23rd to 26th March

Sunday 23 March

We arrive in La Paz at 7h in the morning. There is no café open yet to take breakfast, so we go directly to the Casa de Ciclistas. The owner of the house, Cristian, is fond of touring cycling, and has open his house to the travellers, for a very low price per night. Tonight, we are 5 in the house: Loretta, a Canadian woman, already 4 years in a tour around the world (here), Lukas, a German guy, who crossed all Latin America on his bike for one year, and Cristian, a Chilean guy on a few months trip to Brasil. Everyone has many stories to tell, their experience, their project.

The Casa de Ciclistas is like a meeting point for the touring cyclists in Bolivia. We meet also Nata, who cycled from Alaska down to Panama (here on Facebook). Both Nata and Loretta are unstoppable when talking about the countries they crossed, and we learn many useful things for our trip. In the Casa de Ciclistas, we are in self-management. The rent for one night is super cheap, 20 bolivianos, and it serves for paying the bills of the house.

In the afternoon, we go for shopping in the neighbourhood. On the way, we see people gathering around a street. There’s going to be a defile. In fact, today, the 23rd of March, is the commemoration of the 135th anniversary of the Pacific war (1879-1884) between Bolivia and Peru on one side, and Chile on the other side. This was has been very important for Bolivia since following their defeat, they lost the Litoral province to Chile, thus removing to Bolivia any access to the sea. The defile consists of soldiers (from infantry, marine, air force, and police) walking at the sound of the military music. At the end of the cortege, the policemen managing the crowd become very nervous, and soon we know why. The car of the president passes on the street, with the president Evo Morales inside. Unfortunately, we cannot see him since the windows are black.

Back in the Casa de Ciclistas, we spend more time talking with the flatmates.

Monday 24 March

In the morning, we go for a visit of the city of La Paz on an organised tour.

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We start with the San Pedro jail: there, the men can leave with their family inside the jail. So they pay a small rent for having a room, and they work inside the jail in order to make money: making some handicrafts that the wives go to sell out of the jail, opening restaurants or bars inside the jail, but also organising some illegal visits of the jail for tourists (it’s now forbidden because too risky for the tourists, but it still can happen). And of course, the faster, most common and less legal way of making money is to take part of the huge drug trafficking in the jail.

In the streets, and especially in the markets, it’s very common to find the old women with the typical clothes. They are called Cholitas. There is now a meaning for the way they wear her hat: if it is on the middle of the head, then the Cholita is married, and if it is on the side of the head, it means she is single of widow, and so an affair can start with her. The criteria for beauty are also very different here from Europe. The sexiest part of the body of the woman is the calf! If a woman wants to seduce a man, she’ll take up slowly her dress in order to discover her calf. Also, the men tend to prefer women with prominent bottom and hips. It would mean that they are of stronger constitution, and can have several children while still working, carrying heavy things, !

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Bolivian people are very superstitious. The Spanish used this in many ways to control them in the past. For example they introduced the devil in the mines (the Tio we saw in Potosi) so that the miners would get scared and work more. Also, the Bolivians believe that your soul can get out of your body easily. For example if you fall or get scared, your soul will get out, and then the Bolivians stop in the middle of the street asking for it to come back. Also they believe that when they look into a mirror, their soul will stay here. So the Spanish put mirrors in the churches, telling the indigenous that if they didn’t come back, they wouldn’t get their soul back. It’s also here that they think their soul would be captured if you take a picture of them. Here, every new construction has to be blessed by Pacha Mama, the Mother Earth (the supreme goddess). If it is a small building, a small llama foetus is enough. And in La Paz, there is a market for this! But there is an urban legend saying that for bigger buildings, Pacha Mama needs the sacrifice of an living human being. So the wizard go to find a beggar, or alcoholic, without any family nor anyone to see that he would disappear, then make him drink till he is wasted, and go secretly to bury him alive at the place of the construction.

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In the time of the colony, the city was divided into two parts: one for the Spanish, and another one for the indigenous. Now, such separation can still be seen in the many rests of opulent buildings in the Spanish part of the city. The main square is Plaza Murillo, in honour of the first person who started the fight again the Spanish rule of Bolivia (unfortunately he was hung 3 months after his rebellion, on the same place that bears his name now). On this square, you can see the city cathedral (finished in a rush so that John Paul II would inaugurate it), and the presidential palace (called the Palacio Quemado = burnt palace because it was burnt twice, with the president inside, by angry demonstrators).

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We end up the tour in a high hotel, in order to have a panoramic view on the city and its surroundings. La Paz is is a valley, like a bowl, with mountains all around, and these hills are now colonised by the suburbs, especially, in the West, where the now city of El Alto is more populated than La Paz itself. Towards the South, the altitude decreases a little, and that’s where the richest neighbourhoods are located. And a little more South is the mountain emblem of La Paz, the Illimani. It’s 6400m high, and appears on all the photos of the city. Unfortunately, we did not have a weather good enough to see it out of the clouds.

After this very interesting visit of La Paz, we go to the organisation Fobomade (Foro Boliviano sobre Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo). It’s an NGO, working about the environment and the development of Bolivia. With the engineer Patricia, we have a complete introduction to what they do in this organisation, and the current hot discussions within Bolivia about these subjects. You can find our report here.

In the end of the afternoon, we go to a music shop to buy local instrument: a charango and a zampoña! The salesmen are very nice, showing us how to play, advising us about the music! in the end, we go to the restaurant all together tonight. We spend a very good night around typical Andean food with Cristian, Andrea and Carlos.

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Tuesday 25 March

Today, we will go to the Ruta de la Muerte! We leave late because we wanted to repair the back pannier of Julien, but without success. The Ruta de la Muerte is the former road from La Paz to Los Yungas, a valley just down the Altiplano, some 100km from La Paz. First, we have to climb to the top of the road, at 4700m, to a place called La Cumbre (the summit). For this, we take a bus in the terminal of Villa Fátima, on one side of La Paz! we did not expect that the terminal would be at the top of the neighbourhood. We stopped more than ten times to ask the locals for indications, and the terminal was always “not far, a few blocks away”.

When we arrive at La Cumbre, the weather is very cold and humid. Just realize that we are at 4700m, nearly as high as the Mont-Blanc! Apparently, this place is always foggy. The Ruta de la Muerte does not start here but some 25km further down. These first kilometres are both a joy and a suffering: the asphalt is absolutely perfect, we fly down at 50km/h without any risk, even though it’s raining a little! But at this speed, at this height, with this weather, we very soon are wet and very cold, the temperatures are around 0ºC.

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We reach the village of Pongo, some 15km (and 800m lower) down La Cumbre. Already, the temperatures are a little better, and at the village, we enjoy to eat the local specialty: a trout bred in the nearby rivers. The lunch gives us strength to fight again the cold and wet conditions. Soon, we arrive at the fork, where the Ruta de la Muerte starts. This road is like a trail, ideal for mountain biking, with many stones, but wide enough for cars. In fact, it was built in the 30s, during the Chaco war by Paraguayan prisonners in Bolivia. Till recently, it was the only road connecting the valley of Los Yungas with La Paz. With the corresponding traffic, and the precipice along the road, many buses or cars have ended up their life down the cliff, converting this road into a death road (and officially called so since 1995). Now, there is a new road for Los Yungas, and the Ruta de la Muerte is only used by cyclists. So this descent is like a long ride downhill, with magnificent landscapes, but with little risk. If you don’t go too fast on your bike, and you leave 1m security between you and the cliff, there is no risk at all.

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As we go down to the valley, the weather gets warmer, the fog disappears, and the vegetation becomes wilder. After 2 or 3 hours on this route, we feel the pain: Mick has been very stressed on the breaks, and his fingers are painful, while Julien suffers from his forearms from the vibrations. We arrive in the valley, at 1200m, in a small hamlet. There is no bus from here. We have to go to the next city, Coroico, that is uphill, at 1700m.

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The road is in cobblestone. The shocks coming from the rough ground make us suffer. But thanks to our acclimatation to the altitude, this climb results pretty easy from the physical point of view. In order to reach Coroico before sunset we try to climb as fast as possible. It feels so good to ask your body for efforts, and never get out of breath from it!

As we arrive in Coroico, we learn that there is no more official bus for La Paz today, only private transports, with much higher prices. So we’ll sleep in this city, that by the way looks charming. We had planned to leave tomorrow with Nathan for Cusco, but we’ll delay it one day.

Wednesday 26 March

We get up in the beautiful town of Coroico, but still under the bad weather. After the breakfast, we take the bus back to La Paz. “Bus” is the official word for this van: some 15 people can be carried in the van, and the luggage is carried on the roof. The van we take place in already has 4 huge bags of coca leaves on the roof! it’s a Tetris game for the driver to add our bicycles on the roof. What a pity! This morning, we have to go down the cobblestone road we suffered yesterday to climb. We did not enjoy it neither for going up nor down.

It takes 3 hours to the bus to reach La Paz. And here too, the weather is horrible, raining and cold. But we don’t have the choice, let’s go home. Only 6-7km in descent, and as we arrive in the house, we are totally wet.

For lunch, we go to eat a typical dish from Oruro, the Charquekan, with Cristian, the owner of the Casa de Ciclistas in La Paz.

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In the afternoon, we go to visit the museum of the coca. As expected, we learn a lot about this plant, its history, effects, ! It’s now legal in Bolivia to cultivate it in order to masticate the leaves, as the indigenous have been doing for millennia.

As the lunch is far away, some three hours ago, we go for a gastronomic tour in the market Lanza. There are many small stands there, preparing food or drink for the people passing by. It’s good, cheap, diverse: ideal for knowing a little more of Bolivian fast food cuisine.

At the Casa de Ciclistas, two more French have arrived: Clement and Mathilde. They are finishing their 6-month travel in South America, from Ushuahia to Cusco. In the evening, we have invited our friends from the music shop, so that they teach us some basis for our instruments, and also for a small private concert. We spend a wonderful night in company of Cristian, Carlos, Andrea and her friend Fabiola (from the music shop), and the cyclists present at the Casa de Ciclistas.

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Get ready for the Death Road, and the concert!