la Paz and the Worlds Most Dangerous Road

Cholita wrestling

Sunday 19th July.
The best laid plans of getting the 07.20 plane were thwarted by the weather, despite being up at 05.25 and at the airport by 06.30. The fog rolled in during that time and we were toLd to come back 6 hours later! A very boring day spent beating a path around Rurrenabaque then sitting in hard seats in a cafe. My butt was sore before today. Now it’s really sore. Needless to say, the fog clearer by 10 but we didn’t take off until the scheduled 1.50pm. Safety first and all that but with a pickup from our hotel at 3.30pm this is going to go down to the wire.

My morning was spent watching traffic and people. The markets were on today so the town was full and most people get around on motorbikes so there were lots of them. With no stop or give way signs and cursory pedestrian crossings it’s a scene out of the Royal Easter Show. Think the Holden synchronised driving team and you’ve got the picture. In all the time I sat there, no accidents! I also met the Rurrenabaque equivalent of Danny deVito. Our taxi driver “practicing my accent now I have good grasp of the language. I teach English and run this taxi and an adventure travel agency.” A busy little man, speaking fast and with a clearly affected American accent.

Finally, the plane took off, we landed safely and made our hotel with time to spare. Off to the cholita wrestling which was an interesting experience. Describing it is easy. It’s Bolivian women in traditional clothing, wrestling each other. The origin is in teaching women self defence due to a high rate of domestic violence. The reality was quite confronting. The first bout was between a demonic man and the cholita. Predictably, he had the upper hand but she won through. Now the whole thing is a show but the theatre was very real and in fact I am sure the women experienced some discomfort and pain. The remaining 3 bouts were cholita on cholita. There was all sorts of acrobatics and wrestling, including hair pulling. The crowd were as rowdy as any wrestling crowd. There was in-crowd betting and cheering for the preferred wrestler.

On our bus on the way to the wrestling was a cholita, introduced as Margarita. She was wearing pale pink, with jewellery, a shawl, three petticoats and long black braids. And of course, the hat. She is a wrestler for the show, aged 16 years old. A beautiful young women who lost her bout with an older woman. Sixteen year olds wrestling to the cheers and shouts of people. I just had to keep thinking that it was all about raising the profile of women’s rights and fighting back against domestic violence. In that respect, I hope it’s working …

Monday 20th July 2015
Our rest day in la Paz with a good sleep in followed by a slow start to the day. Thankfully. I needed it after so much action. Nonetheless we were out and about doing good things today.

After some advice we headed for the witches market. The markets are stalls along the street. In the case of the witches market they sell all sorts of things, from incense to llama fetuses. We watched the creation of a mixture for some people seeking the help of one of the “witches”. It appeared to include herbs and spices, fleece and other things that looked like small bars of soap in bright colours with emblems and markings on them. It felt invasive, a bit like being at the chemist counter when someone asks for their haemorrhoid cream!

We then hit the “anything and everything” market on our way to the red cable car. Now this is a brilliant solution to a problem. There are currently 3 cable car lines in la Paz. They take people from the city to the ‘burbs. In the case of the line we were on a ten minute cable car ride gets you where a one hour car ride would! For 3 bolivianos (58 cents in Australia). If you are a student, aged or disabled you get it for half price!

The red line went up. Straight up. I must admit to significant fear but it was a fantastic experience. And well done to la Paz for creating railways in the sky, designed to move their people,not the tourists, and create jobs in the process. The other lines do the same thing (green and yellow. That makes the colours of the flag). I would highly recommend this short trip if you make it here to la Paz.

Having survived that ride it was back into the tourist precinct around our hotel for lunch and to do the required gift shopping. We have eaten in two great places today, Layka and Tia Gladys’. I think I had the best tomato soup I’ve ever eaten. Really. And so cheap. My dinner cost less than $6 (Australian). As for gift shopping it was a lovely experience to wander stalls and markets and find special gifts for special people.

Tuesday 21st July
A month since The Drummer and The Pipers birthdays. Time flies by, reminding me not to waste it. I certainly made the most of every second today. We rode, survived and even conquered The a Worlds Mist Dangerous Road on mountain bikes. But I’m getting ahead of myself …

No surprise we had another early start to the day. On the road, in a bus with 12 other tourists and two guides, Moe and Rodriguez, and the driver Oscar. An hour out of town we were attired in riding pants and jackets, helmeted and meeting our sized and country appropriate bikes. Mine was called Dorado and I was delighted to meet her. She was the perfect bike for me with the rear brake on the left and enough suspension to dampen most bumps. With me first bush pee in South America behind me, and loaded with PowerAid, we left the ice encrusted lake at 4700m above sea level to start the first leg on bitumen. About one third on the ride. A great intro to the bikes, riding and passing on the wrong side of the road.

The first legs were stunningly beautiful with sloping, massive cliff sides on our left and right, ascending and descending to the heaven and the earth. Pacha Mamma, Mother Nature, at her most exquisite. There was a nice little ritual at the commencement of our trip that involved each of us pouring a small amount of a very strong alcohol onto the ground, followed by our front wheel, then sipping the drink ourselves. This ritual requested the support of Pacha Mamma to give us safe passage for the day. I like it and it’s not dissimilar to rituals in Australia and Hawaii that I have been taught. It seemed to have the desired effect, no injuries or incidents on our trip.

The last 8k of this leg was the only uphill section. It was optional and I thought about opting out but decided to have a go. Of the 13 people on the tour I was the second oldest, with 11 beautiful young things who are touring the world, as they should. There were 5 females and I’m delighted to say that I was he only woman to give the uphill section a go. While I did have to push Dorado for some short sections, I didn’t have to get on the bus! As with most of the day, I came in last, but as The Piper says, all that matters is that I had fun! The ascent started at 3300m above sea level and finished at 3200m (!) but believe me we went up and up and up a lot more than we went down! That big yellow sign, Welcome to The Worlds Most Dangerous Road finally appeared. It’s all dirt and all downhill from here …

If you are thinking about doing this ride, before I go on, let me recommend you book with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. From booking to post-ride email they are 100% professional. Their organisation was perfect. All our clothes were pre-sized and distributed on the bus ride to the starting point. Our bikes were sized and appropriate for our country of origin. The guides were expert, knowledgeable and friendly. The rules were simple, for our safety but not overly restrictive or imposing. The food and beer hit the spot and the post ride relaxation before the bus ride back to the top was spot on. More about the bus ride to the top later …

Back to the ride. The Worlds Most Dangerous Road has a history of returning people and cargoes to Pacha Mamma. Moe shared the stories with us as we made our descent along an unsealed, narrow roads, the long drops on our left leading to an abyss many many meters far below. There are monuments and crosses along the road, which at its peak, claimed a vehicle a week. It’s now bypassed but remains an open, public road, used by cyclists, taxis, collectivos, buses, trucks and cars. The road rules are different on this 44k stretch. The descending vehicle drives on the edge of the road (keep left) while the ascending vehicle hugs the cliff face. This is because of driver visibility. Also, the ascending vehicles are required to give way to the descending vehicles at all times. One section is 3m wide! There is no passing there. So, all that means that we were required to ride down on the left hand side, the edge of the road!

Over a period of a couple of hours (perhaps longer, perhaps shorter) we descended to the final river destination. The road was gravel, with rocks and dust, crossing flowing water and riding under waterfalls. It was misty for most of the ride although visibility was good. As I said, I came in last almost all the time but my head took a while to move from road bike, skinny tyres, bitumen surface to MTB, gravel, big tyres. I finally got it towards the bottom and now I need to do the ride again! The Piper would love it so I’ll bring him back in a few years. After he turns 16 so I don’t have to fork out for an extra guide. But before they close the road or erect a stack or barriers. He would love it and leave his Mamma for dead.

Finally, we reached the bottom and our bikes were returned to the roof while we drank beers and watched a fellow tourist take on the zip line. Lunch was served at an animal refuge where the option of hot showers with clean towels was available. My head was truly spinning at the sheer magnitude of the ride. I am sure that it is safe and perhaps even tame for serious MTB riders, but it’s still an amazing achievement. The photos I took barely show the magnitude of the road, but the tour company also took heaps and heaps, as well as video with a link to FB and Dropbox to view them all. I’ll be the one who’s consistently last in the video! I’m also the one making the extreme llama sign. Put your pinkie and pointer fingers up, your middle and ring fingers touch your thumb and now you have a llama. Make this sign with both hands, cross your arms and you have extreme llamas! There is also the baby llama sign, the llama sutra sign and others. Uniquely Bolivian but similar to the hang loose sign I learnt in Hawaii.

Having been an extreme llama was cool but we still had a long long long trip home. Back up The Worlds Most Dangerous Road. The driving was perfect, in an extremely thick mist, with light rain and low visibility. Our driver did a great job and was rewarded with a resounding round of applause. Koala 9 has a home now too with Moe. Perhaps the koala will ride The Worlds Most Dangerous Road …

Wednesday 22nd and Thursday 23rd July
On our way home. It’s a funny feeling. I’m busting to see the kids but the much planned holiday is over. It’s been a fabulous trip with so much excitement and so many good things. It’s hard to say what was my favourite but I loved the pampas for its remoteness but I also loved Machu Picchu and the bike ride. All for different reasons. If I was doing it again, or advising others who may be planning it, I’d say give Puno a miss but then the reed Islands will be gone in a few decades so perhaps you should go.

Wednesday we flew out of la Paz for Cusco. We have to go north to Cusco and then to Lima, to go south to Santiago and head back over the pacific. Just the way our ticket was bought so it has to be. Cusco was as charming this time as it was two weeks ago. We had a four star hotel for our last night and it was luxurious. Well done to the staff there how treated us like royalty and upgraded us, free high speed wifi (at last), discounted food and great service. We finalised our shopping and then took a guided tour through Qorikancha. It was a good tour but I think, if it’s possible, I’m Inka’ed out. If you’re in Cusco and don’t have much time, by all means do it, but if you do Machu Picchu and Saqsaywaman then you probably don’t need this as well.

And now, Thursday, we are headed home. It’s all flights and sitting from here. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this trip account and feel free to connect with me if you want to know anything about my adventure.

Its now many months since we returned home. In the meantime I’ve travelled with The Piper and we enjoyed a wonderful time together. Catch up with that trip here. In the next couple of weeks we head off to Japan which you can follow here. Since coming home I’ve had my tapestry mounted and framed as well as hanging my runner on the wall. See what you think in the pictures below. Now I get to come home to these stunning pieces everyday, to remind me of the wonderful time we had.

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