Thursday, 7 June 2012

Stranded high and dry in La Paz

Getting to La Paz was a bit of a nightmare. When we went to book our ticket some companies told us there was a strike in Bolivia so no buses were going to run, others told us not to worry but that we would need to change bus in Puno. One man however offered us a bus which for a little bit more money would take us the whole way on luxurious seats which were more like beds. Of course when it came time to leave the bus was nothing like the picture and more like an old national express bus. At about 5.30am we were told we did have to change bus after all and this time we were put on a cramped rickety old mini bus and driven to the boarder. There we were told to make our own way to La Paz and were given 10 Peruvian Soles to get a taxi. Thankfully we had already got some Bolivia money as the Soles were quite useless in Bolivia!!

We finally arrived in La Paz smelly and tired mid afternoon admiring the strange looking city perched in a valley 3660 meters above the sea. Unfortunately we had to go straight to the Argentinian embassy to sort out Katie's visa as she needed one to go with her emergency passport. The Argentinian consulate was however very helpful and we managed to get our application in that day.

We decided to wait in La Paz for the Visa application to go through but the whole process was delayed when the bus drivers in the city decided to go on strike. They managed to blockade the entire city preventing anything from getting in or out for two days. It was surreal wandering around this normally hectic city with no traffic on the road, the place almost had a festive atmosphere as everyone walked around town.

Fortunately there are lots of fun and random things to do in La Paz while waiting for a visa. One evening we managed to get our fix of South American football going to watch the local derby between a team called the Strongest and their bitter rivals Bolivar. While you get a good atmosphere at a Spurs Arsenal match these fans were CRAZY. The two rival groups were singing and bouncing up and down, lighting flares and constantly firing fire works off. We were worried they were going to hurt themselves but it turns out it was the players who were in danger. Mid way through the second half the Bolivar goal keeper was hit by a firework thrown from the crowd and looked like all hell was going to break lose. The ref considered calling the game off, the Strongest players had to beg their fans to calm down while the Bolivia goalie made angry gestures at them. However everything in the end calmed down and the match continued. By the time we left everyone seemed to be good natured and we walked home in a happy crowd.

On the Sunday night we were tempted to go for an even stranger experience a night of Cholita wrestling. We were driven to this big warehouse with a wrestling ring in the middle and a mixed crowd of locals and tourist watching. The star attractions were not the typical men wrestlers in their lycra outfits and masks but the cholitas, women in traditional andes dress. It was a surreal experience cheering on the 'goody' Cholita as she acted out her fight with the 'bady' Cholita. With the fights occasionally moving out of the ring and even one point one trying to strangle the other with her long braids of hair.

One activity in La Paz I never thought I would do was the Infamous death road. This is a downhill mountain bike ride made famous for the number of people who have plunged to their death into the valley below. For months I had said I was not going to do it as I had said the clue was in its name and that I would much rather do the sprained ankle road. Throughout La Paz we kept meetings people with their arms in plaster casts who had hurt themselves falling off their bikes. I therefore surprised myself when I decided I was going to do it after all. Fortunately the company we picked, Overdose, supplied us with very good bikes and full protective helmets and clothing. The ride itself was pretty exciting on a narrow gravely road cutting back and forth down a steep mountain. It was not however too dangerous as long as you were sensible enough to use the breaks a fair bit. The views were incredible as we went down 3600m from a cold early morning start to ending up in hot jungle like conditions. To celebrate surviving with our limbs in tact we joined the new friends we met on the ride for a night drinking in the fun backpacker bars of La Paz.

Fortunately the next day Katie's visa was ready the bus drivers strike was over and we were ready to head off to our next adventure on the Bolivian salt flats..

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