La Paz:Dried Llama Fetuses & Screaming Down a Road

Trip Start Aug 09, 2007
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Trip End Jul 29, 2008


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Thursday, March 27, 2008

After a quick flight in to La Paz, Nik and I were immediately taken aback by the beauty of the city. Though I don`t think words can do La Paz justice (or even our photos for that matter) but it is a city built up the walls of several mountains that all converge to make the valley that holds the downtown of La Paz. Around this cluster of jagged mountain peaks and on either side of La Paz stand two amazing white capped mountains facing each other. All the houses are of the same adobe colour and the impact it makes is quite spectacular.

We set out Thursday afternoon to visit the Folkloric Museum that featured a lot of weaving (like the one in Sucre) but also had some amazing rooms dedicated to the dress and accessories of the indigenous of the area including elaborate and colourful feather headdresses, bow and arrows, we saw how the woman created huge pieces of pottery and baked it (really not as easy as I thought...!) - but best of all was this incredible room featuring the masks that the indigenous use for their festivals. The room was all black with lights above each of these really freaky masks - some were of the devil, some of the sun and moon, some were of Africans, old men, all were extremely elaborate with lots of colour.Nik`s mission following this museum was to own one of these masks...which meant a huuuuuuuge headache for me, but more on that later.

Following this, we went to the Mueum of Musical Instruments and this place was awesome, all hands on too!! We saw flutes made of llama bones, guitars made from armadillos,saxophones of bamboo, pan flutes bigger than grown men, guitars with 5 arms, drums made of a turtles shell and body, and all the while there was an awesome jam session going on below with traditional instruments. Very cool.

The whole area that these museums were located in were very artsy, laid back, and featured a make-your-own suit district as well where you could go from store to store for custom made suits, vests, leather shoes, and more. And all for cheaaaaaapp!! Seeing my opportunity for fun shoes to fit my stompy feet, I asked for a custom pair of heels to which my reply was `Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!! No no no!!` they only make up to a 39 or something there, my size was unheard of. Friggen false advertising.

The next day was awesome. We woke up early, found the greatest restaurant ever for breakfast and then took off to start our walking tour of the Coca Museum, the Witches Market and the Black Market. First stop was the Coca Museum which was amazing. Apparently the indigenous of Bolivia have had a legend passed down over hundreds and hundreds of years relating to the Coca leaf...The legend goes that their God had given these people the coca leaf to put to their mouths when they felt tired or hungry or sad. This leaf was to be protected and respected as it was a gift. The people were warned that one day a white man from the north would come and try to take their leaves, but all they would find would be anguish and pain - it would magnify the pain that they were running from.

The indigenous have used the coca leaf for centuries as an anesthetic for surgeries (while we were knocking each other out or drinking till we passed out), they also exchange it as gifts, use it in their ceremonies, and use it during social events - much they way we use alcohol. However, when the Spanish came to convert the people to Catholicism, the Catholic church viewed the coca leaf as a hurdle to their desired conversion...that is until the Spanish informed the Church about the powers of the leaf. As the Spanish were interested in using the Bolivians to mine as much silver as possible from Potosi , they were very interested in using the coca leaf to their advantage as chewing the leaf dilates the lungs allowing for increased oxygen consumption, it reduces appetite andcreates a feeling of well-being, all this allowing the miners to work continuously for up to 16 hours per day without breaks. When the Church learned of how this leaf could benefit them, they decided that the leaf was not to be banned after all, but to be controlled by the Spanish and sold to the miners with an additional 10% tax heading directly to the Church.  Well, this has only led to the continued monopolization of the leaf to this day. 
 
So, as the leaf was studied and us white folk (finally) learned of the anesthetic properties of the cocaine alkaloid, other research was done to show that the coca leaf was responsible for the apparent retardation of Bolivians.  Well, despite that this is untrue, this was enough for the Geneva convention to launch war on the coca leaf, banning the production and export of the leaf with only one exception - the Coca-Cola company.  In 1961, this ruling was modified to permit an exclusive club to import and/or use the coca leaves and this club includes virtually all Western Countries but excludes Bolivia and Peru, the two primary growers.  To this day, the US government remains the largest importer of pure coca leaves -separate from the unknown amount the Coca-Cola company imports (there is no cocaine in Coke, but, they do use the coca leaf for ´flavoring´) - and yet they are the ones blaming the Bolivians for their cocaine problems...?!?!?
 
We then saw how cocaine is created in workshops.  First 400kg of coca leaves are stomped and crushed, then bathed in gasoline, to which hydrochloric acid and potassium permanganate are added - among various other chemicals - from which 1kg of paste is made.  From this paste, you can obtain 1/4kg of actual cocaine which costsroughly $10,000 to make but is worth over 10 times that on the street. 
 
After our enlightening experience, we went upstairs to this wicked cafe that served coca cookies, coca beer, coffee and just about anything else you wanted to eat.  It was like a very tame version of Amsterdam - so much to sample!!  I think that maybe the cocaine got to my head, because after this we made our way to the Downhill Madness store that sells mountain biking trips down the World`s Most Dangerous Road - which I swore I would not do based on how stupid I would feel if I fell off and died - but 10 minutes inside this store, I was convinced that this was something that was gonna rock my world and down went my name for Monday leaving me 2 full days to wonder why the hell I did that...
 
We then took a walk through the infamous Witch`s Market of La Paz.  This market spreads over several city blocks and is made up of old ladies at their street-side stall selling coca leaves, coca tea, ohhhhh and what else...oh yah , dried baby llamas and llama fetuses, dried frogs with their eyes replaced by shiny pearls, amulets for anything you want, and so much more.  Butyah , they literally have these llama fetuses stacked one on top of the other rising up half a meter and stinking up a whole lot more.  The indigenous use these fetuses (along with leaves, sweets, and other amulets) when performing ceremonies to bring good luck to their weaving, crops, health, etc.  We only ended up buying a Pachamama (Mother Earth) statue that brings good luck to your home in exchange for taking photos of these incredible items for sale.  While browsing through the market, we came across a small alley way where indigenous Shamen were hanging out and available to read your fortune via coca leaves.  We thought we were out of luck as none of the men we asked seemed to have change for us, so just as we were about to give up we turned around and a man who we swore wasn `t there a moment before was sitting there with his leaves etc offering us our fortunes *and* he had change.  So, with this small omen we went for it.  He starts by opening his woven blanket where he keeps his leaves and says a small blessing over them, then he offers a small amount of 95% alcohol to these leaves, and then a little for himself (uhhhhgggggg) and we began. I was represented by a little light green leaf and Nik was the big dark green leaf and then he just started a soft chant and tossed these other leaves across `us` and with every toss he said `Ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!! Suerte!! Suerte!!` which means, `Ohhhh Such good luck!!` - it was adorable.  We`ll keep our fortunes a secret to not jinx it, but more memorable than the reading was just the experience.  It was a lot of fun and we were fortunate as I`ve heard that they often don`t do this for whiteys like us.  :)  We continued on up through the Black Market that, despite it`s scary name, was more so for basic household items than selling off stolen goods and afterwards made our way back via the beautiful San Francisco church.  One other thing we noticed on this tour is that LaPaz uses girls dressed up in zebra costumes as their traffic police - I suppose they do it because they are hard to miss and also cute enough that you don`t want to run them over.  Quirky place!

Saturday was mostly spent trying to do things that all failed.  First we went to buy Nik a Diablo mask.  The masks in La Paz are all located on this brighly coloured street that carries elaborate costumes, boots, masks, and other paraphernalia for Carnaval.  After asking around, we were pointed to this mask making workshop where we could see this man`s fantastic work on the walls.  After a small deposit, he promised us our very own custom-made Diablo by Tuesday...sweeeet .  Next we tried to visit the home of a famous Bolivian sculpture...which is closed Saturdays despite what our book says (Thanks AGAIN Lonely Planet)....So we went to thearchaeological museum which was also closed....So we finally ended up at a really cool Contemporary Art Museum and then walked over to see a recreation of the most important Tiwanaku ruin in Bolivia, featuring their main relic of `The Sun Gate`.  The Tiwanaku`s were pre-Incan descendants and one of the ancient Andean cultures, their name meaning `Sons of the Sun`.  To cap off our day of wasted time, we then climbed up to a look-out of LaPaz where they also have a giant kid`s playground and found our way home.

Sunday,  however, was awesome.  We took it pretty easy for the morning and then met up with our Belgian friends to head to the Luuuuuuuuucha Libre!!!!!!  What, you may ask, is Lucha Libre?? It`s wrestling baby!! And it was awesome!! All us tourists loaded ourselves into a big tour bus and drove up to one of the pooreset areas in La Paz called El Alto where at their multi-sports complex, they feature amateur wrestling every Sunday.  The building was tiny but packed with locals of all sorts - sweet old ladies, cute little kids, and everyone in between.  We were warned on our ride up to El Alto that we would all be sitting in the front rows and could therefore expect to have absolutely anything thrown on us, from pop torotten fruit to actual wrestlers.  Soooooo stoked!! So we slip into our seats and the show begins.   The first wrestler was a Spiderman look-alike who was getting pummeled by the other wrestler and the ref too - it was such a soap opera!! Everyone boos the bad guy and cheers the good guy and screams when the ref tries to secretly attack the good guy.  As the night progressed, things just got better.  A Sargent came out in full military garb and was calling all us tourists `Ash-holes!! You`re all Ash-holes!!` to which we`d boo him and - following the locals lead - throw whatever we had at him, pop, empty bottles, snacks, the lady next to us threw her apple-core haha.  They also had this wicked guy dressed in a Skeleton suit that had his own theme music (a refreshing change from Eye of the Tiger on repeat!!) and this hilaaaarious skeleton dance.  We saw a couple of these 3 person fights until it turned into an all out brawl between 6 people and chairs were being thrown and people tossed into the tourists and the ground was soaked with pop by this time - it was awesome.  After this, the ladies came out - one was a typical Chulita, or indigenous lady in a big skirt with pigtail braids and a shawl, and the other lady was this psycho in a ripped florescent bodysuit and she was nuts!! She was kicking the crap out of the Chulita, throwing her all over the place in the ring and in the stands and yelling at us and finally spotted our friend`s 2L pop which she ripped out of her hands and shook it up, took a swig, and spit it all over the tourists to which she was pummelled with any crap we had.  By this time, the show kicked ass.  It was awesome.  And just when we thought it was gonna get even better - how?? By having the midgets fighting of course - it actually got worse.  Our expectation of midget-on-midget was actually a Chulita with another midget-Chulita vs. two men and the men weren `t easy on them.  When the men fought each other, they threw plastic chairs, but against the two ladies, they used metal folding chairs and tin roofing and no one really knew how to take this - it *must* be more acting, no?? But when we started to see the midget bleeding, then the big lady next, a lot of us took off outta there - it was too much and definitely wedidn`t support that - that wasn`t what any of us wanted to see!! In the end, I heard that the ladies won, but it wasn `t worth watching.  My guess is that as the lowest social class down here, they are just exploited to the extreme.  Anyways, up till that it was awesome and the view from El Alto over LaPaz at night was also really cool

The morning of the World's Most Dangerous Road (WMDR) we met at the Downhill Madness Store at 8am.  From there we got our helmets, gloves, pants and vest we then packed into 3 vans and headed up to the start of the road at La Cumbre.  In total there were 24 riders that were going down the WMDR.  The ride took a little longer than 45min and then we were at the gathering point at La Cumbre (4700m elevation), we then got our bikes tested them out, pulled some wheelies and then headed down the first stretch of the 64km long road.  The first section they call ´super fast asphalt´ which is 30km of paved road before the official WMDR. 
 
In the fist 3-5km we tested our suspension and brakes and also the speed that we wanted to go at.  During the whole ride there is a guide at the front of the pack for safety, but, in some instances (at the beginning) we were riding our brakes because the guide was taking extra precautions.  In the first 20 minutes we ran into some political problems.  The WMDR is traveled by at least 3 tour groups a day with 15-24 people in each tour group.  So after about 5km we rode into a road block where the locals had strewn all sorts of rocks along the road for about 100m.  The locals were protesting to the Bolivian government that their little village wanted electricity; naturally the government wasn't listening so they decided to put rocks on the road.  This was probably the sketchiest part of the road because you had a bunch of pissed off locals that might have been drunk and very unpredictable.  So our guide told us of the clout and then advised us to continue through the stones and definitely not to stop.  Off we headed, the first 5 or so people made it through all right, I was probably the 7th person and Sarah the 9th through and at that point some of the locals started shouting at us (No Hay Paso, Not Allowed to Cross).  The guy behind me even had a little rock thrown at his helmet.  Luckily no one was hurt or injured and we could continue on the road.
 
The WMDR as of 2006 really does not have huge transports or a lot of traffic because a second safer, paved road was opened from La Cumbre to Coroico.  I think the new road was partially paid for by Bolivian road fees (24Bs - $3.50 CDN) from tourists riding down the gravel WMDR.  This road has been labelled this because of statistics; it was at one point the road that had the most fatalities in one year and for many years no other road had close to the number of deaths on the WMDR.  The road it self is very skinny, only about 3m wide is not paved and really only wide enough for 1 car to travel at one time.  If 2 cars approached one other on the road the car coming down the hill had to reverse to the next clearing that was wide enough for both to pass.  This usually only occurred every 500m, so naturally a car or truck or even tour bus would have to reverse up to 500m.  The other reason this road was dangerous was because some of the drivers would be drunk or very tired, this would cause serious accidents.  The other strange but logical thing is that downhill cars have to drive closest to the edge to pass and up hill cars pass on the side closest to the hill, back in the day it was because the downhill driver had a better view of how close he was to the edge.  Traveling down the road on a mountain bike is not as dangerous as traveling in a car, but you can't be an idiot because there are HUGE drop-offs (some up to 3000m).        
 
We drove downhill along the pavement, probably reaching speeds of 60-70km/h which still was not at 100% speed because the guide kept control of the front of the pack.  After 30km we reached the official beginning of the WMDR.  From here we had a quick downhill and then the only uphill along the road.  The uphill was fairly humorous, most people did not make the uphill without at least getting off and pushing their bikes up.  From here we went down, down, down all the way, stopping every 30min for riders to catch up.  We descended through very beautiful scenery lush forests, waterfalls, amazing cliffs and very skinny washed out roads. 
 
The last stretch of the road was called the ´race portion´ which was one of the best parts because you could go as fast as you wanted.  The only thing the guides said before leaving was that it was the most inhabited part and to be careful for animals such as dogs and cats and livestock.  I guess I wasn't really listing at that point because along the way, close to the bottom, right when you get a ton of speed some piggies in the right side of the road decided to run right in front of my bike literally seconds before I passed them.  I broke very hard, the piggies squealed and darted for the bush, and eventually I found myself over top of my handle bars.  The guy behind me was really nice and stopped and helped me up, I dusted my self off and then headed to the next rest stop.  I got a couple of scrapes and bruises, but, the worst part was I tore a hole in my pants which sucks since I only have 2 pairs of pants with me and one of the pants doubles as shorts. 
 
After another downhill leg, driving through 2 big streams we ended up at the bottom of the hill.  There we chatted with the other people on our groups, had some beers and then had a group photo.  We then headed in the cars up the hill to a hostel/hotel which had showers, a pool and then a lunch buffet (yummy). 
 
After 1hr or so we piled back into the micros and then headed back up the WMDR in a micro.  Downhill on a bike not so bad, UPHILL IN A MICRO MUCH WORSE. Along the way back we had heard that the blockage might not have been removed but when we got there, there was a path cleared.  So we got back to La Paz around 9:30pm which was only about 1.5hrs later than expected, not too shabby.  The ride was incredible, very amazing scenery, you ride down the hill very fast (4000m drop in 64km) and there are some points in which you think to your self  ¨What the f- am I doing¨. Good Trip.  No regrets from either of us at all. 

Tuesday came and after a much deserved sleep in, Nik and I went to pick up his awaited mask...but ohhhhhhh wait, not ready you say?? Tomorrow?? I`m slightly annoyed as we`d actually like to leave La Paz at some point soon (ie-Wednesday) but whatever, I`m chill.  It`s cool.  We piss away another day in a great city, book ourselves into a Tiwanaku tour for Wednesday and decide that we won`t see the jungle afterall - too much money for a non-priority for us.  We figure we`ll see it when we visit Brazil in the future.  OK, so now Wednesday comes and we go to the ruins (below) and back to the mask-man and what`s this?? Not painted??Riiight ...So he tells us an hour (when the post closes) which is ridiculous as it won`t even be dry by then, so yet *another* day is required.  Now Sarah Angry. Thursday morning we get to his place bright and early and Thank God it`s done, we throw it in a box and fly to the post office and yet, what are these chains all over the doors?? A friggen strike! Cross the street to DHL, $270US?? Yah, no.  We checked in Copacabana as well, and while not on strike like in La Paz, they only send off items under 1kg....hahaha   So now we are stuck with a giant mask in a giant box but, it`s all good.  It`s a pretty cool mask and we were able to send if off in Peru for cheap, so no biggie. 

On Wednesday we headed off to a UNESCO ruin site of a pre-Inca type of people called the Tiwanaku.  We had decided not to go to the side initially because a lot of the Stelate replicas were around La Paz, which we had seen.  But, we had found a pretty good price (50Bs - $7.50 CDN) to visit the ruins with a guide.  The ruins were about 50km from La Paz at a town of the same name as the ruins.  Originally the ruins were found in 1860, and nothing was really done until 1960.  At this point lots of Stelate´s were uncovered and the site got more attention.  It wasn't until 2000 that it was declared a UNESCO site and then the funding started rolling in.  The site itself was pretty neat, but, it was heavily damaged by miners and also part of the current town and church are built directly over the ruins.  The site itself is pretty big; there is a large temple, sub-terrain temple and then a main temple which originally had a pool of water on the top to reflect the stars.  There are various Stelates across the site, some up to 15 tones and the principal attraction is the Sun Gate.  This Sun Gate was built from a single piece of stone and was carved to act as a calendar so that the Tiwanaku´s could tell the certain seasons of the year.  All ancient people all had similar motifs for telling time, it allowed them to know when to plant and when to dry food for the winter.
 
The Tiwanaku´s were as we were told a predecessor of the Incas.  They had similar traditions, but, they did not do human or animal sacrifices.  They were pretty advanced having pottery, irrigation systems, ways of telling the seasons and they also preformed brain surgery (nuts).  One thing that was really strange they would select their wise men/women, priests and governors when they were 1 year in age.  From here they would piece of wood to the forehead and tie it very tightly to form their heads into a cone shaped skull; it was supposed to increase the amount of neurons in the brain.  The culture eventually disbanded, like the Maya, because they ran out of food and the other tribes that they had conquered decided to split again from the Tiwanaku´s.  One of the main leaders of these people however moved to where Peru is now and started the grounding of the Incas.

We made the best of Thursday and hit up Evo`s office.  We put on our finest pro-Evo T-shirts and went to the Presidential Palace.  We were hooked up with a tour - along with about 6 other teenagers from La Paz - through to his conference rooms, sat in his big chairs, saw the first map of Bolivia, and a sword used by Sucre in the battle for independence against Spain.  Very cool, though we did feel pretty dorky with our shirts - that is until we got our awesome photo inside the palace. 

So that was that, we hit a bus and headed for Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca that afternoon and we were glad for the rest and friendliness of La Paz but also glad to move on.  After we crossed a small river, we stood out in the cold waiting for our bus - there was a whole other group of people (mostly tourists) as well waiting in the cold as their bus was broken down.  When we all loaded ours, we still had about 8 or 10 free seats but all the locals on the bus were saying `Vamos!! Vamos!!` (Let`s goooooooo!!) not even caring about the others outside.  As it was the same company, the bus driver did get most people on to our bus finally and there was only about 4 or 5 people standing, but as we were getting ready to leave one tourist girl ran after the bus - when she got to us, the native lady at the front was like, `No, it`s full, you can`t get on` which was bull but finally enough of us made a stink to fit her on.  We were shocked to see this as in no other country would locals have ever left other people behind while there was still room to stand on the bus.  I was looking forward toCopa, but also to moving on from Bolivia. 

Thanks for sticking with such a long one - hugs and kisses, Us.

              
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