After a long, overnight bus ride on rough dirt roads on an overcroweded bus, we finally arrived in La Paz. All told, by the time we leave this country, Pat and I will have spent over 120 hours on crappy Bolivian transport systems, train, bus, Land Cruiser, and maybe plane. Plane? Yes, more on that later.
Besides peeing out behind some random restaurant in some small-town stop, the bus ride to La Paz was pretty uneventful. The wonderful bus-office ladies booked Pat and I the seats with the most leg room. That way, instead of one leg in the aisle and one leg crammed into the back of the seat in front of him, he can have one leg kicked out, and one comfortably in front of him. However, thanks to typical Bolivian overcrowding, instead of kicking a leg out, he had to stay stuffed into his little area. Two older, traditional Bolivian women showed up at the last minute and sat right on Pat`s foot. He`s learned (partly via my experience on the Sucre-Potosì bus) that if you give them an inch, they`ll take a mile, so in order to keep her from flowing over into his actual knee space, he had to leave his foot there underneath her.
Here it`s not like polite, organized, there`s-enough-for-everyone, first-world cultures where if someone presses up against you, you scoot over a few inches to maintain personal space. No, here, if someone presses up against you, you better push back, or they`ll take as much of your space as possible. Also somewhat comical were the frequent comments the women made to Pat until they realized he really didn`t understand. They kept trying to guilt him into giving them our seats. They would say things like, “Look at you. You are so young, and we are old grandmothers sitting on the floor.” Part of me wanted to tell them, “Yeah, and you`re also old grandmothers who insisted on getting on the bus even though it was full instead of waiting until tomorrow like everybody else. (that`s what they told another passenger on the bus)” and another part of me felt pretty guilty for even being in a position to give up my seat on a bus.`
Our arrival in La Paz was incredible. The city is in a canyon (like Deadwood, SD, only add 1.5 million people), and you drop into it from the rim. Houses are plugged into the canyon walls almost on terraces niched out of the rock. Standing at the bottom looking up is even more incredible. The whole city is like an auditorium, and as far as the eye can see, houses and buildings rapidly climb the canyon walls. Even more incredible are the canyon faces that are 90 degrees, straight up and down, or even a 115 degree overhang where it`s impossible to build houses. These giant stretches of wild, fierce nature combined with this gravity-defying city are shocking and amazing. I`ve included photos, but of course they don`t do it any justice.
We had no plans to stay in La Paz, thanks to our fast and furious travel schedule, so we headed directly for Villa Fatima, a neighborhood where north-bound busses depart. We managed to nab the last two tickets to San Borja (separate seats, of course, and not our intended destination, but as far as we could get on one ticket) before wandering the streets in search of breakfast. We happened upon a sopapilla stand, and I`m not as picky as Pat (only in South America… in the U.S., I`m pickier), so I picked one up. Pat won`t settle for bread or peanuts or cookies, so we wandered until we found a stand selling fried egg sandwhiches. After Pat had downed one, I decided I probably ought to get some protein, so we had a few more. I would never even consider eating an egg deep-fried in old, dirty, hot oil on a slice of white bread complete with unwashed tomatoes, but here I barely think twice about my poor arteries or the potentially rampant bacterial. Bon apetite!
Finally, we killed an hour in an internet cafe (my the time just flies by writing entries and emails) before heading back to the bus station. When we got there, our bus hadn`t. The Bolivian accent is hard for me to understand, so it took a few tries before I understood the bus would be there in ten minutes. Half an hour later, one of two busses had departed, and a new bus had shown up. Not ours though. We stood sweltering in the hot sun for an hour with frequent promises of “10 little minutes!” before the bus rolled in and we finally started loading gear. Of course you can`t actually get on the bus until all the gear is loaded, so more standing in the hot sun until they got an unbelievable amount of baggage (bus companies double as mail companies) on board (thank god it wasn`t on top like usual).
Since Pat and I didn`t have seats together (and we really want seats together on a 17 hour overnight ride), we had to choose whose seat we were going to try to exchange. My assigned seat partner refused to switch. Pat had the middle seat of the five that are crammed across the back of the bus, so I went back there to see if someone on either side of him would switch with me. There was a big hullabaloo, because the back seats weren`t numbered, and people had been promised certain seats on the bus maps but sold numbers that didn`t match the seats once on the bus. After much arguing and chatter amongst 7 or 8 people, we finally got things worked out.
We took off for the Cordillera Real – a gorgeous mountain range. The distance we had to cover was only 150 miles. Why 17 hours? Because it`s 150 miles on Bolivian mountain roads. You can`t even imagine. The overloaded bus took forever to climb up out of the canyon (on paved roads!) to the top of the mountain. The Cordillera Real, and in fact of all of the Andes mountains, are absolutely breathtaking. Much like the Andes where Machu Picchu is located, these sharp, wedge-shaped mountains blast out of the earth and reach incredible heights.
We started out at 12,000 feet in La Paz (the world`s highest capital city… record number one!) and climbed to 15,600 feet. As the spines of mountains rose up sharply on one side and canyons plummeted on the other. After we crested the top, we had 14,300 feet to descend. Not kidding. Also, shortly after we dropped over the top, the road turned to dirt. When you`re riding in the back seat of a bus this is not a good thing. In fact this is a very bad thing. Finally the dirt turned into a one lane road, but we still had traffic in both directions! Eventually, the canyon dropped almost instantly on the left side of the bus, and the cliffside rose directly on the right side. At some points, the road was actually notched into the canyon wall underneath an overhang.
A good example of the way the road is literally cut out of the cliff.
A biker on the road. This one is a good example of the overhangs we drove under about half the time.
Had we had time to spend in La Paz, one of the tourist activities we considered participating in was a 30 mile bike ride down the “World`s Most Dangerous Road.” Pat and I started to put two and two together, and after consulting the guide book and maps, we realized we had unknowingly signed up for a 17 hour bus ride on the “world`s most dangerous road.” Yes, the whole 17 hours. Oh. My. God. Record number two. Not only is it the most dangerous because of the constant impending death if you were to go off the road, but also because it is the ONLY overland route from La Paz (the capital city) to the center of the country and north. Therefore it`s highly travelled. Highly. Travelled. One way road with almost constant two-way traffic. We met another vehicle every two mintues.
Some folks peeking over the edge down into the bottomless canyon. I included this one for perspective. Look at the size of the people in relation to the road. Now imagine a giant farm truck hauling a load of goods plus as many people as can fit on top of the load.
Perfect demonstration of the average truck size in conjunction with the average road size. Not kidding.
Sitting one row in front of us was a family of five that had only purchased tickets for two. So, the smallest children (a three-year-old boy and a four-year old girl) sat on the laps of the parents while the seven-year-old girl snoozed in the aisle. They saw fit to nudge Pat`s feet out of they way so they could keep their travel bag handy, instead of under their seats, so he was stuck with a choice of one leg position on a 17 hour ride. He felt bad saying anything. I mean, maybe they`re just scamming the bus company and trying to get as much as they can for as little as possible no matter who they have to take it from (a lot of Bolivians are like that!). But then again, maybe they really are so poor that they can`t afford more than two tickets to ride the bus back home or to Grandma`s house. They made it a pretty miserable trip for Pat, nonetheless. One of the guys sitting next to us suggested they move the bag under their seats, but Pat had already moved for them, so they just ignored Pat`s right-hand man.
Back to this ridiculous, incredible road. Vegetation clung desperately to the cliffsides making for really amazing scenery. Being as the road was one way and uphill vehicles have the right of way (thank god we were going downhill!), we frequently had to stop in the “pullouts” where the road is barely wide enough for two vehicles. Scary because 1) there`s a left hand traffic/uphill vehicles get the inside rule. I guess maybe because they`re putting more torque on the road or something and they want to avoid wearing away the edge. Or maybe because a car couldn`t get around a large vehicle (bus or truck) stopped on the inside without going off the cliff. Scary no. 2 regarding stopping: sometimes the bus driver wouldn`t see the vehicle in time, so he would just BACK UP! We had the back seats on the bus, and therefore a perfect view out the back window (no bathrooms). Holy crap. I usually didn`t look (I just prefer to have faith that everything will be okay), but Pat did. And sometimes he`d mumble, “Okay, that`s enough.” And the bus driver would still be backing up. Those were definite panic moments for me.
Two trucks meeting on the road.
For the remaining six hour of daylight and the nighttime full-moon light, we encountered infinite hair pin turns. The canyons were so steep and so deep that we never saw the bottoms before it got dark. Several times vehicles squeezed by us on our right, overtaking the bus, and fuel cum fruit trucks (a fuel truck with a stack of oranges on top of the tank) got dangerously close. Often our driver would race to a pullout or to a corner so he wouldn`t have to stop for an oncoming vehicle or back up. Anything above 10 mph is way too fast for this road, and our driver was often going a good 20-25!
Around one overhung corner, we passed under/behind the remains of a waterfall… I`m sure it`s full-blown crazy raging water in the wet season! The worst part we saw during the daylight hours was a corner so eroded that the canyonside (i.e the side of impending death) was a good three feet lower than the cliffside. Going around this corner in a bus was definitely heart-stopping. You know when the Bolivians are hanging out the windows gaping or freaking out, clinging to their seats, you should definitely be scared.
Once it was dark out, I managed on and off sleep most of the time. Scariest was when I was awake for the many times the road dropped sharply downhill (like a 15% grade… not kidding). I felt like I was on a rollercoaster at Disneyland. Surprisingly, we made it in one piece, albeit grouchy and travel-worn, to the tiny town of San Borja in time to buy an onward ticket to Trinidad!