It’s impossible to feel more like a tourist than on the bus from Uyuni to La Paz. Firstly there are no Bolivians at all on the bus and secondly the bus company is called ‘Todo Turismo’. In all though this was the best way to travel overnight with a meal service and some confidence the bus and driver were in proper working order.
Arriving at 5am into La Paz I was completely on guard after reading the Lonely Planet safety section. They advise on muggings and ‘express kidnappings’ where a taxi driver just drives you to the slums and they extract your card PIN until they have gotten enough money – great! The first surprise is that La Paz is actually short for Nuestra Senora De La Paz – which just goes to show that in South America the virgin is never far away.
The city is perched at 3500m and, for good measure, is a deep valley with steep hills on either side so it’s impossible to move around quickly without being short of breath. La Paz is described as gothic in the guidebook and is definitely not the prettiest city I’ve seen but I took some of the new cable cars up to get a panoramic view across the valley and down on the neighbourhoods below.
Once in Bolivia you begin to see the Andean influence – the women are short and solid looking in their wide dresses and mini top hats over pleated hair. The markets have lots of colourful weave bags and even dried baby llama, the purpose of which I never found out but presumably it’s just for the tourists though customs could be an issue.
I really had had enough of churches at this stage so I recharged my batteries with caffeine at a lovely coffee shop in a bookshop called the ‘Writers Coffee‘ and reserved my place on a daytrip mountainbiking the ‘Death Road’ with Gravity Assisted Biking. They were more expensive than others but considering it is a 60km downhill trail with 300m drops false economies on equipment seemed unnecessary!
The buses left the next day at 7am and climb up to 4000m before we christened our bikes with and took a swig of some local fire-water which tasted horrendous.
Soon we were off down a well paved road and getting used to the bikes and equipment with great views out over the valleys. The road connects the Yungas region with La Paz and there are several police checks as the Yungas region is a key area for coca leaf production and hence drug making.
Our Scottish guide, Cameron, advised us that there was an 6km uphill section and said that there needed to be six people to do it. I volunteered and so did a few Australian guys who were in the navy and then through some cajoling from a Dutch businessman another few decided to join us. Little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for – downhill bikes are not great for uphill but the thin air at altitude saps stamina so quickly. Through rain and grind we made it but a few were worse for wear – not least the gung-ho Dutchman!
Then we joined the ‘Death Road’ proper – it was so christened due to the number of fatalities, running at around 200-300, a year in the 1990s before a new bypass road was built. The road is extremely narrow, wet, muddy and at these heights often foggy. All this combined to make it something of a death trap. Indeed even now where most of the traffic are mountainbikers there are still crosses where people lost control and plunged to their fate.
In reality though unless you are very careless or unsure of yourself on a bike it isn’t really all that bad – a few of our group picked up some minor scrapes where they skidded on loose rock. Other than that it was a hectic 60km bone-rattling ride down with stops for photos and food along the way. My hands were numb but letting go just isn’t an option!