Passage Note #71 Part I: Bolivia - Extreme Thrills
Bolivia is extremely and uniquely thrilling....or rather, it has some extreme thrills that are unique to Bolivia. Not for the faint hearted. So this Passage Note describes a couple of them - some of which we experienced ourselves ......and some of which we didn’t.
The Thrill of High Altitudes
Adventure can be addicting. Bolivia is a great place to look for that extra high. And we mean high!
When you fly into the world’s highest international airport outside of the capital city of La Paz at 13,325 feet .....you are almost half as high as a jetliner's cruising altitude!!! Because of the thin air, takeoffs require a longer runway (5km) and landings come in at twice the normal speed. Planes are equipped with special tires to withstand the extreme forces of longer stopping distances (Lonely Planet).
Travel brochures are full of cautionary warnings about altitude sickness: walk, don’t run (as is customary) to get into the immigration line when you get off the plane - move slowly or you will be seriously out of breath and may suffer medical complications.... Travelers to La Paz often become ill the moment they arrive in the city..... on your first night in La Paz you are likely to find difficulty in breathing and wake up panting for breath...... if you are young and healthy don't be lured into a false sense of security: take it easy.” And on and on. Although we had been to high altitude Ecuador and Peru with no problems, Linda began to feel sick when we arrived at 2 a.m. We knew it wasn't a good idea to take a red-eye flight but the price was right - sleep disruption (or lack of), middle of the night arivals, and extreme altitudes are a deadly combination meaning you do not hit the streets running the next day but require time to recover and acclimate. From the cold, uncomfortable third-world airport, we went straight to our hotel in the center of the city (1,500 feet lower makes a big difference) and began to ply her with coca tea - a local remedy. She immediately felt better and we both slept most of the next day.
As an adventurous traveler blogged: “Traveling in Bolivia is notoriously fraught with difficulty, and not just because of the altitude, which can cause headaches, dizziness and in rare cases life-threatening illness. Local communities often express their frustration with the government by throwing up roadblocks that can leave travelers stranded for days or even weeks. And deficient standards of hygiene mean that gastrointestinal problems are de rigueur for any Bolivian visit. But to the young and thrill-seeking, for whom “extreme” is a selling point rather than a warning, these traveling tribulations are simply a different sort of adventure.”
So............Welcome to Boliva!
The Thrill of The Death Road
The Most Dangerous Road in the World - also grimly nicknamed “The Death Road” - is perilous and frightening third world infrastructure ironically turned into an adrenalin-pumping downhill mountain bike ride that appeals to tourists. For some reason it appealed to us too....so we did it. Hmmmm. Maybe we have become a little addicted to adventure.
The 40 mile Death Road begins at a cold foggy barren mountain pass near La Paz called La Cumbre (15,265 feet above sea level) and descends 12,000 feet to connect to the balmy jungle resort town of Coroico. A new road replaced it in 2006 but when this Old North Yungas Road was the only way to get from the rainforest to the capital city, daily traffic was heavy and 200-300 people died each year. In 1995, the Inter American Development Bank tagged the highway "The Most Dangerous Road in the World”.
Several conditions make it so dangerous. It is narrow - 10 feet wide (barely one lane) - steep, twisty, with a slippery gravel and rock surface having sheer 1,800 foot drop offs and no guard rails. In some places it is impossible for two cars to pass each other. Frequently a dense fog rising from the lowlands and valleys reduces visibility to zero and tropical rains mean road collapses, washouts and crumbling edges. Packed buses used to transport locals despite the weather conditions. There are some horrifying videos on Youtube of vehicles going over the side. With it being repurposed mainly for cyclists (but not exclusively - there are still trucks and cars using it), the death statistics continue - 20 cyclists have died since 1998.
We signed on with High Altitude Biking, suited up in full protective suits and helmets, and mounted our sturdy mountain bikes. A guide led our group of 16. A van and another guide took up the rear (where we stayed). Special traffic rules apply on this road - downhill drivers keep to the left at the outer edge of the cliff - (forced to slow down, they can better spot oncoming traffic around the blind hairpin turns and watch their tires for navigating the edge). No way!!! We hugged the mountainside anyway. Along the route we sped past traces of accidents and reminders of the dangers.....truck and car parts, broken trees, commemorative crosses.
The scenery was glorious - what little of it we stopped to enjoy during a few brake checks - we couldn’t afford to look up from the steep road, needing to intensely concentrate on the gnarly rutted, pebbly nemesis below our tires. You can’t afford a distraction here - it could be fatal!! You fly downhill pulled by gravity, bikes in high gear, cramped hands squeezing those brakes, still going too fast for comfort some of the time. No need to pedal. Two guys in our group fell and we passed a caravan of 6 motorcyclists, one of whom had skidded out, luckily toward the mountainside.
When we started the trip, on a short stretch of paved road in the altiplano, our hands were so cold in the numbing mountain air that they were almost frozen to the handlebars. It became warmer and warmer as we descended and we were able to shed our biking suits little by little until we were left to ride in our own clothes with only the protective knee and elbow pads remaining. Yet it was our hands that ached the most from squeezing those brakes to counteract the speed from sheer gravity. No need to pedal.
Four exhilarating hours later, our reward was a swim and poolside lunch at a little hotel at the bottom in tropical Coroico, relaxing and unwinding our tense, rattled bodies, stiff hands gripping cold drinks now. On the 3 hour van ride back to La Paz - via the new replacement route - we sported our new souvenir T-shirts, glad to be “Survivors” of the Death Road.
The Thrill of Claustrophobia in the Potosi Silver Mines
Cerro Rico (“Rich Hill”), overlooking the city of Potosi, singlehandedly bankrolled the wealth and power of colonial Spain with its motherlode of silver. For five hundred years this mountain has been mined by people enduring the most abominable and deadly conditions. 8 million indigenous and African slaves died during colonial times. Not much has changed except the silver has pretty much run out and the miners are mostly poverty-stricken independents who dig a tunnel anywhere they want to. There are no rules - no engineers, no geologists, no structural or safety regulations.
That’s just one of the reasons we said no thanks to the silver mine tours of Cerro Rico (known as “the peak that eats men”) and chose to give this thrill a miss. Claustrophobic activities like spelunking or squeezing into dark cramped spaces in the bowels of the earth are just not for us. The health hazards are as real to tourists as they are to the miners themselves - toxic exposure to arsenic, asbestos, cyanide and silica dust. And Cerro Rico has been so hollowed out by tunneling, like swiss cheese, that a group of American mining engineers has declared it overdue for a total collapse on itself.
These are real-life mine tunnels that you enter - working mines, not some Disneyland replica or Natural History Museum diorama - and are notoriously dangerous.
Although we would have liked to have gotten some first hand insight into the mining operations and the lives of these miners, the ethical dilemma of touristic voyeurism also reared its ugly head. It is a sad, sad, business to behold - shortened lifespans, 12 hour shifts seven days a week, abject poverty, child labor, difficult deaths through respiratory illnesses. It was not so clear to us how the miners truly perceive these “wealthy” tourists coming through like on a zoo safari, bringing the obligatory gifts of coca leaves, alcohol, cigarettes and dynamite sticks.....wealthy tourists who breath a sigh of relief when the tour is over and are able to just walk away from it all. And then there is the harsh fact that some of the misery is perpetuated by our own countries which are culpable in their continuing exploitation. Very tragic.
The Thrill of Breaking into Prison
San Pedro Prison WAS one of the world’s most outrageous, bizarre and notorious underground tourist destinations, considered “unmissable” by the gringo backpacker circuit a couple of years ago. These legendary illegal tours were recently discontinued and are no longer available. We first heard about San Pedro Prison from a traveler we met in Bogota, Colombia who had actually gotten in.
Behind 30 foot stark white walls of a former monastery on a quiet pretty square in central La Paz, 1500 men live in this strange prison compound......a prison with no guards inside (the prison is controlled by the prisoners), where the inmates live freely within with their wives and kids, renting “cells” according to their wealth (which vary from closet size spaces to whole deluxe apartments with air conditioning, Sky TV, and saunas) and which produces the highest quality cocaine in Bolivia. The prison is famous for its unique social system, economy and self-governance. There are several divisions - like governments - where leaders are elected, taxes collected, and security provided. Since the government only supplies basic food, the inmates have to generate income - running shops (tool shops!), making products, and providing prison services (like restaurants where CocaCola is the only soft drink sold). And this includes manufacturing the best cocaine - even though most of the men are in for drug offenses.
Standing in the park across the street waiting for our city walking tour to begin, our guides warned us not to pick up anything on the street outside the prison walls - cocaine-laden diapers are often catapulted over the walls for a prearranged pick-up. You wouldn't want to interfere.........
San Pedro Prison received worldwide notoriety when the book Marching Powder was released in 2003, followed by a movie adaptation. It was written by an Australian backpacker about Thomas McFadden, an English cocaine trafficker imprisoned for 4 years. McFadden started the illegal English-speaking tours and they soon became a lucrative source of income. However, the media attention led the Bolivian government to shut down the tours. Today, the guards at the front gate are only there to make sure no one escapes and they are rotated on a frequent basis to halt the rampant bribery that allowed the tours to take place.
There is talk of closing the prison altogether and making it into a cultural site á la Alcatraz in San Francisco with ex-prisoners leading tours (legal) of the defunct prison.
P.S. By the way, no photographs are allowed as Linda found out when she discreetly snapped a photo inside the entrance gate and almost had her camera confiscated.
The Thrill of Witches
In downtown La Paz’s twisty maze of streets is a group of strange stores called the Witches Market (Mercado de Hechiceria or Mercado de las Brujas) where a bizarre assortment of curiosities can be purchased to manipulate the indigenous Aymara world of spirits and beliefs. There are bins and bins of seeds, herbs, and medicinal plants along with dehydrated starfish and desiccated frogs and armadillos waiting to be purchased to be used in prescribed rituals for good or bad. We were told there was powdered dog tongues and flamingo wings for sale but we never did see them. There are talismans, amulets, aphrodisiacs, and colored candles galore, each having their own significance and power. Witches, witch doctors (yatiri), astrologers, faith healers, fortune tellers and sorcerers walk around peddling their blessings or spells.
But the star attraction is the dried llama fetuses, hanging from the ceiling en masse or stacked up in baskets, looking eerily creepy in their fuzzy, big eyed death. They are said to bring prosperity. “These are always buried in the foundations of new constructions or businesses as a cha'lla (offering) to the goddess Pachamama (Mother Earth). The llama sacrifice encourages the goddess to protect the workers from accidents and bring good luck to the business. Superstitions prevail and almost all of the construction workers in town won´t build your house unless their is a llama fetus underneath. But the fetuses are only used by the poor; wealthier Bolivians are expected to sacrifice a live llama.”
So what happens if you are building a skyscraper or a shopping mall or something major??? Then llamas aren’t enough for Pachamama - this calls for something even bigger to be buried under the foundation - like a human being. Here’s the story going around: “It’s a fairly common practice for builders, with the involvement of an architect, under a friendly guise, to find a homeless alcoholic from the streets and invite them to drink with them. They would then go to the construction site and give them food, with lots and lots of alcohol. They would get the homeless guy to drink until he passed out, even forcing drink on him. Once the guy is passed out or unable to move, they would put him in the foundations of the construction and bury them alive; a sacrifice to strengthen the building. The building would then be built on top of this sacrificed man.” Is it real or an urban legend? No one seems to know but it is circulated widely enough to make you think it is based on some truth.
The Thrill of Surreal Landscapes (Salt Flats of the Salar de Uyuni )
This is the penultimate adventure in Bolivia. The surreal otherworldly landscape of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats sitting in the middle of a high altitude desert at 12,000 feet, the remains of a prehistoric lake. It is 4,000 square miles of flat bright blinding white: spectacular scenery and a photographers’ playground. The lack of perspective in the endless expanse provides a fun backdrop for manipulation of photo images taken on the crunchy salt crust - unending white hexagonal honeycombs in the dry season, and hallucinogenic mirror-like reflections in the wet season. Light changes throughout the day and sunset and sunrise are legendary.
Besides the actual salt flats themselves, this area of southwest Bolivia boasts giant cactus covered islands, unique Salt Hotels where everything (walls, roof, furniture, floors) are built of salt blocks, colored (red, green, white, yellow, blue) mineral lagoons with flamingos, train cemetery, sculptural rock formations, geysers and hot springs, smoking volcanoes, blood red quinoa fields, and eroded badlands.
Tourists go to visit in 4x4 vehicles for 3-4 day tours. As Lonely Planet warns: “travellers should take great care in choosing which tour operator to go with when visiting the salt flats. Fatal accidents due to unsafe vehicles and drivers are not unheard of.
We chronicle our own unforgettable adventure in the next Passage Note accompanied by our magical photos like the ones below.
The Gastronomic Thrill of Gustu
For those foodies whose spirit animal is Anthony Bourdain, eating at Gustu is a thrill as it single-handedly develops an emerging Bolivian haute cuisine. Eating a meal here is to be on the groundfloor of an historical gastronomic endeavor.
The restaurant was opened in April 2013 by Claus Meyer, the visionary co-owner of legendary Noma in Copenhagen (three-time winner of the World's 50 Best Restaurants with a ridiculous waiting list for reservations). “Like Noma, Gustu is a cutting-edge restaurant that uses avant-garde technique in the service of extreme locavorism. But in Bolivia, Meyer is facing an added degree of difficulty. Here, he doesn't just want to engineer a world-class restaurant. He wants to "combat poverty with deliciousness." His aims were two-fold according to a Nov. 2013 article in "Food and Wine": “(1) Find a country with biological diversity and a traditional cuisine that did not yet effectively showcase its incredible ingredients, and (2) Train locals, often from humble backgrounds, to be future chefs and restaurant managers through his Melting Pot Foundation."
Bolivia has one of the most diverse ecologies on the planet, with three distinct climate zones that produce more than 1,200 varieties of potatoes alone, as well as an astonishing and exotic array of tropical fruits, fish, grains and herbs. There are hot pink papa lisa tubers, otherworldly fruits like the pacay (a large green pod filled with fluffy white flesh that tastes a bit like lychee) and lots of llama meat (which is surprisingly tender).”
We enjoyed the company of a young Dutch couple, Kurt and Anneiles, who we had met the day before on the Death Road bike trip. Linda ordered a 5 course tasting menu with a nonalcoholic drink pairing while Chuck tried the 7 course tasting menu. Dishes were beautifully presented by young Bolivian chefs-in-training who shyly practiced their english. The meal came to $50 each - outrageously expensive for Bolivia but a bargain when compared to the $450 Noma price tag.
Two of the menu offerings as described in "Food and Wine": “A perfectly cooked egg yolk comes in a "nest" of palm heart strips and alpaca charque, Bolivia's jerky equivalent. Pink llama loin is served with fermented carrots, coa oil (a herb that tastes like a combination of rosemary, Swiss mint and eucalyptus) and little green and yellow wakataya herb flowers, giving the dish a unique sweet-fragrant kick."
A highlight came after dinner when we were given a tour of the kitchen by the Danish assistant head chef. Down some steps was the “think tank” area where the creativity happened - new dishes sketched out on a white board concocted by the young chefs-in-training under the Dane’s expertise.
It’s a stretch to think of La Paz becoming a gastronomic destination like Lima, Peru or Copenhagen - but who knows? It was a once-in-a-lifetime adventurous meal.