We planned to leave the hostel at 9am before the 11:30 flight, so I got up early and chugged a bunch of water in preparation for the extreme altitude change in La Paz. La Paz is 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) above sea level. The airport is at 4,100 meters (13,400 feet). The highest I had ever been before that was one of the peaks at Breckenridge, which I think was like 12,800 feet. That was the peak of the mountain, this is was the city, aka the bottom of the peak. So we were pretty dramatic about the increase in altitude. We heard many first hand stories of sickness so we were trying to avoid that at all costs. The best advice I got was probably from Molly, Jenni’s friend the night before. She told me to just walk super slow and take everything slow for a while when you first get off the plane, otherwise the effects can seem to snowball on you.
We took off at about 11:45, connected in Iqueque, and then had an hour long flight to La Paz, basically going up the whole time. When we landed in La Paz, we walked down the stairs onto the concrete surface, and just taking normal steps I could feel the altitude as I was a tad bit light headed. So I walked super slowly like I was wandering through an art gallery (actually that’s a bad simile for me, more like I was walking through the Playboy mansion). We then stood in line to clear customs and soon I realized I did indeed have to have a visa, so the security guy sent me to a special counter, where the employee held my passport and showed me where to go to exchange cash (they didn’t take card or any other currency aside from Bolivianos). The cost was 360 Bolivianos (7/1 - Bolivianos/Dollars), so there went a good chunck of my Jenni Chilean pesos right there. Still walking slowly, I changed the cash, bought the visa, grabbed my bag, which had been pulled from the single baggage claim unit right next to the passport control/customs area, and went to sit down on a bench in the next commons area. I wasn’t in a hurry and neither were the Aussies. About 30 minutes of slow motion later, we negotiated and caught a cab for 5 with a German woman and all went to our respective hostels in the center of La Paz, probably 30-45 minutes away from the airport. It also didn’t take me long to realize that the driving in Bolivia was a notch up from Argentina and Chile. I didn’t think that was possible, but man it was loco in La Paz.
I stayed at a hostel called Wild Rover, just had the best rating/price combo on hostelworld. It was also supposed to be extremely social, and boy was it. It had a bar in the hostel and multiple happy hours and events, and everyone seemed to always be socializing. And my bed was great with outlets near, and the wifi worked great. I think it was like $11 USD per night. So I settled on my bed, facetimed a little, and relaxed. At points, roommates came in and I would converse with them briefly and then they’d leave again. At about 7pm, I met a roommate (I was in a bunk of 8) named Ab from Australia, and we decided to join forces for dinner. But before dinner, I went to the travel agency and booked the Death Road bike ride for the morning. We got a recommendation for a Mexican food restaurant a few blocks away, and decided to try it out. I ordered a lasagna special, and it was pretty solid. We ordered what I thought was chips and guacamole, but when the waitress brought out like 9 fried won ton slices, I knew that was too good to be true. However, the guacamole was fantastic. Other new friends joined us from the hostel as well and we had a good time hanging out. After dinner, I went back to the hostel and settled in for the night before getting up in the morning before being picked up at 7am for the Death Road bike ride.
I was sleeping in an 8 bed dorm, so I was as quiet as possible waking up and gathering my things for the Death Road. I checked the list to make sure I had everything and then headed downstairs to wait on the bus/van. As I was waiting, I met another American, Zack, a med student with time off before graduation, who was also doing Death Road and had a similar travel schedule to me. It was that easy to make new friends. They finally came and called our names, and we piled in maybe the most uncomfortable vans I have ever been in. My seat was actually foldable as I was sitting in the isle. The seatback was hardly that as when I lay back, I was practically in the lap of the poor English girl behind me. But, no complaints about the 1.5 hour drive in this seat, it was part of the experience. I’ll tell you what else was part of the experience was the driving, or lack there of. Drivers in La Paz were honestly impressively atrocious. People would do the normal South American cutting off, honking, swerving, and such, but here, cars/vans would stop in the middle of the road and put their flashers on as someone got out of the car to run an errand (our van included). So other drivers would have to deal with that as well as the overly aggressive other drivers. Also, there were no lane distinctions, so people were driving on the wrong side of the street! Drivers were weaving through each other as they went every which direction. It was like a real life game of rush hour and quite comical. There was simply a road and you did whatever you could to get to where you are going. I was a content spectator.
We arrived to the unloading area, a really pretty flat next to a lake and surrounded by mountains. The reason they call it the “Death Road” bike ride is because you ride down hill for 65km and supposedly you’re next to a cliff the whole time where if you fall off… game over and there are no re-dos. So we drove up from La Paz for a while and were going to end up at a much lower altitude and much farther from the city. We were with a company called Altitude and they provided everything – gear, bikes, helmets, snacks, lunch, transportation, etc. We had our breakfast (dry cake and coffee/tea) and put on our gear consisting of knee pads, elbow pads, pants, jacket, and moto helmet. It was funny because the ride is called “Death Road”, they were making us put on these wimpy elbow and shin guards, but I’m pretty sure if we fell, we would be worried about a lot bigger and better things. But at least we had the reassurance of knowing that our elbows and shins wouldn’t have scratches.
We removed our belongings (cameras and phones were forbidden, one lady didn’t understand why and that gave me a good laugh) and put them in the van because the van was going to be following us, so we could fetch the phones/cameras during the stops if wanted. I rode around and tested the brakes a bit, and deemed myself ready endure Death. The first part of the riding was on 2-lane paved road with railings, not dangerous at all. They told us to stay in line, so I did that for a while until I got tired of braking and started to pass people (only when safe of course). I am confident I was one of the heaviest there because I really didn’t need to pedal at all and I was passing everyone. Just my momentum was taking care of everything. We took the road for about 45 minutes as cars/trucks passed us from both directions, and we stopped a few times for breaks and pictures. It was extremely fun as we were racking up the MPHs and glancing down this beautiful valley as we rode down it. Then there was an uphill part coming up, so naturally, we loaded the bikes back on top of the van and they drove us the 15 minutes to the end of the uphill. Zero energy exertion was needed. From here we started the dirt/rocky road part, which was not exactly a breeze. At this point we were in the middle of a cloud so there was no view and we couldn’t see the bottom of the cliff beside us. It was actually quite challenging because the surface was all loose pebbles and it was literally all downhill, so you gain speed fairly quickly. The challenge was slowing down enough for the turns, not spinning out or slipping on the pebbles, and staying far enough behind the rider in front of you. Numerous times I held my breath as I had to brake hard or work to regain balance, but never did I feel threatened to actually fall to my death off the cliff. There were cars driving on this road, so there was plenty of room for a bike rider to remain safe.
We took breaks often to snag pictures and make sure the whole group was there. There were 3 guides and 1 camera man who would ride ahead of us and take pictures/video of us as we passed. The group consisted of like 20 of us, mostly guys, but the 6 or 7 girls rode more cautiously toward the end of the pack. At one point we stopped for a break and sat with our feet off the ledge just for a feel. The bottom of the cliff really wasn’t that far down, but definitely far enough to win the battle. We probably rode for about 3 hours downhill on the pebble dirt road, and the whole time I was absolutely loving it. Towards the end, the curves became a little more challenging and a few guys in the group actually wiped out, but no serious injuries. Everyone survived. They handed out survival t-shirts at the end, and we piled in the vans to head to the celebratory swimming pool and buffet lunch.
We had 1.5 hours to eat, swim, and relax, which we did (the freezing cold pool actually felt nice) as we exchanged stories with other groups. I met an American couple from the Seattle area (only other Americans we met on the day). Then we piled back into the vans for the 3 hour ride back to La Paz. We had to drive back up the mountain we had just driven down. I completely lucked out because 2 of the passengers didn’t travel back with us, so I didn’t have to sit on the “seat” in the isle for 3 hours. I had a window seat with a breeze, and I conversed with one of the guides in Spanglish for a good majority of the ride.
We got back to the hostel at about 6:40pm, and since I had plans to leave La Paz the next morning, I had to pay my hostel bill, and they only accepted Bolivianos, which I had none of. So the front desk sent me to the change houses, which closed at 7pm. I speed walked there, but they were all closed already. So I continued to ask around and eventually found a hidden shop who was willing to change my Chilean Pesos to Bolivianos and allow me to pay my hostel bill. A small little adventure only fitting to come after I survived Death Road. Then, after paying, I booked my bus to Copacabana the next morning at the travel desk at the hostel. I was using a service called Bolivia Hop, which included my bus rides all the way to Cuzco, Peru. It was an attractive service to me because you can get off the bus, stay the night at that stop, and then “hop” back on the next day or week or whenever. Also, it was clearly meant for tourists, which I thought was better for me because I was now traveling alone, so it would be much easier to fine tune travel plans and find travel buddies. It was $39 USD to get me from La Paz to Copacabana (3 hours), across the border to Peru, and to Cuzco (7 hours) by the next morning, plus the flexibility of entering and exiting when I wanted. I later learned that the local buses would have cost less than half of that, but it was very nice to have my city-to-city transportation plans in the books for the rest of my time in South America. Anyway, I booked this bus option for 7am the next morning before their desk closed at 7:30. Things were moving very quickly, as they needed to.
I showered, caught up on my wifi, and then Zack and I set out to find some dinner. It didn’t take long to find a local place where we could both order cheap dishes of things we had no idea of the translation. It was quick though, we didn’t want to dilly dally because there was a beer pong tournament at the hostel, which we had already signed up for, and happy hour was from 9-10. So, we paid our bill of 35 Bolivianos each ($5 USD) and made it back to the hostel for happy hour. I rushed back to the room to pack really quick (there probably wouldn’t be much time/effort to pack before my 7am departure), and then rejoined Zack on the happy hour game. Again, happy hour in SA simply means 2 for 1, so we were just trading rounds of $3 mixed drinks. They set up 2 crowded tables of short, 6 cup beer pong, and soon enough it was our turn. The hostel employee who organized the tournament came up with our team name after we told him we were from LA and Texas: “The Racist Screenplay Writers.” We were playing some competitive Israeli’s our first game and ended up pulling off a comeback win. Zack made most of the cups, I was awful. The losers had to pay for the beers (happy hour prices though, so it was like $6 USD total), winning was nice.
We continued to mingle, meet people, squeeze through the tight quarters of the bar, and enjoy ourselves. I met a fair share of Americans as well. I even met a group of guys from Bermuda, and they were very cool. I was embarrassed because I had only heard of that country from the Beach Boys song. Soon enough we were playing round 2 of beer pong against a guy from New York (also a tribal member, like Zack and me) and a random girl, and this time Zack couldn’t pull off any magic. I was horrible again so I paid for the beers. The bar closed at 1:30am, and most people trickled out and to the bar/club (?) down the street, but I chose to get a few hours of sleep before my 7am bus to Lake Titicaca.
The bus showed up promptly at 7am to snatch me, and I climbed on to a fairly empty scene. I sprawled out as we picked up more travelers, and guide introduced himself, and eventually we started watching The Hangover without Spanish subtitles, which was nice. We stopped for a good view and to cross a bay, where there was no bridge so the bus was required to cross on a ferry. We crossed on a different ferry because apparently at one point in recent history, a full bus had fallen into the water and it didn’t end up too well. So it was interesting seeing a massive bus being ferried across the bay. We arrived in the small town of Copacabana at 11:30, and the plan was to take a ferry to the Isla de Sol (Sun Island) at 1:30. So we stored our backpacks, brought an overnight bag, and got some lunch near the water. Lake Titicaca is famous for being the largest high altitude lake in the world. I guess there is some number of meters high to be considered “high altitude” but it definitely qualified. It was not easy to breath when walking uphill. I took the locally driven ferry to the island for $3 because I did not book a spot on the “Hop” bus ahead of time for $10. The lake was definitely beautiful, and even more massive. There were islands everywhere and you could not see the end of the water. It seemed like an ocean. It was 1.5 hours to the island and I rode on the deck above the boat. I sat next to the same Australian and Englishman that I had eaten dinner with at the Mexican restaurant in La Paz 2 days earlier. It was quite cold, but it was very pleasant with the view and breeze. All I could do was smile.
When we got to the island, I scoped out some hostel prices, and then walked up the large number of stairs to the village on the island. At the first hostel in the village were the 3 friends I sat next to on the boat (they had a girl with them also), and it was only 30 Bolivianos/night, so I paid, put my stuff down in the room with the Englishman, Imron, and enjoyed the spectacular view over the lake. I decided to spend the rest afternoon, until the 6pm sunset, reading and attempting to write some blogs. The hostel had a porch with such an epic view that I wanted to really enjoy it, and I did. At about 5pm we started the hike up the Mirrador where we planned to watch the sunset. It was a difficult hike, only because of the altitude. You just can’t breathe when you walk uphill. We got to basically the top of the island at about 5:45 and relaxed as much as we could while we were walking in mini circles trying to capture the 360 panoramic view. It was indescribable, just surrounded by lake and mountains all around as the clouds and everything changed color with the set of the sun. The clouds were vast and dark though, so the whole scene was not absolutely perfect, but once again, it was breathtaking.
After the sun went down, it was very cold. We stopped in the only restaurant that seemed to be still open, and the 5 of us (a Brazillian girl from our hostel and my Bolivian Hop bus joined us) enjoyed a lot of food. They also had some soccer on the TV, which confused us because we were on an island in the middle of nowhere, but I guess all you need is a good satellite. It was perfectly clear picture. We took our time at dinner, but we were still back to the hostel by 8:30 because the sun set at about 6. So it was 8:30, it was very dark, and it was freezing outside (and inside for that matter, there wasn’t a heating unit in the rooms, but the blankets did their job very well). We hung out on the deck with some other English travelers for a little while, but by 9:30 it was bed time as we were too cold to just sit outside anymore. And the plan was to get up for 6:30am sun rise, so going to bed this early was going to be super refreshing and would still allow 9 hours of sleep before the sun rise. I didn’t get the whole 9 hours of sleep, but I came pretty close.