La Paz, El Alto and the Cordillera Real — a study in contrasts

After spending most of my week exploring La Paz — visiting Plazas Murillo and San Francisco, the Witches Market, the impressive Museo Nacional de Arte, and each sector of town, and partying at night with travelers and Paceños alike — I finally ventured into the surrounding environs over the last two days and got a very different feel for the region.

On Thursday, Juliette and I grabbed a salteña (the yummy national snack of Bolivia) and then a microbus bound for El Alto, where the locals hold markets twice a week along an old rail line that was abandoned after the government privatized it. At about 2,000 feet above La Paz, the views were just stunning, but the market had a very different feel from the miles worth of vendors that line the streets of La Paz selling mostly new goods and produce. This was more like a cheap and colorful flea market, with vendors selling everything from piles of used clothes to scrap metal to every kind of appliance and piece of furniture you can think of.

El Alto is far poorer than La Paz, and the evidence of that was everywhere. It is like what one might imagine when they think of Bolivia being the poorest country in South America, but it was also a striking example of a highly functional local economy. For just a few Bolivianos (which are about 8-1 to the U.S. dollar), anyone could feed and clothe themselves. Everything is recycled into something functional for someone and almost nothing goes to waste. And, of course, things are a steal for gringos (I got a cool hat for 10 Bolivianos, leather wristband for 3, and Juliette and I had a great fish lunch for 9), so much so that I almost felt bad and never haggled over price. But you can’t feel too bad for these mostly indiginous people, who occupy a place with more beautiful vistas than even San Francisco has to offer, and who seem to have a remarkable degree of self-sufficiency and contentment.

Then yesterday, I took an amazing day-long trek on a full-suspension mountain bike from the snow covered peaks about 45 minutes outside La Paz (elevation 16,000-feet, over twice as high as Lake Tahoe and enough to make you gasp for air with even minimal exertion) down through the jungles of the Cordillera Real to an old presidential palace that is supposed haunted by the president who was forced out in the ’30s after losing the Chaco War to Paraguay and his indiginous mistress. This is a country of few retired presidents, a profession that seems to be hazardous to one’s health.

I took the trip with Gravity Assisted Biking, which also does the popular and well-known World’s Most Dangerous Road trip in the same basic region, but my Ghost Ride trip was newer and better for more experienced mountain bikers, with about the first third of the trip being along challenging single tracks. In fact, an experienced mountain biker from New Zealand who rode with us took a hard crash and broke his collar bone less than an hour into the trip. Luckily, the trip is periodically broken up by meeting the transport jeeps for water or food, and Chris was taken to the hospital.

The second half of the trip was a crazy little dirt road that we shared with bold vehicles filled with people who smiled and waved at the bicycling gringos, crossing creeks and going under a waterful, passing hidden cocaine processing plants and an abandoned silver smelter, and taking in breathtaking vistas of high, lush gorges puncutuated by rivers and waterfalls. Finally, after about 30 miles, eight hours, and a vertical drop of more than 6,000 feet, we arrived at the palace (that was built by Paraguyan prisoners of war and where the president had to flee mobs anger at leading the country into a losing war, one of three major ones that resulted in substantial territorial loss for Bolivia).

We were greeted with beers (despite the fact that alcohol sales are banned for Easter weekend in La Paz and other parts of the country), smiles, fresh towels and showers supplies, and a fabulous almuerzo (the lunches that are the largest meal of the day in most of Latin America). It was a great day, and one that I’m still carrying into my final weekend in La Paz. I plan to head over to Cochabamba Monday morning — loading my pack and leaving my comfortable digs to being a traveler once more — but will do one final night in La Paz later in the week before heading back toward Peru for the second half of trip.

One Comment

  1. Sounds like a party to me! You’re getting paid for these adventures? Well, I expect to hear many more exciting stories upon your return, and I hope you continue to stay safe and have fun. Good night, and happy easter!

    By the way, when do you come home? I’m not sure you ever told me the date…

    Love you!


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