Finally we have arrived somewhere cheap! Don’t believe it when people say South America is cheap…granted it’s not on a level with London, but water, food, transport is often no less dear than back in the UK. We’ve swapped £70 overnight buses for £10 overnight buses and our bank accounts are very glad to do so. It would appear the further north you head the cheaper it gets, so fingers crossed it’s only uphill from here.
After Uyuni we headed to Sucre which is Bolivia’s capital. Arriving at 5am, we got off our rickety bus and were immediately hit by a wall of very cold air. It was like being back in England, and it was horrible. We got a cab to Kultur Berlin Hostel, which is a beautiful converted colonial building, and does a really good Mexican buffet FYI. We were super lucky and the owner let us check in 6 hours early, so we crashed in our comfortable beds and slept until mid-morning. Refreshed, we showered and went for a wander around the city. We took a bus to the ‘castle’ which turned out to be closed on a Monday and as an avid castle fan, didn’t even slightly do it for me. Still, the buses cost 15p a journey so it was hardly a waste of money and was a different way to see some of the city. We pottered around the central market and got very excited to see 2 market stalls only selling avocados! We also visited the main cemetery which had the most bizarre, but practical way of burial and celebrating the dead. In some ways it could be likened to Recoleta in Buenos Aires, but the site felt much more peaceful and far less showy. The next day we walked up to Café Gourmet Mirador, which was without a doubt my favourite spot in sucre. The cafe sits on the hill just past Plaza Pedro de Anzurez, and has the most beautiful views. The tastiest omelette topped it all off perfectly.
Sucre is a sweet little city with pretty white-washed walls and terracotta filed roofs. However I felt that it’s charm was completely marred by the levels of pollution. You can see it, smell it, taste it, which really takes away from its beauty. Same sort of goes for La Paz, which is where we headed next.
One thing you can’t miss is the elderly Cholitas in their traditional Bolivian dress. Their magnificent attire comprises of wide pleated skirts called polleras, a lacy blouse, two long plaited braids with tasselled ends, and a black bowler hat. Story has it their was a cock-up in a factory in Portugal and the hats were made far too small; they were shipped to Bolivia and the local women were told it was all the rage in Europe. The ladies loved them, and the rest is history.
We headed to the bus station for our second night bus (bleurgh). Normally we would put our bags in the luggage compartment before we board, but here we weighed and left bags in the office on the second floor – something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Alas, I needn’t worry apparently… Just before we boarded we watched our bags being winched down on fish hooks, down amongst the busy bus station. It was totally unnecessary as we could have carried them but also beyond hysterical. More than one person nearly walked into the flailing hook and got winched up themselves. We had seen a few Cholitas with eye patches, so I guess that explains that. Afterwards the bus man flung our bags on the bus like he was training for the Olympic discus, really getting down to get some welly behind it. Thank god I’d kept all my burst-able toiletries in my hand luggage…
We arrived in La Paz early morning and headed to Wild Rover hostel. Check-in wasn’t until 2pm so we cheekily took advantage of the free breakfast (missed it the next 2 days, so seems fair…) and got excited at the chance to watch BBC news for a few hours. Wild Rover is an Irish hostel, and one of those classic modern traveller havens where all the Brits, Europeans and Australians flock to party. Normally I think these places are a bit overrated and full of typical traveller plebs, but Wild Rover actually had a pretty cool vibe, nice friendly staff and a ‘make-up room’ with hair dryers. After weeks of looking grim? Totally sold.
Once we had checked in we headed into town for some low-key exploring. We wandered to the famous witches market where they sell alpaca jumpers, scarves etc, beautiful leather bags and llama foetus’ for those all important Andean spells. I bought a patterned alpaca jumper, so now I fit in with the locals and pretty much every other traveller in the city. We stumbled upon a sweet vintage cafe called Angela Colonial which did wholesome cheap soups and food, and we returned there once or twice during our stay! We also booked our death road trip with Barracuda for the following day and for the grand sum of £47.50. Tip: say you were recommended and you get a 5% discount! £50 is the standard price for these tours and if you’re being offered a lot less you should probably question why. Once you pick your company, head to the office direct; we spoke to people who paid half as much again just because they booked via their hostel tourist desk.
If you head to La Paz you absolutely have to do Death Road. I’ll tell you a little about our day, although it’s definitely something you need to see and experience for yourself. I cannot recommend it enough and unlike most tours I think it was worth every penny! You may well have seen the Death Road on Top Gear – it is a 64km long and narrow road about an hour from La Paz that in 1995 was named the world’s most dangerous road. According to Wikipedia (totally trusted source), approximately 200-300 people die each year. And I was nearly one of them.
Anyone who knows me well will know that if anyone is going to cycle death road and nearly kill them self, then well, it would be me.
With the top of Death Road at 4700m above sea level – more than 3x higher than the highest point in the UK – it is noticeably harder to breathe deeply. Still no altitude sickness though! The first section of the trip is a 6km asphalt road. It is really cold, and at this point I was wearing 9 layers on my top half. On the flat road you also pick up a lot of speed, so the wind and cloud that you cycle through do a good job of maintaining your low temperature. The whole thing is downhill too, so no peddling, just braking! You can go at your own pace the whole time, and there is a guide at the back and front of the group; you also regroup often to check everyone is good and have some snacks included in the tour.
The short asphalt ride helps you familiarise yourself with the bike, as other than the views, the Death Road is nothing like that short 6km ride. Due to 3 recent landslides on the road (oh god) a fairly large section of the road was closed to cars (thank god). So we set off, initially with 1 minibus behind us. I’ve never been mountain biking before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it was really good fun! As we descended it got hotter and hotter, and we stripped off the layers.
This is probably one of the most beautiful bike rides in the world. The road is about 4 metres wide – although less in some areas – and all around is beautiful green valleys that seem impossibly deep and go on forever. There are many small waterfalls on the journey (so expect to get wet) and you’re guaranteed to have a number of brightly coloured butterflies fly around you, or even into you as you fly down the road.
Talking of flying. Coming around a corner, there was a long strip of concrete, surrounded by large unfixed rocks. The front of my wheel lodged into the beginning section of the concrete, and I found myself flying over my handlebars and landing on the cliff edge. 20cm further a long and I probably woulda been long gone, but luckily my only war wound is a pretty purple knee. Despite massively knocking my already low confidence, I’m proud of myself for getting back on the bike and carrying on to the end.
The second half of the road is not as steep, however it is much more rocky, with large, oddly placed rocks blocking the path. With questionable balance and aforementioned accident, I was less of a fan of this terrain! It makes your bones shake, your teeth chatter and makes you need a wee that you didn’t realise you needed.
The Death Road takes about 4 hours to cycle and at the end you are taken to a private Pousada with a pool, showers and a river where you can swim. They also give you your t-shirt and a carb heavy lunch before your journey back to La Paz. I didn’t take a camera or phone so the photos below are stolen from Amy or our guide.
The 3 hour journey back to La Paz was another drive with absolutely unreal views that have to be seen to be believed. We drunk Cuba libre with our guide Christian and tried the Bolivian tradition of chewing dried coco leaves. It instantly makes your mouth go numb and gives you a very slight boost in energy. I would equate it to chewing a mixture of marijuana, bay leaves, green tea, matcha powder and cocaine.
On Sunday there was a referendum in Bolivia, and the whole country basically began to shut down in preparation. The streets are plastered with ‘si’ and ‘no’ paintings, and for a period of about 4 days no bars etc are allowed to serve alcohol. Wild Rover hostel is a renowned Irish party hostel and it was just our luck that we would choose to stay over this period! So with Thursday being our last chance to party, we skipped the well needed post-death-road-nap and got ready to go out. We met a great group of boys in the bar and all got a bit fruity, South American style. The whole hostel headed to a place called The Dubliner, but I couldn’t tell you much more than that. Against our better judgement, we asked a taxi driver to take us to the most recent location of Route 36 with intentions of a cultural experience… (if you don’t know what Route 36 is, Google it). Upon arriving at a bizarre seedy residential building, we quite quickly decided to ask the cab driver to carry on to our hostel. Something our families will no doubt be glad to hear!
The next day we met up with Christian, our Death Road tour guide. He was really sweet and called us ‘queens’. I needed to buy an iPhone cable (2 broken in 1 month, f you apple), and he promised to take us somewhere we could buy all the bits we needed. He also took us on the newly built cable car system over La Paz which was a brilliant way to see the city. It’s their version of the tube, and way more fun! Especially when one journey costs just 30p. The city lies in an upsettingly steep valley (when you have saddle sore from Death Road) at around 3660m and is surprisingly vast. Red brick houses are haphazardly placed on the mountain slopes and the city looks like it might collapse in on itself at any moment. Surrounded by snow capped or deep red mountains, and with a few hills plonked in between, it is a pretty cool city to see from high up. The nature of its positioning does mean it has unpredictable and often undesirable weather, so after a couple of days we were pretty ready to ditch the rain and hopefully see some sun again.
Christian also helped us out with some useful inside tricks. Rather than getting a bus to Copacabana leaving 2/3 times a day from the bus station, he showed us a road near the cemetery where the locals leave every half hour until around 6pm for £2. For some reason this isn’t the kind of information that hostel workers volunteer or give up easily, so if you can make a local friend, do! We have found hostel workers to be lazy, so take what they say with a pinch of salt.
We shared our bus journey out of La Paz with a couple of Cholitas and a large polystyrene princess castle. I tried to pretend the driver wasn’t mostly driving on the wrong side of the road and hoped that I wouldn’t nearly die on the mountain side once again.
Love, Lottie xx