Tag Archives: La Paz

World’s Most Dangerous Road, Bolivia

written by Mark

Don’t tell Leila’s mum, but one of our highlights of our time in La Paz was cycling down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (a.k.a. “Death Road”, whichever makes you feel more comfortable). The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but we heard that on average around 13 people died each year when the road was the major route over the mountains to La Paz.

Thankfully, they built a new road in 2007 so this old 64km WMDR route is only used by cyclists, tour buses and the odd other vehicle. Still, our guide Jubi was aware of about 24 cyclists who had died in the last 14 years, so the name “Death Road” is no false moniker.

So, armed with this information, our group was just itching to set off.

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Given the infamous WMDR history, safety is given the utmost priority. Barracuda Bikes gave us high quality Kona steeds with hydraulic disk brakes and full suspension.

We were given a good briefing and even made an offering to Pachamama to bid us a good trip: a drop of 96% strength alcohol for our bikes and the road followed by a drop for ourselves.

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Then we were off. The first 25km or so was down a tarmac road, good to give us all a feel for the bikes.

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Then the 37km down the Death Road itself began. The road is narrow (often only one car width wide, with vertical 200-300m drops on one side and a cliff on the other. The surface is gravel, and loose in parts.

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Those who have seen the Top Gear episode where they drive on this road will know it can easily crumble away beneath the vehicle. For that reason it is the only road in South America where it is customary to drive on the left – so drivers can more easily see how close they are to the edge.

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The dust kicked up by cars was often suffocating; we were caked all over by the end of the ride.

The road is littered with crosses and graves, a good reminder to check your speed.

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We took care to stop for regular breaks and take lots of photos. Jubi was a bit of a joker.

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The ride was great fun, with just enough danger to keep it interesting. I’m pleased to say everyone in our group got back in one piece.

Annoyingly, we left La Paz the next day before we could pick up our “Death Road Survivor” tshirts, but Leila did come back with one souvenir after taking a tumble.

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La Paz, Bolivia

Mark and I were ready to hate La Paz.

Often, after we have spent time in the wilderness soaking up stunning natural landscapes, cities can feel tiresome and unwelcome, even to this diehard Londoner.

But La Paz was a pleasant surprise which made us realise once again how much Bolivia has to offer. It’s such an underrated country with so many misconceptions – their tourism industry needs better PR!

Pub quiz fans know La Paz to be the highest capital city in the world: a nosebleed inducing 3660m. What we weren’t expecting was the way the city’s buildings seem to climb the sides of the canyon with Mt Illamani in the background. Or how varied the different neighbourhoods are. Or just how sweltering it gets in the daytime, especially in contrast to the freezing nights.

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On the map, distances within La Paz don’t look far but the combination of altitude and steep hills is a killer. Wads of coca leaves stayed firmly in our cheeks as we found our way around the city.

One of the first places we visited was Calle Jaén, the oldest street in La Paz which today is a charming collection of higgledy piggledy museums, galleries, shops and cafes on either side of a cobbled road.

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A favourite was the Mamani Mamani gallery, where you could see some of the huge, colourful works of Bolivia’s most famous artist. Our travel budget didn’t allow us to invest in any paintings, but luckily he has also painted murals around the city which can be enjoyed for free.

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La Paz is also a paradise for shoppers, with quality items like baby alpaca jumpers at laughably cheap prices. More unusual goods are also available, particularly in the Witches Market.

For example you can find llama foetuses, which are traditionally buried under the front step of a new house, as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth, a venerated spirit in Andean cultures) to ensure prosperity.

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You can also buy all sorts of lotions and potions for a multitude of purposes, from career success to sexual prowess.

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These little chaps are used during the Bolivian tradition of Alasitas, or the “Festival of Abundance” every January. Miniature versions of items such as money, food, cars, houses, diplomas are offered to be blessed, as a prayer that the real, life sized thing will be obtained in the coming year.

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La Paz also has many fresh produce markets, with literally thousands of stalls displaying virtually identical stock, each looked after by a cholita (the Bolivian ladies who wear the ubiquitous style of bowler hats, two long plaits, full skirts and many layers of cardigans and blankets).

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We didn’t understand this initially – surely in such a busy, competitive marketplace it would be best to differentiate yourself and your stall with specialist items or price points? Then we learnt that Bolivians are fiercely loyal to their fruit & veg cholita: generations of the same family will only buy their food from the same lady’s stall. Apparently it is not uncommon to be refused service if you are obviously carrying a bag of produce bought from another stall.

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We also learnt a bit about the etiquette of these markets. For example, haggling over the price of fresh produce is not welcome, but you can get a good deal by asking for a yapa (a free gift of a few extra items to add to your shopping).

Also it is important to ask permission before taking photos as many cholitas don’t like it. Sure enough we spotted a few with bags of rotten tomatoes by their feet, ready to hurl at disrespectful, snap happy gringos.

Some other sights from our wanderings around the city, including politically significant buildings. We learnt a bit about Bolivia’s tumultuous, dramatic history: around 200 changes of government in around 180 years as a republic. The streets and squares of La Paz have seen many protests, marches and riots; some landmarks have visible bullet holes.

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Unbelievably, traffic in La Paz is controlled by people in zebra outfits!

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