Gone were our days of sipping on Pina Coladas and countless bikini’s hugging our bodies underneath crocheted knits. It was time to head south, first stop- La Paz. I never thought I would find myself flying into one of the most dangerous airports in the world, heading straight for the highest capital city on the planet. I’ve always been infatuated by this city through documentaries, tourist guides and friend’s stories- often experiencing it from the comfort of my own home. In terms of South America, we jumped head first into the melting pot of culture, tradition and something a far cry from our own lifestyle. Sitting at 4000m above sea level, La Paz is one of the only cities where the rich live below the poor, and (noticeable in this 21st century world) where wifi is literally non-existent. A few years ago I had read the notorious crime novel Marching Powder, explaining the life of the drug underworld and the narrator’s experience in the famous San Pedro Prison. This to me, painted an all-too realistic perspective of what I should except La Paz to offer- drugs, corruption and even more drugs.
On our last day we ventured across town to witness the prison doors open as women and children filed in, and having read the book recognising this was not in fact ‘visiting hours’ but a common site for passers by. San Pedro is home to 1,500 inmates at a time, and famous for its ability to function as a society behind the iron gates. San Pedro Prison is the epicentre of drug trafficking, and from what i’ve read (and now seen) a real-life representation of South America’s corruption and underworld. After being ushered along by the guards and waved to from a small window by one of the inmates- us three girls were well on our way. The dialled-down glamour demanded by this cold concrete jungle forced us into the Witches markets where we purchased the latest collection of Alpaca scarves and tasselled beanies. Once feeling in tune with the locals and dressed in the finest local produce, we explored this backwards city with more ease.
Plucked straight from the metropolitan buzz and plunged into the Bolivian jungle, we found ourselves staring over the edge of the world’s most dangerous road. Known as Camino de las Yungas, or more famously ‘Death Road’, there seemed to be an uneasy pattern emerging, as La Paz boasted ‘the world’s worst’ of everything they had to offer. We were almost breathless with excitement when faced with the prospect of mountain biking down the gravel stricken path, yet excitement soon turned to anxiety and we happily cemented ourselves at the back of the pack. While we tried to forget what our fate would be welcomed with just a metre over the edge, our hands turned numb from clenching the brakes so tightly, and overcome by the bitter sweet feeling of looking out at the most dense jungle on earth. The road stretches 61 kilometres from La Paz into the jungle, and ascends 4,650m high, with most of the road only wide enough to fit a single vehicle. Now despite the obvious lack of signs, emergency vehicles or any form of safety, our guides assured us that road rules applied. Vehicles coming downhill were always on the outside, only inches away from plunging over the edge, but safety measures in place assured that all those travelling upward would slow down, stop and carefully wait until the other had passed.
While i’ll never wrap my head around why this road ever became the busiest gateway of traffic into La Paz, it’s even more foreign to me that guides and locals alike drive past graves and crosses each day, a constant reminder of the dangers involved, tempting fate each day on the job. Most of the time when signing up for tourist activities, little risk is involved- whether it be in the form of wearing a helmet or hiring a safety harness. In hindsight, I doubt many cities today would boast of this sort of thrill without being wrapped in cotton wool and smothered by OH&S regulations- and only those who sign their life away on legitimate contracts would be crazy enough to take part. I suppose a week in La Paz made us numb to things we take for granted back home- a sense of safety and even more comforting- help when things go wrong. This perhaps explains, and justifies our slow pace, and much to our Mother’s horror, the fact three girls can now boast we survived Death Road, as sadly many tourists don’t return to tell their tales.
Salar de Uyuni
La Paz’s luck is seen in the form of the natural wonder of the Salt Flats, as it provides the gateway to Salar de Uyuni, the biggest salt flats in the world. If it weren’t for this 10,500 square kilometres of white, Bolivia would be pining for it’s much needed attention. We began our adventure with a 10 hour bus ride along dirt-stricken roads with not a street light or sign to be seen. Due to the bumpiness I considered myself lucky enough to watch both the moon shimmer and the sun rise, as I sat embracing each Bolivian bump the road had to offer. Uyuni represented a town straight out of Pixar’s Rango, where tumble weed was a constant site and the town’s grid-lock roads stretched as far as the eye could see. Our three day tour weaved across what seemed like half the country, even making it to see the Chilean border to the West and just scrapping shy of Argentina further South. It was some of the most vast and empty landscape I had ever seen, comparing it to Australia’s outback and laughing at the prospect of having our own salt flats back home, yet justifying the 30-plus hours to set our eyes on Bolivia’s. After falling victim to countless tourist photos and marvelling at the all-white horizon, we were in our jeep again making our way over the salt flats. Next stop brought us to Incahuasi ‘Island’, actually the remains of the top of a volcano, and home to some of the biggest cacti species on earth.
The night was spent in local lodgings, where the abundance of salt was evident in the fact the entire building was made of salt bricks- surprisingly insulating from the cold, yet worrying with the rain and lighting outside. Electricity was out all night, so candlelight surpassed while we played cards and drank cinnamon tea offered to us by the locals. Day two provided us with more Bolivian eye candy, highlights being the Laguna Colorado- famous for its rich red colour and the flamingos who call it home. On the outfit front, we were being showed-up by the locals themselves, as these top-heavy birds supported by their stick legs stuck out like sore thumbs- as they sported their fluffy pink winter coats with arrogance and grandeur.
Although thankful to get back to the flurry and mayhem of La Paz, the south brought with it a sense of serenity and calmness. It was a place so clearly anticipated in my mind and over saturated by tourist photos that it was hardly surprising how beautiful it was in the flesh. There is something special in the fact that this corner of the world cannot be reached with ease or visited in style, nor viewed from the comfort of luxury transport. It’s beauty is summed up in the rawness of the endless landscape and it’s lack of civilisation- the dust on my clothes a constant reminder of this unique experience and one cemented as highlight so far.