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death road

A Week in La Paz, Bolivia

A Week in La Paz, Bolivia


Since I had to kill some time for my yellow fever shot to become effective, and didn’t want to spend all 10 days in La Paz, I made a short stop in Cochabomba, Bolivia’s fourth largest city, kind of on the way to La Paz. I took a night bus to get there, and like most Bolivian night buses, it got in at the convenient time of 4:30 AM. Luckily, the nice staff at Running Chasky woke up and let me hang out in the common area until the room was ready. After a quick nap, I woke up and met Angels and Peter (blog here), who turned into my mini crew for the next few days to explore the city. The highlight here was the hike up to the statue of Cristo de la Concordia which overlooks the city. It’s the tallest Christ statue in the world, just a few meters taller than the one in Rio after which it is modeled.  

La Paz

The next morning, Saturday, Peter and I hopped on a bus to La Paz, our home for the next week. I had heard a lot about the Wild Rover hostel in La Paz so we went straight there, and booked in a 20-bed dorm room, the biggest I’d slept in to date. Typically, the more beds in a room, the cheaper it is, and this was no exception, at $7/night. I wanted to be sure I was in La Paz by Sunday, which is when they have their weekly Cholitas Wrestling event. Cholitas are Bolivian women who dress in traditional garb (sweaters, long skirts, and a Charley Chaplin top hat), a tradition that is passed down from mother to daughter. And every weekend, you can watch these ladies come out, show off their best moves, and body slam each other for a few hours. We showed up and we’re given a ticket for entry, with vouchers for a free snack (popcorn), beverage (3 swigs of coke), souvenir (a mini Cholita doll), and two bathroom trips. Yea…if you had to go more than twice, you better start bartering your toy for an extra ticket. I hadn’t attended a wrestling event in almost 20 years, but it was a blast. They had 4 or 5 matches, each with an eerily similar storyline of good gal/bad gal, with an evil referee thrown into the mix as well. Definitely a worthwhile stop if you’re in La Paz at the right time of the week.

On Wednesday, I went mountain biking down Yungas Road, better known as Death Road. The voyage started with a 7:15 AM hostel pickup to drive the hour or so up to the top of the mountain. The first 45 minutes were on paved road, which was good, because I pondered for a while and couldn’t remember the last time I had ridden a bicycle. After that stretch, we veer off onto the dirt road and for the next two hours, road down the true death road, that weaved down on the side of the mountain, overlooking a picturesque green valley. The ride is only as scary as you want it to be. Ride with a company with decent bikes (and brakes), and you can control how fast you go and how close you are to the edge. They did have an incident the day before I went where one of the trail drivers (the van that follows behind the bikes with everyone’s stuff) got startled by a biker swerving in front of him and the van fell off the road to the valley below, killing the driver inside. Passing by the accident site as we rode down was a sobering reminder to not screw around and be fully aware of your surroundings. Aside from that tragedy, it was an incredible few hours – a combination of adrenaline and beauty that you don’t get to experience every day. And lucky for us, due to a mudslide, our trail van couldn’t pass a certain point until they cleared the road. This meant we got “bonus time” on the bike, or the last 20 minutes riding uphill on a road shared with everyday traffic. In a week that different feature a ton of strenuous physical activity, it was probably good for me.

La Paz is home to the San Pedro prison, famous in South America and the subject of the book Marching Powder. Originally designed to house around 600 prisoners, it currently holds over 2,000 inmates and their families. Yes, here, there aren’t any cells and few prison guards, and the prisoners can have their families including children live with them inside. An ex-prisoner, an American named Crazy Dave, gathers at the square every day to tell stories of his 14 years inside the beacon of drug trafficking and corruption. Certainly eccentric and possibly insane, Dave had some wild tales of his time locked up. Until a few years ago, they even used to offer tours to visiting tourists, until a reporter uncovered that young travelers would go for the weekend and turn it into a weekend coke binge…with the drugs produced at one of several labs inside. Just hearing of a prison system like this continues to underscore that Bolivia is as far from the US as anywhere I’ve been so far.

Now I knew that Wild Rover was known as a party hostel, but didn’t really have the full understanding until I got there. Our first night was Saturday so I thought maybe the multiple happy hours and bartenders standing on the bar yelling ‘FREE SHOTS’ was just a weekend thing. Nope. After more or less a repeat performance on Sunday night, I realized they played for keeps there. I also admitted that if I wanted to get a decent night sleep, I needed to get out of the 20-bed dorm (which also for some reason had a massive skylight in the middle for a nice, natural, 7 AM alarm clock) and into something a bit more normal. Not that it made us celebrate life any less – two other patriots and I still took home the ‘Drink for Your Country’ title on a Tuesday, and gave a stunning rendition of Jumper by Third Eye Blind on Karaoke Thursday, but at least I had a decent place to escape to when necessary.

When I arrived, my plan was probably to leave for the rainforest on Friday, but I arrived to discover Wild Rover was an Irish-owned hostel and Friday was St. Patrick’s Day. They had a full weekend of events planned, and I didn’t have that much time (or liver capacity), but I wanted to see it on the big day. The place was filled with Irish travelers (they stayed for free on SPD) so I felt like I was celebrating in Dublin South. They led a parade during the day accompanied by a Bolivian marching band and accordion player (no idea how you even find an accordion player in Bolivia), and yelled out Irish drinking songs that I tried to learn but mostly clapped along. I would’ve loved to know what was going through the locals’ heads as they watched a bunch of gringos march through the city. All we were missing was Guinness on tap (they had Baby Guinness shots which sufficed). It was a good way to cap off a week of pretending like I was still in college and my body was made for this type of thing, but I was more than content to pack my bags and hit the road. Next stop was to fly up to Rurrenabaque, the access point to the Bolivian rainforest. And of course, my cab ride to the airport had to be eventful in true La Paz fashion. There was construction on the way and I guess my driver was just trying to make good time (which I appreciated), but at one point he swerved into the construction lane to pass a few cars, and apparently cut off a motorcycle attempting to do the same. He slammed on his brakes and laid on the horn, and while passing him on the left, managed to kick off the side mirror of my cab. It was at this point I was praying my driver wouldn’t retaliate (and I’m not sure he didn’t want to), but the bike sped away. I had fun in La Paz but this confirmed it was time for me to get the hell out of there. On to the rainforest!