look at me, hands free!‘ when the trip includes the words ‘dangerous road‘ and ‘world’s most‘!
Anyone for a ride down the death road..?
Gravity lived up to my memory of them being awesome – good equipment, good guide, safety a primary concern, and the best bikes on the mountain (with the best brakes, which is important!) The thing is, despite its billing, the ride isn’t actually that dangerous – the whole of the first part is on tarmac for a start, then once you hit the gravel road, it’s quite wide in bike terms (wide enough for a bus all the way down), and it’s not really that steep either.
The only things that are dangerous are the surface on the gravel road, which is scattered with melon sized rocks that will throw you off the bike if you hit them head on, and, of course, the up to 600m drop that persists on your left hand side all of the way down. You really don’t want to ride off of it, given the chance.
It’s a spectacular experience though, and so varied. From La Paz, you drive for about an hour uphill to the starting point at La Cumbre pass, a mere 4650m (or 15260ft – yes, higher than the Salkantay pass!) where you put on all of the clothes you brought and an extra set of over clothes that Gravity provide. Believe me, at that height, you need it all, especially the gloves.
After a briefing, and a quick ritual offering to Pacha Mama (which involved blessing the ground and your front wheel with near enough neat alcohol before taking a sip..!), we were off. The tarmac section gives each rider the chance to get used to the bike, while enjoying the sweeping bends and the changing views of the mountains as you drop into the valley. Soon enough, though, you enter the gravel road – the death road proper – where the instructions remain the same apart from one key difference. ‘On this road,’ said Kieran, our guide, ‘you ride on the left, not the right. It’s the only road in South America where that’s the case. Can anyone guess why?’ Having done it before, I knew the answer, and seeing as nobody else was forthcoming, I ventured forth with, ‘It’s because the road is so narrow, that when vehicles pass each other, the driver on the outside needs to be able to see how close his wheels are to the edge, so they swap so that the descending driver is sat on the edge side of the road. They can then lean out of their window and see exactly where they are.’
That any road ever constructed needs this kind of provision is a little baffling, nonetheless it not only exists, but is still in use as a public highway. Ironically, though, the new road that was built to replace death road actually sees way more deaths nowadays; not because it’s more dangerous, more that the crazy drivers just favour that route. It’s all statistics, you see.
Back to the bikes – we had made it down the first section of the road unscathed, stopping at a mirador (viewpoint) to survey the valley ahead. Unfortunately for us, it was cloudy, and beginning to rain, so we couldn’t see a thing! You may think that this would make the experience more dangerous, but in actual fact, being completely oblivious of the sheer drop just to your left actually makes you feel safer; ignorance is indeed bliss, it seems.
And so we carried on, stopping at regular intervals for briefings of what was coming up, and chances to check all the bikes and riders were still all functioning correctly, but other than that, just riding. It is such a superb ride, a gravelly, sometimes rocky, perpetual downhill, that offers you enough cornering to be exhilarating, and enough gradient to keep your speed up to ‘oh man, I’m going to have to brake anytime soon’ levels throughout.
When you hit the bottom, you’ve descended a jaw-dropping 3450m (11360ft) to a balmy, tropical jungle near the town of Corioco, where the layers are shed, high fives are offered and beers are shared. After lunch, you take on probably the scariest part of the whole day: driving back up the death road in the bus!
Feeling a bit under the weather
What I didn’t tell you, though, was that we had to delay the ride by a day. We’d booked it and gone to bed, but half way through the night I woke up to enjoy a pretty severe bout of vomiting followed up by regular toilet trips – that’s as graphic as I’m getting, honest! Despite trying desperately to get up and go on the ride, just the act of getting dressed left me exhausted. We resolved that Helena would go, explain the situation, transfer the ride if possible, but if not, she’d go on it alone (seeing as I had done it before). Luckily, we were able to push it back a day, which made me very happy indeed!
This theme of illness, though, seemed to have crept up on us. Hels wasn’t feeling good when we had got to Copacabana, now it was my turn. In the days that followed, we effectively tag-teamed which of us was being the most ill (I don’t think either of us were 100% at any point), and which was doing the looking after. The worst example of this was the 12 hour overnight bus from La Paz to Uyuni, which we managed to catch despite Helena descending rapidly into weariness on the way to the station and eventual vomiting soon after the bus left. I looked after her at the start of the trip, but by the end, the situation had reversed and I was back to my regular toilet visits leaving me little energy to even carry my bags.
So when we made it to Uyuni, to start our three day tour across the salt flats, we were once again wondering whether to try to put it back a few days. Cutting a long story short, Fanta saved me. Yes, Fanta. And yes, I know; as much as Coca Cola, the company, the drink, and everything else that they make is probably an example of global industry at its worst, its sugar rich products are life savers when it comes to diarrhoea.
Time to tackle the salt flats
So, we went for it. Two litre bottle of Fanta in hand, I clambered into the front seat of the Toyota Land Cruiser that was effectively to be our home for the next three days. I couldn’t remember who we had done this trip with in 2009, so after some research Helena and I chose Quechua Connection. Again, not necessarily the cheapest option out there, but there’s no point scrimping cash on a three day adventure, it’ll only ruin the experience.
As it was, we were a group of three 4x4s, which were almost entirely full of Brits: A group of 9 travelling together, me and Hels, a friendly chap named Andrew, and a couple from Romania. The three drivers (our was called Franz) added to the party and the final member was Nadia, the super conscientious, super enthusiastic, super knowledgeable guide who enhanced every aspect of our trip, despite worrying herself silly about the state of my health.
The thing I love about this trip, is that as soon as you leave Uyuni, you are off-road for three days. Not a hint of tarmac anywhere; at best, trails or tracks, but more often than not, the open salt plain or the desert. The drivers pick their way through the terrain, constantly trying to find the most solid ground, often inexplicably choosing a different route to the vehicle in front, regularly (at the encouragement of the passengers) gunning the throttle to stay ahead of the other jeeps. It’s not a race, of course … but then, when has driving off-road ever not been a race?!
The other amazing thing about this trip, is the variety of landscapes you get to see. It’s not purely about the salt flats, although the Salar de Uyuni – or the Salar de Tunupa, as Nadia informed us it is more accurately called – is one of the most magical places we have ever visited. Stretching for miles, reaching out endlessly to the horizon, with only occasional floating islands and the backdrop of volcanoes punctuating the panoramic white, you can’t help but feel that Mother Nature had a very special day when she thought up this one.
It was actually formed as the continent rose out of the sea initially forming a lake before drying out, crystallising the salt into the perfectly flat crust. It is the largest one of many salt flats in the area that actually have a geographical link back to Lake Titicaca. But yes, in addition to the mystical Salar, you also get to explore the expanse of the desert, the superb lagoons in varied colours, green, red, white, often full of foraging flamingoes, the weather shaped rocks, the millennia old stone army that is actually coral, geysers that bubble like cauldrons in the earth and a fabulous hot spring, that remains hot despite the earth around it being well below freezing.
We stayed at two hostels in the middle of nowhere, the first a lovely set up where we had a double en-suite room with hot water (yes, it was worth the extra money!), and the second which was much more rough and ready, with simple dorms and shared facilities.
The second night saw another bout of dodgy tummy for me so I was up and down throughout, desperately trying not to wake the others.
One of the other reasons people love the salt flats, is that the white background creates the perfect setting to take ‘perspective’ photographs, where the creative minded come up with all sorts of amazing ideas for shots mixing the sixes of people and objects that have been brought along specifically for this purpose.
Nadia was well versed in where to put the people and how to take the photos, so we spent quite a while in a sort of ‘photo shoot’ mode, stepping forwards, backwards, this way and that, to create the shots.
Our biggest problem right now – which didn’t happen until over a week after this – is that we lost our main camera on the bus from Santiago to Mendoza. As much as it’s heart-breaking, as it was a gift to Helena from her parents, the object loss is not the biggest thing; it’s the fact that we had a load of photos on there that we cannot replace. This doesn’t mean every photo from the whole trip, as thankfully we’ve been uploading as we go to a
Flickr site (highly recommended practice), it’s just that we could only back them up when we had decent wi-fi, so when we lost the camera we had uploaded everything except the second part of the salt flats, and anything we took in Chile. It’s a nightmare, but, as we’ve been telling ourselves, we could have lost a lot more. For now, I’ll leave you with a selection of photos we do still have, and a huge recommendation for visiting the Salar de Uyuni – it really is a spectacular place.