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Wild La Paz

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Wild La Paz

Copacabana, 18-Aug-2010

I arrived by sundown to Cochabamba – Kilometer 27,232; Cochabamba, 24-Jul-10 @ 19:00.  It was a beautiful winding road, climbing from the tropical forest through the Andes.  It wasn’t an easy ride; I was hit by heavy fog and some rain at one point but what really made it worse were the buses and trucks.  Uphill, downhill, regular or blind curves, through construction or gravel roads, in fog or blindful dust, these guys will try to pass a slower car or truck.  Of course, it doesn’t matter if there’s incoming traffic.  Worse, I am on a bike, I am small, right?  NOT!  They hunk and flash at me to move.  Yeah buddy, where?  Well as I found out (the hard way), I had to move out of the way into the dirt shoulder.  After a few of these incidents, I decided to play “chicken” with them… hey, kinda made the ride more exciting ;).  Surprisingly, it works!  But still, a few times I was forced to blink first.  The scariest moment was when I saw an incoming moto with 2 men on it, zigzagging all over the road as if it was dancing.  I stopped at my right-hand side and as this moto got closer, it nearly hit me when it passed me by: the passenger was holding a beer bottle and the driver chewing a huge coca ball!  Energy and drink, it will be a long night… or probably not.

Cochabamba is famous for its food diversity and for its immense market where you can find absolutely anything: the many herbs, medicinal or hallucinogenic, wild animals, llama fetuses,…  It also has a nice avenue, the Prado, where the many restaurants, bars and karaoke clubs are.  However, and to the contrary to other Bolivian cities, Cochabamba is the only one where I felt somewhat insecure walking some of its streets; there are a few dangerous neighborhoods, especially late afternoon.  A side note here: I was mistakenly expecting Bolivia to be a dangerous country but quite to the contrary, after spending a couple of month here, Bolivia’s cities are safer than the ones in Ecuador, Peru or even some Argentinean cities.   Of course, staying in the small towns and villages is the real treasure.

Two full days were more than enough for Cochabamba and now I was finally heading for La Paz.  I was really eager to get there.  I got lucky too, I managed to convince one of the most popular hostels in La Paz, the Wild Rover, to allow me to park my bike in its patio.   All I needed was to surpass another “horror” story told to me by fellow riders:  “You need to tackle the traffic of La Paz and navigate through its steep hills, unsigned roads and tons of pedestrian”.  What I was dreading turned out to be just “another city”.  The autopista, if you can call it that way, cut through the heart of the city and simply asking at each red light or stop sign the direction to my hostel, I found myself in front of the Wild Rover in less than 15 minutes (well, I cheated a little with a couple of illegal left turns – which the cops didn’t seem to mind ;).  Hey, I am getting good at this 🙂 Kilometer 27,631; La Paz, 27-Jul-10 @ 16:45.

Leslie also booked me the best room at the Rover, room “P”; the first few days I was sharing the room with Ben & Kate, a Kiwi backpacker couple, and we called the room the “Penthouse”.  High up on the roof, no bunk beds, windows on both sides with amazing views to the Illimani mountain to the south-east and El-Alto to the west.  As for the hostel itself, well the owner is a marketing genius.  He actually built this 120+ bed hostel around an Irish bar, serving mainly the Anglo-Saxon crowd (Irish, Brits, Kiwis and Oz).  I will probably be (and rightfully) accused of generalizing but at least at this hostel, this bunch were as interested in drinking and partying as everything else.  So, give them a wrist band which acts as an open tab, give them a spotless, very comfortable and cheaply priced hostel, serve hearty Irish food (noted to be as good as back home) and “they” will come… and spend.  While you can VERY easily live with less than U$D12/day in Bolivia while not skimping on ANYTHING, these guys are now spending U$D40+ in the hotel alone!  I’ll let you do the math guys.

La Paz is an interesting and somewhat intriguing city.  While it doesn’t stack up against the beauty of colonial Quito, the fabulous museums of Lima or the diversity and lively BA, it has its own charm and is distinctively different than any other city I have visited around the world:  Walking in a state capital where supermarkets are practically non-existent since you can find absolutely everything in the many markets and vendors which flood the city streets.  Traditionally dressed aboriginals (Cholitas, Jal’a,…) mix with the suit & tie business people in its bustling streets.  Black market stalls are at every corner (and are “permitted”), selling imitation & fake electronics, imitation branded cloth, DVDs, CDs…  You can hear firecracker blasts throughout the day, witness daily marches or demonstration in front of the presidential palace (each day for a different reason by a different group) and being offered cocaine by nearly every taxi driver.  Balaclava gladded shoeshine boys fill the streets, there’s always a food vendor a few meter away for a quick snack and a fresh juice cart to help you get your daily vitamins intake…  La Paz is home to the weirdest prison ever, the San Pedro prison, and only here you can attend a “Cholita wrestling”, the local version of WWE with the traditional dressed Bolivian women battling the macho bad boys.

I took advantage of this market-city to do a makeover.  I bought or replaced some of my cloth (some were stolen/forgotten other were badly used by now), bought some tools, managed to find cheaply priced tires (good Pirelli’s MT60 ready for the off-roads) and repaired my motorcycle riding gears: my boots (the soles had holes in them!) and gloves (fingertips had holes).  I spent in total 18 days in and around La Paz, including the few excursions I did: I rode my bike down the famous WMDR (World Most Dangerous Route or “The Death Road”) – which really wasn’t at all that bad – then stayed a few days near Coroico at la Sanda Verde, an animal refuge, in the warm Yungas.  Kilometer 27,731; Sanda Verde, 30-Jul-10 @ 14:45. I then did a day trip to visit Tiahwanaco ruins (or what’s left of them) and climbed Huayna Potosi, a 6,088m high snow covered peak in the Cordillera Real.  As for La Paz itself, well the party was in full swing and having a couple of very cool and funny Irish lads as roommates (Dave and Gary), we rarely made it back home prior to 9:00… just in time to watch the live English Premiership football game, right Dave?! :).  And during my last week stay at the Rover, I also hooked up with Outi and her friends, a group of Finish girls for a few day of visits and lots of party: I never hanged-out with Finish people before but if Outi is any example, be ready for lots of cold/satirical yet funny conversations… as well as Vodka shots.

But all good things have to end not to mention I really needed to get away from the Wilde Rover.  Moderation is not a term that fits this hostel.  I actually had to delay my exit a couple of days since the night before parties were still going strong by the time I needed to do the check out ;).  Lucky, I always had my room to stay in thanks to Leslie.  Sunday at 10:00, I finally got myself together and hit the road, half asleep, to Copacabana.   The road winding through the hilly shore of Lago Titicaca was not only beautiful it also had its fun moments:  one village had a colorful and festive march & dance (don’t ask me the occasion) and I crossed the Tiquina straight on a wooden barge.  Kilometer 28,011; Copacabana, 15-Aug @ 14:10. The reason I left on Sunday to Copacabana is to participate in the “Bendicion de Movilidades”.  Trucks, cars, 4x4s,… are decorated and adorned – like X-mass trees – and driven up to the main plaza in front of the church where the father will bless the vehicles.. for a small donation.  Then for the next few minutes, the celebration begins and the owners light up firecrackers and spray the car with confetti.  We are then rapidly ushered away so the next batch of “movilidades” can enter the plaza to be blessed.  Even people from Peru will do the trip for this event.  So too did a Canadian-Lebanese with his Ecuadorian motorcycle; Llama needed to get blessed for the trip back home.

The next morning I took the boat to visit Isla del Sol, the Inca’s sacred island.  It is there where Viracocha, the god of the universe, created the sun which then rose from the lake; the first Inca king, Manco Capac (and his wife/sister Mama Ocllo), also appeared from the lake to lead the people of these lands out of the darkness.   I decided to take it easy and tour the island in 2 days, devoting the first to the southern part and the 2nd to the Northern part.  Yeah, you can walk the island in 1 day but I really wanted to relax here.  Not to mention the people on this island are extremely nice, the food is amazing (trout specialties) and the views from this mountainous island are breathtaking:  The turquoise waters surround you, the cordillera Real stand majestic to the east and the grandiose lake to the west with Peru shores seen in the horizon.  During the day the sun shines strong to warm me up while at night the moon takes over and the stars twinkle and seem so close to me.  In particular, Mars looked so big and brightly illuminated.  As for the ruins on the island, they are pleasant to see.  I guess a tiny precursor of some sort before entering the heart of the Inca empire.  But what really made this trip worthwhile is hiking around Isla del Sol, up to its highest peaks and then down around it’s sandy bays.  Now that I am writing this, I wish I plunged into lago Titicaca waters instead of just dipping my feet in it.  It was very cold and I didn’t have my bathing suit with me, no towel to dry myself,… well yeah, I chickened out :(.

Once back in Copacabana, I stayed 1 more day to visit a couple of sadly neglected Inca & pre-Inca sites before getting ready to cross to Peru on a 2 day trip up to Cusco.

Ride up!


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