But first, let´s quickly rewind to yesterday, when I first arrived to La Paz (I like to do things chronologically). After my blissful shower in the hostel, I figured I may as well do something useful with the time I had until I could check in, so I did the usual get-a-map-go-to-the-market thing, except that this time I was actually allowing myself to buy things because finally, this was it, this was the one: I´m in Bolivia, in a city famous for its markets, and its the last time I have to spend money in South America.
Naturally it took me a little while to get out of the hard-earned habit of refusing to buy anything because ´it´s too expensive´ (bargaining furiously over 50p, for example), so most of my purchases ended up being in the afternoon, afterI´d taken a bit of time to re-evaluate. This went something along the lines of: stop being a silly nitwit; you might only be here once, money is for spending, and you definitely need a multicoloured guitar case (OK that last purchase has not yet occurred but I intend to make it happen).
Even with that stiff talking-to I still ended up spending many hours more than necessary going from shop to shop to ensure I was getting quite what I wanted and at a price I was happy with. Eventually I ended up with some socks (with llamas on, naturally), a scarf, about 13 of the backpack badges that I need, and the obligatory bracelet or two – with intentions to let myself go properly on the last day. I had lunch in a market again that day, a typical 2-course almuerzo (soup and then meat with many many carbs) and then really didn´t need to eat much the rest of the day (lunch cost 70p).
Once I got back to the hostel I was confronted with the usual problem of having to socialise, sigh, but luckily it was made easier by the fact that I ended up talking to the people in my dorm, an English couple, and going to the bar with them to enjoy my free beer (you get one free beer a day at this hostel because it has its own microbrewery – actually really good beer). I ended up having a very enjoyable evening going out to dinner with them and a Canadian guy they already knew, not eating anything (who needs restaurants when you have street food?) but just going for the company and for something to do. We went to an Italian place with the most incredibly slow service, so ended up spending two hours there and not getting back to the hostel til probably midnight. Not intentional, but a thoroughly enjoyable evening nonetheless, having hilarious arguments about the American mispronunciation of aluminium (Lee suggested, “it´s like giving me this and saying ´here, have this glss´”) and of course swapping travel stories about things like unconventional Bolivian toilet habits (you honestly don´t want to know).
We all ended up going to bed when we got back to the hostel, despite the fact that most people were still up and about, because, wait for it…
…we were cycling La Camina de la Muerte, a.k.a Death Road, a.k.a the World´s Most Dangerous Road the next day.
This required getting up pretty early (about 6.30) in order to be picked up by 7ish, so we all figured we´d need our sleep. Lee and Bryony were doing it with a different company from me so had to head off somewhere else in the morning to get picked up, so I had a marginally more leisurely start, but still had to be at reception by 10 past 7, naturally involving much last minute rushing around to remember mosquito repellent and sunglasses and useful things. And then of course they didn´t show up until 8.10.
Luckily after about 40 minutes of waiting I asked the receptionist if she knew whether Altitude Biking company were normally late and she informed me that yes, they normally arrive ´between 8 and 8.15´ – a nugget of information that you might think would be really frustrating, but I like to look at the positives: at least it meant that I got the opportunity to get the free breakfast, which only started being served at 7.30 and involved pancakes. Good start to the day.
I was so relieved when the tour company finally showed up, and even more relieved to find that the other people on the trip were all dead nice and friendly (and had had similarly panicky experiences waiting for the minibus) – in my bus there were two Norweigans, a German, and two women from New Zealand – and it made for a very enjoyable journey up to the starting point, 4700 metres above sea level. Once we were there we found that there was another group with our company, so there were probably 10 or so of us in total. We got all our equipment and our bikes and everything and were soon kitted up and all looking very professional (never been so prepared for biking, I don´t even usually wear a helmet).
The first section of the road was all tarmacked, naturally leading us into a false sense of security about how easy the entire track was going to be. It was all downhill (as was the majority of the road, in fact) and smooth, easy going – we covered I think 24km in probably 40 minutes, before stopping for the first ´snack,´ aka second breakfast. There was a short minibus ride up to the next point, the real start of death road, the part where you begin to understand from where it gets its name; we were all full of food but excited and so ready to begin.
I won´t go into detail about each section of the track because it would be dull, but suffice it to say that my fingers were hovering over the brakes the entire time, my arms and hands have now pretty much seized up from the exertion of being tensed for more or less 3 hours, and one of the girls hit the rubble not once but twice (I´m glad it wasn´t me). It was an incredible, incredible ride: nerve-wracking, sure, but exhilarating; and every time I almost lost my balance and skidded over but managed to recover (of which, I can assure you, there were many many occasions) I got the most amazing rush of adrenaline. The Norweigan boys were at the front the entire time and I literally couldn´t understand how they could go so fast and not be in constant fear of death. I was genuinely going as fast as I felt I could and I was consistently towards the back.
Despite the fact that they constantly kept reminding us that ´it´s not a competition,´ I know everyone felt a secret sense of pride every time they managed to overtake a slower rider, me included. The guides went unbelievably fast (and as such, it was always a slightly stressful experience when they came zipping past), and the best thing was that they were taking photos and videos the whole time, so we didn´t have to (apparently use of cameras is one of the main causes of accidents on the road; we heard a few such stories). I´m sure all the photos are nicely sweaty and red-faced, but it´ll be nice to have proof that I was really there – I can´t quite believe it myself; I just keep remembering the Top Gear episode. They´ve built a new, alternative route now, which has been running since 2006, but having ridden down the entire length of the old one it seems mental that it actually used to be the only legitimate route to get from La Paz to pretty much anywhere in the direction of the jungle. At times there was barely enough space for two bikes, let alone for two cars to pass each other.
We all made it to the end in one piece (Louise, the girl who fell off, slightly worse for wear) and then got instantly attacked by biting flies as we got our free tshirst (“I survived Death Road”) and innocently posed for a last picture at the bottom (they went straight for my ankles, the only place I´d neglected to put repellent on). Luckily we were all perked up by the INCREDIBLE buffet lunch (I had 3 platefuls, obviously) and the swimming pool which was the last stop, plus there were showers with actual hot water; the perfect and very necessary end to 3 or 4 hours of sweaty downhill cycling. We were incredibly lucky with the weather, it was pretty much sunny the whole time, so sunbathing by the pool was a really great way to end.
When they announced it was time to go back to La Paz I don´t think anyone was ready to leave. Nonetheless we all clambered back into the bus, definitely smelling a lot better than we had done before, and settled in for the roughly 2 and a half hour journey back up (the bus did have a very good and very fitting selection of music; I´ve not heard so much English music in one sitting in 7 weeks, and it felt very appropriate to be singing along to Queen and AC/DC having just conquered Death Road).
I was generally very satisfied with my day, especially thinking back to that morning when I´d been panicking for at least half an hour that they´d forgotten me, that they´d gone to the wrong hostel, that I wouldn´t be able to do the thing after all, after having planned to do it from day one (sorry I didn´t mention it mum – thought you´d rather know after the event). But things only got better when Martin, the German guy, suggested that we visit a steak house he´d heard was good for dinner.
I´m not usually a fan of either eating in restaurants, steak, or spending a lot of money eating steak in restaurants, but the Benjamin and Martn (the Norweigans) were up for it and we´d all had such a laugh all day that I figured I´d just go along for the company and maybe order something small or eat beforehand – I´d figure something out.
We arranged to meet there for 9 (naturally I got there by quarter past), and the guys had already ordered by the time I sat down, which suited me perfectly. I went for one of the cheapest things (cheesy chips with bacon, very nutritious and healthy), and we settled down to wait (it was another slowest service in existence type place).
The Norweigan guys went for the set menu for two, an incredible array of nachos with tequila shot, followed by a mixed grill (chicken, sausage, llama, hamburger, ribs and Jack Daniels steak, the speciality), followed by ice cream and coffee, with a beer and a bottle of wine thrown in. Martin went for the special, flambeed Jack Daniels steak, which came with the chef to set it on fire (very enjoyable to watch, but must get quite boring for the chef – we saw at least 10 being served while we were there, she must have to do it all day every day). The best thing was that the Norweigans weren´t man enough to finish their meat platter so I had to help them out and genuinely ended up eating about half of it. It was the best steak I´ve ever had, possibly one of the best meals I´ve ever had (finishing off other people´s food is the best way to eat) and we ended up staying in the restaurant until half 11, when they were closing up. I had so, so much fun (and so, so much food), and it almost would have been good had that been my last day; it probably couldn´t have been more perfect. Martin and Benjamin were due to leave on a flight at 3 in the morning (at time of writing, two hours from now) and I sort of envied them – though on the other hand their journey was set to be 46 hours, a full 10 hours longer than mine, so maybe envy wasn´t the right feeling. It was definitely a shame not to get to spend more time with them, though.
So tomorrow is my last day in La Paz, in Bolivia, in South America, and that really kind of sucks. I´m looking forward to buying a tonne of stuff, of course, and coming back and seeing everyone, of course, but I´ve had such an incredible 7 weeks that it´s hard to think about changing my day to day life and switching back to normal mode. I guess I´m glad I´m not gone for longer because it would make it even more difficult to adjust back to normality. I plan on having a long lie in tomorrow, taking full advantage of the 1 o´clock check out time, and blowing all my money (it was a good decision to bring my debit card methinks).
I´ll be back on English soil by 3pm in two days time. It´s surreal that it´s already come to an end but my god, am I glad that I spontaneously decided to actually make this trip happen. Right now I just can´t help but feel incredibly good about how things have panned out. It´s a great place to be.