For a crash course on Bolivia, start in the one-million-person capital of La Paz, ride the cliffs along the "Death Road" then land in the jungle town of Corioco.
At 11,975 feet above sea level, La Paz is one of the highest cities in the world with incredible mountains and canyons circling the urban sprawl. Downtown has Spanish Colonial charm with a few grand plazas and churches, but really it's the people watching that makes La Paz so captivating. Bolivians seem to flock to the city not only from different environments, but from different centuries.
La Paz is the country's business center but you would hardly know with virtually anything and everything being sold on the street -- underwear, cactus fruit, llama fetuses, root beer floats and yarn. Mercado Uruguay is little more than a crazy maze of food stalls where you pick your raw meat and they grill it up on the spot. This casual, friendly approach to dining typifies the casual, friendly approach Bolivians seem to have toward everything but road building.
The old highway leading out of La Paz is called "Death Road" because it is narrow, windy dirt strip that runs next to a cliff and used to claim up to 300 lives a year before it was converted into a bike path. Careening down the 40 miles terrifying miles of this rubberneckers corridor on a bicycle is a right of passage as a visitor to Bolivia so, naturally, I signed up.
Though the road is safer than the days of two mini buses speeding head on, it is still no picnic. Skid on some gravel and it is, in fact, a long way down. I had to concentrate at all times and lean against the wind.
As it turned out, my terror was mitigated somewhat by my appreciation for the "Death Road's" unexpectedly lovely surrounding. Near the spots where so many had perished, I took in stunning views of misty mountains, rich greenery mixed with bursts of purple and waterfall after waterfall.
I toasted our survival with fellow bikers then parted ways as they returned to the city and I stayed on in the Yungas. Perched on an Andean foothill, the town of Coroico has lush vistas in every direction and a charming town center bustling with little kids playing soccer, dapper old men chatting and bowler-capped ladies selling their fruits and vegetables.
My little-old-lady-run guest house, the Bicentennial, had million dollar views for eight bucks.
On my last morning, I hiked up to the series of waterfalls outside of town, thinking it was strange that everyone kept telling me to take a guide on this easy 10 km hike, but as I meandered through the coca fields, suspicious drug-lord lackey types watched carefully and I realized that may have been worth-while advice.
I felt infinitely better with our "Wolf Pack" at our side: For some reason this incredibly friendly pack of stray dogs escorted me the full 10 km, leading down the barely marked trail, growling at any strangers that crossed our path and helping make this one of our most memorable hikes.
Mercado Uruguay, La Paz: Quiet possibly the most rugged and authentic market in South America. If you have a strong stomach and a sense of adventure, you will love this tented land of food stalls.
Coca Museum, La Paz: Very interesting history on this controversial but deeply cultural plant.
Le Pot Colonial Restaurant, La Paz: Cool woodwork and funky antiques make this place a great spot for a bite (it's also conveniently located next to the Coca Museum.)
El Solario Bike Tours: We did a lot of research on Death Road outfitters and these guys seemed the least likely to kill us and charged a fair price.
El Bicentennial Guest House, Corioco. It's way up the hill and very basic but, as mentioned, the views are some of the best we have encountered in our last 200+ days on the road.
At 11,975 feet above sea level, La Paz is one of the highest cities in the world.
Colonial churches are the city's beating heart.
Quiet possibly the most rugged and authentic market in South America. If you have a strong stomach and a sense of adventure, you will love this tented land of food stalls.
What it lacks in traction it makes up for by winding.
We did a lot of research on Death Road outfitters and these guys seemed the least likely to kill us and charged a fair price.
Don't look down.
The valleys outside La Paz are green and fertile.
Clouds are a lovely, if low, ceiling.
Join the pack.
There is always another church.
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