We ended up staying four nights in the lovely town of Sucre. We found a funky hostal (once a wealthy family’s villa), with a good vibe in the historic centre of town just a couple of blocks from the main plaza. Plaza 25 de Mayo, laid out in classic symmetry with statues, flower beds and lots of benches was always full of life and rivals the Plaza Mayor in Madrid as one of my favourites.
Our lasting memory of our stay in Sucre would have to be our hike of the Camino de los Incas, one of the many ‘roads’ built by the Incas (roughly paved with stone to withstand llama caravan traffic) that crisscross Peru and Bolivia. We caught a dilapidated old bus, which proudly announced ‘elegance and comfort’ on its side, to a tiny village high (4300 M) on a ridge about 1.5 hrs out of town. Our arrival coincided with that of a group of young, traditional dancers doing a circuit of small isolated villages. We watched one dance (see video below) after which their gregarious leader asked Claire and I to dance with them. Never ones to turn down a chance to dance and despite the obvious embarrassment of the young woman I was paired with, it was an awesome start to our hike. The steep, long descent down this ancient stone path with broad vistas before us was beautiful. The end of the trail dropped us onto a lonely, dusty road and, much to our surprise, a tiendacita (small store) with cold beer was just across the road. We settled in for a long wait for a ride back to Sucre but before long a minibus pulled over with just enough room for Claire and I to squeeze in. The ride back up the narrow, potholed, dirt road through at least 20 switchbacks was harrowing. Every 100 M or so there would be evidence of a rock slide, of varying size. On one side of the crammed bus one would look up at precariously perched rocks, high over head. On the other side, nothing but open air and a precipitous drop. Claire was freaking out and literally had to close her eyes and keep her head down (I’ve never known her to do this). The other passengers, stoic as ever, were wondering what the fuss was all about.
The following day we caught the overnight bus to La Paz (too big a country and too little time to bike all the way). There was the usual confusion at the terminal. The driver and his ‘auxilaire’ had loaded the luggage area with bags of lemons (a little business on the side) and there was no room for the bikes. We persisted and somehow they fit the bikes in the passageway between the driver and the staircase to the upper floor (double deckers) where we had our ‘suite-cama’ at the front of the bus. We wanted to take in the panoramic view, up high with just glass between us and the scenery, but the maniac driving soon had us regretting our choice. We lay down (on our fully reclining seats!), took a Zopiclon, and tried to sleep.
We spent almost a week in La Paz and environs, all part and parcel of our acclimatization strategy, and though ready to move on, it has been an interesting stay. The city is vibrant, much more modern than we expected and literally bursting at the seams. Traffic is a disaster despite, I would estimate, 90% of the vehicles on the road being private buses or taxis. The city is in a convoluted valley surrounded by crumbling mud/rock conglomerate cliffs. The sprawling developments perched on the edge or at the bottom of these cliffs are scary to behold. Walking the streets of the city centre is both fun and challenging. Far too many street kiosks, unlicensed hawkers of every sort, beggars, street kids, dogs, assorted buskers and jugglers at intersections all compete for space with pedestrians on uneven sidewalks and/or spilling into the busy streets. Chaotic but it works! To top it all off, is the stellar, new, rapid transit, cable car system (Mi Teleferico) built in response to the congestion below and the dictates of the geography. We loved it.
Though just scratching the surface, we’ve learnt something of the local society and culture. It is diverse, both modern yet proudly traditional. There is a rich elite, a struggling middle class and a predominantly poor populace. The socialist government of Evo Morales has made great strides in creating a more equitable society but seems poised to go down the path of Hugo Chavez (cult of the personality, authoritarian, some might say police state, nepotism, etc.). On the other hand the relatively recent emergence of the ‘cholita’ movement (indigenous women) is a wonder to behold.
To facilitate our acclimatization we did one of the ‘recommended’ local hikes, Valle de las Animas (spirits). Based upon vague orientations from the tourist office and even more confusing reports from the Web we caught the #42 bus and headed south. Caught in the interminable traffic after an hour I had to get off for a desperately needed pee. This misstep set the tone for the rest of the day. A subsequent mini bus to nowhere was followed by a taxi that let us off at the wrong spot. As none of the locals seemed to know the trail head we headed up a drainage based upon my recollections from a Trip Advisor report. The vague trail soon disappeared but we pushed on up the narrow drainage into a high grassy basin. My gps app (MapsMe) indicated some distant trails but the lack of topographic detail made route finding problematic. It wasn’t until we topped a ridge at 4300 M did the trails finally come into view. Regrettably reality and my gps map didn’t jive.
We were just about to head off on one of the randomly chosen trails when we noticed a solitary woman working her potato field a ways above us. I ran…..no, walked up and asked the best way to get down to the road. She kept insisting to ‘follow the creek’….so we did. Maybe something got lost in translation but there was no trail either side of the small, quickly descending creek, that was in a progressively steeper walled, v-shaped canyon. As we descended, the walls narrowed and steepened into the rotten looking conglomerate so typical of the area. Ascending the steep, high banks was becoming an impossibility. I’m thinking WTF are we doing? There is no way the locals use the creek bed as a trail nor any indication they did, plus I have no idea what lies ahead. Thank God there were clear skies, the thought of a sudden downpour and the creek swelling was not something to dwell on. After scrambling our way through a particularly narrow, dark and steep section, things began to open up and we realized that we were in the midst of the Valle de las Animas! Ours was definitely not the recommended tourist route but it worked. We caught a minibus into town, jumped on a teleferico for the long ride back to La Paz Centro. We chatted with a well educated and pleasant ‘pacena’ (women from La Paz) for the duration. We parted ways with hugs and kiss on the cheek….Latinos are so warm!
The following day we were off to ride the Camino Nor Yungas otherwise known as the infamous Camino de los Muertos (Death Road). This 70+ km stretch of road from the hot, jungle Yungas region up and over a 4800 M pass to the Altiplano was notoriously dangerous and the scene of many tragic accidents (Google it). A modern asphalt replacement road has left the original road largely redundant. The remaining 30 km stretch has become a major tourist attraction (overly hyped) with countless outfits out of La Paz offering guided mountain bike descents of the road with complimentary ‘I survived the Death Road’ emblazoned t-shirts for all participants. Other than the support vehicles for the guided groups there is little or no traffic. Anyway, we’re here so we had to do it…..but on our rigid frame touring bikes without a guide. We are both very glad we did it this way. it enabled us to take our time to soak up the spectacular ambience of the jungle, the steep and deep geography, countless waterfalls, bird calls, the mist rising out of the valley below, the multi-coloured butterflies and the perilous, unprotected cliffs at the road’s edge. It was an awesome descent. Unlike the guided groups, we decided to overnight in the small town of Coroico which involved a steep, 600 M climb back up a road paved in rough stone. It made Portuguese cobble seem like smooth asphalt. After 2.5 km Claire was done in. We flagged down a minibus, got Claire, her bike and all our panniers on top for the final 4.5 km to town. I pushed my bike in the blistering heat the remaining distance (no one would give me a lift). I was a sweat drenched wreck by the top.
We took a minibus back to La Paz. Loaded to capacity, with assorted luggage on the roof and our bikes strapped on top. We were afforded the front seats beside the driver so that we could enjoy the view. Be careful what you wish for! The 3600 M climb over a pass as high as Mt. Blanc is tall, transitioning from hot, humid jungle to cold wind swept Altiplano was fantastic to behold but the driving was a bit much. Far too fast for our overloaded vehicle, on sketchy tires (I looked), overtaking on blind corners, etc. Thank God he knew the road! And finally, the ride from the minibus terminal on the outskirts of town back into La Paz Centro at rush hour and here I thought we had had enough excitement for one day!