Monday, 26 July 2010

La Paz and its Surroundings

I arrived to La Paz after another typical, long bus ride in Bolivia that could have been shorter if the Bolivians would just get of their lazy asses and build some better roads.
La Paz is my favorite big city yet. For a person who loves markets, that’s the place you want to be. It’s not that I’m so fond of the buying and selling fanaticism, I actually hate buying stuff (especially for myself), it’s just the whole idea of walking in streets (in Spanish ‘calles’) or allies, wide or narrow, all of them filled with local treasures. Some streets are categorized to ‘vegetables’, ‘meat’, ‘local cloths’, ‘witchcraft’, ‘mixed areas’, ‘ tourists’…ext. Most of my ‘free-time’ (I’m on vacation, so that sounds funny…) hours in La Paz were just wasted on walking and ‘loosing’ (I always carry a map) my way through the allies and market strolls.
After figuring out what’s with this crazy city, I finally (took us two days…) manage to reunite with Dror & Alek (this after an aggressive act on my side, joining their room in their hostel). We caught up over dinner at the Israeli-like restaurant called ‘Nargila’ (ok Humus served with awful bread-like Pita). They already went to the 2 one day tours around La Paz and recommended them for me. They added that they want to wait two days anyways for doing some shopping and waiting for two other girls. We agreed to go together (two days from that day) for the Death Road down hill ride, and after that to try and arrange the Huayna-Potosi climb.
Tiawanaku tour – Bolivia’s Machu Picchu:
A long time ago, in a far high land, existed an ancient culture called Tiawanaku on the South eastern side of Lake Titicaca. The Bolivians are still grateful for that. Without that culture they would not have as much tourists in their country nor would they have pictures of the remains to put on every wall of their large amount of tourist companies. Other than that, Tiawanaku itself isn’t that amazing. It’s older than the Inca times, and has many similar building aspects (large rocks, sun god, Condor, Puma, Snake…). Many impressive pillars are located in the main temple. Also in the main temple is the famous ‘Sun-Gate’, it was almost taken by the Spaniards, but luckily was left because of its weight (20 tons). Most of the interesting remains are located and shown only within the museum walls, where you’re not allowed to take photos (as you can see right here).
Chacaltaya & Valle de la Luna (The Moon Valley):
I have no idea how those two places were related, Chacaltaya on the North side of the city & the Moon Valley on the South, but they’re still offered together in every agency in town.
Chacaltaya is a nice pick (5400masl), that watches over the whole city of La Paz, El-Alto, and the picks surrounding the valley of La Paz (Huayna-Potosi, Condoriri, Illimani, Sajama), and in a good day even Lake Titicaca.
It is also a nice way to checkout if your fit enough to climb to challenging Huayna-Potosi (6088masl). The bus takes you almost to the top. When first looking at the top, I thought I could get to it in about 10 minutes tops. Rushing up (way too fast…), I got tired after a 10m climb, couldn’t breath, and had to sit down. The rest was taken much slowly. Chacaltaya has 3 picks, all more or less in the same height, walking slowly I eventually climbed them all. The views were certainly worth it!
From the Chacaltaya, we drove back to La Paz, crossed it all the way from North to South, on our way to see the Moon Valley, a touristic park of geological sand/rock forms. It reminded me of the southern coast of the Dead Sea back in Israel. I also saw another Viscacha, this time from a closer point of view.
The Chola-wrestling:
Every Sunday all tourists (who know about it), go up towards the Chola-wrestling arena. It’s located near the main market of El-Alto, the high city ‘sitting’ on top of La Paz.
The fights are all staged, just like on WWF on TV, but this time it’s with locals, women & men alike, fighting each other with the strangest costumes ever (women are dressed in traditional clothing).
Alek, Dror and I went to check what all the fuss is about. It’s a good laugh, but mainly a gimmick. We got the idea after 2 hours, and went back down to the city.
The Death Road (The Most Dangerous Tourist Scam in La Paz):
The plan is simple, take a legend, and spice it up a bit. Let some Americans go first, and brag around the city about how dangerous the road is, and there you have it!
Everybody wants a go. Bolivia is the cheapest country in South America, but this specific tour, was not. Dror, Alek & I bargained much, but still didn’t want to end up with shitty bikes (everybody heard horror stories about Bolivian agencies). 400$B was the last price for the middle class agency.
The tour starts way up at 4000masl, the goal is 1200masl. All agencies do the same route. They first take you to an asphalt road (very good structure), and there you check how you’re feeling with your new bike & gear. The views are very nice, but you’re still not on the famous road you wanted. The ride is very fast (you decide), and fun. After descending about 1000m, all climb back to the vans, and drive to the dangerous dirt road.
At first it seems fine, but after one curve, you see what makes it so famous. On the cliffs from both sides of the road dense tropical rain forest is growing all over. On your right, the cliff is going up into the clouds. On your left, a 600m fall. The road is in the exact width of one car. The vans that took us all the way here are following us, and I feel concerned about the crazy drivers agreeing to drive this narrow road every day of the week. As for bicycles, you have enough room for 3 driving next to each other, but only a crazy person would ride fast and close to the edge. Once you get the hang of it, and trust your breaks, you should be fine.
The road (for a bike) is not as dangerous as told. It has pretty landscapes all around, and if you know how to ride a bike & you’ve got the time and money – it’s worth it. Just don’t try shooting a video while you’re riding the bike – you could end up killing yourself.
Back in La Paz:
Alek & Dror heard about a crazy Israeli living in La Paz, running an agency and helping out people (Israelis or not), to go on treks off the bitten track. His name is Shaul.
Dror goes to check it out, and comes with a new idea of joining a raft organized by Shaul, leaving in two days. The main idea is to build it on the first day and sail with it 5 more days down stream. To me it sounds interesting, but Alek had a new offer and decides to cut his South America trip short. The next time we go all together (Alek with no intention of joining the ‘trek’). All the people wanting to go on the Rio Verde adventure were invited to a meeting in Shaul’s house. After a week with only 2 people interested, Shaul’s living-room is filled with 12 people. Shaul explains that there is no room for all the people on the boat and the last people joining would have to give it up. Luckily (for Dror), 3 people (including me) prefer the second option offered by Shaul, and leave 9 people to go on the raft in Rio Verde.
Alek & Dror part their ways, and I leave them both myself.

Tips for La Paz:
- Tiawanaku is nice, but only if you haven’t been to the Machu Picchu yet.
- Chacaltaya is a nice climb (if you haven’t done the Huayna-Potosi yet), and the Moon Valley has beautiful formations.
- The Death Road isn’t that dangerous, and if you know how to ride a bike, go for it.
- Shaul is very useful, if you want to find cheap guides for treks off the bitten track, if you want information about treks you can do by yourselves, or even just for trading reading books.

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