Thursday, 11 December 2008

La Paz - Quality stuff

On arrival back in Quito I went straight to the international terminal and bought a flight for that night to Bolivia. The standard route between Ecuador and Bolivia is through Peru but having been there last year I didn´t need to go again. Flying was a more appealing option than spending between 3 and 4 days on buses, and if I missed this flight it was either wait 3 days for the next one or do another flight involving 12 hours in Lima airport.

Was sat next to two women on the plane, and managed to hold a 15 minute conversation where I´m pretty sure we didn´t understand a single word each other was saying. I even handed them my phrasebook/dictionary so they could point to key words - the only word one of them pointed at was "see." Well thats cleared that up then. But my natural wit, charm and general charisma won through and I got the e-mail address and phone number of one of them! It was however written on some advertising material for a mobile phone company, which would explain why the other woman kept pulling sim cards and the like out of her bag to try and sell them to me.

The unexpected bonus with this flight was that because I had to fly via Peru they served Inca Kola on the plane!! Awesome. How I miss that stuff! Had about 3 hours to kill in Lima airport before the flight to La Paz, so paid an extortionate amount for another bottle...then some more on the flight to La Paz. Given the sugar content of that drink it was no surprise that I didn't sleep at all on either plane.

Arrived in La Paz at 5am. Having not booked anywhere to stay, I didn't know if anywhere would be open at that time, so still in the airport I found a seat and wrapped my arms and legs round my bags and tried to sleep...but failed. Headed into town soon after 7 and checked into the Wild Rover Hostel, which was basically an Irish Pub with a load of dorm rooms (despite the name and the number of Irish people there it did take me some time to work out it was an Irish hostel!). Only my third Irish pub though; number two was Mulligans in Quito.

Had a wonder round La Paz, and visited the Witches Market where you can buy shrunken llamas, dead armadillos and other oddities. Did a bus tour in the afternoon, but spent the first half hour asleep chin resting on chest! Don´t know what the other tourists thought!

Having not slept properly for over 40 hours I intended to have an earlyish night, but the hostel bar was good fun. Had a who´s got the worst fake Casio digital watch competition with some guys in the bar, as we´d all purchased cheap watches in different parts of Latin America. Also got roped into an 18 person Killer Pool tournament. Good fun but didn´t get to bed till after midnight. Not ideal preparation for mountain biking down the worlds most dangerous road - World Bank statistic apparently based on number of accidents, not a tourist gimmick - but I did only have a couple of beers.

The ride was good fun and I didnt crash. You cycle downhill about 60km from about 4700m in altitude to 1100m, and you even cycle through some waterfalls. Most deaths occur from vehicles going over the side - it is narrow and there are no barriers and drops of up to 400m. The road is mostly used for cycling now as a new road was built which takes the traffic now, but there are still plenty of accidents though. The ride isn´t technical or difficult, but there is a small margin for error if you get off balance or out of line. But it wouldn´t be any fun without a bit of danger!

The ride finishes in Coroico, which is small town. I chose to stay the night there. Was really good valley views and a nice main square in town, but shame it rained most of the evening. Next morning I woke up to a view above the clouds, and I hiked up to 2500m to Cerro Umuchachi getting more great views of the valley.

Bus back to La Paz in the afternoon. They aren´t shy about trying to fill their buses in this part of the world as most don´t seem to leave until they are full. The second some little women saw the taxi pull in to the bus station, she runs over yelling La Paz, and on hearing "si", manhandles me out of the taxi onto the bus and throws my big bag onto the roof of the bus! Surprising amount of leg room for a minibus, although was still glad when the three and half hour ride was over.

Back in the Irish Hostel met up again with the two Patricks (neither of which were Irish) and Ben and ended up in a club. I wont go into too much detail, mostly on account of the fact I cant remember much, but lets just say I didnt cover myself in glory (apparently). Fell asleep in the club with a nice girl sat either side of me who I was talking too (apparently). Must have been a dodgy bag of crisps or something, can´t imagine it was the tequilas and flaming sambucas that did it.

Plan the next day was to get a bus to Potosi but that was scrapped the second I woke up, feeling like I´d been hit by a bus. Crawled out of bed by 11.30, and readied myself for a trip to one of La Paz's main tourist attractions - the biggest cocaine factory in Bolivia, aka San Pedro prison. Morally questionable place to visit, but very interesting.

San Pedro is a working prison, full of criminals and everything. It is kind of unique because there are no guards inside; the place is run by the prisoners. A local prison for local convicts you might say. Prisoners even rent their cells and work. If they have lots of money, they have a nice cell, if not they spend all day cleaning to afford a basic cell. Disputes are settled internally in some not especially pleasant ways.

Tourists visiting isn´t technically allowed, but it costs 250 Bolivianos (about 25 quid), quite a lot of money in Bolivia, and I´m sure the pie is split many ways, including all the police who are outside. You then get a prisoner for a guide. Its perfectly safe, because you get two bodyguards too, also criminals. Ours were a drug trafficker and a murderer...and looking at them you wouldn´t mess.

We got taken round the different areas of the prison, seeing pretty much everything (except the drugs factory!) Prisoners wives and children live there too, so there were kids running around. Many prisoners make handicrafts - ornaments, toys, jewellery etc - and while there is no threat to buy, its best to show some willing. I purchased two wooden pipes for smoking drugs out of! Hmm. More on those later.

At the end of the tour, we were given the hard sell to by "the best cocaine in Bolivia for a happy white Christmas", a mere 100 Bolivianos for a gram. The razor blade and mirror were all ready for us to sample but we all declined. Nobody bought any either; a while back some Kiwi got busted on the way out apparently so his two hour tour got extended 9 months.

We were told by our guide we could ask any question we liked. I wanted to ask how one of our security guards lost his front teeth, but not keen on losing mine, I decided not to. At the end of the tour we relaxed over a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice - we could have had alcohol had we wanted.

It was very interesting, and it felt more like a town than a prison. I didnt feel threatened at all but then I was nursing a fairly respectable hangover which was dulling out other things. It was just surreal though that you can just wander round like that. But tourism is good for business I guess. Was glad I went too because in Quito I wanted to do a prison visit, where you go and visit some of the westerners who are incarcerated there for drugs offences, but freely admit to bottling it as I would have had to have gone on my own. There were people in the hostel who wanted to go but not on the days I wanted to.

That evening, after overdoing it the previous night, some culture and local cuisine was called for, so having extensively researched it, we settled on the British Indian Curry House. Someone walked in and said "its a bit touristy in here"...and you were expecting... Had a llama tikka masala (really), but it wasn´t very nice. It just kind of sat and we all had quite severe bloatage. Hadn´t entirely cleared by the next day either.

Fairly chilled day the next day. Did visit the Coca museum which was an interesting way to spend an hour or so, reading about the history and usage of coca leaves and cocaine. Did manage to get my bus to Potosi that evening although hadn´t come across checking in luggage at bus stations before. Was a bit of a mission working out which bus to get, and even the locals didn´t seem to know what was going on, which is rare. A Polish couple´s luggage made it onto the bus but they didn´t, but they caught the bus up - luckily for them Bolivian buses have a habit of stopping for long periods seemingly for no reason. Bus was a semi-cama, meaning the seats reclined a long way, so i managed a few hours kip out of the 10 hour journey and arrived in a slightly chilly Potosi at 6.30am.

I really liked La Paz. I´m mostly not that taken by cities, as having lived in one for the last 7 years or whatever, they tend to feel the same, but I liked the feel of the place. It was always busy but at the same time felt quite relaxed, and it was safe to wander around. Might have stayed longer but Bolivia rainy season was imminent and given most roads aren´t tarmacced, I wanted to avoid the big delays due to blocked roads from mud and landslides that rains tend to bring.

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