Monday, December 6, 2010

La Paz Bolivia

Currency: Boliviano $1.00 US = $6.97000 Bolivianas
Bus Copacabana to La Paz - $25 B
Boat across Lake Titicaca - $10 B
Taxi Bus Depot to Hostel - $15 B (for 3 of us)
Hostel La Paz - $55 B a night (4 bed dorm) - Wild Rover
Hostel La Paz - $15.00 US a night (private room) - Republica

The bus from Copacabana to La Paz takes about 4 hours. Part way through we had to exit the bus to get across Lake Titicaca. The bus is loaded onto a barge to go across and we are sent over via small boats. It takes about 1/2 an hour for the bus to get across, looks totally hilarious, hard to believe all vehicles go across that way, looks like the barges will sink at any minute. There are stalls that sell drinks and food so it's a great place to grab a snack and watch the fun.

The first view of La Paz that you get coming in via bus is from the road above, it is amazing, a huge bowl crowded with buildings all the way up the side of the mountains. Hard to believe some of them can stay up, not an inch of wasted space. It is an amazing sight.

The bus depot is relatively new and it is huge. It is located pretty close to the center of the city and taxi's are plentiful. I had found the Wild Rover Hostel on line and thought it sounded pretty good. Good location, clean and with a fun bar. Turns out it was also the residence of a former president at one time. The people I shared a cab with were booked at the Loki which it turns out backed onto the back of the hostel I was in. The Wild Rover is located 2 blocks down from the presidential plaza and is within walking distance of pretty much all of the sites. If booking a room at the Rover I recommend asking for a room in the back of the building. There is a weird outside annex part way in the back, gets no noise from the bar. The ones in the front of the building and by the bar are extremely noisy & the bar is open until 2ish. When you check in you get a wrist band, you can choose to pay cash for booze & meals or you can charge it to your room and pay when you check out. I did find that both times I stayed at the Rover there were extra charges on my bill that were not mine so, if in doubt ask to see the tab. On the up side they took them off as soon as I pointed out that they were not mine. There is a travel agency located in the hostel and free computers and wifi. It was a fun place to stay, lots of interesting folks and as it turns out I ran into a guy that I had done the Machu Picchu hike with that I had not seen since Cusco. He was heading to Buenos Aries from La Paz as he was on a short 1 month whirl wind tour of South America.

In Cusco I had met a couple that told me if I had time to take a trip into the Amazon basin via Rurrenabaque. The bus trip takes 20 hours and I was on my last 2 weeks before I had to fly home out of Lima Peru so I chose to fly in and out. I had also been told that the roads are often blocked by protesters so it is very likely that you can be stranded for a few days waiting for the blockades to come down. I booked both the flight and the 3 day pamapas tour via the travel agency in the hostel. The cost was $1500.00 B. There is also a jungle tour, I was told that if you like plants take the jungle tour if you want to see animals take the pampas tour. I booked a couple of days in advance so I could spend a few days exploring La Paz. When I came back from Rurrenabaque I had 3 more days in La Paz before I had to head back to Peru.

La Paz is a crazy city with a lot of history, it sits at 3500 meters above sea level and is the highest capital city in the world. There are street markets everywhere and traffic is horrible, I don't know how people drive there. As an added bonus the city is built in a basin so almost everywhere involves going up steep hills. There are tons of restaurants and shops, the witches market is totally bizarre, lots of lama fetuses, seems they are a good luck charm. When you buy a new home you bury 1 under the front porch for good luck. The Bolivians are a pretty superstitious people, catholic with a bit of witch craft thrown in. They also love a good party, I was lucky enough to be there for their annual Gran Poder parade, the streets are blocked off and unfortunately so is the view. They put up barriers that block the parade view and sell tickets for seats if you want to watch, tickets are pretty cheap, people were offering them to me for $20 B. There are places you can see it for free if you go up the hill by the witches market or from the overpass. The parade starts at 8 am and goes until around 1am. Lots of music and colorful costumes, the dancers go for 5 or 6 kilometers a lot of it up hill. Not sure where they get the energy from. I bought a couple of beers and pulled up a piece of sidewalk with the locals in their lawn chairs and their coolers of beer to watch for a few hours. Totally amazing, if you can time your visit to see it I highly recommend it, no set date it is usually at the end of May beginning of June. I so love that you can by beer on the street and drink it while you walk/sit, takes some getting used to when I get home where that is totally illegal.

Price wise it is a pretty cheap place, I got some happy pants (backpackers will know what they are) loose colorful pants for $35 B and I picked up a necklace and earrings in silver with a reversible stone (1 side blue 1 side purple) for $100 B. If you are doing Peru & Bolivia defiantly do your shopping in Bolivia, way cheaper than Peru, I saw the same necklace/earring set in Lima for double the price. I spent a lot of time in the presidential plaza, there is a park and it is a great place to people watch. Also lots of history, if you take a close look at the walls of the buildings you can see lots of bullet holes from when the police and the army went at each other in 2003. At no time did I feel unsafe in La Paz but keep in mind that there is still a lot of unrest. There is lots of poverty and unemployment, and they are under a lot of pressure from the US in regards to Coca plants. Unlike Colombia they have not allowed the US to dictate or interfere with their harvests so there fore no aide from them. There were protests pretty much every day and on 1 day a big one in the presidential square. I had heard it when I left the hostel to meet a friend for dinner, lots of yelling and chanting. On the way home from dinner I cut through the square and it was eerie. No one but solders there and a haze of tear gas and damaged vendor stalls. When I came into the square the soldiers motioned at me with their machine guns to stay in the middle of the square and away from the buildings. I must be getting jaded, having guns pointed at me doesn't even faze me anymore. It is a different world, it looks scarier than it is but things can change at a minutes notice so it is best to avoid angry crowds of people and protests. The day after the big protest you would never have known anything had happened, the plaza was crowded with happy families going about their business.

Lots of great street eats especially by the San Francisco church, tons of food stalls and if you are facing the church go through the front courtyard to the right and down the stairs, more street food to be had. Other than a couple of nights I pretty much survived on the stuff. Hit 3 or 4 booths and put together a tasty meal for under $2.00 US. No ill effects and a great way to meet the locals, grab a stair and chow down.

When I came back from Rurrenabaque I stayed for 1 night in the Wild Rover (I had stored my big pack there when I went) but I was in a front room and I wanted a little more quite so I moved myself over across the street to Hostel Republica, also a former residence of a past president and still owned by his family. I got a private room with a shared bathroom for $15 US a night. A little pricey but it is locally owned and all of the staff are locals unlike the Rover where all of the bar staff were backpackers. I like supporting locals as much as I can and the room was really nice, people were nice and it also had free wifi so I was okay with the price.

A tour that is not advertised but is well know among the backpackers and used to be in the Lonely Planet guide is the San Pedro Prison Tour. An illegal tour of one of the worlds most bizarre prisons, there are no guards inside, wives and kids live with the inmates, stores and restaurants operate, food must be bought and inmates have to purchase their cells and can upgrade, furnish and modify them. One drug trafficker has built a 2nd story onto his cell so he can see over the wall and have a view of the city. The inmates govern the prison, elected inmates make and enforce the rules, they are much stricter than any guards and the penalties are a lot rougher  You can read all about it in a book called Marching Powder none of the hostels will give out any information on the tours, according to the government they no longer exist. Hypothetically if one were to go they would find it a very strange trip indeed, pretty much what is in the book is what you would see with the exception of the cocaine factory. With no guards you would be relying on 4 inmate guards to protect you so tipping would be a must and hope you tip them enough to save your ass if you need them to. Strangely Coca Cola is a major sponsor, signs and umbrellas with their logos are all over the place, so I have heard. Due to the extreme poverty families live together in the prison, the wives can't support themselves and the kids on the outside without the men. Rather than take the tour if indeed you can figure out how to do it and who to bribe (something I am not going to share, lots of tourist lose their money with nothing in return) I would suggest you read the book then make a donation to help the kids living in prison

The death road bike ride is a very popular adventure. Sadly I didn't have time when I got back to La Paz to do it but I met lots of people who did. I had done the 50k downhill ride in Peru so I picked the Amazon trip instead. Heads up people, this is not something you go bargain shopping for, pay a little more for a company that has good bikes. It is extremely dangerous, an Israeli girl died (went off the cliff) about a month before I got there. You want to go with a reputable tour company with good bikes, excellent brakes are a priority. Most of the accidents that people survive happen in the last mile of the ride, people get cocky and bite it. A guy I roomed with had road rash down his face, both forearms and both legs, he did it on the last bit of the ride. A pretty good feat considering they put you in a suit and helmet. In the hostel there where 3 or 4 people at any given time who had some kind of injury from the ride. Your travel insurance will not cover these injuries, if you really mess yourself up (as in need to end your trip and fly home).

While in Rurrenabaque I met a Swiss guy who was a hard core backpacker. He was on a year journey doing the camping in the jungle thing when he could. We arranged to meet up in La Paz and hang out for a day, he was doing the couch surfing thing. An awesome way to go, if you have not heard of it, it is a web site where you can hook up with people all over the world and find free places to stay with locals. He had a sweet deal, the apartment was across from the prison, a really nice building and he had a bedroom to himself. His host was not home when I was there but the maid was there, great lady kudos to her for putting up with mi mal espanol. Defiantly worth checking out if you are going to cities/towns, a great way to hang with the locals and learn about the culture and places in town that tourists might not normally go. I think I will give it a go next trip, the only thing is you have to know exactly what days you will be somewhere and have a pretty good idea of your arrival time.
I had a killer bus trip ahead of me, La Paz to Lima, I only had 3 days before my flight home so no stopping in between. There is a sort of direct bus, the cost was $75B and the advertised time of the ride was 26 hours. As it turns out it was more like 36, I thought it would never end. I bought the ticket at a travel agency up the hill from the San Fransisco church.

On my 2nd visit to Bolivia the next year (2011) I made it on the Death Road Ride. Took Gravity Assisted Biking, great company bikes are great, staff was awesome. Video here.  Ends at La Senda Verde Animal Sanctuary I did a 2 week volunteer stint there. Playing with monkeys & birds all day, an incredible experience.

I also took the train to Oruro to Uyuni (3 hour bus ride from La Paz - Oruro cost about $3.00) did the 4 day 4x4  tour, salt flats/mountains (600 Bolivianos), also great then the train from Uyuni to Villazon (boarder to Argentina). Incredible scenery and cheap. Faster than the bus and no potholes.The roads in the south are not the greatest. Don't buy a bus ticket for Argentina on the Bolivian side, people will hit you up at the train station. You will still have to walk across the boarder and take a taxi to the Argentinian bus depot. They will charge you more for the bus ticket in Bolivia and your bus may have already left. There is an hour time change when you cross the boarder, they know you won't be coming back so they will screw you over. Had a few people fall for it that I ran into. Just walk to the boarder, cross and grab a cab (short 10 minute ride) to the Argentinian bus depot & buy your ticket there. Flecha is a good company. Save yourself some headaches.